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Collecting sensations started early

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Virtually every era has had them as market sensations grab the headlines. Many times they create enormous interest as there is nothing quite like the idea of a coin promptly soaring in price.

If you have any doubts, ask anyone who paid $240 back in 1997 for a BU Jackie Robinson $5 gold coin. Imagine the thrill of waking up in 2002 and seeing that the Jackie Robinson $5 was around $900, but it got better as in 2003 the $5 Jackie Robinson was $1,350. Today it is $3,900. That, by any definition is a sensational coin whether it goes up further or down from today’s level and the $5 Jackie Robinson like other sensations of the past will have an impact throughout the rare coin market. That makes them and their impact worth study.

We cannot really document the first U.S. coin to become a sensation. We know for example that a hoard of large cents called the “Butternut Hoard” purchased by Butternut Coins in Virginia showed that by the mid 1800s when the hoard was assembled collectors had already apparently picked out what they thought were better dates.

There were no 1793 cents of any type in the hoard and there was already speculation about the 1804, which was also not found in the hoard of thousands of circulated large cents. That may also help to explain why there was an 1804 restrike as the date had a reputation early on and despite the fact that the 1799 is slightly better today the 1804 was the date that seemed to have the reputation for being rare and valuable.

Was the 1793 large cent the first sensation or was it the 1804? We really do not know and it could well have been another date. By 1832, however, we know that at least in parts of New England there was a full blown sensation in the form of the 1814. That may have collectors today scratching their heads as if you check the 1814 it is $54 price in G-4 does not seem especially dazzling even in light of a mintage of 357,830.

Actually there were rumors in New England in 1832 that the 1814 was tough and that collectors would pay prices starting at 2 cents going up to 75 cents for an example. To pay such prices for a large cent was seen as suspicious by some and that produced still another rumor that somehow copper was scarce in 1814, which was actually true but the second part of the rumor that the 1814 had been made with copper that contained some gold that had accidentally been mixed in has never been proven and the prices today suggest that the gold part of the rumor at least has been long since discounted.

We know there were busy collectors in the 1840s and 1850s and we also know that the discovery that there was a silver dollar dated 1804 created a stir among a small number of collectors around Philadelphia, which was the coin collecting center of the country as at least one collector actually made a trade for an 1804 dollar while others had purchased restrikes, which were then purchased back by Mint employees who had planned to make restrikes themselves.

By 1860, however, we have a much better idea of public or at least widespread collector interest. Many had been attracted to coin collecting in large part because of the introduction of a smaller size cent in 1857. It was impossible for a public used to cents being larger than a quarter to miss the new small cent when it was introduced. This public stir helped to create a great deal of interest in assembling sets of the disappearing older large cents by date.

At that time, the 1799 was the star as The American Numismatic Manual reported that the 1799 was significantly more valuable than the 1793. In fact, it went further to suggest that several hundred thousand, which was more than the entire mintage of 42,540 had been lost by being shipped to Africa where they would have been holed, worn and used as barter. In fact the suggestion was not that all of the 1799 mintage was lost, but realistically the 1799 needed no help in becoming rare as it had a low mintage, was made on what most see as inferior planchets and just generally was not saved, so the prospect of African tribal members wearing coins which are almost $3,000 today just in G-4 was not required to make the 1799 a good date.

The excitement of 1860 was not limited to large cents. In gaining approval for the new smaller size cent, officials had gone to the Congress with samples dated 1856. They were apparently passed around and some never came back. It did not take long for collectors to realize there was an 1856 Flying Eagle cent and they wanted one. Some went to the Mint, which interestingly enough was agreeable to making more, leaving us today with both business strikes and proofs. The numbers coined, however, were just a few thousand – if that. The 1856 by 1859 was selling for $1, which was a true sensation in the minds of most as getting 100 times face value for a coin was not something that happened every day.

In fact, the 1856 would see the first recorded large scale hoarding as in 1911 700 examples were sold having been in the collection of Detroit department store owner George W. Rice. Later after his death in 1920 it was discovered that Pittsburgh oilman John A. Beck had also assembled a similar number of the 1856. In fact, the public record of hoarding of the 1856 traced back even earlier, with the 1906 auction of the R.B. Leeds collection having over 100 examples.

While the hoarding of the 1856 was going on others continued their difficult quest for a 1799 with The Numismatist in 1897 calling the 1799 the “rarest of the copper issues of the United States.” In fact, that observation might well still apply today. If the 1799 was a sensation at any time it was for a good reason even if the basic scarcity due to low mintage was sometimes augmented by stories having little foundation in fact.

As a current issue at the time it was first in demand by collectors and the public, there was apparently no need for the 1856 Flying Eagle cent to be boosted by fanciful stories.

In most cases, the evidence of early issues creating a major stir especially with the public could be seen primarily with the lowest denominations. This is because mass demand is only possible when the masses can afford it. In the 19th century, this would have been in the lower denominations.

Based on supplies today, we see that there was some saving of the final year of the Shield nickel as well as saving particularly of the first 1883 Liberty Head nickel that did not have “Cents” on the reverse under the “V.”

The cent, however, was still the focus and those looking for new and valuable cents were greeted in 1877 with another in the form of the 1877 Indian Head cent. It had a mintage of 852,500, which was the first time a small cent issued only for circulation posted a mintage total of under 1 million as the 1856 had never been issued for regular circulation.

The 1877 would have an immediate audience of collectors, but unlike later sensations, the saving rate was not so large as to keep the 1877 from actually circulating. In fact, in the supply of the 1877 seen today we see what is a fairly logical assortment, suggesting that as new collectors would begin their collections they would find an 1877 and pull it from circulation. As a result, we see a wide range of grades, suggesting the 1877 continued to circulate in ever decreasing numbers for many years. In fact, a collector reported in the New York Times in 1915 that after searching 28,000 cents since 1881 he could report just 35 examples of the 1877 and that by 1915 they were basically a thing of the past at least in circulation.

The fame of the 1877, however, continued and was probably helped as whenever someone made anything from a belt buckle to a postcard depicting an Indian Head cent it was almost always was dated 1877. Typically, in 1978 when a U.S. postage stamp was issued with an Indian Head cent on it, it also would be the 1877.

The issuing of a new Lincoln cent in 1909 would have been cause for a lot of interest under normal circumstances as it was the first time an American was depicted on a circulating coin of the United States. As it turned out, that was only part of the story. After a mintage of 484,000 1909-S VDB Lincoln cents was completed, the cent was changed to have the small VDB on the reverse removed.
The secretary of the Treasury who had approved the initials on the reverse changed his mind when the public noticed them and ordered them removed. This was done in the interests of speed following the advice of Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who had never wanted the initials of Victor D. Brenner on the coin in the first place.

San Francisco then went on to strike 1,825,000 more 1909 cents without the initials.

There had also been 1909 Philadelphia cents with the VDB initials on the reverse, but their mintage tally was nearly 28 million pieces– much too large to become the object of public speculation.

On the other hand,  the 1909-S VDB cent with that 484,000 total was an immediate sensation, selling quickly for prices of $1 and as was the case in 1856, a cent that could be sold for $1 was a coin worth finding.
Actually, 1909 was a great year for cents as the 1909-S Indian Head cent had the lowest mintage of any regularly issued cent in history, but the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent stole the show and it remains that way today as the 1909-S VDB was the coin generation after generation dreamed of finding in circulation. Supplies today suggest that many were saved, but whatever the number saved, it was not enough to meet demand as the 1909-S VDB continues to rise in price despite the supply in top grades that is better than would normally be expected based on its mintage.

With the passage of time and an increase in awareness and collector numbers, the idea of saving potentially valuable coins from circulation grew. The Great Depression might have been starting and people might have been uncertain how they would pay for their next meal, but they were certain the 1931-S Lincoln cent was going to be good based on its mintage of 866,000. That total was almost identical to the 1877. Since that coin was good, the logic was the 1931-S would be good too. Like the 1877, 1909-S Indian Head cent and 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent it had a mintage of fewer than 1 million, That saving shows even today as the 1931-S is just $163 in MS-60 and that is very cheap for a Lincoln cent with such a low mintage.

There were other coins saved over the years, including the low mintage 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar, which was slightly surprising as it was an upper denomination and most of the speculation up to that time had been cents. Then in 1950 there was a nickel that caused perhaps the largest speculation seen up to that time or perhaps any time.

The 1950-D Jefferson nickel was not really that low in its mintage at 2,630,030, but that proved to be just low enough. There were any number of Buffalo nickels with lower mintages that were available but the 1950-D was clearly the lowest mintage Jefferson nickel and that set off something resembling a panic, which lasted for about a decade, as people tried to find the 1950-D in circulation. That was key as they were basically not circulating as they had been saved by the roll immediately. The fact that they seemed almost impossible in circulation made them seem even tougher than the mintage suggested and the 1950-D started to soar.
By the time the initial run of speculation ended the 1950-D was at $6 in uncirculated, which was basically the only way you could buy them. I should know, I tried to find one and no coin shop in town had a circulated example. By the roll, which was where the real money was, the 1950-D was so desirable that it started what is called the “roll craze,” which saw otherwise sane people hoarding rolls of new coins no matter what the mintage in the hope that one might be the next 1950-D. In fact, there is nothing wrong with saving rolls, but the roll craze went way beyond the normal saving.

In fact, the 1950-D Jefferson nickel’s impact was probably increased by the discovery in 1955 that there were doubled-die Lincoln cents. It was already a year primed for speculation as the last coins were being made at San Francisco, or so we thought, and the 1955-S Lincoln cent was the lowest cent mintage since the 1930s.

Moreover, the dimes were all low mintage and other denominations had low mintage dates as well. If you wanted to speculate, 1955 was an absolutely great year, but the 1955 doubled-die obverse was the icing on the cake. A dealer friend called the 1955 doubled-die obverse the “perfect error” and he was probably right. The estimate is there were about 20,000 of them produced. While we were uncertain whatever the number was, it was close to perfect as people could find the 1955 doubled-die obverse in change but not often. That kept it in the headlines and the interest remained strong. Why not? In price and interest, the 1955 doubled-die obverse was quickly becoming a worthy rival to the 1909-S VDB and as desirable coins go, it does not get much better than that.

After the 1955 doubled die the sensations would have a mixed record. The 1960 small-date Lincoln cent only produced a small premium and doubled die Lincoln Memorial cents in some cases like the 1972 would be good, but later others were not as good. Perhaps the timing of the 1972 helped as the early 1970s saw another string of sensations.

In 1970 the 1970-D Kennedy half dollar touched off a wave of speculation as it was only available in mint sets. That kind of thing happened in later years without so much attention simply because collectors and dealers were alerted and ordered extra sets. No one bothered to inform potential buyers in 1970, so mint set orders were normal and that saw the 1970-D, with a low mintage of 2,150,000 and those collecting Kennedy half dollars needed to find someone willing to break up a mint set to get an example. The 1970-D soared in price, then fell back and lately has been $50 in MS-65.

The proof 1973-S 40 percent silver Eisenhower dollar was slightly different in that everyone knew the only way to acquire it was to pay $10. The problem was that in 1971 and 1972  people had purchased the 40 percent silver proof Eisenhower dollars and they had promptly dropped in price. That produced a logical response in 1973 as after two years of losing money, very few ordered the 1973-S. The mintage was barely over 1 million pieces, and when that was learned the 1973-S promptly soared, but like the 1970-D, the price has been up and down since 1973 with it too now settling at $30 in Proof-65, which is far below the peak, but well above its $10 issue price.

The more recent sensations have been found in modern commemoratives. The biggest winner by far is the Jackie Robinson BU $5 and it like the 1973-S Eisenhower dollar reflected the fact that there were simply very few orders at the time.

That situation is actually better for keeping the price high and potentially moving higher and while the Jackie Robinson $5 is the best known and the leader in terms of price increases, a number of other modern commemoratives are following its path to higher prices.

The most spectacular sensation of modern commemoratives in terms of publicity still had to be the 1986 Statue of Liberty $5 gold, which is perhaps the best example of extremes. The $5 Statue of Liberty sold out quickly and that resulted in immediate speculation. It was extreme as even the box holding a six-coin set was bringing a $100 price empty. The $5 was mostly sold as part of three-coin uncirculated or three-coin proof sets priced at $165 and $175, respectively.

For a time it was just plain frantic. The $5 Statue of Liberty was first sold even though people had not received them. The so-called “futures” price jumped quickly to more than double the issue price and the numismatic press was filled with promotions and speculation as to just how high it might go.

When prices hit $500, however, that seemed to be a barrier that caused some to sell and take their profits.

The crash of the Statue of Liberty $5 was almost as spectacular as its rise and that is typical of sensations of any era. Once the decline in price begins, it is hard to stop. There is a good case to be made that the only thing preventing a further decline is its gold composition.

There are a number of more recent examples of sensations that had everyone talking and sometime profiting like the American Buffalo silver dollar of 2001. The American Buffalo silver dollar was actually similar to the $5 Statue of Liberty in that it too sold out a 500,000 authorization. It also moved quickly higher, but unlike the Statue of Liberty $5 it has had support all along the way and that has seen it not only keep its initial price gains, but actually increase slightly in price over time.

Sensations can come in any number of forms. They are a true part of American numismatic history as from the first large cents to the latest modern commemoratives there have historically always been coins that were hot attracting attention far beyond the normal collector ranks of the day and selling for prices that surprised everyone. They make for an interesting group and growing group to study, because one way or another, the next sensation is never too far away.

2010 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents
Coverage of the earliest cents to the most recent issues!

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