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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:
(1) The 1792 half disme
The United States Mint was formally established by Congress on
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
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
The 1796 quarter is a necessary component of any truly complete
(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
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
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
(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
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
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
(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
One of the greatest
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
Besides being a leap year, 1916 also was a year in which
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
The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter has been viewed ever since as one of the most desirable modern
(8) The 1916-D “Mercury” dime
The new dime was produced by the millions at the
Prices start in the hundreds for heavily circulated pieces and range well into the thousands for those in higher grades.
(9) The 1932-D
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
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
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
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.