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Lincoln cent set features classic key dates

Generation after generation has come to the same basic conclusion that the Lincoln cent is a great collection. There is really no dispute that now approaching the century mark in terms of production when you look at a Lincoln cent collection you will find virtually everything you could ever want in a collection with the possible exception of the great rarity. There are key dates, semi-key dates and plenty of available dates as well.

The interest in Lincoln cents over the years has been enormous and to have that much interest, the Lincoln cent has to be a collection with a number of very interesting coins. That is the case and while a few dates may have dominated over the years, the fact is that if you look at a Lincoln cent collection you will find that in virtually every decade for the first half century or more there was at least one extremely interesting date. In fact, if you take Lincoln cents as a whole you will find that a set contains perhaps as many interesting and sometimes even misunderstood dates as any collection in the history of American numismatics.

There was no doubt back in 1909 when the first Lincoln cent appeared that the new cent was going to create some comment and perhaps even controversy. It simply could not be avoided as realistically it was breaking new ground. No great American had ever appeared on a circulating coin before. It was also 1909 and there were still probably quite a few Americans in states south of the Mason-Dixon line who were not all that thrilled with the idea of honoring Abraham Lincoln. Nor was it just in the South as The New York Times was not overly pleased with the idea of a Lincoln cent either.

The Lincoln cent burst onto the scene and right away there was a special date. In fact, the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent has withstood the test of time as one of the truly great coins in American history. Certainly the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent would be on any list of the coins that have made a significant impact in terms of adding to the popularity of coin collecting as literally for decades the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent was the object of searches by millions of young and old collectors alike who were scouring cent rolls and checking their change to see if they could find what was probably the most avidly sought coin in American history.

The story of the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent goes back to the process of making the coin. Victor D. Brenner had apparently suggested the idea of a Lincoln cent to then President Theodore Roosevelt.
As new designs for the coins of the United States were a priority for Roosevelt, he was willing to give Brenner a green light to go ahead with the project of creating a Lincoln cent.

It is hard to be certain, but there are certainly some small indications that Brenner was not only a talented artist but also a rather aggressive self promoter. At one point he apparently suggested that he prepare designs for all the coins of the United States. That got nowhere as Roosevelt had other plans.

In the course of doing the cent, it appears that Brenner had some problems as at least one official complained that he insisted on using Latinized V-shaped “U’s.” There was also the matter of his name, which saw the Mint director complain that he, “insists upon putting his name in full on the obverse side.” Historically speaking, that simply was not done on coins of the United States and the secretary of the Treasury quickly stepped in and made it clear that the only indication of the artist would be his initials on the reverse.

That decision by the secretary of the Treasury was seen as the final word and production of the new Lincoln cent began with 27,995,000 being produced and released at Philadelphia and 484,000 at San Francisco before production was suddenly halted. The secretary of the Treasury had spotted the small VDB at the bottom of the reverse and he did not like it. Even that was too prominent. A hurried conference was held involving Chief Engraver Charles Barber to determine what could be done.

It is worth remembering that Charles Barber was no fan of using outside artists like Brenner to create coin designs. In addition, Barber had a reasonably large ego himself and there is little doubt that the various Brenner ideas like using his full name had raised more than just the eyebrows of Barber.

Having just gone through something perilously close to a war with President Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens over the design of gold coins, it appears that in this case Barber was simply silent probably figuring that someone like Brenner would eventually cause more than enough trouble for himself without Barber’s help.

Barber was certainly not about to help Brenner. When he was asked how long it would take to change the VDB to a small “B” in an inconspicuous place, Barber apparently suggested that it would take time. As an alternative, it appears Barber suggested that simply removing the initials would take only a few days.

Time was important as the nation needed large numbers of cents for regular commerce. Moreover, the secretary of the Treasury was no great fan of Brenner and his name or initials. The probably made the decision to simply remove the initials an easy one.

Roosevelt was no longer in office to object, either.

The rest of the 1909 cent mintages would have no initials, but it took no time at all for collectors to discover that the 1909-S VDB was elusive and the mintage totals confirmed that fact. Actually,  there was going to be saving of the new Lincoln cent under any circumstances because it was a new design but that saving was expanded with the extra interest in the 1909-S VDB.

Moreover, the Philadelphia 1909 with a VDB was saved in enormous numbers, explaining why today it is still just $21 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $125.

The focus of everyone at the time and for generations since, however, was the 484,000 mintage 1909-S VDB, which today lists for $760 in G-4, $1,650 in MS-60 and $6,900 in MS-65. If it were a normal date, the 1909-S VDB would not bring such prices as it is more available than the prices suggest. The reason for the high prices, however is the extraordinary demand for the 1909-S VDB that seems to swamp any possible supply.

The 1909-S VDB, however, is a good example as Lincoln cents were subject to significant hoards. The interest in Lincoln cents and the low face value made hoards possible and Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards has attempted to track down many of the historic hoards of Lincoln cents over the years.

In the case of the 1909-S VDB, the one major reported hoard is that of John Zug,  who according to Bowers, had a hoard reported to be 25,000 pieces. It was dispersed around 1918. Bowers points to other smaller holdings, including a few uncirculated rolls that appeared in the 1950s. Bowers quotes dealer Art Kagin who purchased 10 uncirculated rolls back in the 1950s for $500 each with Kagin feeling that the same source sold other rolls to other dealers probably at about the same price. At the time, the uncirculated price of the 1909-S VDB was $12-$15 each.

It is always possible that the coins Kagin purchased were part of the Zug hoard, although as with most hoard stories, it is difficult to track down specific coins. The important point is those early hoards whatever their source have provided the market with many more examples of the 1909-S VDB than would normally have been the case.

While there are thousands of uncirculated examples today, the number is still never enough as the 1909-S VDB is a coin with enormous popularity among average collectors and this translates into demand that seems to keep prices constantly rising. The centennial of the Lincoln cent in 2009 will further fuel demand.

In the case of the much more available 1909 VDB, we probably see just how significant the cent design change was in 1909. In that year, most Americans had never known anything but an Indian Head cent. To suddenly have Abraham Lincoln on the cent was a change no one could ignore. There is no way to know how many of that original 1909 VDB mintage was saved back in the first year of issue, but it was a significant number as Bowers observed that even in the 1990s rolls were still coming on the market periodically and that is highly unusual after more than eight decades.

Interestingly, there are no significant reports about the 1909-S without the VDB. Certainly  the 1909-S with a lower mintage of 1,825,000 has always had a place as one of the best Lincoln cents. The 1909-S as well as the 1931-S and 1914-D were generally seen as the group right behind the 1909-S VDB as all had low mintages. In the days of collecting from circulation, all were basically impossible to find.

The historical assumption is that the 1909-S, which would have been issued after the 1909-S VDB, saw some saving and that explains why its prices while certainly well above most other Lincoln cents have never been quite as high especially in Mint State as might be expected. Today the 1909-S sits at just $360 in MS-60 and $1,325 in MS-65, which while more than many dates, do not place it in the group of the most expensive Lincoln cents. The 1909-S should be in that most expensive group based on its mintages. It is simply a case with the 1909-S where the hoards are simply not documented or perhaps the 1909-S was simply saved by many. Whatever the source, the 1909-S is definitely more available than expected,  but it is still a famous and important Lincoln cent.

The 1914-D with its mintage of 1,193,000 has always had the reputation as a very tough Lincoln cent and it is with the 1914-D being the only regular date other than the 1909-S VDB to top $100 in G-4. Where the 1914-D is really famous, however, is in MS-65 where it is usually the most expensive regular date at a current price of over $24,000. In fact, as the 1914-S is also very tough in the highest grades, the general feeling has been that the novelty of the Lincoln cent had worn off and there was simply little saving of the 1914-D and the 1914-S when they were released.

Interestingly enough, there are reports of at least two uncirculated rolls of the 1914-D. Precisely where they were found is subject to debate but Q. David Bowers did actually see some coins from the rolls and in his American Coin Treasures and Hoards said, “The writer examined several pieces said to have been from that source, and they were spotted red and brown.” Of course that description leaves open the possibility that they would not have graded MS-65 or better. Other reports of significant numbers of the 1914-D cannot be verified. It all suggests that while small numbers of the 1914-D might have been saved at the time of issue, the hoards were not massive and coins probably were not MS-65, leaving the 1914-D as a key date today.

The 1931-S is a completely different situation. The 1931-S has the distinction of being the only other regular date Lincoln cent along with the 1909-S VDB to have a mintage of fewer than 1 million. When the mintage of 866,000 became known, there was apparently an immediate rush to find the 1931-S. There has been a rumor for years that one dealer had been offered the entire mintage.

Realistically, most of the coins were squirreled away. The 1931-S has always had a most unusual pricing structure which even today shows a G-4 at $122 while an MS-60 is hardly more at $163.
Normally you would expect an MS-60 to be a number of times more costly than a G-4, but the 1931-S with so much early saving is well outside the normal pricing pattern. It may well be possible that a G-4 is tougher to find than an AU-50.

Just how many examples of the 1931-S were hoarded is subject to debate. Walter Breen suggested that the Maurice Scharlack hoard at one point contained “over 200,000 red uncirculated specimens, many weak.” That cannot be verified and the number seems high, but the fact remains that the 1931-S in Mint State was being found for years. Bowers observed, “As late as the 1950s it was not unusual to see these traded by the roll at coin conventions. Later most were broken up.” In fact that may well explain why the 1931-S in recent years has started to move higher in price in all grades as it may finally be the case that market concerns about additional supplies have been put to rest.

It seems like only yesterday, but in fact it is now 53 years since the 1955 doubled die obverse burst onto the scene. The 1955 doubled die obverse was once described by a dealer friend as the perfect error and over time it is hard to dispute that notion. The 1955 doubled-die obverse arrived at a time when much of the nation seemed to be assembling Lincoln cents from circulation so anything involving the Lincoln cent would be big news. That was especially true in 1955 when it had been announced that San Francisco was producing its last coins. That was later changed, but back in 1955 everyone thought the 1955-S Lincoln, which had the lowest Lincoln cent mintage since the 1930s, would be the final San Francisco Lincoln cent.

The discovery of a 1955 Lincoln cent with a clearly doubled date and obverse lettering would quickly eclipse the 1955-S in importance. By being so clear and easily identified, the 1955 doubled-die obverse was immediately significant. It was obvious even to non-collectors that the coin had an error. That is a major factor for any error to become the “perfect error” as it needs to be easily spotted.

We do not know what the mintage of the 1955 doubled-die obverse was, but some have estimated around 20,000 pieces. Whatever the number, it also turned out to be perfect as the 1955 doubled-die obverse could not be easily found. Later the 1960 small-date cents would create a sensation, but in their case the numbers being found in circulation were far too high for them to become as significant. The 1955 doubled-die obverse almost seemed charmed as just as interest seemed to be on the decline another would be discovered and that would encourage people to keep looking. The enthusiasm for the 1955 doubled-die obverse has never really waned, which is why it is priced at $1,650 in XF-40 and $43,500 in MS-65.

The supply of the 1955 doubled-die obverse is probably pretty much accounted for. In his book, Bowers explained that he and his partner at the time, James F. Ruddy, advertised to buy them in New York and Massachusetts. It was a very smart idea as that was where the first examples had been discovered and there seemed to be more discovered in the region than any other location. It worked. Bowers suggested, “At one time 800 pieces were on hand.”

Since that time those 800 pieces and any other holdings have also been sold. It was the coin that helped to increase the popularity of error collecting. The 1955 doubled-die obverse also became a special Lincoln cent perhaps the one real rival to the 1909-S VDB in popularity and although technically it is not needed for a complete set, everyone still wants a 1955 doubled-die obverse and that explains its constantly rising prices today.

What cannot be seen in the prices is that everyone had a great deal of fun looking for the 1955 doubled-die obverse even though most were never lucky enough to find one. The fun of the hunt has helped to make other Lincoln errors popular as well. The 1972 doubled-die with doubling of date and motto has actually proven to be the Lincoln Memorial reverse version of the 1955 doubled-die obverse as it is very popular and it too set off a massive hunt in circulation.

Bowers explains in his book a significant number of the 1972 doubled dies were found in the trunk of the car of Georgia coin dealer John Hamrick who had apparently bought some 1972 uncirculated bags before the 1972 doubled die was discovered. When he heard of the discovery, he opened the bags and found significant numbers of the 1972 doubled die. It is the sort of story that simply makes a special Lincoln cent all the more so.

Actually there are many reports of hoards of other Lincoln cents. Having a low face value, the Lincoln cent was an easily hoarded coin. In most cases the hoards are circulated examples of better dates, but even if the numbers are in the hundreds, the Lincoln cent market is historically so strong that a hoard of literally any date can be easily absorbed.

Certainly with so  many special dates and different stories, the Lincoln cent as it approaches its centennial in terms of production continues to be a fascinating set and one where date after date is special. For the collector, that simply makes the Lincoln cent even more fun and interesting.

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