The end of the school year and the arrival of summer used to signal an increased pace in coin hunting by kids during the heyday of the circulation finds era.
Sure, you can collect all the year round, but summertime meant more time for a kid to be a kid and for me that meant working on my coin collection.
It used to be perilously close to a competition. Who had found the best coin in circulation was a very common concern for young collectors in the 1950s. In fact, the best coins I ever saw found in circulation were those of an old family friend by the name of George Younglove. Mr. Younglove one summer day let me come and see his collection, all pulled from circulation, and in a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell I sipped lemonade with my mouth barely closing to swallow as Mr. Younglove showed me his 1916-D Mercury dime and 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent. His collection dated back to Barber issues and was literally complete. To my mind it was a collection without peer.
In fact in the mid-1990s when the Littleton Coin Company announced the purchase of what the firm called the New York Subway Hoard, I realized that Mr. Younglove had competition only 60 miles away. A determined employee of the New York Transit Authority with the help of a local coin dealer had not only equaled Mr. Younglove but actually far surpassed him with many complete Barber sets and virtually all the great coins Mr. Younglove had plus some duplicates. In the case of the 1916-D Mercury dime, it totaled some 241 duplicates. To top the New York Subway Hoard would take some very serious searching and more luck than anyone is entitled to expect.
Actually, over time I realized that finding great coins in circulation is simply a matter of luck and the time you spend looking. After all, finding a 1955 doubled die obverse Lincoln cent was a great discovery back in 1956, but what you could find in 1956 was limited to what was circulating. You were not going to find an 1856 Flying Eagle cent even though a couple hoards in the 19th century reported hundreds of them. Nor would you find a 1799 large cent even though the ones we know exist virtually all are heavily circulated.
Probably the best story about a circulating coins has to do with the 1894-S Barber dime. We believe the mintage of the 1894-S dime was just 24 pieces and there are reports that perhaps 10 of those were melted. We cannot verify the melting nor can we verify the story that the Mint Superintendent John Daggett, who had the coins produced, had given three of the small mintage to his daughter Hallie. As the story goes, Daggett instructed his daughter to save the coins because someday they would be worth a great deal of money. Young Hallie did as she was told except for giving in to the temptation of some ice cream one hot day. Reportedly she used one of the 1894-S Barber dimes to pay for that ice cream, placing into circulation a coin that could be expected to bring close to $500,000 today.
Even if the story is true, the 1894-S dime spent on ice cream would be the exception to the rule as the 1894-S was never intended to be used in circulation. In fact, that is true of most great American rarities. The 1913 Liberty Head nickel; 1804 silver dollar; 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars; 1870-S $3 gold, half dime and dollar; 1838-O half dollar and 1849 double eagle, just to name some, were not created to circulate. We could debate the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle ? it was produced to circulate but at least according to the government was not legally released and odds are good that you never could have received a 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle in circulation. The fact is that none of those great rarities and some other rarities as well could never have been found by the likes of Mr. Younglove, those who assembled the New York Subway Hoard or anyone else.
Over the years the fact that many great rarities were produced for specific reasons, including many times sales to collectors, and not for regular circulation has weighed heavily on the minds of some. They have felt that the true rarities of the United States are not the coins that were basically created to sell to collectors, but rather issues actually released into circulation that at some point in time could have been found by collectors. Those rarities, while generally not as well known, are in the eyes of some at least as desireable and as important as some of the better-known and more expensive issues of the past.
If you were collecting from circulation and wanted a chance to obtain the best possible coin of the United States ever to reach circulation, the best place and time to have had your chance to acquire that coin would have been in Philadelphia in 1822. We do not really know what happened in Philadelphia that year, but anyone saving new half eagles as they appeared during the 1820s would have done awfully well. There were no other facilities and virtually every half eagle made in the 1820s turned out to be great. Price listings of the most available pieces are around the $2,500 range in F-12.
The 1822 gold $5 is not, however, an available date. The real mintage is unknown with reported totals as high as just over 17,000 pieces. The importance of the 1822 was noticed quickly. In a 1906 sale, an example sold for $2,165, which was paid by a Chicago druggist named William Dunham. Some 30 years later when the Dunham collection was sold, the 1822 half eagle was described as ?The rarest and most valuable coin of the entire United States series! Probably the Rarest Coin in the World.?
In fact, the 1822 is not the rarest coin in the world, and it is probably not the most valuable coin of the United States. It is, however, on a relatively short list of the great U.S. coins with three examples known to exist, two of which are in the Smithsonian. One perhaps came from chief coiner Adam Eckfeldt and the other traces to a reported $6.50 bullion purchase by Harlan Page Smith. That leaves just one known example that traces to Virgil Brand, who acquired it in the 1890s before it went to Abe Kosoff and ultimately to Louis Eliasberg at a price of $14,000 before it produced a price of nearly $700,000 in the 1982 Eliasberg sale.
The next public sale of the 1822, which is graded as a VF-30, will certainly top the $1 million mark. While the grade may hurt its chances slightly when it comes to moving close to the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle, to some people that grade makes the coin all the more interesting.
Certainly the chance of finding an 1822 would have made that a great year to be checking your change. Perhaps the best period for pulling coins from circulation, though, would have been the 1790s. After all, any coin produced at that time would have been historic. In many cases they would have been the first of the denomination to be produced. Sometimes the mintages were low, so many of the coins in circulation would have been scarce. Possibly the best of the best would have been the historic 1794 dollar.
The 1794 dollar was the first silver coin produced at the U.S. Mint. That fact alone would make it a very special coin. The Mint was not fully prepared to produce a coin that large, and that probably caused problems. Official mintage of the 1794 dollar is placed at 1,758, but no one believes they sat down one day and decided to make 1,758 dollars. The be st guess is that they tried to make 2,000 but only 1,758 were up to the minimal quality standard of the day. We see some evidence of that in weak strikes on the few coins that do exist.
The historic 1794 dollar is today listed at $235,000 in XF-40 and $55,000 in G-4. In any grade they are rare. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has seen 23, most in grades from F-12 to XF-40, while Professional Coin Grading Service reports 73, most in middle circulated grades. The totals are larger than normal for a great rarity, but the 1794 dollar is so historic it fits well on any list of great coins that at one time were in circulation.
There were historic issues of a different time many years later when the first San Francisco Mint was opened in 1854. The first San Francisco Mint was a small place on Commercial Street typical of the branch mints of the time. The San Francisco facility in that first year was simply trying to make what coins it could. It was not only small but loud and hot with the smell of acid filling the building. The place would have been unable to make large numbers of coins under the best of circumstances. In the heart of gold country the priority was logically large gold coins. In fact, it would be years before some lower silver denominations were produced.
The lower gold denominations produced at San Francisco in 1854 were basically token mintages. The totals showed just 246 quarter eagles, which list at $300,000 in MS-60 today and 268 half eagles with the old Bowers and Merena having sold one in AU-55 for $170,000 back in 1982. Simply put, had you wanted great coins in circulation, there has probably never been a better pair from the same facility in the same year.
It is probably remarkable with their low mintages that the 1854-S quarter eagle and half eagle survived at all. We know that there were few if any collectors in San Francisco at the time to save examples. The Mint thus being 3,000 miles away from most of the nation?s collectors, they would never have had a serious chance to obtain the 1854-S quarter eagles and half eagles. For years the coins were not even known. In fact, even in the early 1900s there was still some question as to whether the quarter eagle even existed. In the 1950s there were only about a half dozen known, but with publicity a few others surfaced. The finest known appears to be an AU-50 from the Harry Bass collection, which was sold by Bowers and Merena in 1999 for more than $135,000.
Realistically the 1854-S pair are every bit as tough as their listings would suggest and are probably underpriced considering their rarity. In the case of the quarter eagle, PCGS reports only five examples while NGC has graded four. The best of the nine grades was an AU-53. In the case of the half eagle, PCGS has not seen a single example while NGC reports just one, suggesting that it may well be not just a rarity, but rather an extreme rarity. In both cases price guide listings may be partially influenced by grade. There are no doubts about whether these coins circulated. If only someone had thought to save them.
Interestingly enough, an excellent case could be made for the idea that the 1850s might have been the best decade for great rarities in circulation. Collectors of the day would have had a terrible time getting the last two, and the next one as well. The other great rarity of the decade was made in New Orleans in 1853 when the New Orleans facility produced an unknown number of 1853-O half dollars without arrows at the date and rays around the eagle on the reverse.
In early 1853 silver coins were more expensive than their face value to produce. The Mint had already dropped mintage levels, waiting for the Congress to act and reduce the size of silver coins. As 1853 started that had still not happened, congressional action coming some weeks into 1853. When the action was taken, the new silver coins of 1853 with a different silver content would be identified by arrows at the date. In the case of the half dollar, rays were added around the eagle on the reverse.
In the first months of 1853, however, New Orleans produced a small number of half dollars of the older design type with slightly more silver but no arrows or rays. Even once the changes were authorized, the dies had to arrive. Small transitional mintages were not out of the question, and in fact there were other mintages early in the year before the changes were approved.
It is, however, the 1853-O no arrows and rays half dollar which is extremely rare. We do not know the mintage but we do know that only a few have survived. The 1997 Eliasberg sale had a VG-8 that realized $154,000.
There are reportedly a couple others but that VG-8 price, which is probably the highest price ever paid for a VG-8 coin, is clear indication of just how tough and desireable the 1853-O no arrows and rays half dollar really is.
With a little better awareness on the part of collectors and with a little nicer coin, it is potentially one of the greatest of all U.S. rarities. The Eliasberg coin being a VG-8, there is no doubt that many people back in the 1850s and probably for decades after that had the chance to save one.
There was a similar situationin 1873. This time the facility involved was Carson City. A change was ordered in early 1873 and the new coins would have arrows placed at the date to signify that fact much like 1853. Carson City produced 12,400 dimes and 4,000 quarters before the change. Carson City also produced half dollars, which are reasonably available. The 1873-CC no arrows dime is unique and the 1873-CC no arrows quarter has perhaps half a dozen known examples. The surviving examples all tend to be mint state, suggesting they were saved, but that the actual mintage never was released. The same is true of an 1873-S no arrows half dollar, which was supposed to have a mintage of 5,000 pieces. The general belief is that the 1873-CC no arrows dime and quarter as well as the 1870-S no arrows half dollar simply were made but all melted, making them great circulating rarities that might have been.
There is a similar question about the Philadelphia 1861 Paquet reverse double eagle. The Paquet reverse was slightly different, with taller letters in the inscriptions than on a regular reverse. The Paquet reverse potentially created more problems than it solved, though, and as a result its use was halted quickly. Q. David Bowers has probably done more research on the Paquet reverse than anyone and he suggests in his Official Red Book A Guide Book of Double Eagles that the Philadelphia production took place on Jan. 6, 1861. Once again we do not know how many were made although 19,250 were made in San Francisco that did circulate and are tough today with a VF-20 currently listed at $19,500.
The Philadelphia 1861 Paquet reverse $20 production is disputed. Whether they circulated or not and how many there were are questions we may never be able to fully answer. Bowers is the best authority and he considers them regular issues. One of the two known is the Norweb gem graded MS-67 and sold by Bowers and Merena for $660,000. The other, the Dallas Bank Collection specimen, sold for $345,000 but it was an AU-58. Whether it reached AU-58 because of light circulation or poor handling or some other reason, the fact remains it is circulated. It may not have passed through more than a couple hands and never really reached general circulation, but on a technicality it?s AU-58, meaning it qualifies.
We can question whether the 1873-CC no arrows dime and quarter and even the 1861 Paquet reverse double eagle ever really circulated. They were business strikes with the clear intention of circulating. There is no doubt about the 1927-D double eagle which Bowers in his book called the ?darling of the market.? The 1927-D had a mintage of 180,000 and it was clearly made for circulation. According to Bowers, in 1932 the Mint was cheerfully offering the 1927-D and other dates for sale at face value plus postage. A purchase of a roll would have been w ise. Today the 1927-D lists for $2,100,000 in MS-65. What happened? That is a logical question, and the simple answer is that they were destroyed in the gold recall of 1933.
Only a few survived. PCGS graded four, all MS-65 and better, while NGC graded four with one being an AU-58. Simply put, the 1927-D was there for anyone who wanted an example and a couple may have even circulated. Today it is a great treasure, easily among the top few coins to have been available to every American coin collector if they had only wanted an example.
Certainly no one can be blamed for not obtaining a 1927-D or any of the other great rarities ? if more had acted, these might not be the rarities they are today. They are, however, rare and special as these are among the best coins to have ever reached circulation in the United States, giving them all a unique and fascinating history as well as a place in the list of great American rarities. More important, they were great rarities any collector of the time had a chance to find and save just like Mr. Younglove had done in the 1950s.
Even though there is probably a wider variety of coins in circulation now compared to any other time in the last 40 years, how many kids will go on the hunt this summer as I used to do? Perhaps more would do so if they got a boost from someone like Mr. Younglove.