What is your favorite date to find on a coin? A Lincoln cent collector might choose 1909; a Morgan dollar collector, 1895; and a Mercury dime collector, 1916.
Many years produced many interesting and collectible coins. A numismatist looking for something new to collect might pick a favorite year and collect every coin that was produced that year.
One of the best years for United States coins was 1796. A famous rarity, the 1796 half cent, was made this year, to the tune of 1,390 pieces. This coin comes in two distinct varieties, with and without the pole to the Liberty Cap.
The large cent came in two design types, the Liberty Cap and the Draped Bust. Also, the large cent of 1796 has many different varieties, as do most years of large cents. Some 1796 cents have the word “Liberty” appearing as “Liherty.” There are also differences in the reverse design, and a rare “stemless” variety, where the wreath on the reverse shows no stems.
If these rarities don’t put you off a 1796 year set, try the first year dime and quarter. Both coins were made with the small eagle reverse design, noted by type collectors as the scarcest design type. The quarter was a one-year type and has always been in high demand by type collectors, quarter collectors and anyone who likes early federal coinage.
The 1796 dime, while less rare, is hard to find in top grades, and even in lesser grades, finding a choice one may take some looking.
Yes, it gets better. The 1796 half dollar, with the small eagle reverse, is a major rarity. This coin is not a one-year type coin, but only 3,918 half dollars dated 1796 and 1797 were struck. The 1796 half dollar comes in two varieties: with 15 or 16 stars on the obverse. A well-worn 1796 half dollar of either variety can cost upwards of $25,000.
Do you plan to include gold coins in your 1796 year set? The quarter eagle comes in two varieties: with and without stars on the obverse. The no stars coin is a rarity, although the coin with stars is not exactly common and can sell for six figures. The gold half eagle and eagle of 1796 are also scarce. Only 6,196 of the half eagle and 4,146 of the eagle were minted.
How many gold coins of the early years have survived, particularly in better grades?
Collecting a year set from 1796 can be a challenge worthy of only the most dedicated and well-heeled numismatists, but at least one collector did it. His set of 1796 coins was proudly displayed at a major convention some years ago, and attracted a lot of attention. All coins were in top grades, and the set had its own catalog, a collectors’ item in itself.
If you’re not up to a 1796 year set, how about 1873? The late Harry X Boosel specialized in the coins of 1873, and became somewhat famous for that. He published research articles and a short volume on the United States coinage of 1873.
The year 1873 is a collector’s dream, or nightmare depending on the size of your wallet. Fifty-four basic varieties of coins were minted in 17 denominations at three mints. Many of the varieties concern the numeral “3” in the date, and the placement of arrows at the date on some silver coins.
The closed and open “3” dates appear on Indian cents of that year, along with a rare variety with a doubled “Liberty” on the Indian’s headband. The two-cent piece also has the closed and open “3” variety, in its last year of mintage. The year 1873 was also the last for the silver three-cent piece, which was struck only in proof. Its companion nickel three-cent piece has closed and open “3” varieties. The Shield nickel, besides the closed and open coins, has a rare variety showing a large “3” over a small “3.”
The challenge becomes greater when the silver denominations are considered. The 1873-CC dime is unique – only one known. The 1873 quarter also has the closed and open “3” varieties, and also features coins with arrows at the date, to denote a slight increase in weight. The Carson City coin without arrows at the date is a major rarity, with only five known to exist. The 1873 half dollar with open “3” is another rarity, worth five figures or more in better grades. And the 1873-S half dollar without arrows is unknown, out of a mintage of 5,000.
Seated silver dollars of 1873, minted at Carson City, are rare coins in any grade, and are in high demand from dollar collectors, Carson City Mint fans and those who appreciate truly rare coins. The 1873-S Seated silver dollar, like the half dollar without arrows, is unknown; 700 were minted, but all were probably melted. ( The 1873-S dollar is the subject of “Wild World,” a contemporary novel written by this author.)
Don’t forget the Trade dollar. The year 1873 was its first year of issue, from three different mints, without any major rarities or varieties.
Even the double eagles of 1873 come in open and closed “3” varieties, along with the half eagles and quarter eagles, and the tiny gold dollar. The eagle, or $10 dollar gold piece, does not have the closed and open “3,” but is a rare date in all three mints.
If the coins of 1873 are not enough of a challenge, how about the coinage of 1921? This year is famous for a number of scarce coins, silver and gold.
While the Morgan silver dollar of 1921 is the most common date in the series, the 1921 Peace dollar is not that common. The three 1921 half dollars from Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco, are the three scarcest coins in the Walking Liberty half dollar collection. The 1921 quarter is also a better date.
The two Mercury dimes of 1921, minted at Philadelphia and Denver, are two of the key coins to the set, besides the famous 1916-D. The 1921-S Buffalo nickel is also a better date, especially in higher grades; grading is tricky and all-important in the Buffalo nickel series.
The 1921 collector will find only one gold coin, but what a treasure it is: the double eagle. So many were melted when the United States went off the gold standard, the coin is a rarity, despite its original mintage of 528,500. Choice Mint State specimens can sell for more than a million dollars. Lesser grade coins can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
What other years were special in numismatics? Perhaps coins of 1909, the first year of the Lincoln cent and the last for the Indian cent, appeal to you. A turn of the century year, such as 1800 or 1900, can be special. Maybe 1892, with the new Barber silver coins, or 1893, the last year of the Carson City Mint, with its scarce coins.
Pick a year and collect coins of that date. Many hobbyists like the idea of collecting the coins issued in the year of their birth. This might be because coin albums from Whitman suggested it, or it might be that Whitman grabbed the idea after it realized the attachment collectors can form to the coins from the year they were born.
An added benefit is that by collecting birth year coins, you often are off the beaten path. There aren’t as many collectors bidding up the prices. Of course, some years have coins that are more expensive than others, but most will be far easier on the collector budget than picking the big years like 1796, 1873 and 1921.
Birth years being more recent are also likely to have far higher mintages, which also will help keep costs down for many current collectors.
Don’t forget to look for varieties in the year you have chosen; perhaps you will find a previously unknown overdate, differences in the numbers or stars, or another characteristic. Specializing in one year from the distant past can lead you to new discoveries that were ignored by other collectors, making your special collecting year that much more special.
And don’t forget to have fun with it. While it is important to keep your budget in mind, it should not be your only consideration in determining your choice of year.
You have to pick a year that can fire up your imagination. The year has to have that intangible appeal to you that only you can understand. Because at the end of the day, the choice has to make you happy and no one else.
Can you meet this challenge? I hope so.