This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The challenge of building a complete set of Lincoln cents, going back more than 100 years, may seem daunting to even the most dedicated collector. There are all those different dates and mintmarks, metals and proofs, not to mention varieties. And you don’t want to start something you know you cannot finish.
A big set such as Lincoln cents can be broken up into sets-within-a-set, giving a collector a real chance to build a meaningful collection, with nice coins and have the satisfaction of completing something.
Instead of worrying about obtaining one of each date and mintmark, why not concentrate on building a date set? One of each date of Lincoln cent, going back to 1909, makes an impressive and historical collection. A collector can lead off his set with a 1909 VDB, a coin that was saved in quantity and is readily available, even in Mint State. Many Philadelphia issues of the early years are obtainable in whatever condition desired, and Mint State pieces are usually not that expensive. The year 1931 can be represented by a single coin of that date, and that’s it; no expensive 1931-S to buy. The 1922-D coin is scarce, but only one is needed for a date set, with no worry about finding a more costly 1922 cent with no “D.”
Such a set of Lincoln cents can show how the portrait of our 16th President has changed over the years. The first Lincoln cents show great detail, even in Lincoln’s beard and bow tie. As the years went on, the portrait appeared less and less detailed, and the difference is obvious when you have a set in front of you. The coins of 1968 look rather mushy, with the 1969 cents much better, after the master die was re-engraved. More differences are apparent in later years. Look at a cent of 1909, one from the 1950s, a 1968, a 1969, and a few more recent issues. There are definite differences, even though it is the same basic portrait of Lincoln.
Old-fashioned collectors may want to save only the cents with the wheat-ear reverse. Completists may want one of each date, including the Lincoln Memorial cents. The Memorial reverse, used from 1959-2008, makes a set in itself. No major rarities are found in this set, so a collector may want a date and mintmark set, or just a year set. Don’t forget, the first Memorial cents are more than 50 years old now. Finding Mint State cents of these years is not hard, and a lovely set of bright red cents, in high grade, can be yours for a low cost.
Proof coins were made for many years in the Lincoln series, in both the Wheat-back and Memorial types. Brilliant proofs of the wheat cents were made from 1936-1942, and again from 1950-1958. It may take some searching to find spot-free proofs that are not impaired, but your reward is a beautiful set of Wheat-back Lincoln cents, specially struck, showing off the design in great detail.
The Philadelphia Mint struck proofs until 1964. Proof coin production was suspended until 1968, when proofs again were made, but at San Francisco. Fans of proof coins may want to build a collection of only the San Francisco proofs from 1968 to date.
Collectors who admire the best the Mint has to offer might even want to include the Special Mint Set cents of 1965-1967. While not proofs, these coins are nice in their own way, and represent the best products the Mint had to offer during the coin shortage and the advent of clad coins.
Want a real challenge? Try a set of matte proof Lincoln cents. Only nine coins come to a complete set, but finding these coins, especially problem-free cents, can take years of searching, and a good budget. The big coin in this limited set is the 1909 VDB, with only a few hundred issued. One, perhaps the best known specimen, recently sold for nearly half a million dollars.
Quite a few matte proofs were spent by collectors who disliked the surface and wanted brilliant proofs. It’s a good idea to have your matte proof Lincolns professionally graded and slabbed, so there is no question as to their proof status.
Collectors on a lower budget may want a type set of Lincoln cents. Perhaps you will want your type set in Mint State, to show the coin in all its beauty, and a well-made Lincoln cent is a beautiful coin. You may want a 1909 VDB, with the designer’s initials prominent on the reverse, one Wheat-back reverse coin, a wartime steel issue of 1943, a cent of 1944 or 1945 made of shell casing, a Memorial cent, a copper-plated zinc coin of 1982 or later, one of each of the four commemoratives of 2009, and a brand new Union Shield cent of 2010. You can add or subtract these types as you wish. That’s the fun of type collecting – building your own personal set whichever way you choose.
If you include metallic differences in your type set, there’s another set-within-a-set. One each of the different compositions can make an interesting set, and is not that difficult to build. Study of the metals and alloys used in coinage, and the reasons why they were used, can make a collector learn more about the mintage of coins, and help him appreciate his coins more.
A new way of collecting that is definitely off the beaten path is collecting varieties and errors. Many major and minor errors exist in the Lincoln series. You can find mis-struck coins, overdates, doubled dies, cuds, large and small dates, and off-center coins. It’s a whole new way of collecting, a way that you may not have considered, and it can keep you busy for a lifetime. New varieties are always being discovered and some dedicated numismatist will one day come up with the next spectacular variety.
A large set such as Lincoln cents lends itself to collecting smaller sets, in a number of different ways. A creative numismatist can come up with other ways to collect this interesting series. And who knows? After building a smaller set, you may become so infatuated with Lincoln cents that you will go for a complete collection after all.