We already know the 1871 Indian Head cent may well be one of the best Indian Head cents in MS-65, but the possibility exists that it is even better than we already suspect.
The situation back in 1871 was a complicated one, but it’s worth understanding as it almost certainly played a role in making the 1871 as tough as it is to find in Mint State today.
The nation was still getting over the Civil War. Rebuilding the South would take a long time The economy of the country was relatively weak and in most of the nation there were still no silver or gold coins in circulation.
In such times, you cannot really expect a great deal of coin collecting and what limited collecting there was would have primarily been of the lower denominations like the cents, which were circulating. People could afford to collect cents and they could find them again. They had disappeared from circulation during the Civil War.
Cent mintages had been low since 1866 as there were other priorities and concerns and a weak economy requires few coins. A new low in was reached in 1871 with a mintage of 3,929,500. The 1877 would be even lower, but the 1871 with that total certainly had to be seen as a better date.
Collectors of the time would not have given much thought to the mintage of the 1871 as most would have simply acquired a proof. The proof total for the 1871 is estimated at 960.
As a result, the bulk of the 1871 mintage simply went into circulation and once in circulation cents tended to stay in circulation. The average 1871 circulated until it was worn out and destroyed.
Certainly, some examples got saved. In G-4, the 1871 today is $80 and it probably could easily go higher as the other variety is with Shallow N.
The situation in Mint State is even more complex. The 1871 currently lists for $525 in MS-60 and that is actually fairly low for dates of the early 1870s. In MS-65, however, the 1871 is at $2,200, which puts it lower than the $3,400 1872 and the key 1877 which is at $8,100 but otherwise the 1871 is the most expensive MS-65 Indian Head cent of the period.
One of the nagging questions about the 1871 is really how tough is it in MS-65 especially when compared to the notoriously tough 1872 and the 1877?
To answer that question the grading services are a natural place to look. At the Professional Coin Grading Service, they report seeing the 1871 in MS-65 or better a total of 96 times while the 1872 had a total of 118 in the same grades with the 1877 at 121 appearances.
At the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, the 1871 has been seen 120 times in MS-65 or better while the 1872 is at 109 appearances in the same grades with the 1877 at 102 appearances.
Suffice to say the numbers give a rather mixed picture. It means we really can come to no solid conclusions regarding how the 1871 really compares to the other two. The 1871 is certainly not out of place being compared to the other two. Even if it is slightly more available it is certainly similar and that fact alone puts in among the elite Indian Head cents.