By Jim Bisognani for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation…
Memories of collecting a complete 1921 coin set
In my previous article, I touched on several worthy series and interesting coins to get started with and had mentioned the year 1933 as a favorite of mine. Well I am still snow bound with another blizzard on the way. When will this madness end? Anyways, courtesy of Old Man Winter, the gent has given me some additional time between snow blowing and thawing out to research and review various US series and coins. So I moved the sundial back a bit and I quickly happened upon the 1921 Philadelphia issues.
As a young collector in my early teens, I didn’t immediately grasp the numismatic importance of that year as it also happened to be the year my dad was born. However, I quickly realized that 1921 wasn’t only an important year to remember personally, it is also a great year for collectors of all expertise levels and pocketbooks to revel in.
There was definitely some unexpected magic brewing as three Philadelphia issues reported in with the lowest mintages for their respective series. I got my start putting together a year set for my dad quite efficiently by pulling a rather nice 1921 Lincoln Cent from circulation! It took a couple of years, but I was able to put together a birth year set for my dad for his 50th birthday, sans that key $20 gold coin—ah to return to 1971!
1921 was a relatively calm period. World War I had just ended, President Harding was residing in the Oval Office and it would be a few years before the Teapot Dome scandal fallout would be consuming the tabloids and radio waves of the day. Oh yes, my dad was born in August.
The venerable Morgan silver, last minted in 1904, had a retooling and modest makeover by the designer George T. Morgan himself before making her final reprise in the beginning of the roaring twenties. Courtesy of the ample silver stock piles generated by the over 270 million silver cartwheels melted via the Pittman Act of 1918, the immensely popular Morgan silver dollars witnessed a rebirth and a mass production to the tune of 44.7 million delivered by the Philly facility alone—a record number for the series.
Not surprisingly, this last year type coin is abundant and very affordable for collectors of all budgets in circulated grades. Even mid-range Mint State coins are readily available with over 80% of all those graded by NGC of the date residing in MS-63 & MS-64 category. Here, a 1921 Morgan is readily affordable in the $60-$70 range respectively.
Moving up the grading standard, an NGC MS-65 Morgan dollar accounts for only about 8% of all those graded. Take note, a coin of this caliber will only set the collector back about $180. Try to find one though. It’s actually tough to find a real nice eye appealing Gem or better 1921 Morgan!
As the three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) were busy striking the final Morgan-designed dollar, the Philadelphia Mint still found time to introduce the new transitional piece (Peace dollar, if you will) in late 1921. A relatively modest output of just over 1 million secures this inaugural issue status as a key date and is coveted in all states of preservation. Considering the series popularity, the coin will always be in demand. A nice MS-60 / MS-61 example can still be found in the $300 price range.
Actually, with so much time and effort devoted to the production of Morgan silver dollars, the rest of the other standard silver and nickel denominations saw limited production. It was deemed that enough minor denomination coinage was already in circulation from the heavier production years, which was more than sufficient to satisfy daily commerce necessities.
Although not heralded as such, the popular Buffalo Nickel produced at the Philadelphia Mint in 1921 is actually rather scarce. It also boasts the lowest mintage Philadelphia issued Buffalo Nickel in the entire series!
Even today, some 94 years after its release, this Buffalo Nickel is often overlooked by dealers and collectors. The issue is relatively well struck, which makes finding a nice uncirculated example a bit easier. Although 10.6 million nickels were minted at Philadelphia, there are only 608 listed as Mint State according to the February NGC Census. A little over a third of those are for MS-64 coins. Accordingly, I think a coin in this grade would make a good starting point for your collection. Presently, a nice very choice uncirculated MS-64 will set you back around $450.
The ever-popular 1921 Mercury Dime is somewhat more immediately recognized as a key date within the series. Its mintage of slightly over 1.2 million examples makes it the lowest produced Philadelphia Mercury Dime by a factor greater than two-and-a-half over Ms. Winged Liberty’s nearest competitor, the 1931 strike, whose reported mintage was 3.1 million pieces. In fact, the 1921 is the third lowest mintage in the entire Mercury Dime series, trailing only the matriarch of the series, the 1916 D, with its scant 264,000 struck and the 1921 Denver issue reflecting a mintage of just a fraction over 1 million pieces. There are fewer than 1,200 1921 Mercury Dimes in all grade designations according to the NGC Census. A nice VF coin makes up a solid position here and is valued at $300.
As we move up the denomination ladder, if ever a coin was deserving of a key dates status, yet remains a bit off the radar, it is the 1921 Standing Liberty Quarter. Back in the halcyon days of collecting, the 1950s and early 1960s, the familiar blue Whitman folders helped popularize collecting by date as well as mint mark, which certainly gave the otherwise unheralded 1921 a boast in the series standing.
According to the mintage 52,000 and inaugural status, the 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter has always been the rarest, most popular and coveted by collectors as the elite coin in the series and deservedly so. Even so, the 1921 mintage figure of 1.9 million does equate to the tiniest output by the Philadelphia Mint for the Ms. Standing Liberty Quarter series by three fold compared to the final Standing Liberty Quarter struck in 1930. It is estimated that less than half a percent of that total 1921 delivery remains.
The NGC Census reveals a scant 877 examples in all grades and just over 300 designated as Mint State. A gorgeous NGC MS-65 example just sold at the Heritage FUN Signature Auction last month where it realized $2,585, a nice buy! Only 84 rated as MS-65, 24 graded MS 66 and a single coin rated MS-67. Securing a nice MS-65 Gem quality coin seems to be a great value as a full Gem is currently trending little more than double of the February NGC price guide for an AU-50 example quoted at $1,200.
Next up, is the Walking Liberty Half Dollar. The Philadelphia Mint’s output, or lack thereof, also resulted in recording the lowest mintage within the entire series. The Philly delivery reported mintage of a mere 246,000 coins is second only to its Denver counterpart this same year which claims a slightly lower tally of 208,000.
While both of these coins (along with the San Francisco installment) are considered prominent keys to the entire Walking Liberty Half series the Philadelphia issue is considered the “type” coin of 1921. As I view the February NGC Census, fewer than 1,150 coins appear in all grades with 60% of that total grading less than Fine! A pleasing VF coin can still be had in the $1,000 range.
There was also a gold coin to consider in this equation. In fact, the only gold coin struck for regular circulation in 1921 was the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, which in itself is an enigma and an incredibly intriguing and valuable issue. At a casual glance, the mintage output according to Philadelphia records, indicates that over a half million coins were produced. This otherwise healthy production would not begin to suggest the absolute rarity of this coin.
Due to the mandatory melting’s and recall of gold coins in 1933 and 1934 by FDR, it was most assuredly the death bell for the majority of the 1921 Double Eagles, which had been sitting in bags or in storage at various financial institutions. However, it still is hard to explain that from the original mintage of over a half million, there are currently only 71 coins that reside in the NGC census, the lowest graded being a single VF coin with the majority, some 40 coins grading Mint State! Interestingly, the 1923 Philadelphia issue reporting a similar mintage of 566,000 coins, reveals over 29,000 Mint State coins in the NGC US Coin Census!
According to the February 2015 NGC US Coin Price Guide, a 1921 Saint VF example is valued at $30,000 and $100,000 for an MS-60.
Perhaps we should think of 1921 as the last banner year. It was quite possibly the last of the simpler golden age of numismatics when most coins were not produced in massive quantities and those coins minted actually circulated as they were intended- with no proofs struck for collectors!
I remember presenting the 1921 date set to my dad on August 23, 1971. As I recall the dime, quarter and half were all VF and the Buffalo nickel, Morgan and Peace dollars were uncirculated and my total expenditure was $181. Dad was very happy with the gift because even though he wasn’t a coin collector, he knew I was and the set was personal to him and he knew the effort I had put in getting it together. In coin collecting and life, certain years definitely stand out more than others.
Until next time, happy collecting!
Jim Bisognani has written extensively on US coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.