What Is the Difference between a Coin and a Medal?

Coin collecting has come crossover with other hobbies like stamp collecting or antiquing in the sense that these hobbies involve people seeking out everyday items that have managed to increase in value over time, no matter their original value.

When a single coin is minted among thousands, tens of thousands, or millions, the odds that it will become very valuable over time are small. However, as we discussed before, coins can be struck with errorsthey can be melted down, or otherwise be lost to time, with the result being that a once common coin becomes very rare. People will pay a great deal of money for rare coins. The same is true for everyday objects, and some of them are very coin-like so they have quite a bit of overlap with coins.

Here’s a segment from the show Pawn Stars about estimating the value of a George Washington funeral “coin.” The expert in Americana and historical items briefly describes his evaluation process, and it’s quite interesting.


As you can see, in order to determine this “coin’s” value, the expert has to identify the object correctly, determine its authenticity, know how it was used, and evaluate its age and condition.  All of those factors, in conjunction with each other, separate the worthless from the valuable, and the same is true for coins. Why isn’t this piece a coin, then?

A George Washington funeral coin isn’t a coin because it does not meet crucial coin criteria. It wasn’t:

·         Struck by a government

·         Given a monetary value by that government

·         Intended to circulate as money

In other words, it looks like a coin, but it never acted like a coin. It was never supposed to act like a coin. It is a medal. It was struck as a memento of a famous person in order to remember his importance to history, but neither in 1800 or any time afterward was it ever intended to be used to buy a pair of shoes or a sack of feed.

What makes this George Washington funeral coin different from a commemorative coin like the Columbian half dollar? Well, the funeral coin is a medal and the Columbian half dollar, while issued as a commemorative coin, was struck by the U.S. Government, given a monetary value of 50 cents and was spendable as legal tender. Columbian half dollars, similar to today’s modern commemorative coins, circulated or not, are US coins. 

Here’s one more distinction: coins that are struck for monetary use by an organization other than a government are not considered coins, but tokens. As an exercise in differentiating coins from tokens, decide whether the Pinetree shilling was a coin or a token and at which times in history. We’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

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