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Was passed-up set a real rarity?

 A 1907 Indian cent, along with a 1906 nickel, were the first coins purchased by the author more than 50 years ago.

A 1907 Indian cent, along with a 1906 nickel, were the first coins purchased by the author more than 50 years ago.

My first coin purchase took place over 50 years ago at a neighborhood coin shop. The 1907 Indian cent and 1906 Liberty nickel cost all of 25 cents apiece. They were carefully picked from the dealer’s “junk box,” which held well-worn Indian cents and Liberty nickels. Both were in Good condition.

While in the shop, I picked up a guide book issued by the shop. It gave an overview of the many United States coins minted since 1793, with values included. I’d become interested in coins a few months before, when I received a 1921 Morgan and 1922 Peace dollar for Christmas.

The two dollars of different types, dated only one year apart, began my interest, but once I perused that guide book, I was hooked. So many different coins I never knew existed. And the prices. A few hundred dollars for an Indian cent of 1877, a bit older than the one I bought. And thousands of dollars for a 1793 cent with a chain on it. Not the prettiest coin, but it had a pretty price.

I had started to check every coin that came my way. S-mint coins were not seen often in Chicago, so when one turned up, it was special. The last S-mintmarked coins were struck in 1955. Silver coins still popped up here and there, even Mercury dimes and a few Standing Liberty quarters with their dates worn off.

Most of the Mercury dimes were dated 1941-1945, and practically every Roosevelt dime could be found, but that 1955-S eluded me. I finally did see one, at a five-and-ten cent store. These stores were still around, selling all kinds of goods, but maybe not for five or 10 cents anymore. I was surprised to find a coin section in my local store. My first coin book, a Red Book, was purchased. There were also Blue Books of the current year and a few older copies.

A rotating coin holder held individual coins and small sets. There was a set of the three 1955 Roosevelt dimes, in what appeared to be uncirculated condition. The Sheldon system was not in general use. High-grade coins were Brilliant Uncirculated or Gem. Some coins were described as “looks uncirculated.” A set of highly processed 1943 War cents had no grade on its holder. They shone in the store lights, but wear was visible upon a closer look. Sometimes a 1943 cent would turn up in change, but many were unattractive, with rust spots. Coin cleaners, specifically made for War cents, could be obtained, along with date restorers for nickel and silver coins.

Those who wanted a conversation piece could buy a copper-plated 1943 cent. I realized it was plated and not a rarity. The plating was thin and not particularly well-done, and wouldn’t fool anyone.

Well-worn large cents sat in the large coin holder. A few were obviously cleaned and showed an unnatural orange color. Individual coins were housed in cardboard holders, held together with staples. A close look at one older Washington quarter revealed thin scratches on the obverse near Washington’s nose. Probably this coin had been in another stapled holder.

A few Civil War tokens, all Patriotics, were offered for a few dollars. Assorted tokens and medals, many commemorating John F. Kennedy, were available. Kennedy half dollars were rarely seen, as people saved them. They also contained silver.

Mint sets from recent years were offered, too. There were a few containing 90 percent silver coins from the early ’60s. The current Mint offerings were the Special Mint Sets. No mintmarks and only one silver coin – the 40 percent silver half dollar – and sold for a $4 issue price. Collectors disliked these sets. The 1965 sets were available for less than the issue price for many years.

I liked the Special Mint Sets. They represented the best the Mint had to offer at the time, and the coins really did have a better appearance than run-of-the-mill uncirculated coins. I already owned a 1966 set. I opened the blue plastic holders and studied the coins. They looked beautiful to me. The surfaces shone, details stood out, and the colors didn’t look as dull as the average coins.

The 1965 sets came sealed in a soft plastic holder with a blue medal included, bearing the phrase “United States Special Mint Set” and an eagle, embossed in silver. The 1966 and 1967 sets came in hard plastic holders, pale blue, which showed off the coins.

One day I spotted a special Special Mint Set. Each coin was dated 1966, but the coins were housed in soft plastic like the 1965 sets and even included the blue medal. Was this issued by the Mint? Was it one of the first 1966 sets issued, before the holder was officially changed? Or did someone take the 1966 coins out of the hard plastic holder and seal them in the new holder? I didn’t understand why anyone would do that, and I didn’t know where the blue medal would come from either.

This may have been an interesting purchase, one to study and put away or exhibit, but I didn’t buy this set. Later the store went out of business, and I never saw that set again or any like it.

I remembered this unusual set when I began research for my book, United States Clad Coinage. To this day, I wonder if I passed up something really rare and special at a time when silver was taken out of coins and no one cared about the new clad coins or the Mint issues.

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

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