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Look beyond mintage numbers

I had an e-mail yesterday from a collector who was puzzled about prices for two sets of nickels.

The first one is the classic 1883 Liberty Head nickels featuring the “With Cents” and “No Cents” reverse designs.

He wondered why the prices of the “With Cents” version of the design were higher across the board for the business strikes even though the mintage of 16,026,200 is much higher than the 5,474,300 mintage of the “No Cents” design.

Certainly, mintage is an important marker for determining rarity, but then every collector has to explore a little further and ask questions.

Finding whether a mintage was melted is often a key question, but in the case of nickels, it does not apply.

More importantly was how the public behaved when the coin was released. The Mint’s design switch was a very public event and the public behaved accordingly.

If the Mint did not like the first design, it must be worth saving, the public reasoned. They saved it in large numbers. Collectors liked the coin, too, and generations of them sought it out and preserved examples of it in large numbers. They even invented a myth about Josh Tatum to keep interest in it high. The “With Cents” design was basically ignored by the public and collectors did not save them in any large numbers.

The result today is the “No Cents” design is more common and prices are lower.

The other question is one that my generation of circulation finds collectors can relate to. He asked why the 1951-D Jefferson with a mintage of 20,460,000 is worth more than the 1951-S with a mintage of 7,776,000.

My generation was simply enthralled by the magic “S” mintmark no matter what it was on. Mintages tended to be lower from San Francisco and some “S” mint rarities added to the appeal of the coins with that mintmark.

The closure of that facility in 1955 augmented the reputation of S-mint coins further. They weren’t making them anymore, we told ourselves, so we wanted “S” coins all the more.

So we saved the 1951-S by the roll or by the bag. After all, they had the magic “S” on them.

The 1951-D seemed common, especially compared to the low-mintage 1950-D. We didn’t save as many.

The result is the 1951-S is much more common than the “D.” The two are priced accordingly.