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THE 10 MOST WANTED COINS

By Ed Reiter

Each year in COINage, the magazine of which I am senior editor, I bring readers a list of what I call “The 10 Most Wanted Coins.”

Logically, of course, the “most wanted” coins would figure to be the most expensive ones. Rarity and value certainly enter into my calculations, but I have always tried to spice up my selections with other factors, as well – such as the history, romance and pure human interest surrounding the coins on my list.

In 2004, I decided to add a somewhat different twist and limited my choices to coins that were produced in leap years. That was, after all, the first leap year of the 21st century – 2000 having been the last year of the 20th century.

In point of fact, leap years have given us some of the most coveted – truly most wanted – coins in the history of American numismatics.

Here are the 10 coins I selected:

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(1) The 1792 half disme

The United States Mint was formally established by Congress on April 2, 1792. It was, of course, a leap year. Construction of the Philadelphia Mint began four months later and the first coins produced there were the cents and half cents of 1793.

Even before the Philadelphia Mint began operations, however, federal coinage took place on a very limited basis under the authorization of the Act of Congress. It’s widely believed that the first coin struck with that imprimatur was the half disme of 1792 – a small silver coin equivalent to five cents, whose name was soon anglicized to “half dime.”

In all, 1,500 examples of this coin were produced in July 1792 in the cellar of a Philadelphia building owned by saw-maker John Harper. The silver is said to have been supplied by President George Washington himself, from his old household silverware.

Washington reportedly distributed many of the coins as gifts to dignitaries and friends. Besides containing his personal silver (assuming the story is true), they also may have had yet another personal connection – for they bore a portrait of Liberty thought to have been patterned after his wife, Martha.

Needless to say, their historical significance alone would make these coins exceptionally desirable. Their rarity magnifies their appeal and their value as collectibles. They’re worth thousands of dollars apiece even in worn condition, and hundreds of thousands uncirculated.

(2) The 1796 quarter

It would be hard for present-day Americans to imagine their pocket change without quarter dollars. The 50-state quarters have, of course, generated enormous interest during recent years. Beyond that, though, the quarter has become the workhorse of everyday commerce – the single most useful coin in ordinary people’s day-to-day transactions.

With that in mind, it seems startling that the U.S. Mint didn’t even begin making quarters for nearly half a decade after it began operations – and then put them on hold again for eight more years after producing barely 6,000 examples.

The 1796 quarter, the very first U.S. coin issued in this denomination, was in fact the only 25-cent piece produced by the young nation during the 18th century. It also was the only one minted with the small-eagle design on the reverse. When quarter production resumed in 1804, the Draped Bust portrait of Liberty was retained on the obverse but the naturalistic eagle gave way to a heraldic one.

The 1796 quarter is a necessary component of any truly complete U.S. “type set” – a set containing one example from every distinct series of U.S. coinage. That helps explain why it brings thousands of dollars even in well-worn condition. So does its mintage of just 6,146. And it probably doesn’t hurt that 1796 was a leap year.

(3) The 1804 silver dollar

Evidence strongly suggests that the 15 known examples of the 1804 silver dollar were struck at a much later date. Still, 1804 was a leap year – and that being the case, the temptation is irresistible to include this “King of American Coins” on this list of the 10 Most Wanted leap-year coins.

Official Mint records have long stated that 19,570 silver dollars were produced in 1804. Yet, none turned up for many years – and after more than a century, just a few examples had come to light. The mystery was finally unraveled – for most people, at least – in 1962, with the publication of a book called The Fantastic 1804 Dollar by Eric P. Newman and Kenneth E. Bressett.

After extensive research, Newman and Bressett concluded that 1804-dated dollars were first produced in the mid-1830s for inclusion in presentation sets intended as gifts from the U.S. government to rulers in the Far and Middle East. The sets were meant to contain the most recent issues of all U.S. coinage – and since records showed that dollars were last produced in 1804, the Mint struck a few examples bearing that date.

There was just one catch: The 19,570 dollars minted in 1804 apparently were not dated 1804. During that early period, the Mint used dies until they wore out, even if that meant using them beyond the end of a calendar year. Researchers now believe that the dollars struck in 1804 actually were dated 1803. For that reason, the 1804-dated dollars made in the mid-1830s were instant rarities.

Eight of these so-called “original” 1804 dollars are known to exist. In addition, there are seven “restrikes,” made by Mint on the sly in the late 1850s. Any of these 15 coins would bring a million dollars or more in today’s market. The finest-known, the Childs specimen, changed hands for $4.14 million – a record at the time – at an auction in August 1999.

(4) The 1856 Flying Eagle cent

By the mid-19th century, many Americans had grown tired of the heavy pure-copper cents made by the U.S. Mint since its inception. These coins, aptly known as “large cents,” were simply too big for America’s britches. What’s more, the cost of making them was perilously close to a “penny” apiece, so the Mint was actively seeking an alternative for economic reasons as well.

After considerable trial and error, Mint officials came up with what they regarded as a suitable replacement – a much smaller, lighter-weight coin made of a tan-colored alloy of copper and nickel. The obverse of this coin depicted an eagle in flight – hence the nickname “Flying Eagle cent.”

To show members of Congress what it had in mind, the Mint produced samples in 1856 and handed them out. It also struck small numbers for sale to collectors. Researchers believe about 2,000 examples were made, in all. The reaction was favorable, and the new coin went into full-scale production in 1857.

Strictly speaking, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is a pattern, rather than a regular-issue coin. It has long been treated, however, as part of a collection of U.S. small cents – and the very first one, at that. It’s valued in the thousands in any collectible condition. This, after all, is a coin with just about everything: historical significance, extremely low mintage – and a leap-year date, to boot.

(5) The 1864 two-cent piece

Unlike most of the coins on this year’s list, the 1864 two-cent piece isn’t rare and valuable. But it merits a place on the list – and on every collector’s want list – just for the important role it played in the history of U.S. numismatics. This, after all, was the first U.S. coin to carry the motto “In God We Trust.”

Religious fervor rose dramatically during the Civil War, as Americans sought spiritual solace amid the terrible trauma tearing the nation apart. Feeling the need for tangible expression of this devotion, the Rev. Mark Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pa., wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase urging a new inscription on U.S. coinage – one that “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism” and “place us openly under the Divine protection.”

The deeply religious Chase embraced the idea at once and set the wheels in motion for use of such an inscription. Watkinson had proposed “God, liberty, law,” but Chase rejected this and several other mottos, settling at last on “In God We Trust.”

The two-cent piece was an odd denomination introduced in 1864 in an effort to help relieve a nationwide coin shortage. Being entirely new, it was a logical place to give the American public its first look at the likewise new coinage motto. The motto was well received, and two years later it was added to several other coins as well. Eventually, it found a place on every U.S. coin – and today, its appearance is required not only on the nation’s coins but on U.S. paper money, too.

(6) The 1876-CC twenty-cent piece

The Carson City Mint was opened in 1870 to produce coins from the silver then pouring out of Nevada’s nearby Comstock Lode. It remained in operation for less than a quarter-century, and its output was generally modest and sometimes downright minuscule.

One of the greatest Carson City rarities involved a coin with an even shorter lifespan than the “CC” mint itself – the twenty-cent piece. This peculiar coin was intended to correct a problem in the West, where widespread use of Spanish “bits” – each worth one-eighth of a dollar, or 12½ cents – led to shortchanging of people when they paid for goods with a quarter. When paying for an item costing 10 cents, they would be given a bit in change for a quarter, cheating them out of 2½ cents. The twenty-cent piece was meant to rectify this.

In practice, the new coin was a dismal failure. It was too close in size and appearance to the Seated Liberty quarter, leading to costly confusion. In 1878, after just two years of business-strike production and two more of proof-only issues, the coin was killed.

The Carson City Mint struck 10,000 twenty-cent pieces in 1876, but almost all were melted before they could be released. The few surviving examples bring five- or six-figure prices in mint condition.

(7) The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter

Besides being a leap year, 1916 also was a year in which U.S. silver coinage took a great leap forward aesthetically. The U.S. Treasury held a limited, invited competition that year to obtain new designs for the half dollar, quarter and dime – and the three winning entries were all superior works of coinage art: the Walking Liberty half dollar, the Standing Liberty quarter and the Winged Liberty (or “Mercury”) dime.

Early in the year, the Mint produced final runs of Barber quarters and dimes. This and technical problems with the new designs delayed the changeover until late in the year. As a result, the output of the new quarter and dime was abnormally small. The quarter was particularly so, with production taking place only in Philadelphia and a mere 52,000 pieces being struck.

The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter has been viewed ever since as one of the most desirable modern U.S. coins, and it’s valued in the thousands in any collectible grade.

(8) The 1916-D “Mercury” dime

The new dime was produced by the millions at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints, but the Denver Mint lagged far behind, making only 264,000. Collectors ever since have spoken with reverence of “the ’16-D dime,” and made it a prominent part of their wish lists.

Prices start in the hundreds for heavily circulated pieces and range well into the thousands for those in higher grades.

(9) The 1932-D Washington quarter

The Washington quarter was conceived as a one-year commemorative issue in 1932 to mark the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. By commemorative standards, its mintage that year was high – more than 6.2 million, of which about 5.4 million were struck in Philadelphia.

The coin proved so popular, however, that federal officials decided to retain it as a regular part of the nation’s coinage lineup. In a regular-issue context, the 1932 production figures at the two branch mints – 436,800 at Denver and 408,000 at San Francisco – seem pretty puny.

Though the ’32-D has a slightly higher mintage than the ’32-S, it brings a higher premium, especially in top condition. You can expect to pay several hundred dollars for a piece graded very fine and thousands for a nice mint-state specimen.

(10) The 2000 Sacagawea/Washington quarter mule

With the start of the 50-state Washington quarter program in 1999, production rose to unprecedented levels at the nation’s mints. New workers had to be hired and the presses had to be operated almost around the clock. Under the circumstances, it was to be expected that quality control would suffer – and it did.

Still, the hobby was stunned when mint-error coins started turning up in the spring of 2000 with the obverse of a statehood quarter and the reverse of the new Sacagawea dollar. Somehow, dies from these two much different – but similarly sized – coins had become “muled” in a single hybrid. It was the first time this ever happened in U.S. coinage history.

A decade later, only a handful are known to exist. Questions have been raised as to whether they were made by accident or criminal design, calling into question their future as collectibles, since the government might seek to seize them. Despite that risk, a number have been sold, bringing mid- to high five-figure prices.

These coins bear no date, but the timing of their appearance – in the new dollar’s first year of production – makes it clear they were made in 2000. And yes, it was a leap year – the last of the old millennium.

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