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TRACKING DOWN ANOTHER ‘10 MOST WANTED’ COINS

By Ed Reiter


 “America’s Most Wanted” is a television series that has helped flush numerous fugitives out of hiding.
 COINage magazine’s annual list of the “10 Most Wanted Coins” has to do with flights of fancy, rather than flights from justice. Still, it’s safe to say that any red-blooded collector would love to track down and “capture” these extremely elusive coins. And each and every one has a fancy price on its head.
 In writing this article for perhaps a quarter-century, I have always been a one-man “vigilante.” For this particular coin hunt, though, I’ve started to assemble  an imaginary “posse.”
 I invite you to join us now as we take a closer look at the 10 “Most Wanted” posters on the wall of our imaginary post office.
* * *
(1) The 1856 Flying Eagle cent.

 By the middle of the 19th century, large copper cents had worn out their
welcome in U.S. commerce – largely because they were wearing so many holes in people’s pockets. The U.S. Mint began exploring smaller altematives, and its efforts achieved fruition in the late 1850s with production of the so-called “Flying Eagle” cent, a copper-nickel coin that was one-third smaller in diameter and less than half as heavy as the old-fashioned copper cent.

 Anticipating authorization from Congress and possibly hoping to hasten this
process, the Mint struck about 1,000 examples of the new coin in 1856 and distributed these to members of Congress and other persons of influence. Congress,
however, delayed official action until February 1857. Thus, the 1,000 pieces dated
1856 were unofficial – as were another 1,000 examples made later for the public.

 While its legal status may have been dubious, the collector appeal of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is undeniable. It has long been highly coveted by collectors, and continues to command upwards of $5,000 even in the lower collectible grades and more than $20,000 in pristine condition.

 Rarity, of course, is part of its appeal. More than that, however, this is a coin
with tremendous historical importance: It represents a bridge between our nation’s
first one-cent pieces and those that are with us today – in our sugar bowls and mayonnaise jars, if not our pockets.

***

 (2) The 1877 Indian Head cent.

 The Flying Eagle cent was minted only briefly – for just two years, officially – before giving way to the Indian Head design in 1859. In 1864, the cent’s composition also was changed, from copper-nickel to bronze.

 In 1864 and 1865, the Mint cranked out very substantial numbers of the new
bronze cents in order to help overcome a nationwide coin shortage. This had been
caused by widespread hoarding – which, in turn, had been triggered by the economic ravages of the Civil War.

 By the late 1860s, the shortage was over; if anything, in fact, the nation’s coin supply was moving in the direction of a glut. The supply remained more than adequate throughout the 1870s, and the Mint responded to this by keeping production low during much of that decade.

 In the case of the cent, low tide occurred in 1877, when the Mint produced
just 852,500 examples. Only one other Indian Head cent – the 1909-S – had a
lower mintage, but that was set aside in much higher quantities because it came
about in the series’ final year.

 Relatively few 1877 Indian Head cents were preserved by collectors at the time; for one thing, there were relatively few collectors to preserve them. As a consequence, mint-state pieces are exceptionally scarce and quite expensive,
currently costing well over $4,000. By contrast, an uncirculated 1909-S Indian
cent can be obtained today for about one-fourth as much.

* * *

 (3) The 1922 “Plain” Lincoln cent.

 The so-called “Plain” 1922 Lincoln cent is actually a product of the Denver
Mint. However, it carries little or no trace of the “D” mint mark normally used at
that time to designate all coins from the Denver branch.

 Subsequent detective work turned up evidence that some of the Denver cent
dies used in production in 1922 were defective. As a result, coins produced with
those dies appear to have no mint mark.

 The absence of a mint mark would normally stamp such coins as products of the Philadelphia Mint. But no cents were minted in 1922 in Philadelphia: It was a
recession year and public demand for coins was at low ebb. Thus, the “no-D”
Denver cents stood out as the error coins they were.

 The circumstances were, to say the least, highly unusual. Since cent production started in 1793, the Philadelphia Mint has failed to produce this coin for just two dates: 1815, when fire shut down the mint, and this fateful year of 1922. If the no-D cents had been minted in Denver in 1921or 1923, or any other year in the 20th century, they would have gone unnoticed.

 Then again, maybe similar mint errors did occur in other years and did go unnoticed.because they blended in with the regular Philadelphia coins.

 In any event, the 1922 Plain is more than a mere curiosity or conversation
piece. Many serious Lincoln cent collectors view it as an integral part of the set,
and nice examples – extremely fine or better – routinely bring four-figure premiums.

* * *

 (4) The 1912-S Liberty Head nickel.

 The 1913 Liberty Head nickel gets much more publicity and brings a much
higher price. But the 1912-S is also legitimately scarce – and, what’s more, it’s legitimately legitimate.

 As numismatic sleuths have documented in great detail, the 1913 Liberty
nickel wasn’t officially issued by the Mint. Evidence suggests that a Mint employee struck a few examples surreptitiously, using dies prepared on a contingency basis.

 Keep in mind that as the time approached for 1913 coinage to proceed,
Mint officials weren’t yet certain whether they’d be using the new Buffalo/Indian
Head design on the nickel, continuing to use the Liberty Head design – or possibly
using both (as happened, for example, in 1938, when Buffalo nickels and Jefferson
nickels both were made). Because of this uncertainty, they readied 1913 dies for
both the new nickel and the old.

 Official nickel production that year included only the Buffalo type. But, as noted, someone banged out a few Liberty Head pieces, presumably without official approval. These came to light in 1920, just after expiration of the seven-year statute of limitations for prosecuting anyone guilty of wrongdoing in their production.

 Only five of these coins are known to exist, and over the years they have benefited from enormous publicity – notably during the 1930s, when Texas dealer B. Max Mehl offered to pay $50 apiece for any and all examples he was offered. If
one came on the market today, it would fetch well over $1 million. One, in fact, sold several years ago for $5 million.

 This brings us back to the 1912-S. While surely not as mysterious or romantic as its 1913 counterpart, the ’12-S nickel has much to recommend it. It’s the first and only Liberty nickel struck in San Francisco, it’s a last-year-of-issue coin (assuming you don’t count the 1913) – and, most important, it has the lowest mintage of any official issue in the series; a minuscule 238,000.

 You can expect to pay perhaps $200 for even a garden-variety example in low circulated condition. You’ll probably pay $2,000 or more for a really desirable mint-state piece.

* * *

 (5) The three-legged Buffalo nickel.

 The Buffalo nickel is among the most admired – even beloved – of all U.S.
coins. Its rough-hewn portraits of an Indian chief and a bison are tremendously
appealing not only as works of coinage art but also as symbols that are quintessentially American.

 Of all the coins in this series, perhaps the most intriguing is the so-called “three-legged” variety struck at the Denver Mint in 1937.

 During much of the Buffalo nickel’s 25-year production life, the two branch mints in Denver and San Francisco found themselves obliged to use dies that were worn or otherwise deficient. All dies were prepared at the Philadelphia Mint, and when the supply of new dies proved inadequate, the branch mints had no choice but to stretch the lives of their old ones.

 One way of doing this was to polish the dies as defects began to surface. This, it appears, was just what occurred in 1937 at the Denver branch – but in polishing this particular die, an overzealous workman actually wiped away the bison’s right foreleg, leaving only the hoof and a stump above.

 The “three-legged” nickel soon became the subject of amusement, curiosity – and, above all, collector interest. It has been a popular coin ever since, so much so that many collectors now regard it as a necessary part of any truly complete Buffalo set.

 While it may seem amusing even now, buying one is no laughing matter: You’ll pay $500 or more for a nice circulated example – and $5,000 or more for a pristine mint-state piece.

* * *

 (6) The 1916-D “Mercury” dime.

 First-year-of-issue coins tend to be set aside in large numbers. The 1883 Liberty Head nickel was heavily hoarded, for example, and the 1913 Buffalo and 1938 Jefferson nickels also were saved to a much greater extent than most subsequent dates in those series.

 The reason is obvious: Being new, such coins stand out and many people put them away with some vague notion that down the line they might become valuable.

 The 1916-D Winged Liberty or “Mercury” dime is one of the most conspicuous exceptions to this rule. Although it is a first-year-of-issue coin, it has always been elusive and evidently eluded would-be hoarders, as well, at its time of issue.

 Clearly, low mintage had something to do with this: The Denver Mint produced just 264,000 Mercury dimes in 1916, making this one of the rarest U.S. coins of the 20th century. Timing, however, was also a major factor. For various reasons both technical and logistical, the new dime wasn’t released until late in the year. That not only held down the mintage, but also provided a much smaller time frame within which the general public was exposed to the new coin during its first year of issue.

 Mercury dimes undoubtedly were saved when they first came out – but many of those preserved by casual hoarders were probably examples dated 1917, a year when mintage figures were significantly higher at every mint.

 While this point may be subject to speculation, there’s no question at all about the desirability of the ’16-D Mercury dime: Even in lower grades, it’s worth $1,000 or more – and in pristine mint condition, the price can exceed $25,000.

* * *

 (7) The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter.

 Except for the fact that it came from the main mint in Philadelphia, rather than one of the branches, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter has had a “career” remarkably similar to that of the ’16-D Mercury dime.

 It, too, is a first-year issue. It, too, made its debut very late in the year. It, too, bears a design acclaimed for its beauty. And it, too, has an extremely low mintage. It is, in fact, the second-rarest silver or minor coin produced by the U.S. Mint in the 20th century, not counting mint errors. The figure is positively microscopic, judged by present-day standards: just 52,000 pieces, or less than one-fifth the mintage of the ’16-D dime!

 The 1916 quarter also comes complete with a fascinating story centering around its design: It depicts Miss Liberty with a bare right breast – taking a “liberty” that many Americans undoubtedly would find scandalous even in this Age of Lady Gaga.

 Because the first-year mintage was so low, the impact of this design didn’t hit with full force until the following year. The 1917 quarter emerged in far greater
quantities – and also from all three mints – and that gave the public an eyeful.
The censors soon succeeded in getting Miss Liberty cloaked in a chain-mail
“gown.”
 Censors and collectors can agree on one thing: There’s nothing modest about the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter – including its price. This coin will cost you $3,000 or more even in lower grades. In mint condition, the price is in the low five figures.

* * *

 (8) The 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar.

 The Walking Liberty half dollar also made its debut in l916 – although, unlike the new dime and quarter, it didn’t yield any significant lirst-year-of-issue rarity. The most important keys of the Walking Liberty series are the P-, D- and
S-mint coins of 1921.

  For this particular “10 Most Wanted” list, though, I selected a later issue: the 1938-D. And my reason, I confess, was essentially personal: It happens to be a coin from my own first year of issue – the year I was born.

 Personal factors aside, the ’38-D half dollar is certainly deserving of inclusion. Its mintage of 491,600 is third-lowest in the series – lower than even the 1921-S. The Red Book, in fact, assigns it a higher value than the 1921-S in good condition. In higher grades, however, the ’21-S is worth substantially more – and the higher the grade, the wider the disparity becomes. The reason is elementary: By
1938, there were many more collectors than in 1921, so many more examples were
preserved.

 I, for one, would very much like to own a mint-state ’38-D half dollar. It is, after all, a Walking Liberty half dollar – one of our nation’s most beautiful coins – with a mintage of less than half a million. For less than $1,000, that’s quite a bargain!

 And if I may inject just one more personal note, it would be nice to have in my possession something from 1938 that – unlike me – hasn’t been going down in condition ever since.

* * *

 (9) The 1921 Peace dollar.

 Most collectors favor Morgan dollars, but I’ve always been partial to the Peace dollar series. Its design seems much fresher, less static and more vibrant. No doubt I’m influenced, too, by the fact I had the pleasure three decades ago to meet and talk at length with Teresa de Francisci, the gracious lady who served as her husband’s model for the portrait of Miss Liberty on this coin

 The 1921 Peace dollar is yet another first-year-of-issue coin. Its mintage is
barely a million – but, more significantly, it’s the only coin in the series on which the intentions of artist Anthony de Francisci are faithfully followed.

 As had happened 14 years earlier with the Saint-Gaudens double eagle, the Mint found fault with the Peace dollar’s high relief. It therefore reduced the relief prior to production of the second-year coins in 1922. Subsequent issues are still attractive, but they lack the sharpness and intensity of the original, much as the later Saint-Gaudens double eagles pale beside the high-relief examples.

 The 1921 Peace dollar isn’t inordinately expensive: You can buy an attractive piece iclose to mint condition for less than $500.

* * *

 (10) The Lafayette dollar.

 Among the “traditional” U.S. commemorative coins – those produced from
1892 to 1954 – the Lafayette dollar of 1900 is one of the most intriguing and
most valuable.

 For one thing, it’s the only commemorative silver dollar from that period; except for this coin and the Isabella quarter, all the rest of the silver coins were half dollars. For another thing, it’s a coin with a very modest mintage (barely 36,000) and one that’s hard to find in mint condition. Third, and perhaps most interesting to me, it’s a coin that quite possibly paved the way for real historical persons to appear on everyday U.S. coins.

 Actual people’s portraits had graced two earlier commemoratives – the Columbian half dollar and the Isabella quarter. Both, however, depicted Europeans – people from a much earlier age and a foreign country. The Lafayette dollar, by contrast, portrayed a U.S. president: It featured side-by-side likenesses of George Washington and France’s Marquis de Lafayette.

 And there can be little doubt that this helped clear the path for the Lincoln cent – which made its debut within a decade – and, in time, for the Washington quarter and all the other portrait coins that followed.

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