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Lincoln set challenge taken up 40 years ago

Young collectors always dream big, and so did I. From the time I learned of the existence of the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, it was my collecting dream to find one in change.

When I discovered coin collecting in the late 1960s, I was surprised to learn that the good old Lincoln cent had been around for so long. I saw Wheat- back cents, along with the newer Lincoln Memorial cents, but I wasn’t sure what the earliest date would be, until I bought my first copy of A Guide Book of United States Coins.

Lincoln cents were seen everyday, and I began collecting as many different dates and mintmarks as I could find. I found out that the first Lincoln cents were struck in 1909, and the specimen struck at San Francisco, with the designer’s initials on the reverse, was the big challenge.

At the time I began collecting, many different coins could be found in circulation. Silver coins still turned up, along with Standing Liberty quarters, Mercury dimes and Buffalo nickels. Coins of many different dates appeared with some regularity. It was not unusual to find coins dated in the 1920s, and even earlier, when I started checking my change for good coins.

So many different designs of coins were seen too, but Lincoln had appeared on the cent for 60 years. I didn’t think I would ever find any older cent design, and I was right.

The oldest cent I received in change was a well-worn 1910. In fact, the oldest dated United States coin I ever found in change was that 1910 Lincoln cent. I never did find anything dated 1909, but just about every other date passed through my hands. I purchased a green folder for Lincolns at a local coin shop, and filled in as many holes as I could. The big green folder, with “Lincoln Cents” printed in gold on the cover, had spaces for every date and mintmark, going back to 1909, not like the blue Whitman folders. A collector needed three volumes to hold a complete set of Lincoln cents, and I fully expected to gather a complete set.
Being from the Chicago area, I found a great number of Denver mint cents, not that many Philadelphia cents, and hardly any San Francisco cents. The first S-mint cent I found in change was dated 1953. It really stood out with that “S” mintmark, among all the “D” mintmarked cents I saw.

My grandmother, who started me in coin collecting with two silver dollars, liked coins, not for their numismatic value, but because coins were money. She saved her spare change in jars, old purses, wherever she could tuck a few coins away. Every so often, she would go through her holdings and take them to the bank. She accumulated a few hundred dollars a year this way.

She liked the old Lincoln cents with the wheat on the back, as she described the design, and saved them out of change. Wheat-back cents were still fairly plentiful when I was young. When she learned that I was interested in coin collecting, she let me look through her jars of old cents, but she made me promise to split the proceeds with her. I did find a few coins with mint luster from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but no rarities. The best coins of the bunch found their way into my green folder.

I was learning how to upgrade. Upgrading was an ongoing project with a Lincoln collection pulled from circulation, as many coins were worn, some not so worn, and there were also differences in the colors of the bronze coins. Some were attractive, some were not, and a few were just plain ugly.

Among the least attractive Lincolns were certain 1943 World War II issues. Made of zinc-coated steel, the steel often rusted, and many circulated coins had rust spots. I solved this problem by going to a local coin shop and buying a set of the three 1943 cents that were processed – cleaned to remove the rust and look better. The coins were bright and shiny, and looked nice in the folder. Later I studied the three coins a bit more carefully, and saw that despite their shine, the coins had some wear.

I heard of the 1943 bronze cent, and checked the dates on Lincolns. I saw a few copper-plated 1943 cents, sold as novelty items, but even to my inexperienced eye, the coins looked funny. It was the color. Some years later, I saw a phony 1943 bronze cent. It was a 1944 with the date altered. I saw right away that the “3” in the date did not look anything like the dates of the coins in my processed set. The genuine 1943 cents had a “3” with a long tail. This taught me that the details counted, whether grading or authenticating a coin and sometimes the details were not that subtle. A lot of detail could be noted with just the naked eye.

The search went on for all of the different dates and mintmarks that made up a complete Lincoln set. I saw a blue Whitman folder for a short set – a set of Lincolns from 1941 to date – but I considered myself a real collector, who wanted it all. Besides, it was more fun to search for, and find, the earlier dates.

Despite years of looking, I never found any cents dated 1915 or 1922. I knew the 1922 cents were special, as the coins were only minted at Denver and were scarce to begin with. And then there was the 1922 “no D.” This was a scarce coin, and there was always the chance one would turn up in change. That kept me looking for this coin, along with other rarities in the series that never showed up.

I had seen many circulated specimens of the 1914-D, 1931-S, and of course, the prize, the 1909-S VDB at coin shops. Those coins must have been out in circulation for quite a few years, judging by their wear and appearance. Someone must have picked those coins out of change. Why couldn’t I find one?

As more holes in the old green folder were filled, the hunt became tougher. I did have to buy a few coins, such as the first Lincoln, the 1909 VDB. I was surprised that the very first Lincoln cent was not all that rare and expensive; many of these coins were saved, as the first of the new design. My own specimen was a pretty almost uncirculated cent with plenty of red, and I was proud of it.

Quite a few holes in the album were filled by circulated coins I found in change. It did take some time, a few years, but as the years went by, more and more holes in that album were filled. The most difficult coins to find were any of the San Francisco issues. I bought a few of these coins, such as the 1914-S and 1915-S, which were not all that expensive, especially in circulated grades. Most of my Lincoln cents were circulated, and it would look better to have the conditions similar, if not evenly matched.

I examined a few Mint State Lincoln cents at coin shops. They were pretty coins, with red luster, and I was surprised that older Lincolns could have that much luster; the red seemed to fade quickly. Cents of recent years could be found that had not a trace of Mint red. I didn’t buy all that many uncirculated Lincolns. I collected my coins out of change, and I was proud of that, but that didn’t stop me looking and learning even when I didn’t buy.

Building such a set would probably be all but impossible now, as even the most common Wheat-back cents have disappeared from circulation. I recall finding cents of 1911, 1912, most of the dates in the teens, including a nice 1919-D. There was a beautiful 1928 with hardly any wear; that particular coin must have sat in someone’s wallet for many years before being spent. Wheat-back Lincoln cents were fairly easy to grade, from the details on the ears of wheat – plain and simple.

I did find a blue Whitman folder just for the Lincoln Memorial cents, started in 1959 and continuing to the present. Here was a set worth completing, and very possibly, with all of the coins in Mint State! This set was filled quickly, with the help of a few purchases, but there wasn’t much of a challenge. Yes, it was a completed coin album, and what young person could ever have that? But it wasn’t much fun, and the sense of ownership would not be the same if I had managed to complete a full set of Lincolns from change. After the Memorial set was finished, it was back to the big goal of finishing the full set of Lincolns.

My green folder had a space designated 1965-D. When the folder was printed, no one could guess that mintmarks would be removed from United States coins in 1965, and not return until 1968. There was a 1965 variety billed as “ideal for the 1965-D hole in your album,” but I didn’t buy that. I never considered errors and varieties, except for the doubled dies.

There was a space for the 1955 doubled-die in my album. That was another prize coin to search for, and I thought I had good odds to find that one, as it was much more recent than the 1909 or 1914 scarcities.

When the 1972 doubled-die cent was discovered in the summer of 1972, I searched through every cent that passed through my hands, just as I did years before. I worked in a record store, and looked through the tray of cents every chance I got. No, I never found any doubled-die cents either.

Every so often, a new doubled die is discovered, and still another doubled-die cent came up in 1995. I haven’t found a 1995 doubled die, but I am searching.

As the holes in the big green folder filled up, and the coins were upgraded, I could detect subtle differences in the portrait of Lincoln. The original 1909 coins looked more detailed than the cents I found in change. The 1968 coins had a portrait of Lincoln that looked mushy and lacking certain details that were readily seen on the 1909 coins. How could a modern coin look less attractive than a coin 60-years old?

The following year, the portrait was re-engraved, giving a much better look to Lincoln. My first coin of the new year in 1969 was a Lincoln cent received in change in late January. I saw the difference right away. When I pointed this out to friends, I got reactions like, “It’s still Lincoln on the penny, nothing new.” But the coin had a completely new look to a collector’s eye.

Not long after the 1969 cents were released, I put away the Lincoln album. I found other things to do, other pursuits, that did not necessarily involve coins. Besides, I figured it was hopeless to find that 1909-S VDB, or that 1914-D, or any cent dated 1922.
When I became a more serious collector, in 1985 or so, I found a new way of collecting Lincoln cents that was a lot more challenging than pulling coins out of circulation. The matte proof issues of 1909-1916 was a small set – only nine coins – but it would certainly take some searching to find all nine. Again, the 1909 cent with the designer’s initials was the big one, with a very limited mintage.

The matte proof Lincolns made a very appealing set. These coins would never be number one on the collecting hit parade, but that made it better. Not that many collectors would want these coins; indeed, many coin collectors were not even aware of their existence. Most collectors were familiar with the mirror-like proofs, but not the matte proofs, with their subtle glow. I learned that many collectors were not impressed with matte proof coins, and quite a few were spent.

I enjoyed the pursuit of a matte proof Lincoln set almost as much as collecting a date and mint set out of change. The first one I bought was a lovely 1910, certified Proof-64, with shades of purple toning visible. The coloring probably came from being stored in paper containing sulfur. What a different coin this was from the worn 1910 I pulled from change years before.

Every matte proof I purchased was professionally graded, so there was no question as to its proof status.

No, I never completed this set either. The first coin, the 1909 VDB, and the last coin, the 1916, proved to be too much of a challenge, to find and to afford. I wished I had known about matte proof Lincolns many years ago, when I was filling up the green folder with circulated Lincolns.

Lincoln cents have been around for one hundred years now, and there are as many ways to collect as there are collectors. The 2009 coins, with new reverse designs, have proven to be the biggest challenge to find in a long time. Collectors and dealers are paying much more than face value for the log cabin reverse cent. This coin is quite attractive, more than the old Lincoln Memorial design, which more resembles a trolley car than an impressive building.

If you want to find cents of the present year out of circulation, you may have a long wait. As of june 2009 – I still haven’t found one in change. The only ones I’ve seen were at a coin shop in downtown Chicago.

Numismatists discovering the Lincoln cent now can buy the older coins, and find it difficult to find some dates and mints in nice condition, just as a young collector in the 1960s had a difficult time finding good coins in change.

Finding that special coin at a coin shop or a major convention can be just as exciting as finding a special coin in change … although it was a lot cheaper to collect out of circulation. That part of the hobby is the same as it always was. For some issues, you have to wait. The question for some of us is whether the collectors of today are any more impatient than we were 40 years ago to find those coins we needed for our sets.

I leave that question for the writers of letters to the editor to ponder and respond to. u

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