Germany is one of the latest Western nations to unify into a modern nation-state. Prior to 1871 Germany was comprised of many independent kingdoms, duchies, bishoprics, free-cities, principalities, and kennel clubs (at least it seems like that). From 1872 until the end of WWI, Germany was unified as an empire under Prussian rule and the coinage was standardized, but about 20 or so states still minted their own large denomination coinage. If you check out the Krause Standard Catalog of German Coins (which you should purchase if you are really interested in German coins) you will find literally hundreds of different governments that issued coins in a relatively short 300-400 year span. There is no way, no matter what your budget, that you can collect all of this. Maybe a museum that had unlimited funds and generations to accumulate could build a complete States collection; the rest of us need to set slightly more modest and attainable goals. This guide offers some fun suggestions for how you might build a coherent collection out of the blooming, buzzing confusion of German States material.
(If you are looking for a serious, more in-depth discussion of German coin collecting, check my guide Buying and Collecting German Coins on eBay ).
1. Collect coins by state.This one is the most obvious. Maybe you have ancestral ties to Bavaria, or maybe you honeymooned in Frankfurt; somebody collecting only Bavarian coins, for example, could build a very satisfying, and surprisingly diverse, collection. Collecting by state does present some difficulties, however. The large states with deep history minted many coins--getting a complete set of, say, Saxon silver would be a life-long project and you would inevitably have to decide what to do about the rarities. On the other hand, the smaller states that only minted a few dozen coins tended to have much lower mintage figures, so those coins can be more expensive, even the copper minors (consider the bear-on-the-wall coins from Anhalt).
2. Collection coins by denomination.Given the hundreds of localities authorized to mint coins, and given that many of these areas were often aligned with Poland, France, Denmark, Austria, or Hungary, German coins come in dozens and dozens of different denominations (and fractions of nearly all of those denominations). You could collect the very popular silver thalers (but you need deep pockets for that), or the smaller silver guldens. You could try to find a type set of all 3-pfennig coins issued during the 1860s (much harder than it sounds) or do the same for silbergroschens. Gold is expensive and rare, but a collection of German States ducats would be a beautiful thing to see.
3. Collect by themes.You could pick a theme that appeals to you, but here are a few that are particularly well represented in the German coinage (sorry, you won't find many ships). The following list will give the theme first, and then states that have examples of that coin. It is not even close to exhaustive.
Bears-- (Anhalt, Berlin)
Beards-- (Saxon and Brandeburg thalers if money is no object; Kaiserreich (1872-1918) 2, 3, and 5 marks for the more budget collection). Those German rulers were blessed fabulously fecund facial follicles. You will find long beards, short beards, curly beards, pointed beards, staches, etc.
City-views-- (Regensburg, Nurnberg, Frankfurt)--this is a personal favorite of mine.
Deer-- (Wurttemberg, Stolberg)
Eagles or Double-Headed Eagles-- (Aachen, Prussia, Constance, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Brandenburg, Bremen, Lubeck, etc.)
Griffins-- (Baden, Rostock)
Horses-- (Hannover, Brunswick, Brandenburg, Mansfeld, Saxon vicariat issues)
Keys-- (Bremen, Regensburg)
Lions-- (Bavaria, Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, Reuss lines, etc.)
Monograms-- (Many, many states issued coins with some of the most elaborate monograms you will ever see on coinage. Check out the "Coin Identifier" in your Krause catalog to see just a few examples of nice, German States monograms.)
Saints/Religious-- (Bavaria, Goslar (Madonna & Child) Brunswick (Andrew with cross) Munster (Paul with sword) Trier (Peter with key) Mainz, Wurzburg, Bamberg (bishops) Nurnberg (Pascal lamb) Saxony commemoratives (Luther/Protestantism), Wurttemberg (Christopher with child))
Wildman-- (Brunswick, some Prussia, some Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth.)
Women-- (Frankfurt, etc.) Depictions of women are fairly scarce, but you can find several depictions of allegorical figures and every now and then some duke minted a charmingly sentimental piece to mourn the passing of a wife or mother. Several wedding anniversaries are commemorated with dual portraits, especially during the Kaiserreich (1871-1918) period. Maria Theresa (the gal from the common 1780 Austrian thaler restrikes) shows up on a few coins that could be considered marginally German.
4. Collect commemoratives.There are many nice commemorative series minted by the states. Check out the Baden kreuzers if you are on a budget, or the Bavarian thalers if you are not (but look out for fakes!). The Saxons like to commemorate the death of their monarchs on coins, and many states commemorated anniversaries of the Protestant Reformation and the Augsburg Confession (Luther shows up all over 17th and 18th century coinage). There is a really beautiful set of five thalers (Bavaria, Bremen, Prussia, Saxony, and Wurttemberg) minted to commemorate German victory in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871.
Any more ideas? Suggestions are always welcome!