By Mark Benvenuto
Key date coins for any series can be fascinating. They are the dates or mintmarks we collectors all ache for. And we often calculate, compare, and assess whether or not they are worth adding to a collection.
Having a single key coin can often increase the value of an entire collection far beyond what we might expect. Yet some keys appear to be a false promise, meaning a pretty hefty expense for what ultimately seems like a less-than-wonderful return.
For example, a 1916-D Mercury dime can make a great addition to a set of these 10-cent pieces. Yet is the Mint State-65 version worth the huge jump in price when compared to an MS-60 specimen? Questions like that can be tough to answer.
So what happens when we go to extremes and look at one or more series where it appears that the majority of the coins qualify as key dates and mintmarks? If that sounds like an odd question, let’s do some compare-and-contrast collecting, and examine three series of U.S. coins where it looks like there are more keys than common-date coins. Consider the following.
Nickel three-cent pieces
This coin had a massive launch in 1865. The 11.3 million mintage made the unveiling of this new bit of small change something to be noted—or maybe not. The coin was not a new denomination in 1865, as there had been tiny, silver three-cent pieces in production since 1851. But at the end of the bloody Civil War, the Mint released these new pieces into circulation, as well as a new five-cent piece, made of a nickel and copper alloy, as opposed to the established silver half dime. So maybe the nickel three-cent pieces had some serious competition right at their outset, and that dampened any enthusiasm for them.
Whatever the case, from 1866-1870 there were always minted in lower numbers from one year to the next, although the output was still in the millions.
“Still in the millions” might have been impressive as the 1870s got underway, but from 1871 all the way to 1880 it’s fair to say that the nickel three-cent pieces had gone into some sort of slow death spiral. In 1877 and 1878, there were no circulating pieces issued at all, with just 900 proofs in 1877, and only 2,350 the next year. But even in 1879, when some sort of production of circulating coins started again, there were only 38,000 of these three-cent pieces that saw the light of day. And once again, there were even less the next year.
Interestingly, the year 1881 qualifies as perhaps a last hurrah for these little coins. The official record indicates 1,077,000 of them produced, which was a huge jump away from the long-established trend. But while that sounds impressive to collectors today, the nation’s population had risen enough (it was over 50 million, according to the 1880 census) that they probably were not particularly common even in their own day.
After that bulge in an otherwise descending lineup, the years 1882-1889 never again saw any decent-sized mintage, with 1885 coming in as the rarest of the rare, with only 1,000 three-cent pieces.
Curiously, there were actually as many or more proofs produced in a few of the later years than there were regular issues. It might be worth considering whether or not one of these could be added to any collection.
Seated Liberty quarters
The Seated Liberty design is arguably one of the most recognized in all of U.S. coinage. It has graced more denominations than any other, and was issued for more than 50 years. For the quarters, it was the span from 1838-1891 that saw annual production.
The Seated Liberty series, quarters included, are generally divided into varieties, based on the placement of mottoes, rays, and some legends. Prior to the redesign of 1853, there were several years with what we might call healthy mintages, including the 1845, which almost got to 1 million quarters. But there were plenty of lean years as well.
The year 1853 saw a reduction in the silver weight for these 25-cent pieces and an explosion in output. The 15.2 million that came out of the Philadelphia Mint made these quarters affordable. There were other huge years as well, like 1854 and 1857, alternating with tiny mintages, from Philadelphia as well as the branch mints. New Orleans had been ponying up Seated Liberty quarters from the beginning, although often in only small amounts.
By 1855 there was an output from the West coast also. But again, plenty of these quarters that bear the S mintmark are considered scarce to rare. The CC mintmark, which first graced the quarter in 1870, is notoriously low for all of its years—as the Carson City operation appears to have concentrated on silver dollars for most of their years of production. And, yes, there is a unique 1866 piece that is starkly non-collectible.
A person can assemble a rather large collection of Seated Liberty quarters just sticking to the common dates. But as for a complete collection? Well, there are enough key dates within this series that most of us would probably be happy if we could put together 50 percent of all the years and branch-mint coins.
Has ever a series of U.S. coins lasted as long and yet been as under produced as the gold $3 pieces? While several series have some high initial production, one that tapers off as the years pass, the gold $3 pieces started with only 138,618 from the Philadelphia Mint. Yes, they started with a number that is roughly half that of the key Mercury dime, and they immediately went down from there. That first year saw an output that also had help from the New Orleans Mint (24,000 pieces) and what might be considered a tease from Dahlonega Mint (a mere 1,120 pieces).
Subsequent years saw nothing from Georgia, and a few years of what can politely be called an anemic output from San Francisco. This left the Philadelphia Mint to do the job. And while it did pound out gold $3 pieces up to 1889, there were never very many of them.
Anyone yearning to start a collection of gold $3 pieces will probably find the 1854 without too much trouble, and may find the 1874 and the 1878 with a bit of patience. Specimens that show a small amount of wear are not furiously expensive. But what can become an engaging pursuit is to see what other dates are available within the series that are not priced much higher than this trio. Several of these coins are mildly underpriced, simply because so few folks try to collect these almost forgotten gold pieces. Hunting for sleepers will take patience, but could be very rewarding.
These three series certainly appear to be sets of coins that didn’t ever really get out of the gate all that often. They are crowded with multiple years in which very few of their kind were produced, and often some years in which only proofs were made. If you are looking for a new direction into which to steer your collecting, these “mostly key” series might offer fun and challenges.
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.