This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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There are a few coins in the history of the United States that are more important than their mintages and prices suggest. For whatever reason, special coins seem to come along at just the right time and take on a life of their own, becoming legendary. The 1877 Indian Head cent is such a coin.
It is hard to explain why the 1877 Indian Head cent became so important. It cannot be said that it burst onto the numismatic scene in 1877 with its mintage of 852,500. It probably created some interest but the numismatic scene was a fairly small one at the time. The bulk of the interest in cents was in large cents like the 1793 types and the 1799.
Some certainly recognized the 1877 as a potentially better date as the mintage told the story. No small-size cent had a mintage much less than 4 million pieces prior to the 1877. The 1871 and 1872 both hovered around 4 million.
What collecting there was at the time was often done by purchasing proofs each year from the Mint for twice their face value. In fact, today the 1877 remains less expensive as a Prf-65 where it is $12,500 than as an MS-65 where it is $13,000.
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What we do know is that, unlike the other dates that were rarely pulled from circulation, the 1877 was spotted quickly as a date worth saving. One collector reported that he began searching for it back in 1881. Today’s supplies are slightly unusual as that small but steady saving from regular circulation makes the 1877 somewhat more available in assorted circulated grades than other cents of the period that tend to be either Mint State or very heavily worn.
Just when the 1877 disappeared from circulation completely is an interesting question. We have one report from 1915 of a collector who, after going through 28,000 cents, had been able to find only 35. The collector concluded that, “I believe, however, that it would take a very long day’s work to secure even one out of a batch of 10,000.”
Shortly after the 1877 had vanished from circulation, the fame probably started to rise. It became the most likely date to be used when someone wanted to depict a rare coin. The U.S. government even released a stamp in 1978 that featured the 1877 Indian Head cent.
It could be argued as to whether the fame has influenced the price of the 1877. It probably has, especially in upper grades where the 1877 at $13,000 in MS-65 is much higher than the 1872 or 1871. The three seem to be similar in grading service totals, but the 1877 is famous and much more costly.
In G-4 the 1877 is $985, which is probably just about right as it is slightly higher than the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent. The 1877, like the 1909-S VDB, are classic collector coins that always have more demand than supply. Both are coins that generation after generation of collectors has wanted to own. Hopefully that will never change.