It is not as valuable as many had hoped it would be, but the 1931-S Lincoln cent remains a very interesting coin and one that tells us something about collecting and maybe even speculating back at the time of the Great Depression.
The 1931-S cent started out with something very special and that was a mintage of 866,000. That figure was bound to attract attention. It was just the second Lincoln cent in history to have a total mintage below 1 million. The first was the famous 1909-S VDB. That fact was not lost on any collector. The mintage seemed to guarantee stature for the 1931-S.
There were other indicators as well. If you go back to the very first small cent of 1857, you discover that there were only two other cents with mintages below 1 million, the 1877 and 1909-S Indian cents. As part of such a worthy group, it seemed like the 1931-S couldn’t miss.
Prior to 1931, there is not much evidence of major hoarding of low mintage dates of any denomination. In his research Q. David Bowers found only a couple of dealers who had stocks of the 52,000 mintage 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. It should have been seen as a sure thing.
In fact, about the only evidence of unusual saving in the early 1900s related to the 1909-S VDB. Even here, it seemed to be one or two rolls at a time, not bags. A number of rolls appeared in the 1950s, but overall numbers were modest.
The facts of the 1931-S show that thinking had by then changed. There is one report in “American Coin Treasures and Hoards” by Bowers that rolls were not unusual and he referred to the Walter Breen report of the Maurice Scharlack hoard that contained over 200,000 red uncirculated specimens of which many were weak.
The problem with the hoard report is where are the coins today? Grading services in all grades show 2,000 coins at the Professional Coin Grading Service and 1,000 at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. That comes to just 1.5 percent of the alleged hoard total.
Let’s give the story the benefit of the doubt. Not every Mint State 1931-S has been graded. But at prices of $105 in G-4, $160 in MS-60 and $350 in MS-65, you would think grading totals would be higher.
Under the circumstances, the number of ungraded coins seems disturbingly large. Had there been a hoard of 200,000, would it have left so little trace behind? While it is possible, perhaps even probable, there is no good evidence in grading totals to support such a claim.
Certainly there were large numbers saved of the 1931-S. While current prices do not reflect a large hoard, they do reflect a large supply especially in the higher circulated grades and Mint State grades. There is very little price difference between XF-40 and MS-60. If anything, this might suggest a lot of individual collector saving in the first few years after issue.
Whatever really happened, the 1931-S probably disappointed some. It would prove not to be the next 1909-S VDB. It will always be a better Lincoln. The mintage will put it in rare company even if the market prices do not and that makes an interesting story.
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