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1821 large cent tough to find in top grades

 Assumptions about the availability of the 1821 Coronet head large cent, which is the lowest-mintage year for the entire run of that design, have recently been reexamined.

Assumptions about the availability of the 1821 Coronet head large cent, which is the lowest-mintage year for the entire run of that design, have recently been reexamined.

Just as some coins can be sleepers, and others sleepers with very little chance of waking up any time soon, coins can also be overrated. The contention has been made that the 1821 Coronet Head large cent is not as good as previously suggested, making it an interesting coin to study.

What has always drawn collector attention is the 1821’s mintage of 389,000, which is significantly below other regular Coronet dates. The 1823 is tougher but had no recorded mintage, as its total was included with the 1824. So for the period from 1816 through 1839, the entire run of the Cornet Head design, the 1821 has the lowest mintage.

Mintage totals are not everything, however, and that was especially true with large cents. The numbers in official records are not carved in stone, as more than one date could have been reported for a specified year.

Although mintage totals might not be totally reliable, the 1821 Coronet head has been viewed as a better large cent of the period, even significantly better. But there were also undercurrents that the 1821 was not that tough. People were not questioning whether it was better than, say, an 1831 large cent but rather whether it was more available than its mintage might suggest.

An interesting analysis appeared in 1996 in the form of the Butternut Hoard, a group of 3,559 large cents purchased by Butternut Coins then in Clifton, Va. It was reportedly assembled sometime in the 1800s and was viewed as a possible way to determine if certain dates were as available as mintage figures suggested.

The dates in the hoard should have appeared in close relationship to their mintages. Instead, the 1821 Coronet Head appeared three times more often than would be expected. The 1822 was also more available, while dates like 1805, 1808, 1809 and 1817 appeared less often than might be expected.

While the hoard was certainly not scientific, it was significant. Even if there was a wide margin for error in the sampling, the 1821 was unusually available for a coin with a mintage of 389,000.

To determine the truth is not easy. Perhaps it lies somewhere between the idea that the 1821 is scarce for a date of the period, as the mintage suggested, but more available than might be thought, as the Butternut Hoard indicated.

It is possible the mintage total is wrong for one reason or another. Lack of commercial demand for large cents during the early 1820s is well known, so even if the total for the 1821 gives a misleading picture of scarcity, the odds are pretty solid that it is still a better date for the period.

Even so, the 1821 is simply not that tough, especially in lower circulated grades. In G-4 condition, it currently lists for $44, which puts it about equally between the most and least available dates. In upper grades, however, it is priced at $1,225 in XF-40 and $8,500 in MS-60, well above the most available dates, which list for as little as $225 and $290, respectively.

These prices seem to follow a growing consensus: while better, and not particularly tough in lower grades, the 1821 is a very difficult date in higher grades. This seems to be backed up by auction results. Appearances are generally in grades of XF-40 and AU-50 but are not frequent at all in MS-60 or better.

Rather than a compromise between two different views, this seems instead to be an accurate reflection of the 1821 Coronet Head large cent. It is a tough but not overly so date in lower grades but a very tough coin if you want a truly nice example.

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

More Collecting Resources

• 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 .

• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2019 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.