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Time to get excited about 1954-S cents?

HarperD_color.jpgI had an e-mail question sent to me about mintmark placement on 1954-S cents. The writer had provided scanned images of three examples. Each had a slightly different mintmark located in a slightly different place under the date. He wondered if these were collectible varieties. The short answer is no, they are not considered collectible because they are so common. The long answer is a little more involved.

Before the 1990s, mintmarks were placed on the dies by hand. This meant two things. Placement could change a bit from die to die. After all, it was an eyeball kind of operation, rather than something involving precision instruments. Perhaps we should marvel at how consistently mintmarks were placed considering how imprecise human beings can be. We can chalk that up to the skill of the Mint?s staff.

Sometimes, when a mintmark got wildly off the mark and touched some other part of the coin?s design, then it can have value. However, as long as it is located in the field just under the date in a roughly central area, it is considered a routine issue.

The other factor that makes the mintmark look a little different is the force of the blow that punched the mintmark into the die. A harder blow meant a bigger mintmark because the force hollows out a deeper area. A weaker blow can mean a smaller mintmark. It creates a smaller ?S? recess in the die and this in turn means that, when the coin was struck, there was less area for the coin metal to fill under pressure. Variations in the size of mintmarks that reached circulation that year were minimal.

The writer didn?t say how he happened to acquire his three 1954-S cents. They looked like the ones that were circulating in the middle 1960s when I was trying to fill my first Lincoln cent album. My birth year was 1955 and it didn?t take me long to zero in on the fact that the mintages printed on the Whitman album page meant I had a far better chance of finding the 1954-S cent than the 1955-S. Just over 96 million of the 1954-S were struck while under 45 million of the 1955-S were struck. I only ever saw one 1955-S in my change. Of course, that was the only one I ever really needed, but I saw many 1954-S cents. Though I don?t remember how I might have phrased the experience of finding a 1954-S back in 1965 or so, it amounted to ?close but no cigar.?

I knew that the San Francisco Mint had been closed in 1955 after having struck just cents and dimes. That meant most collectors figured that if one was good, two were better and a roll or a bag of them was best of all. They didn?t save the 1954-S in similar quantities, though the magic of the ?S? mintmark meant it was much harder to find the 1954-S in circulation than, say, a 1954-D or even a 1955-D.

Because 1955 was a recession year, mintages were on the lower side of normal and the dates before and after are more common.

Another characteristic of the age was the free-for-all in the variety field of the time. Hobbyists were less well informed of the mechanics of minting in those days and there was no shared terminology. Pioneers like Alan Herbert tried to help standardize terms so that we could all be educated together. By 1969 I was reading his Odd Corner column faithfully even though I did not really collect errors.

I remember keeping a 1966 cent with the top loop of the ?9? filled in. Why this particular error stands out in my mind today versus all others that caught my attention, I cannot say. I still have the coin, though the reason I kept it above all others is lost in the mists of time.

This taught me several lessons that benefit me to this day. Error coins grab collector attention even if they don?t have any premium value. I am proof of that. Also, there is value in having Alan Herbert, Ken Potter, Billy Crawford and others around to ask the tough questions.

The one thing you can count on in this hobby is the boundless curiosity of each and every collector. I experience it every day. I know my readers do. Everybody has questions. Look to Coin Clinic for the answers.

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