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Hunting for Dime ‘Sleepers’
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
July 26, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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In the recent past there have been plenty of arguments that dimes and quarters represent the last two working coins in U.S. small change. The argument goes that cents and nickels are too small to really make much of a difference when it comes to any purchasing power, and half dollars and dollar coins simply aren’t used. Furthering that, nickels and cents now cost more than their face value to produce. So that leaves just the dime and quarter to do most of the work of every small-change transaction.

All this in turn means that there ought to be enough dimes circulating today that a person could collect a real “best of the best” set. And when there is plenty of any coin in any denomination, it’s also always fun to see if there are any sleepers in the crowd. Doing this for the entire dime series might lead to some interesting highs and lows.

Roosevelt
The Roosevelt dime series is one of those that really has no rare date or mintmark within it. Issued every year since 1946, the design is by John Sinnock, and right from the beginning, Sinnock’s image of President Roosevelt was a common one. The “rare” mintmark of 1946 would be the “S,” with a mere 27.9 million coins to its tally. The Philadelphia Mint churned out a river of more than 255 million dimes that year. And while that remained the highest mintage until the 1962-D eclipsed it with 209 million, there is nothing in the entire series that qualifies even as scarce, much less rare.

Now, curiously, the lack of a scarce date can focus us in another direction—toward the best of any date and mintmark. In the case of the Roosevelt dimes, it might be interesting to look at the best possible proof a person could buy.

Proof Roosevelt dimes were issued as part of the Mint’s sets every year starting in 1950. It would be 1957 before the Mint produced more than 1 million in one year. So that first year, the 1950, becomes a coin that is worth a look, simply because it is the least common. There were only 51,386 proof dimes made that year, and most of these sets have been split up over the decades. But since there seems to be more of a collector love affair with proof Franklin half dollars than Roosevelt dimes, you might be surprised at how little a 1950 proof Roosevelt costs, even in a grade like Mint State-67.

The definition of a sleeper is an undervalued coin that has some potential to rise in value over time. The earliest proof Roosevelt dimes all seem undervalued at the moment, but a look back into old price lists and catalogs indicated that they have been for many years. So, while we can be tempted to call these dimes sleepers, it’s a long shot at best as to whether or not they will ever wake up. Still, any of them will make great additions to a growing type set.

Mercury
One set of dimes that has been wide awake for as long as any collector can remember is the Mercury dime. Issued from 1916 to 1945, with a well-known famous rarity right up there at the beginning, the 1916-D, the design is the artistry of Adolph A. Weinman. One can only guess at what Weinman imagined when he created this image, and whether he thought folks would fall in love with it as much as they have.

Mercury dimes have been collector favorites for so long it’s probably tough to imagine a single sleeper within the series. But that being said, it is still probably a good idea to look at the 1921 and -D, the 1926-S, the 1930-S, and the 1931-D and -S.

These six coins are generally the key dates and mintmarks for the series, since most of us are probably not in possession of a 1916-D. Glancing through the price listing is this issue of Coins reveals that three of the six of these dates are expensive coins up in the mint-state grades, which means three of them are not. The 1930-S, as well as the 1931-D and 1931-S, are all coins a person can afford, even in grades like MS-65. Yes, they’ll cost a few hundred dollars in such a state of preservation, but that’s not thousands. Possibly, these could qualify as sleepers.

If that price range is still too high for you, look at the 1944 Mercury dime. It is the single most common dime in the series, and many of them were well-struck, such that they are designated full split bands. That FSB designation means the fasces on the reverse is fully struck up, with each center band clearly delineated, and that usually commands a premium. For the 1944, however, an MS-65 FSB specimen costs well under $100. It’s no sleeper, but it’s the best, and the best with a very good price tag.

Barber
Moving back to the Barber dimes, the highs were never as high, and the lows never as low as the Mercury dimes (with the exception of the super rarity 1894-S). But obviously, the series is older. That means prices tend to be higher, at least when it comes to buying the best.

The high mintages within the Barber dimes series tend to be any date or mintmark that totals more than 15 million. There are more than a dozen that qualify, and when a person compares along any price list, these coins all have roughly the same prices in any grade.

Using $100 as a mark for spending, as I just did, we quickly see that this might land a common-date Barber in MS-60, but that anything higher will cost more. Keep in mind that an MS-60 is not an ugly coin, but because of the age of the Barber dimes, we’ve had to step down a bit.

That $100 price can be used to our advantage, however, in any kind of sleeper hunt. Since we’ve just seen it can be the marker for the most common coins, the next step is to determine what lower mintage dates or mintmarks can be snagged and brought into a growing collection for the same price.

Sure, a good-looking 1907 for $100 is a worthy addition to a type set collection. But with a total of 22.2 million, it’s the most common Barber you can get.

Look for less common pieces that carry the same or close to the same price tag. Any of the S-mint coins are probably off this list. They have been collector favorites for a long, long time. But some of the New Orleans pieces might qualify. Or some of the Philadelphia pieces with lower mintages might work.

Seated Liberty
Moving back even farther, to the Seated Liberty design of Christian Gobrecht, we get to a set of dimes that can become a collecting addiction of its own. Minted from 1837-1891, there are five major varieties within the series and a host of years when the production was nothing but a trickle.

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Such scarce or rare dates will always be a challenge to collect, but the common dates within this series are easy enough to find that the problem might be making a choice as to what can best serve as a stellar addition for a type set.

For most of the common-date Seated Liberty dimes it will cost about $150 to $200 to break into the ranks of the mint-state coins. Older ones tend to be more expensive still. But a step down to the About Uncirculated grade often comes with a big price drop. In this case, even some of the older dates become very affordable. The 1842 and 1843 serve as two examples that fit.

Now, if you end up looking not only for better Seated Liberty dimes, but for sleepers as well, check out the end of the series, between 1875 and 1891. The high end of the mintages is huge, with four dates and mintmarks above 10 million coins, and several more being close enough that it doesn’t matter.

The low end saw four dates and mintmarks well below 100,000. Those low dates will always be expensive, but at what point does a date hover between common and scarce but the price not really rise? It could be advantageous to check a price list line by line when it comes to these later dimes.

Capped Bust
Moving all the way back to the Capped Bust dimes and the artwork of John Reich, issued from 1809-1837, it doesn’t take much to realize that there simply are no inexpensive dimes still preserved in the upper grades. These dimes are too old, have survived through too many times when high silver prices meant coins were melted, and simply weren’t made in high enough numbers to begin with. The $100 mark I have been using can land a more common date in a grade like Very Fine-20 (which is really not too bad), but not in higher.

If there is a sleeper in this short series, it might be the 1830. There were only 510,000 minted, and that mintage is lower than most of the dates around it. Yet its prices are generally the same.

Capped Bust dimes are pretty much collector coins, pure and simple, so the price might not be poised to rise anytime in the near future. But this one dime does seem to be undervalued.

Draped Bust
Moving all the way back to the earliest dimes, meaning the Draped Bust pieces issued in 1796 and 1797 with the small eagle reverse, and from 1798-1807 with a heraldic eagle reverse, you’ll see that finding an affordable piece is impossible.

The U.S. Mint was authorized by Congress in 1792, but didn’t get around to dimes at all until 1796. Then, when it did crank up a dime press, it never even got over 35,000 for any mintage until 1805. In short, if a person wants one of these earliest dimes in any grade better than Good-4, they need to be ready to part with more than $1,000. These are expensive coins, no matter what.

But don’t let a few high prices for our earliest dimes scare you away from starting a great type set collection of our nation’s 10-cent pieces. We’ve seen that there are plenty of gorgeous dimes for the prudent collector, as well as some sleepers squirreled away in the various series. If you want to start a collection of these small workhorse coins, now might be a very good time.



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