If you have any doubts that type collecting makes a difference in the price of some coins, you are going to have a very hard time trying to explain the price of the 1859 Indian Head cent in top grades. Were it not for type demand, the 1859 would almost certainly be much less expensive.
The story of the Indian head cent starts with the 1859, but in terms of design it also ends with the 1859. It is a classic one-year type. These are special as to complete a collection you need that specific date and that puts added pressure on supplies.
The 1859 emerged and we frankly do not know why. The Flying Eagle cent had only just been introduced in 1857. The Indian Head design was introduced just two years later.
There was no law at that point in time requiring a period of use of no fewer than 25 years. So the rapid change was also perfectly legal. Nowadays a quick change would require congressional approval. Back then an official could simply say he liked the Indian design better.
If there was a reason for change, the best guess is that officials did not really like the Flying Eagle cent design. They might have been looking for an excuse for a change and that was handed to them in the form of complaints from merchants that there were too many Flying Eagle coins and they were being forced to pay brokers simply to get rid of them.
Of course design had absolutely nothing to do with a problem of too many cents, but in 1859 any excuse to change the discussion was a good excuse. As a result, the new Indian Head cent was produced with a laurel wreath on the reverse. Mintage was 36.4 million pieces. That was enormous. It topped the previous record cent production by 10 million coins. If the country was not buried in small cents beforehand, it certainly was after this mintage.
Then the design changed again in 1860, though this time it was just the reverse. The laurel wreath was replaced by an oak wreath and a shield was placed at the top. The Civil War was approaching. That could have been the reason for the shield, but even that is unclear.
So, with its large mintage, the 1859 cent was not going to be a tough date, at least in circulated grades. Of course, there are type collectors who assemble sets in circulated grades, and they can do it cheaply. It is $13 in G-4, $15 in VG-8 and $22 in F-12. by AU-50, the price rises to $175.
It is, however, in Mint State grades that you would expect to see higher prices as they are chased by type collectors. In MS-65, the 1859 lists for $3,650. No other regular issue Indian of the copper-nickel composition is higher than $1,400 in this grade, despite the fact that some, like the 1861, had much lower mintages.
Grading service tallies illustrate the matter. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen the 1859 in MS-65 111 times compared to 113 for the 1860. Certainly, there should not be thousands of dollars of difference in their prices. At PCGS, the numbers are similar.
Is it demand from type collectors that make the difference? That seems to be the best answer to fit the facts.
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