This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
>> Subscribe today!
By definition the great rarities of the United States are important. Whether it is a 1913 Liberty Head nickel or an 1804 Bust dollar, or any number of others, we have to admit that when coins sell for millions of dollars they have to be taken very seriously. Most of us, however, do not have the budget to acquire such important issues, but realistically there are many other important coins, which for various reasons can be acquired for very little money and that can make for a fascinating collection and a lot of fun.
Working on the assumption that you only have $100 spend per coin the question is what significant coins can be found for that amount of money. Your assumption might be not many, but in fact there are a lot of very interesting buys on some historically significant issues for $100 or less.
Early coppers is a logical place to start. While you will not find much in terms of better dates for $100, you can acquire an F-12 1857 half cent for $87, or a G-4 1857 large cent with a small date for $85. The grades may not be the best for either one, but these two are the last date of each type as it was 1857 that saw the end of the half cent and the introduction of the Flying Eagle cent to replace the large cent.
In fact, not only are you getting the last half cent and last large cent ever struck by the U.S. Mint, you are actually getting a couple pretty good coins for your money as the mintage of the 1857 half cent was just 35,180 while the 1857 large cent was also a low mintage date at 333,456. When you compare those mintages to some of the rarities of the 20th century you can see that these are not only the historic last large coppers but coins that are great values.
Another 1857 cent would also have to be called a good value on an important coin as the 1857 Flying Eagle cent represented the end of an era. The 1857 Flying Eagle cent was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the public who were delighted to turn in their old Spanish silver issues and copper large cents and half cents. The 1857 in some respects could be called the first modern cent and that is significant. The 1857 did have a large mintage for the time of 17,450,000 pieces, although that total would not look very large today. You can acquire the 1857 in any grade, although for less than $100 your highest option is a $47 VF-20. That is actually a fairly good grade as a coin in that grade was probably circulated heavily only to end up in a Civil War hoard with relatively little use in commerce after that. It is a nice coin at a reasonable price especially with its important place in history.
If there is one cent whose importance is overlooked it would probably be the 1908-S. The reason is the fact that the 1908-S is the first cent made outside of Philadelphia. That was no small matter at the time as it actually had been against the law for years. Not allowing cents or any other denominations containing no gold or silver to be produced outside Philadelphia seems to have been the idea of the Western mining interests who felt that any coin other than a gold or silver coin was somehow threatening their businesses. Finally in the early 1900s that thinking changed, probably with the help of the production of hundreds of millions of Morgan dollars. The government had done what it could for the mining interests and the West needed coins to make change.
The law was changed and in 1908 San Francisco would produce the first cent outside Philadelphia with a mintage of 1,115,000 of the Indian Head design. It was not a large mintage, but the 1908-S appears to have been heavily saved. For $82 today you can acquire a VG-8 and that is certainly a good deal on an historic coin that really opened the door to cent production outside Philadelphia. When you think about it, that happened just in time as if they had delayed the changes only a couple years there never would have been a 1909-S VDB.
Sadly you cannot acquire a 1909-S VDB for $100, but for just $25 in MS-60 or $29.50 in MS-63, you can acquire a 1909 VDB Lincoln cent and in terms of importance that may actually be better. We know the 1909 VDB was the first Lincoln cent and that alone makes it extremely important.
Prior to 1909, historic Americans barely ever appeared on coins and even then it was only on commemoratives. Apparently the historic objections of George Washington and the House of Representatives about using the President on coins had been expanded to include any American living or dead. Finally, with the centennial of Lincoln's birth approaching Theodore Roosevelt decided to do something about the matter and ordered a Lincoln cent.
Today with Presidents on almost every denomination, the idea of using Lincoln on the cent probably does not seem important, but it was and some did not like it at the times. The New York Times was unhappy and there were probably others in the South who remembered Lincoln and who didn’t particularly like him who were also upset. It did not matter. Lincoln was there to stay and he has remained ever since. We might wish it had been different, but the Lincoln cent paved the way for other denominations to feature other historical figures and that has truly changed the face of American coins.
The Lincoln cent not unlike the large cent has proven to be an economic problem as the face value is low enough that the cost of production can easily move beyond the face value and that has resulted in a series of composition changes over the years.
Two composition changes are especially noteworthy for different reasons. In an effort to conserve copper in 1943 the Lincoln cent appeared with a different color and zinc-coated steel composition.
Produced at all the three mints, the 1943 cents would only last for one year, but in the process saving a large amount of copper for the war effort. With their different color, composition and clear tie to the war effort in World War II, the 1943 cents are a popular group today as part of a collection or as presents. For roughly $54 in MS-65 for a set of the three, they are very important coins that are not very expensive.
Starting with some of the 1982 cents, the composition of the Lincoln cent was changed to copper-plated zinc. The 1982 production would see both the new and old compositions used and both groups would have coins with large and small dates. It made for great fun at the time of issue as there were old composition Philadelphia cents with large and small dates as well as an old composition from Denver with a larger date while the new composition coins of both Philadelphia and Denver had large and small dates. There has never been a year quite like it for cents with seven possible business strikes plus the 1982-S-proof only San Francisco date. The importance of the first copper-plated zinc coins should not be dismissed too easily as that composition has now lasted almost 30 years. That makes the first 1982 cents important as the beginning of a significant subgroup of the Lincoln cent, but also as a set themselves. An entire mini-set of the 1982 cents is available for under $10 in top grade.
The most historic nickel is almost certainly the first, the 1866 Shield nickel. The 1866 with a mintage of 14,742,500 is available today at a price of $75 in VF-20 and it is a coin worth owning. The Shield nickel was simply an emergency issue at a time when there were no silver and gold coins in circulation as specie payments were suspended and any gold or silver coins that were seen were hoarded. The Shield nickel was part of the many ideas that emerged from the emergency and what few realize is that the basic composition of the nickel has not changed since 1866. That makes the 1866 Shield nickel an important first as no other denomination has lasted since 1866 without a composition change so this was one experiment that turned out to be far more successful than anyone would have expected.
In fact there was a composition change for the nickel since 1866, but it was temporary as starting with some of the 1942 production and ending after the 1945 issues, the nickel actually contained no nickel, but was rather 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese. In addition to the different composition, the special war year Jefferson nickels which were intended to conserve copper and nickel endeared themselves to collectors by having large mintmarks over Monticello instead of small ones in their usual place to the right of Monticello and even coins produced at Philadelphia had a large “P” added.
The special war year Jefferson nickels are readily available with every nonerror date in MS-60 well under $10 each and the most expensive MS-65 is $30. At those prices it is hard to avoid not attempting a complete set of 11 coins, but whatever you decide, like the 1943 cents, the war year Jefferson nickels played an important role in conserving the metals needed to win World War II.
Historically important Roosevelt dimes as well as Washington quarters featured no mintmarks as in 1965 for the first time both the dime and quarter contained no silver. In an effort to discourage collectors they also had no mintmarks. Naturally the collectors of the day did not like them and in all probability they were not saved in any numbers. Both the 1965 dime and the 1965 quarter are available for $1.00 in the case of the dime and $12 in the case of the quarter in MS-65. In fact the 1965 quarter’s price is telling us something as it is higher than average, a clear suggestion that it was not liked by collectors at the time of issue might well be in short supply.
It is probably not wise to encourage the Mint to produce special issues to encourage sales, but one from 1996 has to be considered important. It was a special creation to mark the 50th anniversary of the Roosevelt dime and rather than change the design as had been done with the same anniversary of the Lincoln cent it was decided to make a dime at West Point, which had never produced a dime before. In fact, part of what makes it interesting and historic is that West Point has not generally produced any circulating coins. There had been some reported production of circulating issues there in the past, but they were never marked with a “W.”
The coins having the West Point mintmark have been commemoratives and other special issues. The 1996-W dime qualifies as a special issue, but it still marks the anniversary of the design and ranks as the first time a West Point mintmark is seen on a dime.
For a price of $25 in MS-65, with a mintage of 1,457,949, the 1996-W dime seems like a good deal on a potentially historic issue.
The 1999 Delaware quarter is another coin whose real future importance may not be fully understood. Certainly as the first quarter in the 50-state quarter program the Delaware quarter has at least one place in history. What may be more subtle is the potentially greater impact on how coins are approached by officials and the Congress.
Prior to the success of the 50-state quarters there was something close to fear on the part of some when it came to changing designs. It was not unlike the caution over a return of the commemorative program. Now all that has changed with a seemingly endless stream of new designs.
Whether the idea of using circulating coin designs as part of a program of design change is good or not remains to be seen. Certainly the 50-state quarter program has been good for everyone but you can have too much of a good thing. While we cannot predict the future, what can be said is that when the history of future designs is written, everyone will turn back to the 1999 Delaware quarter as the coin that really opened the door to new circulating coin designs and that coupled with its place as the first and one of the tougher 50-state quarters will make the 1999 Delaware quarter even more important than it is today. At $8 in MS-65 and $20 for an MS-65 1999-D, the Delaware quarter is well within budget. You might even prefer an uncirculated roll of each at roughly $20 each. Of course many if not all of the coins in the roll will be less than MS-65.
The 1964 Kennedy half dollar was perhaps the most avidly sought coin in Amerian history. The simple fact that the Kennedy half dollar was issued just months after his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination meant that it was going to be a very important coin. It was. Supplies dried up quickly and demand was heavy all over the world. During those early months there were reports they were selling for 10 times their face value in Europe.
As it turned out, the 1964 Kennedy half dollar would be important for another reason as well as it along with the 1964 dime and quarter it would be the last of the 90 percent silver coins. That was no small matter as since the first silver coins back in 1794 Americans had expected those denominations to be silver, but in 1965 that would change. This makes the 1964 Kennedy half dollar special for a variety of reasons as the first Kennedy half dollar, the last silver half dollar and a one-year type coin as in 1965 the Kennedy half dollar would become 40 percent silver. With a Philadelphia version selling for $20 in MS-65 today and the 1964-D going for $24, their cost is money well spent.
In the minds of many the most popular coin today is the silver dollar and for $74 in AU-50 you can acquire the first of the most important of all silver dollars the 1878 8-tail-feathers Morgan. In fact, the 1878 with 8 tail feathers is an interesting coin as not only was it the first Morgan silver dollar, it was also a coin that was quickly changed as the 8 tail feathers were changed to 7, leaving us without a certain mintage for the 1878 with 8 tail feathers. The best guess is that approximately 750,000 were made, which is not a large total. As the first Morgan dollar the place of the 1878 8 tail feathers in history is secure and that place seems more important as the popularity of silver dollars increases.
There is probably a good case to be made that we should not celebrate the fact that the American silver dollar is now no longer silver, but it is that way with every country on earth as the days of silver coins in circulation are past. That became official in terms of dollar coins in 1971 when the United States issued its first ever dollar coin containing no silver, the 1971 Eisenhower dollar. Today you can buy a nice MS-63 1971 Eisenhower dollar for $10 and over time that purchase will look better and better as the 1971 looms larger in history as the first of the new age of U.S. $1 coins.
In fairness, you could makes cases that the 1979 Anthony dollar as the first smaller size dollar is historical, or that the 2000 Sacagawea is also important, and in both cases you would be correct. In fact any new coin is important, but the releasing of a non-silver U.S. dollar coin was probably more revolutionary than anything else that will follow. It could be said the Eisenhower dollar as well as the dollars that have followed have not been successful, but officials seem determined to keep trying until they get it right. That may not happen any time as the problems in convincing the public to use dollar coins are more involved than simply changing designs, size or color. However, as long as officials keep trying, the 1971 Eisenhower dollar will loom larger and larger as the first in the line of dollars that were attempted as a replacement for the silver dollars of the past.
A couple non-circulating coins that might be included in a set of inexpensive but historically important coins would be the 1892 Columbian Exposition half dollar, which is currently $85 in MS-63. Thanks to a large mintage, the Columbian Exposition half dollar is available and as the first official commemorative of the United States it has to be seen as extremely historic as it opened the door for so many other interesting issues that would follow.
In the same spirit, the 1982 George Washington half dollar should also be added as it was a coin that had to be a success if any modern commemoratives were to be produced. It seems hard to believe today, but many were not the least bit thrilled about having new commemoratives, pointing to the abuses and problems of the past offerings that had ended in 1954. It took political horse trading to even get the George Washington half dollar of 1982 approved. Had something gone wrong, it is likely that the commemorative program would have been stopped and not even mentioned for decades. As it turned out, that did not happen, as the 1982 George Washington half dollar was a success and for $15 for either the proof or the uncirculated, you can add it to a group of historic issues.
There are certainly many other historic issues that are available for modest prices. The choices are many and they remind us that important coins do not have to be expensive as the scarcity of a coin does not determine its importance in history.