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20th Century Type Coins for the New Collector

As I've noted before, one of my favorite online numismatic sites is CoinTalk, which you can access by going to cointalk.com. There, new collectors often begin their exposure to a forum by posting a coin they’ve found roll searching for error coins. They’re almost always sure that what they’ve found is going to make them rich.

About 99 percent of the time what the new collector thinks is a doubled die cent or one with a second mintmark over the original one or something even more esoteric is actually a coin with post-minting damage, which is worth only face value. At this point, the novice is told to buy a Red Book (Guide Book of United States Coins) and study it.

I agree with this advice. If you’re new to coin collecting, I have a suggestion for your actions following the Red Book purchase: Use your new book to help you assemble a 20th century type set through the dollar denomination. If you can afford it, continue this exercise with gold issues. 

A type set is a collection of one of each design type within a denomination. For example, for the 20th century U.S. cent issues, your set would consist of an Indian Head cent, a Lincoln cent with the designer’s initials on the reverse, a Lincoln wheat cent with no designer’s initials, a Lincoln wheat cent with the initials at the bottom of Lincoln’s bust, a Lincoln Memorial cent, and so on. 

By working on a 20th century type collection, you will get a good idea of what’s out there to collect. You might find after completing this exercise that there are a few of the different design types that you like much better than the others. If this is the case, then you can begin to work to assemble a set of the different dates of your favorite design. One advantage of this specialization is that you can concentrate your efforts and funds on coins you really like, and you won’t be tempted to fritter away your money on coins that really don’t interest you.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the coins you might want for your 20th century type collection. Although most people select the least expensive example of each design type for a type collection, I will suggest some less common examples that are perhaps more interesting. I’ll cover 20th century types from cents through quarters in this article, with halves, dollars, and gold types next time.

1909 Indian Head cent. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1909 Indian Head cent. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1. Indian Head cent. With a design by James B. Longacre, you can choose any of the dates between 1901 (the first year of the 20th century) and 1909. Using the value guide in this magazine, most of the Philadelphia issues between 1901 and 1909 are worth between $1.35 in G4 and $90 in MS63. The date with the lowest mintage that still fits this pattern is the 1908, so if you want a slightly scarcer example, 1908 would be a good choice. If you don’t want to spend $90 on your Indian cent, an example in XF40 at $12 will have a lot of detail for a little money.

If you can afford to spend a bit more on your design types, the 1908-S is a winner. With a mintage of slightly more than a million, the 1908-S has the distinction of being the first cent produced at a branch mint. Again, the XF40 grade offers a lot of detail for a somewhat reasonable amount ($225). If that sounds too steep, a 1908-S in F12 should cost around $150.

2. 1909 Lincoln Cent, Designer’s Initials on the Reverse. The Lincoln cent was designed by Victor D. Brenner, and his initials appear on the bottom of the reverse on only two coins: 1909(P) and 1909-S. For type purposes, the 1909 VDB is the reasonable choice, as the 1909-S VDB is the big key to the series and priced accordingly. Values for the 1909 VDB range between $9 in G4 and $110 in MS65. A nice XF should cost around $14

3. Lincoln Cent, no Designer’s Initials. Between 1910 and 1917, the designer’s initials were omitted entirely from the Lincoln cent. They were reinstated in 1918 and located at the bottom of Lincoln’s shoulder next to the rim, where they have remained.

Once again, the P-Mint coins are going to be the least expensive. For example, the 1910 is just a $35 coin in MS63. Alternatively, any of the D or S mint coins would be an interesting addition to your type set. As just one example, the 1914-S, with a mintage of 4,137,000, lists for about $80 in XF40.

4. Lincoln Cent, Wheat Ears Reverse, Designer’s Initials on Shoulder. Except for the steel cents in 1943, any cent from 1918 through 1958 will do for this type. The dates become less expensive the closer you get to 1958. One interesting example is the 1955-S, which has a relatively low mintage. It was thought at the time to be the final cents minted in San Francisco, so 1955-Ss were saved by the ton. Thus, an MS65 example lists for only $5.50.

If you want something unusual for a type set, consider the 1931-S (866,000 minted). In XF40, this is a $90 coin.

5. 1943 Zinc-Coated Steel Cent. Minted in 1943 to conserve copper for the war effort, these were beautiful when new, ugly when well circulated. So many were produced that they are remarkably inexpensive, with values in MS65 of either $28 (P and D) or $35 (S).

6. Lincoln Cent, Lincoln Memorial Reverse. Beginning in 1959, the Wheat Ears reverse was replaced with a view of the Lincoln Memorial by Frank Gasparro. These were minted in the familiar copper composition through 1982. After that, the composition was changed to copper-plated zinc. These can still be found in circulation, although you might want to purchase a mint-state example.

1912 Liberty Head nickel. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1912 Liberty Head nickel. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

7. 1901-1912 Liberty Head Nickel. With a design by Charles E. Barber, the Liberty Head or V-nickel continued to be a workhorse coin through 1912. Except for the two mintmarked 1912 nickels, all the dates have the same $25 value in XF40, and most are just $45 in AU50. 

The 1912-D nickel makes an interesting alternative to the Philadelphia issues. It’s the first nickel minted in Denver, has a mintage of less than 10 million, and has a value of $125 in XF40.

8. Indian Head or Buffalo Nickel, Buffalo on Raised Mound. James Earle Fraser created one of the most beautiful U.S. coin designs. At first, the buffalo stood on a raised mound, but this was quickly changed to a design on which the denomination was recessed, and the buffalo placed on a plain. The reason for the change was a fear that the denomination would wear away quickly, and the coins would be gold-plated to fool vendors.

The 1913(P) had the largest mintage and is the least expensive for type purposes. In XF40, it lists for only $17, and an MS63 example should cost about $60. With a fraction of the mintage, the 1913-S Type 1 is an interesting alternative. In XF40, it lists for $75, and an MS63 is worth around $170.

9. Buffalo Nickel, Buffalo on the Plain. Any nickel after 1913 will do as an example of this type, and a common date such as 1937 is worth about $4 in XF40 and $30 in MS63. As an alternative, the 1931-S Buffalo has one of the lowest mintages in the series but is not terribly expensive because many were saved. It’s worth $26 in XF40 and $150 in MS63.

10. Jefferson Nickel. With a design by Felix Schlag, these were minted from 1938 through 2003 with the same obverse and reverse designs except that Schlag’s initials (FS) were added to the obverse in 1966. Obviously, almost any date will do for type, but I suggest the one with the lowest mintage (1950-D, 2,630,030 minted). Currently, it’s worth $35 in MS65. 

11. Jefferson War Nickels. With nickel a critical war metal, the Jefferson nickel’s metallic composition was changed in 1942 to exclude nickel and include 35 percent silver. To mark the change, the mintmarks, including P for Philadelphia, were enlarged and placed above Monticello’s dome. War Nickels were minted through 1945. Like the 1943 Lincoln cents, the War Nickels were beautiful when minted and ugly after extensive circulation.

For type, any date will do, as they’re remarkably inexpensive even in MS65. For example, the 1943-D, with the lowest mintage of any War Nickel, is worth about $20 in MS65.

12. Barber Dime. Charles E. Barber’s Liberty Head design served the country well through 1916, when it was replaced by the so-called Mercury dime. Large enough quantities were minted so that a coin for type won’t be excessively expensive. Philadelphia examples can be bought for about $35 in XF40 or $200 in MS63. As an alternative, consider the 1915-S, with a mintage below a million. In XF40, it’s a $75 coin.

13. Mercury Dime. With a design by Adolph A. Weinman, the so-called Mercury dime (actually a version of Liberty wearing a winged cap) lasted from the beginning of American involvement in WWI to the end of WWII. For type, most collectors will choose one of the 1940s years, as these are typically the least expensive. Several can be bought for around $30 in MS65. An interesting alternative is the 1931-D, with one of the series’ lowest mintages. Its list price is $135 in MS63.

14. Roosevelt Silver Dime. John R. Sinnock’s design featuring President Franklin Roosevelt’s bust facing left was minted in 90 percent silver from 1946-1964. Many of the later dates are worth less than $10 apiece in MS65. The date with the lowest mintage, 1955(P), lists for $13 in MS65.

15. Roosevelt Clad Dime. Clad Roosevelts, minted from 1965 to date, are typically worth less than $10 apiece even in MS65. You should be able to obtain a nice example from circulation.

1916 Barber Quarter. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1916 Barber Quarter. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

16. Barber Quarter. This is another coin with Barber’s Liberty Head design. There are lots of dates between 1901 and 1916 that aren’t outrageously expensive. A couple of dates that I like as alternatives to a high-mintage Philadelphia quarter are 1912-S and 1915-S. Both had mintages well below a million but are worth about $150 in XF40. Several late dates in the series list for less than $50 in XF40.

17. Standing Liberty Quarter, No Stars Below Eagle. This is the Type 1 version of Hermon A. MacNeil’s beautiful quarter. In addition to the lack of stars below the eagle on the reverse, Liberty’s breast is uncovered. This version appeared on the 1916 and on some 1917 quarters coined at all three mints (PDS). The 1917(P) is the least expensive, with an XF40 value of $150. 

With the way the exposed dates wore away on these, you’ll need to buy a high circulated grade to ensure that the coin has a full date. If you want a mint state coin for your type set, the least expensive date in MS63 is the 1917-D, which lists for $400. Most of the examples of this date I’ve seen online tend to be well struck, which is not something you can say about many Standing Liberty quarters.

18. Standing Liberty Quarter, Stars Below Eagle. The first group of these quarters, called Type 2, were minted from 1917 through 1924. Many of these were weakly struck as well as having a raised date that wore away quickly. I once owned a 1920 that was obviously in mint state, but it had left the mint with no more than half a date. The least expensive for type purposes is the 1918 at $35 in XF40. Alternatives include the 1918-S at $70 or the 1920-S at $60. 

19. Standing Liberty Quarter, Recessed Date. In 1925, the Mint finally got the message and recessed the date, which meant that most of the quarters between 1925 and 1930 survived circulation with their dates intact. Several coins in this group have $42.50 values in XF40, including the 1928-D, 1929-D and S, and the 1930-S. All four have mintages well south of two million pieces.

20. Washington Silver Quarter, 1932-1964. John Flanagan designed what was intended to be a one-year commemorative issue to celebrate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. For type purposes, any date will do, and you can find many dates, even some in the 1930s, that list for $100 or less in MS65. Examples include 1935 at $80, 1936 at $100, and 1939-D at $100. For a later date with a low mintage, the 1955-D (3,162,400) lists for only $42 in MS65.

21. Washington Clad Quarter, 1965-1998. Most of the clad dates were minted in humongous quantities, which means that you can either look for one in circulation or purchase one in MS65 for less than $10.

22. Washington Clad Quarter, Bicentennial (1776-1976). The reverse was changed to a military drummer boy to commemorate the Bicentennial of the United States, and the obverse bore the dual dates, 1776-1976. Vast quantities were minted in 1975 and 1976, and you can still find these with diligent roll searching. List values in MS65 are less than $10.

23. State Quarters (1999-2000). These are the first two years of the State Quarters program, which began in 1999 to celebrate the bicentennial of Washington’s death. For type, you could select any one of the 10 different state designs or assemble a set of all 10, as each represents a different design type. You can probably find many of these still in circulation, or purchase any of them in MS65 for less than $10 apiece.