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THE 10 MOST WANTED COINS I’VE OWNED

 By Ed Reiter

  

          Every year, COINage – the magazine of which I am senior editor – devotes a segment of its July issue to the “10 Most Wanted” coins – 10 coins with special meaning and appeal for many collectors.

 

          In 2003, I marked a major milestone in my life – my 65th birthday. And in 2002, I had reached the 50th anniversary of my introduction to coin collecting. In view of this double observance, I decided to personalize my 2003 list of “most wanted” coins by choosing 10 that held special meaning for me.

 

          All 10 were coins that I found in circulation or purchased through the years – often at critical junctures, when they gave a needed shot in the arm to my interest and involvement in the hobby.

 

          The photos that accompanied the article were not of the actual coins. Sadly, I had parted with most (if not all) of the coins on my list. But all made a permanent impact and left an indelible imprint on my memory.

 

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          (1) 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.  

 

          Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to find many premium-value coins in circulation. At the time I began collecting, in the early 1950s, many very old coins still showed up now and then – among them Liberty Head nickels and Barber silver coins – and several neighborhood merchants were kind (and trusting) enough to let me examine the coins in their stores when business was slow.

 

          Of all the circulation finds I set aside during those years, perhaps the most significant was a badly worn “penny” I discovered in the cash drawer at a fruit stand near my home. It was rubbed almost smooth and the details were barely visible. But the coin was indisputably a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.

 

          The year, as I recall, was 1952 and the “Red Book” at the time listed the value of an S-VDB cent at a now paltry (but then impressive) $9 in good condition. My friend Dick Leary, who had introduced me to coins a short time earlier, judged this specimen to be in poor condition, and I agreed. We estimated its value at about $1.50 – but nonetheless considered that quite a windfall. (Dick died in October 2010 at the age of 73.)

 

          Somewhere along the way, the coin left my possession in an upgrade. I’ve owned several others since then, all in far superior condition. But this was the only one I ever found, and that put it in a class by itself.

 

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          (2) 1914-D Lincoln cent.

 

          A lack of funds limited my pursuit of the hobby during the 1950s. And I don’t mean a lack of funds to purchase coins. I didn’t have enough money to even keep many of the coins I found in circulation – especially half dollars and quarters (silver dollars were totally out of reach, but they didn’t interest me anyway at the time).

 

          It was only after finishing college and starting my first newspaper job, in 1959, that I had enough extra money to save the coins I found – and even buy some.

 

          At that time, it was my practice to obtain rolls of circulated coins every Friday, when I cashed my paycheck, from a bank in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., and spend much of the weekend combing them for scarce dates. This probably wasn’t cost-effective in terms of the long hours I spent and the modest premium value of the “keepers” I turned up. But now and then, I did hit the jackpot.

 

          The biggest jackpot occurred in 1960, when I plucked a well-aged copper from the coins spread before me and found myself squinting at a nice, evenly worn 1914-D Lincoln cent. This coin had always been a solid No. 2 on the Hit Parade of key-date Lincolns – and now I had discovered both of the series’ Big Two.

 

          The 1914-D was a much nicer coin than the S-VDB I found years earlier. I figured it to be in very good condition and worth perhaps $35 at the time. To this day, it remains the most valuable coin I ever found – though I did find a $100 bill in a parking lot just a few years ago.

 

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          (3) 1926-D Standing Liberty quarter, and (4) 1923 Standing Liberty quarter.

 

          In 1961, while serving on active duty as a member of the Army National Guard, I was sent to Fort Gordon, Ga., to be trained as a radio-teletype operator. Much of the training consisted of trying to master Morse code.

 

          While stationed at Fort Gordon, which is near Augusta, Ga., I played a round of golf on the seedy course at the base – allowing me to boast frequently over the years that I once played golf at “Augusta National” (for what is an Army golf course if it isn’t national).

 

          More important, I spent a different Saturday browsing through the stores in downtown Augusta – including a little coin shop. And while there, I found my attention drawn to a frosty uncirculated Standing Liberty quarter. I hadn’t planned to buy anything, but I really liked the coin. And even on a buck private’s pay of $78 a month, I could afford the asking price – $6.50.

 

          That purchase got me started on a date-and-mint set of Standing Liberty quarters, which was close to completion – mostly in mint condition – when I chose to sell the coins in the white-hot market of the early 1980s in order to pay for improvements in my home.

 

          The ’26-D was hardly the star of the set. Like most Standing quarters of that date and mint, it had almost no detail in Liberty’s head. But this was the coin that made me an ardent collector of this series.

 

          Another quarter that stands out in my mind is the 1923. Again, it was not a key date – but it might have been the biggest bargain in the set. I purchased it one day during a chance visit to the coin shop of Len Babin, a longtime Rochester dealer who, along with others, fostered my development as a collector.

 

          Knowing of my interest in Standing Liberty quarters, Babin confided that he had just purchased a roll of 1923 quarters – 40 pieces in all – and was offering them to his regulars, one to a customer. I was pleased to be considered, especially at the price: a mere $11. The coin was a flawless gem, and today it would be worth perhaps 100 times what I paid for it.

 

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          (5) 1918/7-D Buffalo nickel.

 

          This was the single most desirable – and most valuable – coin that I ever owned. I bought it in 1963 from my favorite Rochester coin dealer, Ed Bauer, for $250 – almost two weeks’ pay for me at the time. But it was clearly a bargain, worth much more even then and worth a five-figure sum 40 years later.

 

          As Buffalo specialists know, the ’18-D overdate is rare in any grade, but devilishly elusive – and also very expensive – in top condition. Ed had graded this coin very fine – perhaps being preoccupied with something else at the time – and I saw at once that it was far better than that. So after swallowing hard, I told him I wanted to buy it, even though it was out of my usual price range.

 

          Another dealer confirmed my suspicion about the grade: It was, he said, about uncirculated – and the second-best specimen he had ever seen, exceeded by only a single piece that was brilliant uncirculated. About a year later, I sold it back to Bauer to ease a financial crisis – and perhaps because I felt guilty about having taken advantage of him in the first place.

 

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          (6) 1937-D three-legged Buffalo nickel, and (7) 1922 “plain” Lincoln cent.

 

          In the early 1960s, I spent hours a week at Ed Bauer’s coin shop in downtown Rochester. My workday began in midafternoon, and I would stop at Ed’s for an hour or two beforehand to check out his new acquisitions and chat with fellow hobbyists.

 

          There was almost always something interesting to see and possibly buy, and Ed (as I have noted) was fair and often generous in his pricing. I was able to assemble an exceptional set of Buffalo nickels during that time, largely through purchases from Ed Bauer.

 

          Many of the regular Buffalo nickels I bought were uncirculated or nearly so, including the scarce branch-mint issues from the teens and 1920s. But aside from the overdate, the one that intrigued me most was a high-grade circulated example of the 1937-D “three-legged” nickel. The coin, as I recall, was graded very fine but really could have been called extremely fine. I don’t remember the price, but it was within my budget, so it probably was less than $100.

 

          That coin – even more than the overdate – was my entrée to the wonderful world of mint errors, and over the years I have owned a number of these, notably a 1955 doubled-die Lincoln cent, a 1922 “plain” Lincoln and an off-center 1920 Buffalo nickel. Besides the pleasure they’ve given me, these coins have also helped me gain a wealth of information about the minting process and how such errors occur.

 

          I’ve included the ’22 plain (or no-D) cent on my “10 most wanted” list because it cost me more than any other coin I ever bought. I bought this mint error – an extremely fine specimen – for $1,100 in the late 1980s, because it came along at a time when I had extra money and I’d always wanted to own one. I sold it a few years later when I needed extra money and made a modest profit, as I remember.

 

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(8) 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar.

 

I’ve always liked coins from my birth year of 1938, and I’ve owned quite a few over the years, including rolls of mint-state Lincoln cents and Buffalo nickels. My favorite birth-year coin is the ’38-D half dollar, because it has a relatively low mintage (491,600) and yet has always been relatively affordable in less than mint condition.

 

Even today, the ’38-D half dollar is available for less than $200 in XF condition – and while that might not satisfy those who frown on circulated coins, it strikes me as excellent value. It’s a low-mintage coin from a very popular series with more than enough detail to show the majestic design to good advantage.

 

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(9) Oregon Trail half dollar.

 

I have never been a dedicated collector of commemorative coins. From time to time, however, I have purchased “commems” that caught my fancy. Generally, this has happened when I found a coin I liked, attractively priced, at a time when I had disposable income burning a hole in my pocket (which hasn’t happened often with a wife and five children to support).

 

One of these acquisitions was a 1926 example of the Oregon Trail half dollar – which, to me, has always ranked hands-down as the single most beautiful U.S. commemorative coin. Ideally, I would have preferred a specimen dated 1938 because of the link with my birth year. But the piece that came along at just the right moment was a 1926.

 

This coin, of course, is burdened by a lot of negative baggage because of the abuses that accompanied its sale – especially the ongoing production after the end of the initial period. But its exquisite design is a constant reminder of the heights to which U.S. coinage art can rise – and to which the too easily satisfied Mint should aspire.

 

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(10) 1987 Constitution half eagle ($5 gold piece).

 

My final selection is a coin about which I confess to being schizophrenic.

 

On the one hand, it is the “modern” (post-1981) U.S. commemorative whose design I most admire. Marcel Jovine’s imaginative depiction of a stylized eagle “signing” the U.S. Constitution with a quill pen towers above the puny, pedestrian artwork of most recent commems.

 

My problem with this coin is the pain I endure whenever I recall my ill-advised purchase of two complete sets of proof and uncirculated Constitution coins. The sets cost close to $500 apiece, but my enthusiasm for the half eagle blinded me to the fat, built-in surcharges I was paying Uncle Sam.

 

I gave one set to my niece (and godchild) as a college graduation gift. Eventually, however, I had to sell the other one and took a substantial loss.

 

Still, like all the other coins on my most wanted list, this last one has special meaning: It serves as a voice in the back of my mind playing devil’s advocate whenever I am tempted to overpay again.

 

By 2011 standards, of course, the price I paid would have been a bargain, with gold worth in the neighborhood of $1,400 an ounce. Since each set contained two half eagles, with total gold content of nearly half an ounce (as well as two silver dollars), the metal value alone would have been more than $700.

 

Sadly, we were using 1987 standards at the time.

 

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