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Generations of collectors seek

There has always been a special interest in San Francisco Lincoln cents. It’s only natural. The average mintage in San Francisco year after year would tend to be lower than the mintages in Philadelphia or Denver.

There were exceptions to the rule like when the 1914-D had a lower mintage than the 1914-S, but more often than not if you were looking for the lowest Lincoln cent mintage of the year, you needed to look no further than the San Francisco total.

With generation after generation starting their collecting with Lincoln cents found in circulation, the low San Francisco mintages translated into San Francisco dates being tougher and that meant a heavy demand for things like mixed rolls of San Francisco cents. They brought higher prices than mixed rolls of any other facility.

With big things planned for the centennial of the Lincoln cent in 2009, we might very well be on the verge of another surge in interest in the San Francisco cents and that could be a great deal of fun for new and older collectors.

When the Lincoln cent was released for the first time in 1909, San Francisco was still relatively new to the idea of producing cents. The restrictions that did not allow branch mints to produce coins containing no silver or gold had only been lifted a few years and San Francisco had paved the way for branch mint cent production with a mintage of cents for the first time in 1908. That continued in 1909 with a small mintage of Indian Head cents and then came the change to the new Lincoln design.

The first Lincoln cents were produced in San Francisco, but out in Washington and Philadelphia a small soap opera was unfolding. The secretary of the Treasury ordered production halted. At that point, San Francisco had produced just 484,000 cents. The reason for the production halt was a design change. The initials on the reverse needed to be eliminated. Nothing could be done about the coins already produced, but the decision made the 1909-S with a VDB an instant hit with the public and a legend with generation after generation of collectors.

The impact of the 1909-S VDB was magnified for a couple of reasons. The first was that it was a new design for the most heavily collected denomination so anything involving the cent would be big news. The story of the VDB being eliminated is also the sort of story that seems to interest collectors and that 484,000 mintage interested them even more as only one other Lincoln cent in history would ever have a mintage below 1 million and that was another San Francisco product, the 1931-S.

There was some immediate saving of the 1909-S VDB as over the years there have been a couple reports of original uncirculated rolls.

Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards points to John Zug who in 1918 reportedly sold his hoard of 25,000 pieces acquired for prices close to their face value. That total might be large, but Bowers also recounts a story involving dealer Art Kagin who in the 1950s purchased 10 rolls at $500 per roll and suspected the seller had more. That story seems possible.

Even if there was saving at the time and there almost certainly was it was not enough to come close to meeting the demand for the 1909-S VDB. It was an immediate sensation. It has always been that way with demand exceeding the available supply of the 1909-S VDB in every grade as the 1909-S VDB has perhaps been the most avidly sought coin of the United States literally for an entire century. It’s just natural as most collectors started with cent collections and the immediate key date they needed was a 1909-S VDB.

The impact of the demand can be seen in the prices of the 1909-S VDB. Remember, its 484,000 mintage turned out the be basically identical to the 1913 Barber quarter, which had a business strike total put also at 484,000 plus 613 proofs. Today, the 1913 Barber quarter is priced at $16 in G-4 while the 1909-S VDB is at $760 and there is no doubt that there are more examples of the 1909-S VDB available today than there are of the 1913 Barber quarter.

In MS-60 the 1909-S VDB is $1,650while an MS-65 is listed at $6,900. In both cases the grading services report more examples graded than the prices would suggest, but this is a 1909-S VDB and all bets are off when it comes to normal price considerations.

There are a few other coins like the 1909-S VDB that bring higher prices than would be expected based on numbers available, but the 1909-S VDB remains the poster child as the coin where demand simply overwhelms the supply in every grade.

So great was the attention paid to the 1909-S VDB that it really pushed a couple other good coins into the shadows. The 1909-S Indian Head cent had the lowest regular date mintage for a cent going all the way back to 1811. A few were saved, but for years the 1909-S seemed like a real sleeper to many based on its low mintage. The other was the 1909-S Lincoln which began production immediately after the initials were removed. The total mintage of the 1909-S Lincoln cent was 1,825,000 and that is actually a very low total for a Lincoln cent.

For years the 1909-S Lincoln cent while seen as a better Lincoln cent probably did not get the attention it deserved. It too probably had some saving at the time and that has helped as today the 1909-S lists for $115 in G-4, $360 in MS-60 and $1,325 in MS-65 and with its low mintage the expectation has to be that those prices are very reasonable.

The parade of lower mintage Lincoln cents from San Francisco was not going to continue forever, but in fact the issues from 1910-1915 would prove to be lower mintage but not as low as the 1909-S VDB and 1909-S.

The 1910-S had a mintage of just over 6 million, the 1911-S was barely over 4 million, the 1912-S was at 4,431,000, the 1913-S was at 6,101,000, the 1914-S was at 4,137,000 and the 1915-S was at 4,833,000. For collectors of Lincoln cents from circulation, this group made even a collection lacking just the 1909-S VDB and a couple other good dates virtually impossible as checking your change in the 1950s you might find two or three of the 1910-1915 San Francisco dates but you were unlikely to find them all.

The San Francisco dates from 1910-1915 are sometimes seen as a group, but realistically they are very different coins. The 1910-S, for example, is the only one of the dates available for less than $1,000 in MS-65. The 1914-S has historically been seen as similar to the 1914-D as a key date in MS-65 although in recent years the price difference between the 1914-D and the 1914-S has increased significantly, suggesting that maybe the 1914-S is not as tough as once thought. That said, it’s still a very difficult date in MS-65 with a current listing of $11,500. In G-4, the lowest mintage 1911-S remains the most expensive at $45 today and the 1913-S despite a higher mintage than most of the others is a date that at $6,650 has proven to be better in MS-65.

The first San Francisco dates someone attempting to fill a set in the 1950s could really expect to find were those from 1916-1920. Even with the lowest mintage of the period at 22,510,000 by comparison to the earlier dates, the 1916-S seemed common and the 1919-S with a mintage of 139,760,000 was seen as especially available. Under the circumstances, the collectors and dealers of the period were not likely to save any of these dates and that had the result of making supplies lower than expected especially in Mint State and upper circulated grades.

If you check the listing in MS-65 today you find the 1919-S at $4,300 in MS-65 is the least expensive, but that price is much higher than the low mintage 1909-S and the reason is simply that one was saved at the time and the other was not. In the case of the other dates from 1916-1920 in MS-65 they are all in the $7,000 to $10,000 range and that puts them on a par with the 1909-S VDB in terms of price and that is something no collector back in 1916 or 1920 would have expected. The 1920-S at $9,350 in MS-65 tops the group.

The 1920s would see some San Francisco dates drop back to lower mintages. That is a reflection of the times as the mints in the early 1920s were busy with something other than cent production. The secretary of the Treasury had ordered a rush production of over 200 million silver dollars that were needed as backing for a new issue of Silver Certificates. The forced silver dollar production meant lower cent totals at all facilities and that was seen at San Francisco where the 1923-S had a mintage of just 8,700,000 while the 1921-S and 1924-S were also below 20 million while there were no cents produced in San Francisco at all in 1922.

A business recession also kept mintages lower in the early years of the 1920s.

What is found in the cents of the 1920s today is that they bring surprisingly small premiums at least in some grades as G-4 examples often are less than a dollar.

In MS-65, however, they can be surprising as there are very limited supplies. The price guide price for the 1926-S is $100,000 and you want to ask if that isn’t a typo.

 The 1923-S is at $15,500 in MS-65 and the 1924-S is at $11,000 and those prices are significantly higher than not only the 1909-S VDB but the 1923-S beats even the 1914-S, which was seen as a tough date in MS-65. Of the dates from the 1920s, the only one that can be called relatively available is the 1929-S, which is $625 in MS-65.

There was one dominant San Francisco Lincoln cent from the 1930s and that was the 1931-S, which had a mintage of just 866,000. That mintage was not lost on the collectors and dealers of the day as it represented only the fourth cent stretching back to the first small cents in 1857 to have a mintage of less than 1 million. As the other three were the 1877 and 1909-S Indian Head cents and the 1909-S VDB everyone immediately assumed that the 1931-S would have a glorious future in terms of high prices.

The 1931-S has perhaps not lived up to the high expectations simply because much of its small mintage was quickly saved. There are assorted reports of hoards with Walter Breen claiming that the Maurice Scharlack hoard numbered “over 200,000 red Uncirculated specimens, many weak.”

The number seems high, but realistically there definitely were large numbers of the 1931-S with Q. David Bowers reporting uncirculated rolls still being found in the 1950s. Those rolls have almost certainly been broken up, but the fact that there were some is an indication of just how much saving there was of the 1931-S. That explains its prices today. A G-4 is at $122, but an MS-60 at just $163 is downright cheap. An MS-65 is at $725. The close price spread between G-4 and MS-60 is an excellent indication that the 1931-S had heavy saving with relatively few examples ever circulating for a significant period of time.

The 1931-S gets most of the attention when it comes to dates of the 1930s and there is good reason. The dates of the 1930s start a period of available dates even in MS-65. The 1930-S had a mintage of less than 25 million, but even in MS-65, it is just $50 while other dates with larger mintages are far less.

It is interesting as the decade of the 1930s was a difficult period for many economically, but somehow cents were still saved. The tough times economically are seen in the fact that there was no San Francisco cent production in 1932, 1933 and 1934.

When cent production did return in 1935 both the mintages and the savings rates seemed to increase as many Americans emerged from the Great Depression as coin collectors and the coins they saved make for available supplies today even in MS-65. The 1935-S is $55 in MS-65, but all the other dates from the 1930s are around $20 MS-65, some a little more, others a little less.

Once people started collecting Lincoln cents they tended to keep adding to their collections as was seen when the 1938-S had a mintage of just 15,180,000. That total should have resulted in a premium price, but the collectors were there saving examples for their collections and as a result the 1938-S is at just $26 today in MS-65.

The 1940s would see a continuation of the pattern. A growing economy meant larger mintages and although most were saved, a few would turn out to be slightly better such as the 1941-S, which is $23.50 in MS-65 while the 1942-S is at $26 in the same grade.

The 1943-S was special as that was the year when World War II forced a composition change as copper was seen as potentially a strategic metal possibly needed for the war effort. That saw the 1943 mintage being visibly different as the cents were made from a zinc-coated steel alloy.

The steel alloy makes the cents of 1943 popular although they were not popular with the public at the time even though the Mint explained that the copper saving was enough to meet the needs of two cruisers, two destroyers, 1,243 B-17s, 120 field guns and 120 howitzers or enough for 1.25 million shells for large field guns. That was impressive, but not enough to convince the public to stop complaining about the 1943 cents that looked like the dime because of the color. The 1943-S was the lowest mintage of the three cents of 1943 and that results in the highest price of $13.50 in MS-65.

On Jan. 1, 1944, the Mint changed to an alloy taken from spent shell casings and at least they looked like the cents the public wanted. The alloy was slightly different as it contained a little tin, but it looked right and would last until 1947 when the regular cent composition returned.

The cents of the 1940s after 1943 are also readily available with MS-65 prices that run a few dollars on either side of $10. It was a group that collectors always assumed were available and the years have proven them to be correct in that assumption although the good old days of rolls being readily available are now becoming a thing of the past.

The 1950s would see an even greater increase in collecting interest as Baby Boomers reached an age where they could begin to collect coins and that naturally meant Lincoln cents, which were the lowest denomination. As a result, the San Francisco Lincoln cents of the 1950s are still readily. the 1954-S is the most expensive of these in MS-65 and still, it is only $12.

The San Francisco Lincoln cents stop abruptly with the 1955-S as it was announced in that year that with improvements at the other facilities San Francisco was no longer needed for coin production. That was big news at the time and there was a lot of saving of the relatively low mintage 1955-S and to a lesser degree the 1954-S. The low mintage of 44,610,000 for the 1955-S helped as that was the lowest Lincoln cent mintage since the 1930s and with everyone excited by the 1950-D Jefferson nickel any coin with a remotely unusual mintage was likely to be saved in greater numbers than was normal. In the case of the 1955-S it made for a natural coin to promote as packaged with the 1955-S dime the two were offered in coin shops of the day as the final San Francisco coins.

For more than a decade things were unchanged with no San Francisco coins of any denomination appearing. Then in 1968 a surprising thing happened. The coin shortage of the mid-1960s caused officials to reconsider the situation in San Francisco and in 1968 there was a return to production in San Francisco.

Proof set production also was moved to San Francisco, but the facility also produced business strikes of the cent and nickel. That meant that the 1968-S as well as other dates through 1974 would be available as both proofs and business strikes.

True to form, the San Francisco business strike mintages were low with the 1968-S at 261,311,510, proving to be the lowest mintage date of the period. The short-lived period of San Francisco business strikes produced no unusually expensive coins, but it did introduce a new generation to the concept that San Francisco cents could be low mintage and interesting.

Starting in 1975 the San Francisco cent became the final denomination to become proof-only. At first some were probably unsure how to treat the notion of a proof-only cent, but now over 30 years later the proof-only San Francisco cents have been included by many in their regular collections. Of course that puts pressure on supplies, which are limited not to the number of proof sets sold in a specific year, but rather the number of sets people are willing to break up to provide individual coins to collectors. That has seen some dates rise in price. The 1997-S is at $11.50 in Proof-65. With their low mintages, any increase in Lincoln cent collecting would probably result in supply shortages, making the proof-only San Francisco cents a group worth watching in the future.

Whenever collectors think about Lincoln cents, the San Francisco coins will always be the Lincoln cent leaders in interest and price.

        
      

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