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Back to Basics: Basically Good Value in Indian Head Cents

By Mark Benvenuto

Indian Head Cent

1907 Indian Head cent. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions.)

The Indian Head cent has for decades been a classic United States coin that collectors really enjoy. The seasoned veterans can tell tales of their youth in which the occasional Indian Head cent was still to be found in a bank roll, or in some jar of change that a relative or friend had stashed away at the back of a closet or desk drawer. Younger collectors can still get in on that sort of treasure hunting, in that dealers often have a bargain box of Indian Head cents, some of them not particularly worn, many for $5 or less per coin. Right now though, let’s take a look at this much loved series and see if there are any bargains within it, possibly even up in the mint state grades.

What’s Rare?

When starting out on any hunt for bargains, it is always worthwhile to find the rarities within a series, if for no other reason, just to cross them off the list. For the Indian Head cents, three keys to the series are the 1877, the 1908-S and the 1909-S. None are actually all that rare – although the 1909-S might be said to have a mintage that makes it scarce – yet all have price tags which would indicate otherwise. So we will turn our gaze elsewhere. Also, there are some over-dates and varieties among these one-cent pieces that can be costly. We’ll give them some space, too.

Establish a Price Point

It’s important to find some price point when looking for bargains within any copper coin series. Unlike silver and gold, which can bounce around in price along with the prices on the world’s metals markets, copper one-cent coins tend to go up in price slowly, and so overpaying can really hurt. For us, right now, let’s see what $50 will bring in for a sharp-looking Indian Head. We are going to use this as our baseline number, simply because the 1907 Indian Head cent costs about this much in MS-62, and climbs steeply in price in higher grades.

The reason we are starting very close to the tail end of the series is that the 1907 is the only Indian Head cent with an official mintage of over 100 million coins – 108,137,143 according to the reference books. But there are several other dates that cost about the same, and that have tallies in the tens of millions.

Also, as we dig in, we need to say a word or two about Indian Head cents in the various grades of mint state. A person can make the case that these cents have grade differences as minute and finely divided or split up as those for the Morgan dollars. Not only are there MS-62, MS-63, and MS-64 pieces, but there are designations such as “B” for brown, or “RB” for red-brown. Some collectors are willing to pay premiums for the red coins, and less for the brown ones. When we are searching for bargains, we’ll keep our eyes on the price as our major deciding factor when making our purchases.

Looking not through a reference book that shows the number of coins made, but through a reliable price listing, such as the one in an issue of Numismatic News, it doesn’t take too sharp an eye to realize that we can assemble a set of Indian Head cents spanning from 1880 up to the end of the series without going over our target price. The ones we will have to omit in that span of time – at least at mint state – include the 1885, the 1886, the 1888, the 1894, and the already mentioned 1908-S and 1909-S. Actually, we could land the 1886 and the 1888, and even the 1894, if we are willing to step down a grade or two, to something like EF-40.

Of the date run we just mentioned, the 1909 might be the most interesting; it has a total of 14,368,470 coins in its column, and costs less than the 1894, which has 16,749,500 as its total. For whatever reason(s) though, the 1894 constantly gets described as a tough coin to find, or a scarce date.

What About the Earlier Dates?

Even though the official Mint tallies for the earliest couple of decades of the Indian Head cents are often in the tens of millions, these dates tend to be expensive in any of the mint state grades, or at least from 1864 onward. But that doesn’t mean absolutely nothing is available from these years. Going all the way back to the start, the one-year issue of 1859, made from copper-nickel with a unique reverse wreath design, is less than what we allowed ourselves to spend if we choose an example in something like VF-20 condition. This certainly is not going to have the detail of a mint state specimen but it’s not automatically an ugly coin either. And an 1859 will always be a neat Indian Head cent to have in any collection.

Also, there are a couple of possibilities in the short span of years from 1860 – 1864, in which the cents were still a copper-nickel alloy, but now with a shield added onto the reverse design. As with all the other dates, this span of five years had pretty good-sized mintages but it is one variety of the 1860, as well as the 1862 and 1863, that have price tags close to our target at least at the EF-40 level.

It appears then that when looking for bargains among the Indian Head cents we can certainly find some. Admittedly, we will not be able to put together a full date run for $50 per coin, at least not in better condition. Yet there is a stretch of more than a decade starting after the key date of 1877 in which we can gather mint state examples for very attractive prices. In short, there are still some good bargains among the Indian Head cents.

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