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10 Top S-Mint Coins
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
January 03, 2011

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Since Its beginning in 1854, the San Francisco Mint has had an illustrious history. In fact, it has produced so many great coins that the biggest problem facing a numismatic writer is deciding which 10 S-mint coins to write about as the Mint’s best products.

One possibility is to select 10 pieces from Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. After all, these experts have already done the necessary leg work. Of the 100 winners discussed in the book, 12 were produced at the San Francisco Mint. All I would have to do to use Garrett and Guth’s work is to delete two coins from their list.

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But that would be too easy. Surely, as a collector with more than 50 years of experience in the hobby I can produce my own list of San Francisco winners. Before I do, however, I would like to give you a brief history of one of America’s most historic branch mints.

Although the San Francisco Mint became a reality in 1854, an event in mid-1834 set the stage for it and two other branch mints that preceded it. This was a law reducing the weight of standard gold, which in effect put America on a gold standard. This greatly benefitted gold mines in Georgia and North Carolina and led to the creation of branch mints in Dahlonega, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1838.

The discovery of gold in California produced a massive gold rush and ultimately led to the creation of another branch mint in San Francisco. The mint opened in 1854, but quickly outgrew the facilities, resulting in a new mint in 1874. This new building is known as either the Old United States Mint or The Granite Lady. Designed in the Greek Revival style, the building was one of the few structures that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The Old Mint continued its coining operations until 1937, when a new mint began operation. The Old Mint became a National Historical Landmark in 1961. As such, it was open to visitors until 1993. Ten years later, the government sold the Old Mint to San Francisco for $1, an 1879-S, for use as the museum of the city.

The new mint continued striking coins until 1955, when operations ceased, temporarily as it turned out. Collectors of the time, myself included, scrambled to acquire examples of what we thought would be the last San Francisco coins. I kept a roll of uncirculated 1955-S cents for several years before trading it for an uncirculated set of war nickels.

In 1968, the San Francisco Mint resumed operations, striking mostly proof coins and functioning as an assay office from 1962-1988. Unfortunately for collectors, the San Francisco Mint doesn’t allow visitors.

With a few exceptions, most of the 10 coins I’ve chosen are actually available to ordinary collectors. I’ve omitted, for example, the Garrett and Guth coins that are unique, such as the 1870-S half dime and the gold $3 piece of the same year. Likewise, I’m not including the 1854-S gold $5, with just three pieces known from an original mintage of 268 coins.

In addition, I’ve added to the list several popular San Francisco scarcities. Note, I didn’t call them rarities, as that would accord them a status that’s undeserved. Without further preamble, here is my list of San Francisco’s 10 best issues for the collector.

1. 1909-S Indian Head cent. With a mintage of just 309,000 pieces, the 1909-S is the low-mintage king of the Indian Head series, as the next lowest mintage is 852,500 (1877). However, it is not the rarest of the Indian Head cents by a long shot. One reason for its availability is that it was produced the last year of the design, and many were saved by non-collectors for that reason. Also, collectors of the period saved the date because of its known low mintage.

In A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, Richard Snow notes that the 1909-S is quite scarce in low grades, with the result that there’s not much spread in values in grades from Good through Very Fine. Actually, there’s little variation in values for grades across the board. According to a recent issue of Numismatic News “Coin Market,” the date is worth $590 in Good-4, $655 in Very Good-8, $720 in Fine-12, $825 in VF-20, $900 in Extremely Fine-40, $950 in About Uncirculated-50, $1,000 in Mint State-60, $1,050 in MS-63, and $2,250 in MS-65.

For Snow, the optimal collecting grade for circulated specimens is EF-40. He writes that overgrading is a problem, as coin dealers “believe there is not a big enough spread [in values] between grades to make their profit margin.” Thus, they’re inclined to try to make their profit margin by pushing the grade and the price higher. The answer to this problem and to the problem of counterfeits of this date is to buy only coins certified by one of the major services.

If you can afford it, Snow reports that the optimal collecting grade for uncirculated pieces is MS-64RB (Red Brown). With a wholesale value of $1,525, a reasonable retail value for a nice coin of this grade would probably be around $1,800.

2. 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent. No list of San Francisco’s finest would be complete without inclusion of the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent, and it is the 14th coin on Garrett and Guth’s list. For Lincoln cent collectors, the 1909-S V.D.B. has always been the Holy Grail, despite the fact that there are several dates that are more expensive in high grades. Current retail values for the 1909-S V.D.B. are $765 in G-4, $1,010 in VG-8, $1,235 in F-12, $1,395 in VF-20, $1,500 in EF-40, $1,650 in AU-50, $1,825 in MS-60, $2,250 in MS-63, and $6,850 in MS-65.

Although the 1909-S V.D.B. had a mintage of 484,000 (compare this with the mintage of the 1909-S Indian Head cent), it’s actually quite plentiful in uncirculated. In A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents, Q. David Bowers writes, “In Mint State the 1909-S V.D.B. is the most plentiful mintmark issue of its era, a record it does not yield until the late 1920s.… High quality 1909-S V.D.B. cents certified by the leading services run into the thousands; more than 1,000 are MS-65RD or higher.”

If it is indeed so common, why is the coin so valuable and so avidly sought? Bowers notes, “The demand for this coin is incredible, and in comparison to the number of people seeking it, the 1909-S V.D.B. is indeed a key issue.”

According to David Lange’s The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents, “The most challenging coins to locate are problem-free specimens grading Good through Fine. These escaped the initial hoarding and were generally lost among the millions of ordinary cents in circulation.”

In my opinion, if you’re trying to add a 1909-S V.D.B. cent to your collection and can’t afford one in uncirculated, you should seek a nice, high-grade circulated specimen in the range of grades from VF-35 to AU-55. Such a coin should have most of its detail left. I would strongly urge you to purchase a coin certified by one of the major services, as “There are thousands of fakes on the market,” according to Bowers.

No matter what grade of 1909-S V.D.B. you purchase, you will have an example of one of San Francisco’s finest coins. As Bowers puts it, “The ownership of a 1909-S V.D.B. cent in any grade is a badge of accomplishment. Congratulations! You have obtained one of the greatest ‘story coins’ in American numismatics, and, indeed, the most famous popular rarity.”

3. 1912-S Liberty Head nickel. This coin made the list for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s the first nickel minted in San Francisco. In addition, it has the lowest mintage in the entire series of Liberty Head nickels (238,000). The date with the next lowest mintage, the 1885, is not even close (1,472,700).

Of course, as the last date in the series, with a low mintage that was known at the time, the 1912-S was differentially saved by collectors and non-collectors. As David Bowers puts it in A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, “the 1912-S has been popular since day one.”

Unlike the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln, which is mainly available in higher grades, “In the marketplace, examples are usually either Mint State or well worn. Very few exist at intermediate levels such as Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated.”

Despite its low mintage and popularity, for many years the value of the 1912-S was stagnant. The first one I bought, back in the 1970s, cost me $50. In recent years, however, the date has advanced rather rapidly in price. To illustrate, I bought one in Fine in 2001 for $95 and another one in the same grade at the end of 2009 for $214. Current retail values are $175 in G-4, $245 in VG-8, $280 in F-12, $500 in VF-20, $850 in EF-40, $1,350 in AU-50, $1,550 in MS-60, $2,000 in MS-63, and $7,500 in MS-65.

According to Bowers, genuine 1912-S nickels “have lightness of details on Miss Liberty’s hair above her forehead.” Thus, according to Bowers, “Any sharp piece is likely an alteration from a Philadelphia Mint coin, made by adding an S. Such fakes used to be common in collecting circles, but today the leading grading services know how to spot one, and it is a virtual certainty that a certified coin is genuine.”

4. 1894-S Barber dime. OK, I cheated on this one. As most collectors know, the 1894-S Barber dime is one of coin collecting’s famous rarities, with a mintage of just 24 pieces, of which 10 are known today, according to David Lawrence’s The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes. Garrett and Guth mention just nine known examples. Either way, 10 or nine, there are so few that you and I will never own one.

As the story goes, San Francisco Mint Superintendent John Daggett had the 24 pieces struck to give to some banker friends. He also gave his daughter Hallie three of the 24 coins, and she supposedly spent one of them for ice cream on the way home. At least two of the remaining 1894-S dimes are well circulated: Lawrence has a photograph of one in G specimen (called the Ice Cream Specimen) and lists another coin described as grading About Good-3.

So what is an 1894-S worth? The correct answer is, “It depends.” With a coin this rare, the appropriate venue for selling it is almost always a public auction. According to “Coin Market,” an 1894-S dime is worth $1,200,000 in MS-63 and $1,900,000 in MS-65. Below these figures, there’s a note reading, “1894-S, Eliasberg Sale, May 1996, Prf-64, $451,000.”

Another value guide, A Guide Book of United States Coins, gives a value in Proof-63 of $1,400,000 and notes an auction sale in 2007 at which a Proof-64 sold for $1,552,500. An 1894-S also sold for $1,900,000 that same year, with dealer John Feigenbaum flying incognito across country to deliver the coin to its new owner.

5. 1901-S Barber quarter. This is another well-known Barber coin minted in San Francisco and one of the three keys (the other two are the 1896-S and 1913-S) to the Barber quarter set. With a mintage of just 72,664 pieces, this is “The king of all Barber coinage with a low mintage and low survivorship,” according to David Lawrence (The Complete Guide to Barber Quarters). According to Lawrence, the 1901-S “is almost impossible to find in EF45 to MS63 and, when one appears, it commands a strong premium over listed prices.”

Listed prices for the 1901-S are $6,250 in G-4, $14,000 in VG-8, $17,500 in F-12, $25,500 in VF-20, $30,000 in EF-40, $35,000 in AU-50, $40,000 in MS-60, $48,850 in MS-63, and $82,500 in MS-65. In Heritage auctions in 2009, a 1901-S in Professional Coin Grading Service MS-63 sold for $46,000, one in PCGS MS-65 brought $63,250 (a bargain relative to its list price), and a Numismatic Guaranty Corp. MS-66 with a star designation underperformed at “only” $80,500.

If all those mint-state values seem too pricy for you, Heritage sold several AG-3 pieces in 2010 for between $2,100 and $3,500. Many years ago, I considered buying an AG-3 that was priced at $250 in order to finish my set of well-circulated Barber quarters. I hesitated, and the opportunity passed. The next time I looked at prices the 1901-S was priced at $1,000+ in any collectible grade. If you ever have the chance to buy this date for a reasonable price and have the money for it, don’t hesitate like I did. Just be sure the coin is certified by one of the major services.

6. 1913-S Barber quarter. Although the 1913-S is not the priciest date in the Barber quarter set, it is the date with the lowest mintage (40,000). As such, many were pulled from circulation, particularly in lower grades. Discussing scarcity, Lawrence writes, “Usually available in AG to VG and sometimes in F, but almost never in EF and AU. Beymer [a major coin dealer in California] feels this is far tougher than the 1901-S in the latter two grades and I’m inclined to agree. Mint state specimens are sometimes available, but always command a significant premium over listed values [but see below]. Several times I have had to place an uncirculated specimen into an AU set, because they are far easier to locate.”

In “Coin Market,” the 1913-S is worth $1,850 in G-4, $2,450 in VG-8, $5,000 in F-12, $7,750 in VF-20, $10,500 in EF-40, $12,850 in AU-50, $15,000 in MS-60, $22,500 in MS-63, and $37,500 in MS-65. Looking at Heritage auction archives, I found that the 1913-S appears to be worth about $800 in AG-3.

In 2009, a PCGS-graded 1913-S in MS-65 went for just $20,125, which would seem to be a bargain relative to its $37,500 “Coin Market” price. In 2010, a PCGS coin graded MS-66 with a Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker (CAC examines coins and decides whether or not they are accurately graded; a green sticker means they are accurately graded) sold for $37,375, which, as you can see, is slightly less than the list price for the date in MS-65. Another coin with a CAC sticker, graded MS-67 by PCGS, brought $60,375 in 2009. An even better specimen, graded MS-68 by PCGS, sold for $86,250 in 2009.

If you can afford one in any grade and are interested in the date, I would urge you to buy one as soon as possible. As long as there are coin collections, the 1913-S will almost certainly not be any less expensive than it is today.

7. 1878-S Seated Liberty half dollar. Now this is a strange one. It’s an incredibly rare coin, with correspondingly high values, but the reason for this rarity is not evident from the mintage. According to the sources I consulted, the mintage of the 1878-S Seated Liberty half dollar was 12,000 pieces. Although that seems low, it turns out that it’s not low at all compared to other dates of the same variety. In fact, two other dates, 1889 and 1890, appear to have the same mintages, and all of the dates from 1879 to 1887 have significantly lower mintages (ranging from 4,400 to 8,400). Despite their lower mintages, all of these Philadelphia halves have minuscule values relative to the 1878-S.

Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins details the sale of three uncirculated pieces, and then notes, “Possibly 5 others are in mint state, and perhaps 20 more in low grades. Mintage halted to put San Francisco Mint equipment into full-time use on silver dollars.…” In the introduction to this half dollar type, Breen writes, “Quantities [of silver dollars] mandated were so immense that to fulfill the new law all the mints had to suspend or abolish coinage of smaller denominations.”

That would explain the low mintages throughout the rest of the series but not the tiny number of remaining 1878-S pieces. Were most of the 12,000 struck melted to provide the silver for 1878-S Morgans? Were they somehow “used up” in circulation?

Whatever the answer to this riddle of the missing 1878-S half dollars, the quoted values speak for themselves: $23,500 in G-4, $37,500 in VG-8, $45,000 in F-12, $47,500 in VF-20, $52,000 in EF-40, $60,000 in AU-50, $70,000 in MS-60, $110,000 in MS-63, and $175,000 in MS-65. In recent Heritage auction sales, an NGC-graded VG-8 specimen brought $31,050, an EF-40 PCGS 1878-S went for $74,750, and an MS-64 PCGS-graded piece sold for $184,000. Only the VG-8 piece sold for an amount similar to its value according to “Coin Market.”

Breen indicates that dangerous counterfeits exist, so you should be wary of any “bargain-priced,” uncertified specimens. If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly isn’t.

8. 1893-S Morgan dollar. The 1893-S Morgan dollar is the key to the set, not counting the 1895, which exists only as a proof dollar. It’s coin number 83 in Garrett and Guth, and the authors write, “The 1893-S Silver Dollar has the lowest mintage of any of the Morgan Dollars issued between 1878 and 1921, making it one of the rarest and most valuable coins in the series. In fact, the 1893-S Silver Dollar is the most valuable of any of the dates made for circulation.”

Just 100,000 of the 1893-S dollars were minted, and David Bowers, in Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States, estimated that approximately 6,097 to 12,189 have survived in all grades. Because the number of collectors looking for the date is so high, the 1893-S is pricy in any grade. According to “Coin Market,” it’s worth $2,750 in G-4, $3,300 in VG-8, $4,100 in F-12, $5,350 in VF-20, $8,250 in EF-40, $21,000 in AU-50, $90,000 in MS-60, $205,000 in MS-63, $350,000 in MS-64, and $715,000 in MS-65.

In A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, Bowers writes that the optimal collecting grade for the 1893-S is VF-20. Why VF-20? “The majority of known pieces, into the thousands, are in the single grade category of Very Fine.… Most such pieces circulated in the American West, and for an appropriate but apparently restricted time, to bring them to this grade.”

Bowers also notes, “Many fake 1893-S dollars exist. Absolutely and positively do not buy any ‘1893-S’ dollar that has not been certified by a leading service, and avoid like the plague offerings of uncertified coins ‘from an old estate’ or ‘from my grandfather’s collection’ offered on the Internet.” Actually, I bought an uncertified specimen several years ago from an eBay auction, but I examined it carefully when I received it for the “very tiny raised diagonal die line on the crossbar of the T (LIBERTY), diagnostic.” The coin I bought had this line, and I subsequently had it certified by ANACS.

9. 1854-S Liberty Head gold $2.50. This is coin number 87 in Garrett and Guth. With a mintage of just 246 pieces, this first year of San Francisco gold $2.50 pieces started life rare and only got rarer as time went by. Today “only a dozen survivors are known,” according to Garrett and Guth.

Why were so few gold $2.50s minted at San Francisco that year? According to Breen, a scarcity of the necessary acids for removing impurities from California gold was responsible, as the acids on hand were reserved for planchets for gold $20s. Garrett and Guth, however, note, “The true reason was that depositors of gold requested higher and lower denominations, and the $2.50 and $5 were in between and thus few were made.” Just 268 1854-S gold $5s were minted, and only three are known today, so in comparison, the 1854-S gold $2.50 is “common.”

Of the 12 or so remaining 1854-S gold $2.50s, the finest known grades AU-50. The values listed in “Coin Market” are as follows: F-12, $32,500; VF-20, $70,000; EF-40, $115,000; AU-50, $215,000; and MS-60, $300,000. Actually, these values are probably too low, as A Guide Book of United States Coins notes that an 1854-S in EF-45 sold for $345,000 in a Heritage auction in early 2007. More recently, an NGC-graded VF-35 sold for $253,000, which is more than double the EF-40 list price. Obviously, if you want to purchase an 1854-S gold $2.50, you’re going to have to pay well over “book” price to get it.

10. 1915-S Panama-Pacific Exposition gold $50 (octagonal). In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful of all the early commemorative issues. These two issues (there’s also a round version) were minted to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal.

More than 1,500 of each coin were struck, but not surprisingly given the $100 cost of each, many pieces weren’t sold and wound up being melted. As a result, just 483 of the round version were distributed, with distribution of 645 of the octagonal pieces. Obviously, well-heeled collectors at the time preferred the unusual shape of the 10th coin on my list.

The two Panama-Pacific $50 gold pieces (or “slugs,” as they’re sometimes called) occupy position 26 in Garrett and Guth. Designed by Robert Aitken, the obverse features the head of Minerva, who wears a helmet. Minerva was the goddess of “Wisdom, Skill, Contemplation, Spinning, Weaving and of Agriculture and Horticulture,” according to the official literature cited by David Bowers in Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia.

The reverse is dominated by an “owl, sacred to Minerva, the accepted symbol of wisdom, perched upon a branch of western pine.” Both sides of the octagonal piece feature dolphins in the angles. Their purpose, according to the official literature, is to suggest “as they encircle the central field, the uninterrupted water route made possible by the Panama Canal.”

As you would imagine, given the scarcity of these coins, their beauty, and their popularity, their values place them far beyond the reach of the average collector. According to “Coin Market,” the octagonal version is worth $52,500 in AU-50 (How could these coins have circulated?), $55,000 in MS-60, $80,000 in MS-63, $99,500 in MS-64, and $148,000 in MS-65. A Guide Book of United States Coins supplies a value in MS-66, which is $240,000.

How realistic are these values? Consulting the Heritage auction archives, I found that a PCGS-graded MS-63 specimen brought $74,750 in an August 2010 auction. In the same auction, an MS-64 specimen, also graded by PCGS, earned $126,500. A PCGS MS-65 piece went for $121,325 in a February 2008 auction.

Well, that’s the end of my list of the 10 best coins minted in San Francisco. Other coins I could have chosen include the 1908-S Indian Head cent, as the first cent to bear an S mintmark; the 1870-S half dime and gold $3; the 1854-S gold $5; and the 1857-S gold $20. Other possibilities might be the 1918/7-S Standing Liberty quarter, the 1861-S Paquet Reverse gold $20, and all the modern proof coins missing the S mintmark. It’s obvious that in its long history, the San Francisco Mint has produced a treasure trove of great coins for the U.S. collector.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

A Guide Book of United States Type Coins

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On January 18, 2011 lee fugate said
i have a jefferson nickel 2006 P that is missing the word trust on obverse. a sloght image (mirror like) of the r in trust is all i can make out. are there many like this in circulation?

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