Skip to main content

Key 1877 three cents had low, proof-only mintage

 While the 1877 copper-nickel three-cent piece had a proof-only mintage of just 900 coins, they were saved by collectors, and a high percentage survive today in Proof-65 condition or better.

While the 1877 copper-nickel three-cent piece had a proof-only mintage of just 900 coins, they were saved by collectors, and a high percentage survive today in Proof-65 condition or better.

There is little doubt that the 1877 Coronet Head three-cent piece is the key to the copper-nickel three-cent set. Interestingly enough, the date, which was issued only as a proof, is neither well known nor that expensive. This makes it an interesting coin to consider.

The copper-nickel three-cent piece had basically been on a downward slide in terms of mintage from the day the first one was produced back in 1865. A total of 11,382,000 coins were struck that year, and with good reason: the nation was desperate for any coins that could circulate without being hoarded.

The public had been forced to use stamps, tokens and Fractional Currency simply to make change, and the non-silver three-cent piece was meant to help solve this problem. It was a short-term answer, of course; even back in 1851, the prime purpose of the first silver three-cent coins was to help out in an emergency.

The problem with the three-cent piece was that it was not needed for the long term. Once regular denominations were in circulation, mintages of three-cent pieces fell. That happened in the 1850s, and it happened again with the copper-nickel version in the 1860s.

In fact, there was even more reason for the denomination to have trouble in the 1860s. In addition to cents and a nickel, which arrived on the scene in 1866, there was also a two-cent piece that had not been around in the 1850s. Simply put, there was no real demand from anywhere for a three-cent piece.

Demand for the copper-nickel three cent might have been expected to increase after 1873, when the silver version was eliminated, but that never really happened. Even after that year’s high mintage of 1,173,000 (perhaps in anticipation of demand that never came), later totals fell to even lower levels than prior to 1873.

The precise reason for the 1877 proof-only mintage is unclear. It is interesting that both the 1877 and 1878 copper-nickel three-cent pieces had proof-only mintages in the same years as did the Shield nickel. The Indian Head cent had a very low mintage in 1877 as well, but at least it was a business strike.

The usual assumption is that low mintages mean high prices. Mintage for the 1877 copper-nickel three cents certainly was low, at just 900 pieces, but the proof-only 1878 mintage was 2,350. That results in a very real price difference between the two coins: the 1877 is listed at $3,750 in Proof-65 condition, while the 1878 is just $1,200 in the same grade.

These prices are reasonable for dates issued only as proofs. Part of the reason is lack of demand, since few collectors search out copper-nickel three-cent pieces by date. The other part is supply: while few in number, these proofs tended to end up in the hands of collectors, where they received good care and had a better chance for survival to the present day.

The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has graded the 1877 copper-nickel three-cent piece 460 times. That’s more than half the entire mintage. Of that total, 281 were Proof-65 or better. At the Professional Coin Grading Service, the total graded is 616 coins, or more than two-thirds of the entire mintage, with 343 called Proof-65 or better.

Some of these hjigh numbers are due to coins being sent in to be graded more than once. But even factoring in the resubmissions, we have to conclude that the key 1877 copper-nickel three-cent piece is not as tough as its mintage of 900 might imply. Because it was a proof, it was saved, and today it is a coin you can own with relatively little trouble.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

• Keep up to date on prices for Canada, United States and Mexico coinage with the 2018 North American Coins & Prices guide.

• Order the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, General Issues to learn about circulating paper money from 14th century China to the mid 20th century.