There are many interesting Indian Head cents. One special group is the copper-nickel Indian Heads that lasted from 1859-64. Not only were these coins a different color and thicker than the Indian Head cents to follow, but they were also the cents of the Civil War.
Of this group the 1861, with a mintage of 10,100,000, has generally been seen as the key date. In terms of the copper-nickel group, the 1861 is not the most expensive in all grades, but it is the toughest date.
Because of the Civil War, the situation back in 1861 was grim. In the U.S. at the time there was probably some doubt as to whether there would even be an 1862. The public began to hoard silver and gold out of fear of what might happen next. In an unusual form of hoarding, people saved copper-nickel cents such as the 1861. These coins were about 10 percent below their face value in metal, so the melt value was low. This hoarding caused the change to bronze for the cent beginning in 1864.
It might have taken a couple years, but dates like the 1861 would have come out of hiding for the most part and resumed normal circulation. Of course, something had to happen to make the 1861 stand out.
Historically copper-nickel cents like the 1861 have been treated as a separate type because, except for the 1859, they have the same design but a different composition. The 1861 has always commanded a premium price in circulated grades. It lists for $20 in G-4.
Things get interesting in Mint State. The 1861 lists for $200 in MS-60, which is the same as the 1860. In MS-65 the 1861 is $1,200, the same as the 1860 and 1863. For unknown reasons, the 1861 tends to have the best strike of any of the dates. In Prf-65 the 1861 lists far above the others at $7,250.
The 1860 is next at $3,800. The proof situation is also hard to explain.
The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation reports 139 examples of the 1861 in MS-65 or better and more than 300 in lower Mint State grades. The Prf-65 total is at 15, along with three in Prf-66 and more than 40 in lower proof grades.
At Professional Coin Grading Service the total for the 1861 in MS-65 and above is at 183. Roughly 475 have received lower Mint State grades. There are about 26 Prf-65 and better examples, with over 80 examples in lower proof grades.
Compared to the other dates, these totals seem to suggest that the 1861 is more costly than might be expected based on its numbers. However, while numerous in proof grades, the date does not have high numbers in Prf-65 and beyond.
It is hard to determine how much of the current price levels are based on demand because of the 1861?s reputation. It is also possible that people may simply want a nice example of the low-mintage copper-nickel cent as a reminder of an important time in the nation?s history.