Many of us dream about finding treasure or at least finding a great coin. In the 1950s almost every young collector had dreams of finding a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent or 1916-D Mercury dime in circulation. Back then it was still possible although certainly unlikely.
Today it is pretty hard to dream of finding such coins in circulation although it certainly would be fun if a couple 1909-S VDB Lincoln cents were simply just placed into circulation as a promotion as Krause Publications did years ago.
However, if you are going to find a rare and valuable coin, it is likely to be found in an old trunk sitting in an attic or some similar place unless you happen to be among the few with the resources and skill to be in the business of salvaging sunken ships. Most of us, however, have to be content with having a rare coin pop out of an unexpected place.
Certainly, it does not happen often. At the 2005 American Numismatic Association convention the American Numismatic Rarities table was surprised and delighted when someone walked in with an 1854-S quarter eagle. The coin was heavily worn but even so as one of perhaps fewer than a dozen known it was a big surprise and a very exciting one.
Naturally there are not many stories of significant rarities popping up in unexpected places, although in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards Q. David Bowers has a few.
Consider the notion of finding an 1841 quarter eagle. The so-called “Little Princess” was a proof-only date with a mintage put at perhaps a couple of dozen if that. With maybe 10 pieces known today the coin in question was according to Bowers found by a lady in her family heirlooms.
Then there was a man too poor to even have a phone who sent a gold double eagle to Sotheby Parke Bernet in the late 1970s. That was not, however, an ordinary double eagle but rather an 1870-CC, which currently lists for $125,000 in VF-20 thanks to a mintage of just 3,789 and the fact that it was the first double eagle to emerge from the then new Carson City facility.
Another classic in the Bowers stories was a lady in the mid-1970s who appeared with a leather pouch of old copper coins. Most were nothing special. There was, however, an exceptionally nice 1793 Chain reverse cent. Moreover, it was a 1793 Chain reverse cent with “AMERI,” which are thought to have been among the first 5,000 to 10,000 produced. While most collectors are content with any 1793 Chain reverse cent, specialists want the “AMERI” variety as they were truly the first coins of the United States. As interesting is the fact the coin graded XF-45 and some considered that a very conservative grade. Ultimately it sold for $13,000 but this was back in the mid-1970s.
The best find of the past half century still has to be the RARCOA announcement of the discovery of an 1870-S half dime. The fact that no 1870-S half dime was previously known to exist puts that 1870-S half dime in a very select group of unique coins of the United States where it is joined by the 1870-S $3 gold piece and a no arrows 1873-CC dime.
While the details of the discovery are still sketchy the fact remains that a century after being produced this great rarity came to light and like the others it gives hope to us all. After all, we now know of an 1870-S half dime and $3 gold, but there potentially could also be an 1870-S quarter as the quarter was the other denomination made for inclusion in the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint that was dedicated that year. If we have an 1870-S half dime and $3 gold it seems likely there was also an 1870-S quarter, but so far it has never surfaced.
In the case of the 1870-S half dime, quarter, $3 gold and even the 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar of which perhaps a dozen were made to be given out as souvenirs of the laying of the cornerstone to honored guests we are dealing with coins that were special products for a special event in San Francisco.
That is not unlike the 1894-S Barber dime that was apparently created from a small amount of remaining silver to balance the books at San Francisco. We do not as a rule expect such coins to be found in old books, trunks or any other places where old family items may have been stored for years and never seen as they were special products that ended up in the hands of people with connections. Much the same is true of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, 1885 Trade dollar and others as they too never reached regular circulation for any of us regular people to find them.
There are, however, a wide range of other significant rarities such as those discussed in the Bowers book where it was natural for the coins to reach circulation and to possibly be saved by someone potentially in your family. While the odds are certainly against that happening, the fact remains it is possible and that possibility is increased by the simple fact that there have been a lot of excellent coins placed in circulation over the years.
The lady who discovered a Chain reverse “AMERI” 1793 cent discovered what is traditionally seen as the best of the 1793 cents, but in fact there was an even better variety known as the “Strawberry Leaf” variety. This variety appeared on some 1793 Wreath reverse cents that were produced after the 1793 Chain reverse. The “AMERI” variety has the distinction of being the first coin produced in the United States Mint with the shortened “AMERI” being used because they probably felt that a full “AMERICA” would not fit.
The Wreath reverse “Strawberry Leaf” variety is not as historically significant but it has the distinction of being excessively rare. Instead of using the normal sprig above the date on the “Strawberry Leaf” variety what you have is a spray of trefoil leaves and a small blossom. It is not clear why the variety was created, but it is clear the variety is extremely rare.
In fact, there are only a few examples known. They are in circulated grades, so the “Strawberry Leaf” variety was definitely in regular use back in the 1790s. In reality, the collectors of the day were not looking for such varieties so they were not pulled from circulation and saved.
In fact, any old group of large cents has as much chance of having an example as any other. Certainly the chances of finding an example are very small but the fact remains this was a coin that simply circulated so where examples ended up had nothing to do with numismatic interest. Your family members back in the 1790s had the same chance and even the same likelihood of saving an example as the collectors of the day.
There was a number of good early dates placed into circulation and some are not especially well known. Certainly a coin like the 1799 large cent is well known to collectors and certainly its numbers available do not appear to be in line with its mintage. If you could find a Mint State 1799 or even 1804 it would qualify as a terrific discovery, but the odds of finding a Mint State example are certainly slim.
Finding any 1802 half dime, however, would be a remarkable discovery as the 1802 looks to be far, far better than even its current price of $28,500 in G-4 or $135,000 in VF-20.
The set of circumstances back in 1802 has to be considered. There were very few collectors. Someone did save coins at least when the first coins appeared in the 1790s, but it appears that the amount of saving other than cents dropped off quickly as the collectors of the time were primarily interested in lower denominations. This stands to reason as just a few dollars could be a week’s wages. Moreover, there were no holders or albums and information was almost as scarce as some coins. It was in that atmosphere that the 1802 half dime was released. The mintage, however, was just over 3,000 pieces so the supply was extremely small from the start. Then you factor in no saving by collectors of the day.
The grading services have made a valuable contribution when it comes to such early dates as we can finally get a feel for just how many examples of a given date may actually exist. In the case of the 1802 what we have learned is that it basically does not exist. Combined PCGS and NGC have seen a total of just 12 examples and some of those can easily be repeats. There are probably a few more in private collections that have not been graded, but the 1802 is a coin that you would generally have graded as the price differences from one grade to another are large.
Assuming its total known is perhaps between a dozen and 20, the 1802 suddenly becomes a significant rarity possibly worth significantly more than today’s price listing. Moreover, it was a regular date, it was out in circulation and possibly for a long time. It has to be seen as a real possibility that someone saving a half dime at the time could have set aside an 1802, and if they did, that 1802 might still exist.
If you had to pick the most valuable coin that we know was circulating and which potentially could have been hidden in a family trunk or some other place that coin would have to be the 1822 half eagle. The story of the 1822 $5 gold piece has a lot of unanswered questions. Official records put its mintage at something over 17,000. For starters, we do not really believe the mintage as it was common at the time for the Mint to report a total for one year but in that total would be different dates. There might have been a mintage of over 17,000 half eagles back in 1822, but the odds are pretty good that they were not all dated 1822.
Whatever the total mintage, the next question becomes what happened to the 1822? All half eagles of the period are extremely tough and others like the 1815 with a mintage of just 635 and a price in five digits qualify as significant rarities as well.
Low mintages were only part of the story. At the time, a $5 gold piece was the largest denomination coin being produced by the United States. Few people, if any, had the money to be saving half eagles. There was another factor as well as because of slightly different standards American gold coins of the period could be exported for a slight profit. There were brokers who were happy to buy gold coins and then export them and that practice was widespread. It explains why not only the 1822 but any date of the period is so tough today as they were not in circulation, they were being sold to brokers.
While the losses because of melting were certainly a high percentage of the mintage, the fact remains in the case of the 1822 we have only three known examples today and that suggests more export than anyone can really believe unless the mintage was extremely small. After all, remember the 1815 had a mintage of 635 and it is more available than the 1822 although only by a few coins.
What would result in today’s supply of just three known examples of the 1822 is a question we really cannot answer. It was probably a combination of a lower than listed mintage, a lack of saving and heavy sales to brokers but the fact remains we know the 1822 was in circulation.
The only example outside the Smithsonian is a VF-30 and one of the examples in the Smithsonian was allegedly found in a bullion dealer’s shop in the late 1800s and purchased for $6.10, just $1.50 over its face value. It was an awfully good buy as any 1822 half eagle is easily worth in excess of $1 million today and in all probability in decent condition you would be looking at an auction price in the millions. Certainly there could be another example somewhere and although the odds are high against it the reward in dollars would be high as well if one could be found.
Of similar rarity but not the same value is the 1853-O half dollar with no arrows and rays. The story here is that the rising price of silver caused by the discovery of gold in California upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio and this meant that in early 1853 the Congress took action to slightly reduce the amount of silver in silver coins. Before that action was taken there was a small mintage of half dollars in New Orleans. Those coins would be different than the newly approved coins as they would have more silver, but would not have arrows at the date and rays on the reverse, which were added to the half dollars with the new, lower weight.
As New Orleans did on a couple other occasions there was no reported mintage of 1853-O no arrows and rays half dollars. Whatever the total, we assume it was simply included in the 1,328,000 total of 1853-O half dollars which were almost totally the rays and arrows type with the slightly lower silver composition.
For years no one even knew that there was an 1853-O without arrows and rays as having not appeared in official reports no one was looking for an example. In 1889, however, an example was auctioned and then the half dollar expert of the day, Augustus Heaton, reported a second example. A third would later appear in the 1920s. That makes three, but certainly New Orleans did not make just three back in 1853. The mintage was almost certainly small, but New Orleans was notorious for having very few collectors at the time.
Whatever the total mintage, it simply was released into circulation and from there could have met any number of fates, including being shipped out of the country. All we do know is that the 1853-O without arrows and rays circulated and could have been saved by anyone.
Whether there are any still waiting to be discovered is unknown but the price guide says if one is found in VG-8, it is worth $250,000. One in that condition sold for $154,000 in 1997. Clearly that coin had circulated for years. Might others be out there waiting to be found?
A similar weight-change situation took place in 1873 only that time the arrows were being added to the date to show a slight increase in the amount of silver. Prior to the change there had been mintages in Carson City and San Francisco of some denominations without the arrows as well as Seated Liberty silver dollars that were replaced by Trade dollars in the new legislation.
In some cases, entire mintages were melted leaving us with only a single 1873-CC no arrows dime, a very rare 1873-CC no arrows quarter, no known examples of a reported 5,000 mintage 1873-S no arrows half dollar and no known examples of a 700 mintage 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar. While any of these coins could in theory appear, the likelihood is that they never reached circulation.
The same cannot be said of the 1854-S gold quarter and half eagle especially with the recent appearance of a previously unknown 1854-S quarter eagle. In fact, the 246 mintage 1854-S quarter eagle has higher numbers known than the 268 mintage 1854-S half eagle.
Both are historic, coming from the first year of coin production at the new San Francisco Mint. Both, however, were not saved by anyone at the time as there are thought to be no known Mint State examples of either. The reason for the 1854-S half eagle being tougher despite a slightly higher mintage is probably the higher face value, which meant something at the time.
To date, we know of probably less than a dozen examples of the 1854-S quarter eagle, but only three examples of the 1854-S half eagle. The last 1854-S half eagle offered for sale was an AU-55 that realized $170,000 back in 1982. That coin is probably a $1 million or more coin today and any 1854-S half eagle would be an amazing discovery.
Certainly there are many other good and sometimes even great coins that could be found buried away. The odds are certainly against finding a great rarity, but the fact remains that enough significant coins continue to be found to keep hope alive and headlines written.
Tomorrow might be someone’s lucky day looking through great-granddad’s trunk.