Some coins, while not rare by definition, are better. Because they tell us a lot about their denomination, they can also be very interesting dates to study.
The low-mintage 1885 copper-nickel 3-cent piece is one of those issues. With a mintage of just 4,790, it is a date that tells us a great deal about the situation of 3-cent pieces at the time and what their prospects were for the future.
It must be remembered that 1885 was exactly 20 years after the first copper-nickel 3-cent piece had been issued. That 1865 mintage had been 11,382,000. This total stands in stark contrast to the 4,790 total of 1885. Clearly something had gone very wrong for the 3-cent piece.
The denomination had been introduced in 1851. The first 3-cent pieces were 75 percent silver. Later they became 90 percent silver. The first 3-cent pieces came as an emergency issue at a time when regular silver issues were being hoarded. It cost more than face value to make them. The 75 percent silver piece was a way to make change until Congress lowered the silver content of other silver denominations in 1853.
Once the crisis had passed, the denomination continued. When all silver coins had disappeared from circulation because of hoarding brought on by the Civil War, officials decided to make 3-cent pieces and 5-cent pieces in copper-nickel.
The new copper-nickel 3-cent piece had some early demand since people were happy with any coin that could circulate. It did not take very long for the denomination to reach a secondary status. There was no great need for a 3-cent piece. In fact, the 2-cent piece met a similar fate, but it was discontinued in 1873. The copper-nickel 3-cent piece staggered on with generally declining mintages. The final 1 million mintage was in 1881 and the last one coined was in 1889.
By 1885 the denomination was on life support. It was followed by a proof-only 1886 that has a total of 4,290. The proof total is almost as large as the 1885 total.
With its low mintage, the 1885 was naturally going to be a better coin. Today in G-4 it lists for $470, which makes it the most expensive G-4 copper-nickel 3-cent piece. It also had the lowest mintage. This is a great price for a coin with a mintage less than 5,000.
The 1885 lists for $900 in MS-60, while an MS-65 is $2,300. Once again, those are pretty attractive numbers given the low mintage. The current Proof-65 price is $650. With a proof mintage estimated at just 1,000 pieces, this price may not seem right. Since the collectors of the day often acquired proofs for their sets, the proof received better care and is more likely to make it to a collection today.
There is evidence in the grading service totals. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation shows 11 examples of the 1885 in MS-65 or better, but graded roughly 400 examples in Proof-65 or better. At Professional Coin Grading Service, the total in MS-65 or better is 21. In Proof-65 or better, the total rises to over 450. Even if some coins were sent in more than once, the difference in availability between Mint State and proof is still enormous.
The 1885 copper-nickel 3-cent piece tells us about the collecting pattern of the times and that it was basically finished as a circulating issue. It makes for an interesting story about a coin with some interesting prices.