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Five Great Coins to Pursue
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
February 27, 2014

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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If the strict definition of a sleeper is a coin that is undervalued because its mintage is lower than its more common brethren, and yet its price is lower as well, then there are also some coins out there that must qualify as the opposite. There are some coins that collectors know are really not all that scarce but that still command some type of premium.

It’s tempting to say that this is the definition of what are key coins, but that’s not quite the case. A key coin costs more than the common dates within its series precisely because it is not common. No, I am talking here about coins that command the price, but not the rarity of key coins. Here, for our consideration, are five different coins, all wide awake in the midst of some very collectible series of U.S. coins.

1. The 1921 high-relief Peace dollar.
Who knows how much ink has been spilled claiming that this first view of Anthony de Francisci’s artwork, the high-relief dollar, is one of the key coins of the series, specifically because of this high-relief image?

If a person were to listen to the common wisdom, the simple fact that this is a high-relief coin means it has to be worth more than its many lower relief siblings, issued from 1922-1928, then again in 1934 and 1935. But a look at the mintages reveals an inconvenient little truth: With a 1,006,473 mintage for the 1921 Peace dollar, there are four within the Peace dollar series that have lower mintages than this coin. There are another nine that totaled less than 2 million each, making them not all that much more common.

With so many Peace dollars around or below the 1921’s mintage, you might quickly deduce that this coin should be priced about the same as all the others. Alas, how wrong you would be. No, the 1921 in Mint State-60 currently runs about $300. Several of the others, including the 1934, which has a lower mintage, cost about $125 in the same grade.

While a person can make any defense about how difficult the high relief was to strike up, and thus how hard it is to find a truly good looking one today, the fact remains the 1921 is the dead-on opposite of a sleeper.

2. The 1874-CC Trade dollar.
Like Peace dollars, Trade dollars are part of a relatively short series. Originally issued for foreign trade from 1873-1878, then in tiny amounts as proofs from 1879-1885, Trade dollars came out of the Philadelphia Mint as well as the branch mints at Carson City, Nev., and San Francisco.

It’s hard to find a collector today who isn’t aware that any type of dollar with the CC or the S mintmark tends to cost more than those from Philadelphia. Maybe it’s just an overall love of the mints that were part of the wild west, but we all seem quite willing to pay more for those letters.

Yet, when it comes to the 1874-CC Trade dollar, there were 1,373,200 of them produced, which is actually a rather hefty number. When that is compared to the 455,000 produced at the Philadelphia Mint in 1876, or the 218,200 minted there in 1875, that 1.3 million appears downright common. Yet the 1876 costs much less in nearly every grade. And even the 1875 costs less in most grades, including the mint-state ones.

What’s up with this coin? The answer here is one that will probably always be shrouded in a bit of uncertainty. The Trade dollar was the only coin the U.S. government demonetized. As part of that process, plenty of these silver pieces were melted. It is conceivable that a large number of the 1874-CCs ended up in the pot.

Still, whatever the existing total of 1874-CC Trade dollars is, you will need to part with $1,000 to get close to a mint-state example.

3. The 1878-CC Morgan dollar.
The lure of the CC mintmark plays a role for my next coin. The year 1878 was the first of the Morgan dollar series, and they came roaring out of three different mints, in quite a few different varieties. The 2.2 million from Carson City might seem high, until it is stacked up against the 9.7 million that came from the Granite Lady of San Francisco. But the total is quite high compared to the 749,500 that are eight tail-feather coins from Philadelphia (one of the varieties that year). And lest you think this is just an apples and oranges comparison between a Philadelphia and Carson City coin, the 1883-CC total was only 1.2 million, and the 1885-S was just a hair under 1.5 million. Yet the prices for the latter three dates here are always less than the 1878-CC, sometimes significantly so.

Once again, we might have a case here of plenty of 1878-CC coins going to the melting pot over the years. When the price of silver rose astronomically in the early 1980s, there were quite a few folks digging into the corners to bring out silver dollars they had not thought of, probably for decades. And whether it was silver melts or some other unforeseen driver, prices for the 1878-CC Morgan dollar remain high.

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4. The 1953 Franklin half dollar.
It might seem a bit odd as I build a list of coins that aren’t sleeping to include a Franklin half dollar on it, as just about every date and mintmark within the series is quite common, and was made in the millions. The 1955, which is sometimes considered the key coin within this short run of 50-cent pieces, has a total of just less than 2.5 million coins. Yet the 1953, with 2.66 million coins, costs more. Can the reason for this be the same as for the Trade dollar and Morgan dollar examples we just saw?

Actually, when it comes to the 1953 Franklin half, the reason for higher prices being connected with higher mintage, the phenomenon probably has less to do with any silver melts and more to do with the finer specifications of minting the coins. A look through the price lists show that the higher the grade, especially in mint state, the higher the price difference.

5. The 1919-D Walking Liberty half dollar.
Walking Liberty half dollars are some of the most heavily collected U.S. coins, much like Morgan and Peace dollars. So on the surface of things, you might expect these halves to be pretty well aligned when it comes to mintages and price tags. Yet there is one right up at the beginning of the series that appears to be another example that’t not sleeping and that is the 1919-D.

By 1919 the new branch mint in Denver had been pounding out coins for less than a decade. Indeed, the earliest halves with a D mintmark are the 1911-D Barber halves. But even though there was still a hint of that wild west in Denver in 1919, it seems that eight years of producing half dollars would have been enough to get all the details right. I make that comment because somewhat like the Franklin half, the 1919-D is a half dollar with a pretty high mintage for which the price differences are greatest at the higher mint-state levels.

The 1919-D saw a mintage of 1,165,000 halves, which is actually rather low compared to the later dates and mintmarks within the series. But that number is much higher than the 765,400 for the 1917-D obverse mintmark, or the 1917-S obverse mintmark, with its 952,000. Yet the 1917-D runs about $600 in MS-60, and the 1917-S costs $2,500 in that grade. The 1919-D comes in at $6,000 in MS-60. By any stretch, that’s lot to lay out for a single half dollar.

Don’t let this one price steer you away from a good-looking early Walking Liberty half dollar. Stepping down just to something like Extremely Fine-40 gives you a coin that still has some great eye appeal and that doesn’t drain your wallet.

As a matter of fact, in that last comment lies what might be the key to enjoying these five coins that are not keys themselves, but that are far from sleepers. After all, looking at these five, a person could get the feeling that some of the best coins out there are simply overpriced.

How do we then manage to add such coins to any growing collection? The answer to smart buying in these cases isn’t all that tough. Look one or two grades lower than those I have mentioned. For example, see what an About Uncirculated or an EF of one of these looks like, and compare its price tag to the MS-60 version.

Are these cases of slightly higher grades for considerably higher prices? If so, decide what grade is good enough, based on eye and wallet appeal.

They’re not sleepers. They’re not key coins. But they can still be great coins to add to your collection.

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