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Interesting story behind 1864 Indian Head cent trio

A composition change from copper-nickel to bronze, plus a pointed bust variety of the latter that includes the designer’s initial, resulted in three different Indian Head cents for the year 1864.

The Indian Head cents of 1864 are a very interesting and historic group. As you may have guessed from the word “group,” there is more than one. In fact, there are three, and they join together to tell a very interesting story.

The first of the 1864 cents was the copper-nickel version, which saw only a few months of production and a mintage of 13,740,000. Surprisingly, available supplies of the copper-nickel 1864 are actually lower than the 1861 (mintage 10,100,000), at least in MS-65 condition.

As for pricing, the 1864 copper-nickel Indian Head cent is listed today at $20 in G-4, $200 in MS-60, $1,200 in MS-65 and $1,900 in Prf-65. Given its low mintage, it may even be a slightly better date than these prices suggest. That is a fair assumption based on the numbers graded.

The reason this coin was only produced for a few months? The public had hoarded all the gold and silver coins, then turned its attention to copper-nickel cents. Precisely why is anyone’s guess, but the fact remains that they did. An article in the December 1863 issue of a local paper in Philadelphia, which seemed to cover the Mint extensively, even asked where all the cents had gone.

This hoarding of cents on top of the hoarding of gold and silver made conducting routine business difficult, if not impossible. People were using stamps and tokens. Fractional Currency was produced, but people did not like it.

Officials held emergency meetings and came up with the idea of changing the cent composition to bronze, which was 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin. The planchets were also much thinner, but there was little protest.

Mintages were high, with the 1864 bronze Indian Head cent coming in at 39,233,714. That was not a record cent total, but the coin was not produced for the entire year. If you add the more than 13 million copper-nickel cents of 1864, the total was indeed a record.

With its large mintage, the 1864 bronze cent is an easy date to find. It’s priced at $12 in G-4, $90 in MS-60, $600 in MS-65 and $1,100 in Prf-65. Again, these prices are appropriate for the numbers seen by the grading services.

Within that large mintage, there were 1864 bronze cents with a more pointed bust, a slightly sharper portrait and an “L” for the designer, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, on the lower ribbon behind the neck. It’s hard to see, but if you turn the coin slightly so the Indian is facing you, it’s a little easier to make out. (The pointed bust, as compared to a rounded bust on regular issues, is an easier indicator.)

Less than 50 years later, Victor D. Brenner tried to personalize the Lincoln cent, with the letters “VDB” initially accepted as part of the coin design but then rejected after its release. Longacre had not put an initial on the Indian Head cent at first, and when he did, it was so well hidden that most were not even aware.

The 1864-L is definitely a better coin at $45 in G-4, $360 in MS-60 and $1,750 in MS-65. The Professional Coin Grading Service reports about 180 examples in MS-65 condition or better, while the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen 168 examples. These are good prices when you consider the number available.

In Prf-65, however, the 1864-L lists for $60,000. It is one of the great rarities of the era, with an estimated mintage of 35.

That makes 1864 the year of a better copper-nickel date, an available bronze date and an extreme bronze rarity in proof. That is an interesting group by any standard, and the story as to why there were three different 1864 cents only adds to their interest.

 

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

 

More Collecting Resources

• Keep up to date on prices for Canada, United States and Mexico coinage with the 2017 North American Coins & Prices guide.

• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .

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