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Collecting Copper-Nickel Cents Worth a Try
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
September 10, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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If you can’t afford a complete collection of the first small cents, Flying Eagle cents and Indian Head cents, I can suggest a short set that you can collect with ease: copper-nickel cents. In its simplest form, this set consists of just seven different pieces, 1857 and 1858 Flying Eagle cents and 1859-1864 Indian Head cents.

Of course, one of the first questions we need to ask about copper-nickel cents is: What was the point? Why did we need small cents, and why was the copper-nickel alloy (88 percent copper, 12 percent nickel) chosen? And why did the Mint stop making copper-nickel cents after only seven years?

To answer the first question, we must go back to the time of the large cents. Interestingly, the problem then was the same as now: The coin cost more to make than it was worth. Actually, the desire for a large cent replacement began several years before 1857, the date of the last large cent and the first small cent minted for circulation.

In A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, Richard Snow writes, “The government expressed concern in 1849 that Treasury Department profits from copper coinage had fallen sharply.” In 1850, the Mint began experimenting with smaller-diameter coins, coins with large holes in their centers, and coins of different metals.

James Booth, the Mint’s melter and refiner, decided in the spring of 1856 that an alloy of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel would be perfect for the new cent. The coin would be much smaller in diameter than a large cent, and it would be relatively thick to avoid confusion with a silver piece. As for the design, this became chief engraver James B. Longacre’s assignment.

For the cent’s obverse, Longacre chose a flying eagle, which had been used two decades earlier by Christian Gobrecht for his reverse design on silver dollars. Longacre selected his own design on an earlier coin for the cent’s reverse. This was the wreath of wheat, corn, cotton, and tobacco that Longacre devised for use on 1854 $1 and gold $3 pieces. More precisely, Snow writes that the wreath’s composition, “…beginning at the ribbon, seems to be: tobacco, wheat, corn, cotton, and a corn ear.…”

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In an effort to educate the public about the new, much smaller and lighter cent, a substantial number of 1856-dated Flying Eagle cents were struck and distributed “…to newspaper editors, congressmen, and others of influence, with some coins held in reserve for distribution to numismatists. Included in the dispersal were one to each senator and representative, four to President Franklin Pierce, about 200 to the Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures, and other pieces to Treasury Department officials.”

The exact number of 1856 Flying Eagle cents produced is not known, but it must have been considerably more than the 1,000 figure that was cited in my first A Guide Book of United States Coins (1958 Red Book). The 2014 edition of the Red Book indicates that between 2,000 and 3,000 may have been struck.

My first coin album was for Indian Head and Flying Eagle cents, and there was a hole for the 1856. Of course, it was plugged with a circular piece of cardboard labeled “Rare.” The 1856 Flying Eagle is not rare, however, merely scarce, and fabulous hoards have been formed of this date. George W. Rice, for example, accumulated 756 pieces before beginning to sell them around the turn of the 20th century. Many of these undoubtedly went to Col. John Beck, who assembled a hoard of 531 pieces.

Of course, these hoards were formed at a time when the date was not particularly expensive, at least in today’s terms. Current values in Numismatic News “Coin Market” begin at $6,250 in Good-4 and climb to $65,000 in Mint State-65. In Proof-65, the coin is worth “just” $28,500, as proofs of the date are much more common than pieces made for circulation.

If you’re interested in the 1856 Flying Eagle and can afford one, I would strongly recommend the purchase of a specimen certified by one of the major certification services. Fakes, often made by modifying the final digit in the date of an 1858 Flying Eagle, exist in the marketplace.

I encountered one of these in a collection I handled a few years back. This was a collection that had been put together many years ago, and it included a nearly full run of early cents. The “1856” Flying Eagle was in a holder marked “Rare.”

When I looked at the coin with my loop, my first reaction was that it was a fake, as something looked wrong with the final digit of the date. However, the coin didn’t appear to have been cleaned and retoned, so I managed to convince myself (wishful thinking?) that it might be real. The Professional Coin Grading Service was not convinced, however, and when I compared the piece with the pictures and text in Bill Fivaz’s Counterfeit Detection Guide, I found that my first impression had been correct.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cent, circulation-strike or proof, is a coin for numismatists with serious coin budgets, not for people like you and me. For us, more reasonable Flying Eagle cents are those produced in 1857 and 1858.

The Mint Act of Feb. 21, 1857 called for the end of the half cent and the large cent, with these two coins to be exchanged for the new Flying Eagle cents. Enthusiasm for the new cent was high, as Snow reports: “By May 25, the official release date, the excitement of the populace overwhelmed the U.S. Mint. Two special outdoor booths were set up in the Mint yard to accommodate the massive demand.”

Nearly 17.5 million of the 1857 Flying Eagle cent were coined and initially, at least, the novelty of the new small cent resulted in many of them being saved. As a result, the values of this date, even in mint state, are surprisingly low. It’s worth $27.50 in G-4, $39 in Very Good-8, $40 in Fine-12, $47 in Very Fine-20, $140 in Extremely Fine-40, $210 in About Uncirculated-50, $425 in MS-60, $665 in MS-63, and $3,500 in MS-65.

Snow considers EF-40 the optimal collecting grade for 1857s in circulated condition, with MS-64 as the optimal uncirculated grade. In MS-64, Snow gives the coin a suggested value of $1,750. For collectors on a budget, it strikes me that a better grade for a circulated piece would be VF-20, as the price takes a big jump to EF-40. By the same token, in mint state a better choice might be MS-63, as the value takes a big leap up to the next grade.

Because of the large number of half cents and large cents that the public wanted to redeem, mintage of the 1858 Flying Eagle cent was even greater than that in 1857, with 24.6 million produced. Approximately half of the 1858s are of the “large letters” variety, the other half the “small letters” variety.

The easiest way to tell the two varieties apart is to look at the letters “AM” in “AMERICA.” If the letters are separated, it’s the “small letters” piece. If they’re joined, then it’s the “large letters” variety. Think Small Letters Separated (SLS) and Large Letters Joined (LLJ), and you won’t have any trouble distinguishing the varieties.

The values of the two varieties are quite similar, with the “small letters” type having slightly lower values throughout. In “Coin Market,” the 1858 LL is worth $28 in G-4, $41 in VG-8, $43.50 in F-12, $56 in VF-20, $160 in EF-40, $230 in AU-50, $445 in MS-60, $715 in MS-63, and $3,850 in MS-65. For the 1858 SL, the range is from $27.50 in G-4 to $3,650 in MS-65.

As with the 1857 Flying Eagle, Snow recommends the 1858, either variety, in EF-40 for circulated pieces, and MS-64 for uncirculated coins. As before, I would recommend VF-20 and MS-63 if you’re looking for the best buys.

The next copper-nickel cent is the first of the Indian Head cents. Dated 1859, the coin is actually a one-year type coin, as its reverse retained the design found on the reverse of the Flying Eagle cents, a plain olive wreath encircling the denomination (“ONE CENT”). An oak wreath and shield were used on all later Indian Head cents.

The reason for the change of the obverse from a flying eagle to a head of Liberty in an Indian headdress was the poor striking qualities of the former design. As Snow describes it, “The problem was that the head and tail of the eagle was directly opposite the wreath details on the reverse.… The Indian Head design was…tested in 1858 and was found to be superior to the Flying Eagle. The head was centrally located on the coin and did not interfere with metal flow into the reverse die.” Again, Longacre was the coin’s designer.

Fortunately for both the type collector and the collector of Indian Head cents, a whopping 36.4 million of the 1859 were minted. The values are $13 in G-4, $16 in VG-8, $22.50 in F-12, $48 in VF-20, $100 in EF-40, $175 in AU-50, $230 in MS-60, $610 in MS-63, and $3,650 in MS-65. Snow gives the same two grades for optimal collecting, EF-40 and MS-64, to which he assigns a value of $1,500. I still think VF-20 and MS-63 are the better buys, although you should always choose the higher grade if you can afford it.

Still struck on a copper-nickel planchet, 1860 is the first of the Indian Head cents with the design found on all later pieces. Snow divides 1860 into two types: one with a pointed bust and one with a rounded bust. He estimates the mintage of the pointed bust variety as one million, with the remainder of the mintage (20.6 million total) having a rounded bust.

Values for the rounded bust coin are $11 in G-4, $15 in VG-8, $22 in F-12, $46 in VF-20, $68 in EF-40, $110 in AU-50, $190 in MS-60, $235 in MS-63, and $965 in MS-65. No values are given in “Coin Market” for the pointed bust variety. Snow provides a range of values for the pointed-bust coin between $25 in G-4 and $6,000 in MS-65. Although he again considers EF-40 to be the optimal collecting grade for pointed-bust circulated pieces (AU-50 for the rounded bust), he chooses MS-63, with a value of $700, for the optimal grade for an uncirculated piece (MS-64, worth $450, for the rounded bust).

In 1861, only 10.1 million copper-nickel cents were produced, which gives the date the lowest mintage of all the copper-nickel cents. Still, the date is plentiful enough that the values are relatively low for a coin over 150 years old. According to “Coin Market,” the 1861 cent is worth $23 in G-4, $30 in VG-8, $42 in F-12, $58 in VF-20, $95 in EF-40, $160 in AU-50, $180 in MS-60, $240 in MS-63, and $975 in MS-65.

For Snow, the optimal collecting grade is AU-50 for circulated pieces. He doesn’t give an optimal grade for uncirculated 1861s, writing, “Due to the widespread hoarding during the Civil War, high-quality examples are widely available, although at a premium over the other dates.” By “high-quality,” I would assume he means MS-65 and better pieces.

Mintage of the 1862 cent was substantial (28.1 million), and values reflect this abundance, for the most part. “Coin Market” prices it at just $11.50 in both G-4 and VG-8, and it’s worth $12.50 in F-12, $15 in VF-20, $28 in EF-40, $60 in AU-50, $80 in MS-60, $155 in MS-63, and $1,050 in MS-65. Snow gives the AU-50 and MS-65 as optimal collecting grades. In terms of affordability, I would recommend AU-55 or -58 and MS-63.

In 1863, the floodgates opened at the Mint and out poured nearly 50 million copper-nickel cents. As a result, if you examine a collection of coins and it has just one copper-nickel cent, it’s almost certainly going to be an 1863. In G-4, it’s worth $9, $9.25 in VG-8, $11 in F-12, $12.50 in VF-20, $25 in EF-40, $58 in AU-50, $75 in MS-60, $165 in MS-63, and $1,050 in MS-65. Snow recommends AU-50 and MS-65 as the optimal collecting grades. My recommendations are the same as for 1862.

The final copper-nickel cent was minted in 1864, along with the first bronze cents. With a mintage of 13.7 million, the 1864 copper-nickel cent is pricier than its two immediate predecessors. “Coin Market” values the date at $20 in G-4, $28.50 in VG-8, $35 in F-12, $72 in VF-20, $125 in EF-40, $175 in AU-50, $220 in MS-60, $300 in MS-63, and $1,400 in MS-65. Snow recommends optimal collecting grades of AU-50 and MS-64, which he assigns a value of $550. My suggestions for affordability are VF-20 and MS-63.

Once you’ve obtained the seven different dates, you might next try to get the major varieties. The Red Book varieties consist of both letter sizes of the 1858, 1858/7, and both types of 1860 (rounded and pointed bust). The overdate varies from coins on which the remnants of the 7 clearly show all the way to those on which it is invisible and the coin is identified by a small dot over the first 8. Obviously, the former pieces are more desirable (and worth more) than the latter.

If you want to collect copper-nickel cent varieties seriously, then you need to consult a book such as Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton’s Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins (5th edition). In it, you’ll find page after page of die varieties in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned here. There are copper-nickel cents with doubled dies, repunched dates, evidence of clashed dies with other denominations, and so on.

It’s also possible to put together a collection of proof versions of the copper-nickel cents. In “Coin Market,” values of the different dates in PR-65 range from $3,100 (1863, of course) to $30,000 (1858 large letters). This includes the 1856 Flying Eagle, which is just the third priciest date in proof, behind the 1858 and 1857.

As I hope you can see, the copper-nickel cents represent a brief, but interesting, transition from large cents to small cents. No matter how you collect them, you’re bound to have a mini-set that’s both interesting and fun. And that’s what coin collecting is all about.

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