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Philadelphia Lincolns start with VDB issue

As we are already making plans to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Lincoln cent, it seems like a very appropriate time to take a long look at the Lincoln cents that have made up a century of history. In the case of the Lincoln cents produced at the main facility in Philadelphia, it may be long past due for a serious evaluation as over much of the century the Philadelphia Lincoln cents have simply been assumed to be common.

In fairness, the assumption that Philadelphia Lincoln cents were common was not without at least some basis in fact. Collectors and dealers usually do not favor one mint over another and in the case of Lincoln cents it is Philadelphia that has almost always had the highest mintages and consequently the most available coins.

Even in cases where mintages were sometimes high there are a lot of interesting stories behind the Philadelphia Lincoln cents and that makes a collection both affordable and interesting as you can see the Lincoln cent literally evolve from those first days in 1909 to the present.

Certainly the new Lincoln cent in 1909 was a sensation. After all, it was a new design on the most heavily produced of all U.S. coins so there was bound to be interest. In addition the use of a Lincoln portrait was certain to add to that interest as no famous American had ever appeared on a circulating coin.

In fact, famous Americans rarely appeared on coins at all with the exception being a few commemoratives and based on the mintages of those issues we can safely assume that the average American was not used to seeing famous figures on their coins.

It was for all practical purposes a perfect storm of factors to make for a great deal of interest in the new Lincoln cents. Moreover, in the year prior to the new Lincoln cent there had been some added interest in cents as for the first time there had been cent mintages at a facility other than Philadelphia.         

As the new cents started to emerge from Philadelphia in 1909 there was a lot of saving. It was natural for a new design and as it turned out it was just the start of something of a soap opera regarding the initials of Victor D. Brenner, which were found on the reverse. Actually that soap opera had been going on long before the public realized it as Brenner and officials had basically been fighting small battles over the design for months.

There had been all sorts of disagreements with Brenner. Everyone seemed to like his obverse design but his reverse had been subject to question especially when at one time he submitted what was basically a copy of the reverse of a coin from France. Finally the wheat stalk reverse emerged, but there was also the matter of his using Latinized “US” which officials did not like and his attempt to have his full name included on the coin officials liked even less. There had never been a real policy regarding what credit should be given an artist for a coin design but certainly the pattern was, if anything, to only put an initial in a very inconspicuous place. Brenner, however, wanted to use his name. Finally the Secretary of the Treasury who had the final word in all designs was forced to step in and suggest that Brenner’s name was not going on the coin. He did, however, apparently approve the small initials on the reverse.

Production for the new Lincoln cent began and a total of 27,995,000 had been produced at Philadelphia when suddenly officials had a change of heart. We are not sure precisely what happened but we know production was halted in August while officials had a meeting with Charles Barber the Chief Engraver about the initials. The idea was to have them moved to a different place but more important was speed.
Barber was the expert and he was also no fan of Brenner or the whole idea as he did not like outside artists. He suggested that to move the initials would take time and the quickest way to solve the problem was to simply remove the offending “VDB.” from the reverse. Brenner probably had no fans in the room and the decision was reached to simply remove the initials. This was followed by a production of an additional 72,702,618 1909 Philadelphia Lincoln cents without the initials followed. Ironically in 1918 after Barber’s death, the initials were placed on the obverse.

What has gotten lost over the years is that the 1909 VDB mintage was actually low. Of course it was much higher than the 484,000 mintage of the 1909-S with a VDB, but as Philadelphia mintages go the 1909 VDB did not have a large total. That said the 1909 VDB was saved in significant numbers. We do not know if there was one or two major hoards or just many small ones, but the fact remains that original rolls of the 1909 VDB have popped up on the market for almost a century. We see the impact of the saving at the time in an $21 price in MS-60, although an MS-65 has moved up slowly to $125. The higher mintage 1909 is almost as much in MS-60 at $15 and $80 in MS-65.

The Philadelphia mintages of the new Lincoln cent would rise as the facility was primarily responsible for seeing that the nation had an ample supply of the new cents. It appears that burden fell primarily to Philadelphia as the San Francisco and Denver mintages over the next few years would remain relatively low.

What is sometimes overlooked is that simply having a large mintage does not by definition mean ample supplies today in top grades. Certainly the dates of the period have a variety of prices with the 1912 being a better date currently at $34 in MS-60 and $550 in MS-65. The 1915 is a surprise as it had a mintage of 29,092,120, which actually is fairly low for a Philadelphia date and that has produced an $84 price in MS-60 and a $1,150 listing in MS-65. Moreover the price is supported by the numbers seen at PCGS, which reports only 250 examples in MS-65 and above.

Other dates from the period are less costly but realistically they are not as easily found or as inexpensive as some might expect as frequently they are around $400 in MS-65 and for a cent of the period that is not an insignificant price as the Indian Head cents of a decade earlier in many cases are much less in MS-65 at around $165. The higher Lincoln cent prices are at least partially because of greater demand, but in many instances the supply is not as strong as might be expected. 

The 1920s were a period of some confusion when it came to normal coin production patterns. The reason had nothing to do with the Lincoln cent but rather the desire of the Secretary of the Treasury to have a new issue of Silver Certificates to replace other bank notes that were being backed by short-term notes paying 2 percent interest.

The secretary wanted to stop paying that interest, but in order to issue the Silver Certificates instead, there needed to first be silver dollars to back them. That was because just over 270 million silver dollars had been melted in 1918 under the provisions of the Pittman Act and at least 200 million needed to be replaced in order to issue the new Silver Certificates. That meant silver dollar production and not Lincoln cents or other denominations was the top priority. In fact the silver dollar was basically the only priority and that meant that the mintages of all other denominations suffered.

There would be no Philadelphia Lincoln cent in 1922 and that came on the heels of a fairly low 1921 total of less than 40 million. Even with the lower mintages, most dates from the period are available, although the 1923 is clearly a better date with an MS-65 price of $480. Starting with the 1925, however, which is at $100 in MS-65, we see a pattern emerging of great numbers available and lower prices with dates being less than $100 even in MS-65.

The situation did not last long as the Great Depression would have an impact on the amount of saving of some dates as well as the mintages. The 1931 Philly coin, for example, had a mintage of just under 20 million pieces, which was an extremely low total for a Philadelphia Lincoln cent and that low mintage reverses the trend of low MS-65 prices as the 1931 is $135 in MS-65, although that certainly has to be seen as a good price for a lower mintage date released during a depression.

The continuing impact of the Great Depression is seen in the form of lower mintages for other dates. The 1932 had a mintage of just 9,062,000 and the 1933 was not much higher at 14,360,000. The totals were record lows for Philadelphia Lincoln cents, but that is expected when you have a poor economy as coin demand tends to decrease.

Interestingly enough, despite the low mintages, the dates are not that expensive because the Great Depression turned out to be a good period for coin collecting. With little else to do and with the hope of finding a valuable date in circulation many turned to coin collecting and as a result some examples of even lower mintage dates were saved resulting in an $100 MS-65 price for the 1932 and for the 1933.

The rest of the dates from the 1930s saw larger mintages as the economy began to improve. The period also saw larger numbers of new issues being saved as collector numbers continued to grow and that was encouraged as new information regarding coins and coin collecting became available as did the first holders to house collections.

For the first time massive numbers of collectors were able to buy Whitman holders which became albums in 1940 and that encouraged collectors to start saving new issues as they appeared. As a result, the dates from 1936 on are much less expensive than the earlier dates.

With World War II and inflation saw mintages increase even further in the 1940s with totals usually being in the hundreds of millions of cents each year from Philadelphia. With such mintages you do not find tough dates normally and that is seen in prices of under $20 for an MS-65 of most dates from the period.

While you may not find tough dates you can sometimes find interesting dates even in large mintages and that was the case in 1943 when in an attempt to conserve copper the Mint issued 1943 cents of zinc-coated steel. The coins as they lasted just one year are true souvenirs of World War II. There were composition errors in 1943 and 1944 which are highly prized and which should be authenticated, but the regular 1943 cent is $4.75 in MS-65. They are extremely popular with collectors today although ironically were very unpopular at the time.

The 1950s would see more in the form of large mintages and even higher numbers saved, but in 1955 things really became interesting. It was the year when San Francisco was making what everyone thought would be the final coins from the facility. That created a great deal of interest in the 1955-S cent and dime, but that was all eclipsed when a 1955 doubled-die obverse cent was discovered.

Prior to the 1955 double-die obverse there had not been substantial interest in errors but the 1955 doubled-die obverse captured the attention of the nation. One dealer described it as the “perfect error” as it was easy to spot. Moreover, while certainly scarce there were an estimated 20,000 produced and that meant that every so often someone would find an example resulting in new publicity and enthusiasm.

The stories regarding the 1955 doubled die are many. Q. David Bowers recounts in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards how he and his partner James F. Ruddy ran advertisements to purchase the 1955 doubled die in upper New York State and Massachusetts where it had first surfaced. It turned out to be a smart strategy as Bowers remembers, “At one time, 800 pieces were on hand.”

The nation is rarely excited by a new coin and up to 1955 it was especially unusual if that new coin happened to be an error, but the 1955 doubled-die obverse would spark a great deal of interest in errors and its popularity has continued to the present day. With the search reaching virtually every corner in the land at a time when many were already checking their change, the 1955 doubled die soared in price and it continues to post strong price gains as we see in the current prices of $1,650 in XF-40 and $43,500 in MS-65.

In the years that followed there would be other good Lincoln cent errors, but the 1955 doubled-die obverse was always the standard and others, while good, could rarely compare to the 1955 doubled die in terms of price or collector excitement.

In 1959 after 50 years in production, the reverse was changed to the current Lincoln Memorial design. The secretary of the Treasury ordered the change as he can do under the law and for a generation of cent collectors it was extremely exciting. Some of the art critics of the day did not like the change calling the new design the “trolley car cent,” but for collectors the fact that there was a change was extremely exciting. Certainly the 1959 Lincoln cent that was the first to feature the new Lincoln Memorial reverse was heavily saved not because it might be worth premium prices some day, but simply because it was new and fun.
Normally new designs are saved for one year but interest quickly wanes. In the case of the new Lincoln Memorial reverse, however, there was a reason for a great deal of interest in the second year as a date modification resulted in large and small dates. The availability of the Denver large and small dates with a short serif on the “6” was similar but the Philadelphia 1960 small date was definitely better. That saw a massive search on the part of collectors and dealers. It might not have been the equal of the interest in the 1955 doubled die, but when you consider the 1960 Philadelphia small date is $12 in MS-65 today and $16 in Proof-65 it was certainly far greater than would be expected for a coin of that price.

The years that followed would see a number of interesting doubled dies emerge from Philadelphia starting with the 1972. Bowers recounts the story of the 1972 well in his book explaining that one dealer from Georgia by the name of John Hamrick was particularly lucky as he had purchased some 1972 bags to be broken up and sold at a later date. The bags were actually sitting in the trunk of his car when the 1972 doubled die was discovered and that caused him to decide it might be a good time to open the bags. It proved to be better than a good time to open them as they contained many examples of the 1972 doubled die, which currently lists for $395 in MS-60 and $775 in MS-65.

Philadelphia continued its production of interesting cents a decade later when the composition was changed to copper-coated zinc. That was in 1982 and that year Philadelphia would issue old and new composition Lincoln cents with both small and large dates. Only Philadelphia produced all four with the copper-plated zinc small date turning out to be better at $8 in MS-65.

The new composition Lincoln cents had barely reached circulation when a couple doubled dies appeared in the form of the 1983, which had a doubled reverse and a 1984, which had a doubled ear on the obverse. The two caused a good deal of interest and with good reason as the 1983 is currently $400 in MS-65 while the 1984 is $275.

Another doubled die caused a lot of interest, but has not done as well in terms of price. The 1995 started out strong but it dropped to below $30 before rebounding to its current price of around $50 in MS-65. The reasons for the lower prices may be greater availability coupled with the fact that the doubling seen on LIBERTY is not as dramatic as some of the others.

For the present the regular dates from Philadelphia since 1959 are modestly priced. As they are not submitted regularly to grading services, we cannot be sure if there might be some where the supplies are not adequate to meet future demand. With time and perhaps a design change in 2010 we might well see a test of supplies and if so there could turn out to be some exciting price movements on the part of some Lincoln Memorial dates.

Whatever the case, the Philadelphia Lincoln cent remains a fascinating group of dates without equal in U.S. history that represents a collection that most can complete and that does not happen often when you have 100 years of production.

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