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When an ugly 1909-S VDB won’t do

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News

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Although I specialize in U.S. large cents (831 varieties) and half cents (62 varieties) I also have amassed about six complete Lincoln cent sets. The Lincoln keys of course are the 1909-S VDB, 1909-S, 1914-D, 1922 plain and 1931-S. In each of the sets I was only missing the same two coins – the 1909-S VDB and the 1922 plain. In celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday I have recently started to collect a seventh set.

I would like to state my position on the 1922 plain, “no D” cent.  I do not consider the 1922 plain “no D” a true official mint product since it is really a mint error.  Actually, possibly due to grease filling or more likely over-polishing to remove die clash marks by the Denver Mint, the “D” mintmark was obliterated on the die resulting in the 1922 “no D” Lincoln.

After all, the Philadelphia Mint did not strike any 1922 Lincoln cents.  Otherwise, the 1922 “no mintmark” Lincoln cent would signify that it was a product of the Philadelphia Mint.

To continue my narrative, I still needed six S-VDB’s to complete my six Lincoln sets – one of which included all the “S” proofs. During these many years as a numismatist I attended 10 coin club/auctions per month which includes four local numismatic meetings (Ben Franklin, Liberty Bell, Double Eagle and William Penn) held in northeast Philadelphia.

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2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents

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At one of these meetings a friend and fellow coin enthusiast had just purchased a collection from an estate. Familiar with my coin interests, through some numismatic talks and exhibits I occasionally presented at these clubs, he showed me a 1909-S VDB Lincoln he purchased from this collection which he had certified and slabbed by ANACS. The S-VDB was graded as EF-45 by ANACS and was being offered to me at a very fair and reasonable price.  After a short negotiation period I bought the S-VDB and paid his price the following week. One 1909-S VDB down and five to go.

On a warm Sunday morning I attended the Mid-Atlantic Regional meeting held on the fourth Sunday of each month at the Holiday Inn in Fort Washington, Pa.  As I walked the bourse, I visited several dealer acquaintances and examined their coin inventories as usual. During my conversation with a dealer friend I was informed about another dealer who claimed he had the “ugliest” 1909-S VDB selling for $225.  A 1909-S VDB selling for $225?  Impossible! No matter how ugly it might be, any S-VDB would surely sell for a lot more. I mean, how bad could it be for $225? I admit my curiosity was aroused to the point where I had to see this ugly S-VDB for such a cheap price. Was it a come-on, a joke, or some kind of  loss leader?

As I walked halfway down the bourse to the dealer in question I felt surely it must have been sold at that obscenely low price.  I finally arrived at the dealer’s station and inquired if he indeed had a 1909-S VDB for $225 and was it still available. He  responded in the affirmative.

Subsequently, he gave me a rectangle box that held two rows of 2×2 “ huggers” to look through while he checked another similar box. He then informed me that the cent in question was somewhere in the boxes.  I looked at him in disbelief. How could he nonchalantly place an S-VDB somewhere in a box?  If it was me, trusting soul that I am, I would have had it exhibited under a locked display case.

After about 10 minutes I finished looking through my assigned box. No “ugly” 1909-S VDB was found. However I found two 1909-S and one 1914-D Lincoln cents haphazardly thrown in with other American coins – all out of both denominational order and date sequence. I was amazed by the dealer’s cavalier attitude with respect to these three relatively valuable copper cents even though he had a large display case exhibiting other coins. Although this was none of my business, I felt compelled to counsel the dealer. I encouraged him in a tactful manner to add the two 1909-S pieces and the 1914-D to his display case.

My recommendation to him was two-fold. First, he would have a better chance of selling these rare and valuable coppers to the public if displayed properly.  Secondly, for safety concerns, I felt the coins would be more prone to theft if left in the rectangular 2×2 box.  There is always someone with sticky fingers. We all have heard horror stories about dealer coin thefts. After expressing my views, trying to be as respectful and low-keyed as possible, the dealer said he would take my recommendations under advisement.

Finally, the dealer found the so-called ugly 1909-S VDB near the end of his box. As he handed me the coin, I could see that the S-VDB was not only ugly but also highly corroded on both the obverse and reverse surfaces. The corrosion was so bad that it reminded me of the landscape pictures transmitted back to Earth by the American spacecraft from Venus (Mariner 2) and Mercury (Mariner 10), the most heavily cratered planet in our solar system.

Even though I could discern the “1909-S” and the “V-B” (bottom of reverse side), I must confess that this copper was one of the most undesirable coins I have ever observed. I cannot relate to you my shock. By comparison, this copper made Quasimodo look like the Mona Lisa or Cleopatra. Ironically, the dealer had inscribed on the S-VDB’s hugger the words “the worst.” Guess what? He was absolutely correct.

During a brief discussion he informed me that he paid $200 for this copper, but was asking only $225. I asked him why he would pay that much for such a coin.  His reply was simple, direct and succinct.  “Because it’s a 1909-S VDB”.  After pondering his response I realized that he had a point. However, I was not interested in this awful 1909-S VDB at any price – not even as a filler.

As I was about to leave, the dealer pulled out from his display case another 1909-S VDB that was certified and slabbed in a plastic NCS (Numismatic Conservation Services) holder. NCS is a conservation service of choice for the American Numismatic Association and PNG Professional Numismatic Guild.  The dealer confided to me that he just bought a collection of coins for $14,000 and was selling them in order to increase his cash flow.  When he had the S-VDB certified by NCS, the copper came back with no grade and the word “damage” on the certification.  The dealer had graded this copper as an F-12 and told me his selling price.

After checking my Greysheet price I discovered this copper was priced as if it was graded a G-4. As I carefully looked at the coin I found that it had VF-20 details.  The date and legends were very clear. All the reverse wheat head lines were sharp and distinct. Above all, Lincoln’s cheekbone and jawbone were a little worn, but definitely separated.

I then started to look for the “damage,” which I assumed accounted for the dealer’s net F-12 grade. I checked for damage for a full three minutes. There was none that I could detect.

With the dealer’s permission I showed the cent to two other dealers who I respected for their numismatic knowledge and grading  prowess. Each of them, without prodding from me, graded the S-VDB as a VF-20 with no damage. What I found quite astonishing was that all three of us independently agreed on the same grade.  The probability of this happening must be astronomical. We could not discern any damage whatsoever. I do not think this speaks well for the grading services. The only slight possibility was that there might have been some re-tooling of “Li” in LIBERTY.  However this was a stretch since it looked like a doubling, which is not conventionally considered as damage.

So, I was now faced with a VF-20 Lincoln 1909-S VDB cent with questionable minimal damage that seemed to be undetectable at a G-4 price level.  Consequently, I doublechecked the price again with the dealer to see if he was still comfortable with his quoted selling price.  After ascertaining that the price was what he wanted and knowing that it was under the bid price, he again reiterated that he needed to increase his cash flow. I then accepted his price and bought my second 1909-S VDB thereby completing my second of six Lincoln cent collections.

It has been several months now since I last purchased a 1909-S VDB. I realize that it will take time to find the appropriate situations in my quest to obtain four more of the copper cents. Presently, I am still searching for a third of six S-VDB’s in order to complete my third Lincoln cent series.

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