This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Almost no one pays any attention to the 1886 Indian Head cent. Most would assume that it is one of the common dates to be found, starting with the 1879 and running all the way through the final Indian Head cent in 1909 with the exception of the 1908-S and the 1909-S. That assumption is basically right as in lower circulated grades, the 1886 is relatively available. However, the 1886 is not in the same league with the significant rarities in the upper grades, either.
Of course, it would not be fair to expect the 1886 to compare to other top dates. There were different periods during the 50 years of Indian Head cent production. They started out with war clouds gathering. Its composition was changed to bronze in 1864 during the Civil War, and it would remain so.
There were a couple large mintages as the war was drawing to a close because small denominations were desperately needed.
By the 1870s, larger mintages were no longer needed. In fact, Indian Head cent production started declining back in the mid-1860s, but it really dropped from 1869-1872.
Finally in the 1880s, mintage totals began to really show improvement, starting out with nearly 39 million in 1880. The 1885 at 11,765,384 and the 1886 at 17,654,290 were the two major exceptions during the period. While the 1885 in G-4 is more at $6.75 as opposed to $3.75 for the 1886, it is really only in circulated grades that the 1885 is the more expensive. Something definitely caused the 1886 to be the better date in Mint State.
We know that 1886 was a busy year for the Mint. All facilities except Carson City were busy making Morgan dollars as required by the Bland-Allison Act. There were also problems with upset workers, and that led to the famous “Haymarket massacre” in Chicago.
None of these problems, however, explain why the 1886 Indian Cent was apparently not saved in the numbers we would expect. Currently the 1886 is at $190 in MS-60, which is higher than most dates of the period. In MS-65, where it’s at a price of $1,250, the 1886 is the only date from 1877 until the 1909-S to exceed the $1,000 mark.
The grading service totals seem to support the prices. The Professional Coin Grading Service shows about 55 examples of the 1886 graded as MS-65 or better. In the case of a number of other dates of the period, you see totals that are much higher. A couple dates top 100. When you get to the dates after 1900, the totals in MS-65 are frequently in the hundreds and the MS-66 totals are sometimes higher than the MS-65 totals of the 1886. So the prices are no mistake; the 1886 is that tough.
We have no particular reason why the 1886 is so tough in top grades, but it’s a fact. If you want a nice 1886, you will have a tough time finding one and it will be costly. That said, they are worth the premiums.