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Indian Head cents kept generations focused

Generation after generation has learned the same lesson that Indian Head cents make a very attractive set. Even though the last Indian Head cent was made a century ago, it seems to keep its appeal to collectors of every era in American numismatic history.

It is hard to figure out why the Indian Head cent has remained so popular for so long. Certainly, a large part of their appeal can be found in that the Indian Head cent was the natural starting point for generations of collectors. They could find Indian Head cents in circulation and with a little luck, even find the key dates.

Later generations, mine included, while perhaps not able to complete a set from circulation, still found an attraction to Indian Head cents that just seemed to never go away. Included in a set are some of the most interesting and famous of all U.S. coins.

The Indian Head cent made its debut back in 1859 as the clouds of the Civil War were just starting to gather. It is hard to know precisely why the Indian Head design was selected to replace the Flying Eagle cent, which had only been in production a couple of years. The most likely reason is that officials never seemed to really like the Flying Eagle design. There might be other reasons as well.

The Flying Eagle cent experienced  some problems: after an initial enthusiasm for the coin because of its convenient size, too many began backing up because consumers didn’t trust the new cent. They were using them to pay all their bills and then refusing to accept them in turn. The reason they didn’t trust the new cent is that it had a lower metallic value than the old copper large cents. Of course, changing the design would not help convince anyone to accept the new cent, but the concerned officials at the time might well have been willing to try anything in the hope that it would help.

Looking at it today it almost appears that officials were simply trying different combinations to see what would work. The Indian Head cent, which first appeared in 1859, would be changed again in 1860. The 1859 had a mintage of 36,400,000, which is probably fortunate, because since it was a one-year type coin, there would be a lot of demand for it from collectors over the years. Fortunately, thanks largely to that high mintage, the 1859 is available today at $13 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $230 while an MS-65 is $3,650 and a Prf-65 is at $5,200. It is worth noting that the MS-65 price really reflects the demand, as it makes the 1859 more expensive than any other Indian Head cent, except for the famous key 1877 and the notoriously tough 1872.

It is the type of demand which influences the price. We can see that in the numbers available, as the 1859 can be found in top grades. At NGC, the 1859 has appeared 119 times in MS-65 or better and that total is much higher than the less expensive 1864. The same is true at PCGS where the 1859 has appeared 112 times in MS-65, which is about twice as often as the less expensive 1864.

The situation is similar in Proof-65 where the 1859, at $5,200 is only behind the 1861 and the very scarce 1864L. Once again when you check the grading services, the 1859 is not as tough as some other dates with much lower prices, suggesting there is a special demand for top quality examples of the 1859. That demand is certainly from type collectors.

In 1860 the design would be changed slightly with the laurel wreath becoming an oak wreath and a small shield was added as well. There is no known reason why the changes were made, but it makes the dates from 1860-64 a different type with the most available being $7.50 in G-4 and $75 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $975.

The copper-nickel Indian Head might have lasted much longer were it not for the Civil War. It was hard to explain, but the public started hoarding gold and silver. Once those coins were gone, the hoarding expanded to copper-nickel Indian Head cents, which no one could understand. The proof is seen in the December 1863 “Philadelphia Ledger,” which ran a story asking, “Where are all the cents? Being depreciated below their nominal value they are not exported, and considering what a nuisance their abundance was before the suspension of specie payments and their immense coinage since, it is a general wonder where they all can be hid.”

There is even numismatic evidence of some small hoarding of at least one date. In his book American Coins Treasures and Hoards Q. David Bowers points to a 1918 Thomas Elder sale that offered a hoard of roughly 1,000 examples of the 1862 with the coins generally being called uncirculated. Although we see no clear evidence of a specific hoard in the grading service totals today, the Mint State totals of the 1862 are high enough to suggest that some hoard of that size was very possible.

The 1861 would be the lowest mintage of the copper-nickel Indian Head cents and it is an interesting date. It is believed to have been found in a small hoard of perhaps 15-30 pieces, but coming early in the period it might well have never been hoarded in any numbers in Mint State. Its price today does not really suggest its low mintage, as the most expensive copper-nickel Indian Head cent in MS-60 is the 1864 at $220, It is also the most costly in MS-65 at $1,350.

Interestingly enough, it is in proof where the 1861 is actually the most expensive date of the copper-nickel Indian Head cents. The gap between the 1861 which is $7,250 in Prf-65, and the others is somewhat difficult to understand. It is thought to have had a proof mintage of about 1,000 pieces, which would make it similar to the 1860, which is usually put at 900, but which is only $3,600 in Prf-65. Looking at the grading services, it is hard to really see the reason for the price difference, as NGC has seen the 1861 21 times in Prf-65 or better, while the 1860 is at 23. At PCGS, the 1861 has been graded 20 times in Prf-65 or better while the 1860 has been graded 26 times. Basically, the 1861 is tougher but not by a wide margin, at least in Prf-65.

The situation gets even more involved if you consider lower proof grades. If you compare all the proof appearances by the two dates, NGC shows the 1861 at 59 appearances and the 1860 at 35 while PCGS shows the 1861 at 90 examples graded with the 1860 at 87. That would seem to suggest that the mintages would have been close and that if there is any real difference between the two to justify the higher 1861 prices, it is not in actual numbers but rather the apparent lack of 1861 coins in at least Prf-65.

With the hoarding, something had to be done. Treasury officials decided to introduce Fractional Currency in 1862 to help make small change, but they did not give up on coinage. They acted to make a composition change to the cent to discourage hoarding.

The new composition was bronze to match privately issued tokens that merchants had used to make change during the shortage. Civil War tokens are still a popular collectible in their own right.

The bronze Indian Head cent made its debut in 1864 after some mintage of the copper-nickel type early in the year.That first bronze mintage produced an interesting coin in the form of an 1864L, which had the designer’s initial added to the lower ribbon behind the neck on some coins. Those coins with the “L” can also be identified as they have a more pointed bust. The 1864L is definitely better than the regular 1864 as is seen by its $52.50 price in G-4 as compared to the regular 1864 price of just $8. In MS-60 the 1864L is also higher at $410 while an MS-65 is $1,700. In Prf-65 the 1864L is a major rarity with a current price of $200,000 with the estimate being that perhaps 20 were made. That may be correct and the 1864L also frequently does not reach Prf-65 as PCGS has graded 11 but only four were at least Prf-65.

The bronze cent would see high mintages for a couple of years while the Mint tried to rush large numbers of lower denominations into circulation, but the numbers would begin to drop, especially from 1868-1878. It is really the Indian Head cent of that decade that represents the core of an Indian Head cent collection in virtually any grade. The mintages were low and saving was suspect as these were tough economic times highlighted by the “Panic of 1873.” Collector numbers were still modest and even a collection of cents during a financial panic could have easily been seen as a financial lifesaver. As a result, in almost any grade, the dates of the period are tough.

There is no dispute that the key date of the period is the famous 1877, which, with a mintage of 852,500, quickly became a favorite. Prior to that time, no regular date Indian Head cent had a mintage below one million. Collectors over the years would pull the 1877 from circulation even if they did not need it for their collections, as everyone seemed to understand that the 1877 was going to be a better date.

We have reports of the 1877 being found in circulation up until roughly World War I, but its fame has continued to the present day. It was even depicted on a postage stamp back in 1978. In fact, for many years when someone wanted to depict a rare coin on anything from a belt buckle to a coffee mug, it would not be a 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle, 1804 dollar or 1913 nickel they would use, but rather the 1877 Indian Head cent.

Currently priced at $985 in G-4 the 1877 is far ahead of the other dates from the period in that grade. In reality, however, in some grades, the other dates may be even tougher than the 1877 as they were not pulled from circulation regularly. Most of them simply circulated until they were basically so worn they were retired, but their prices are reasonable today in lower circulated grades with the 1872 at $90 while the others range basically from $15-$90 with the 1869/9 being the one exception at $145 in G-4.

The situation in MS-60 is similar with the 1877 leading the way of the dates from the period at $3,450 and in MS-65 where it is $13,000. In fact, the right 1877 can produce a much higher price such as the $77,625 seen in a 2003 Heritage sale for an MS-66.

For many years, the 1872 was something of a sleeper, but that is no longer the case. It has been hoarded in a number of grades but not in MS-65 where it is seen as a worthy challenger to the 1877. The 1872 is $840 in MS-60 which is high, but in MS-65 it is $3,850, well above any other date of the period except the 1877. Today the 1872 is followed by the 1871 which in the minds of many deserves to be considered with the 1872 and 1877 as a rarity in MS-65 where the 1871 is currently $2,400 although it is more available in MS-60 where it is just $610.

The big three of the period are always watched carefully for signs of new price levels or new strength. The Heritage sale which saw the 1877 soar to $77,625 in 2003 also saw an 1872 raise eyebrows when an MS-65 brought $17,825 despite an MS-65 price guide price of less than one-quarter that amount, but such surprising prices are not all that surprising where these dates are concerned.

In some respects, the grading services may add fuel to the fire of what their prices should be, as they send a mixed message. At PCGS in MS-65 or better the 1871 has appeared 50 times while the 1872 is at 69 and the 1877 is at 64. The NGC totals have a different outcome with the 1871 appearing 111 times in MS-65 or better while the 1872 is at 83 and the 1877 is at 89. Basically, you can come to almost any conclusion you want from those numbers and that helps to keep the debate as to which is the best of the three dates alive and well.

For some, the debate is perilously close to academic, simply because there is another option, which are the proofs. At the time, a popular method of collecting was to simply acquire a proof every year of the coin you were collecting. That was especially possible as only silver and gold were made outside Philadelphia, so realistically even if you collected by date and mint – which relatively few did – a collection of Indian Head cents was perfectly possible using only proofs. While the mintages were low, the proof would be purchased usually for twice its face value and would only end up in the hands of collectors where they received better care. That makes a Prf-65, in many cases, much less expensive and much more available than the same date in a grade like MS-65. While not every date from the period is cheaper in proof, a number are and it makes for an interesting alternative for those who might want a lower priced example.

The dates starting in 1879 are a very different situation. Considering only the ones produced in Philadelphia from 1879-1909, you have what are basically the available Indian Head cent dates, with few that command any sort of significant price premium. In the entire period, only the 1879 and 1885 command a price of more than $6 in G-4 while in MS-60 many are around $30 with the most available dates in MS-65 being $155-$165. There are a few better dates but even they are not that expensive with the 1885 currently priced at $105 in MS-60 and $725 in MS-65. There are only a few others at $500 or more in MS-65, making the dates of the period possible for many to afford.

There are, however, a couple special dates starting with the 1908-S. The 1908-S made history as it was the first cent to be produced outside Philadelphia. That had not even been possible until a couple years earlier because there had been a law which prevented coins without a silver or gold composition from being produced at any facility other than Philadelphia. The prohibition had been another attempt by the Western mining interests to encourage the use of silver and gold coins.

By the 1900s the mining interests had less political clout and the idea had long outlived any possible benefit while possibly causing significant problems in making change in some areas of the country. Its repeal opened the door for the production of lower denominations and San Francisco would be the first in 1908 with the production of 1,115,000 1908-S cents. The 1908-S being historic would be saved at the time and for years afterwards by new collectors as it was not only historic but also low mintage. Even so, it is still a tough date with a G-4 price of $77 while an MS-60 is $285 and an MS-65 is at $2,650.

The 1908-S would probably receive more attention than it does were it not for the 1909-S. The 1909-S Indian Head cent is certainly not as historic as the 1908-S, but it has something else to offer and that is that it had a mintage of just 309,000 pieces. If that figure sounds low, it’s because it is. No cent of any type had a regular date with a lower total since 1811. That is now almost two centuries of cents with none having a lower mintage and that has helped to keep the 1909-S on a very straight path toward higher prices.

It must be remembered that the price of a coin is not determined by its mintage, but rather by supply and demand. In the case of the 1909-S we see prices of $590 in G-4, $1,000 in MS-60 and $2,250 in MS-65. Those prices are lower than the much higher mintage 1877 for a reason. There is probably a little more demand for the 1877, but more importantly, the 1909-S emerged in 1909 when there would be a great deal of interest in cents.

The new 1909-S VDB was a national sensation and there was the 1909-S Indian Head cent with an even lower mintage. Moreover, the 1908-S as the first San Francisco cent had probably also helped to create some interest. Those factors all came together and saw the 1909-S Indian Head cent saved in some numbers at the time and that means a greater supply today. Certainly the 1909-S Indian Head cent is not common, but it is at least a little more available in most grades than its low mintage suggests.

With the final mintages in 1909, the Indian Head would take its place in history. It would not, however, be quickly or easily forgotten by collectors. For at least the next 25 years, while not easy, it was still possible to complete a set from circulation. For many years beyond that, it was still possible to assemble a collection with many dates, including some from before 1879.

Even with virtually no Indian Head cents in circulation, collectors of the 1950s were still very interested in Indian Head cents. Based on the lively interest in key dates in top grades today, little has changed, as the Indian Head cent still seems to have an attraction for many.

It might be expecting too much to think that the centennial of the last Indian Head cent being produced in 1909 will make much of a difference in demand, but the fact remains it cannot hurt. The Indian Head cent, however, seems to need no gimmicks or special promotion as it is one set that has a certain eternal attraction for collectors and that makes it a great set to attempt and an even better one to complete.

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