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1921: A Year of Many Key and Semi-Key Coins

1921: A Year of Many Key and Semi-Key Coins

By Bullion Shark LLC ……
We recently discussed what an unusual year 1922 was in the history of U.S. coinage, but 1921 was also a year that still fascinates collectors. That is because almost every coin struck that year later became a key or semi-key coin in its respective series.

And like the numismatic situation in 1922 when so few coins were even made, the low mintages of many coins from 1921 was also a function of the economic depression of 1920-1921, which reduced the demand for circulating coins.

The causes of the sharp economic downturn of 1920-1921, according to economists, were: the large number of troops who returned from service in World War I in 1919, which created a large surge in civilian employment that produced a sharp increase in unemployment; the large decline in prices for agricultural goods (at a time when a very significant percentage of the workforce was in farming) because of the recovery of European farming by this time; and the combination of tight monetary policy to combat the inflation the war had produced with deflationary expectations regarding prices, which helped shrink the economy.

Coupled with this bleak economic environment was the much higher coinage output of the years before 1921. As a result, in 1921 there are lots of semi-key coins and some keys too, including especially the 1921-S Buffalo nickel; the 1921 and 1921-D Mercury dime; the 1921 Standing Liberty quarter; and the 1921 $20 gold coin, the only gold piece made that year – each of which is at least a semi-key coin. Then there is the trio of 1921 Walking Liberty half dollars1921, 1921-D, and 1921-S–which are the undisputed low-mintage keys of the entire series.

Silver Dollars

The other reason for these many low mintage coins of 1921 is that the United States Mint was largely focused on cranking out millions of silver dollars that year thanks to the Pittman Act of 1918. After not being produced since 1904, Morgan dollars (after the dies were recreated by George T. Morgan because the 1904 ones had been destroyed) made a big comeback in 1921.

Jeff Garrett: Collecting 1921 Morgan and Peace DollarsIn fact, that year the Mint struck 44,490,000 Morgan dollars at the Philadelphia Mint plus another 20,345,000 in Denver and 21,695,000 in San Francisco – far more than any prior year and with much higher survival rates than any of those other issues.

Plus, towards the end of 1921, Mint facilities made over one million of the new Peace dollar, too, which did not enter circulation until early in 1922. The 1921 coins are special because they were the first Peace dollars and the only coins of the series struck in high relief. While still affordable in circulated grades, this coin has gotten more expensive in mint states grades in part because of the 2021 coins that were issued with the same design but not in high relief.

Keys and Semi-Keys

The 1921-S Lincoln cent is a better date coin, while the 1921-S Buffalo nickel is a semi-key that is rare in circulated grades and scarce in Mint State grades. Only 8,500 of its original mintage are estimated to still exist with just 700 in Mint State.

After the 1916-D Mercury dime, the 1921 and 1921-D are the lowest mintages of that venerable series with respectively 1,230,000 and 1,080,000 of those coins produced and far fewer surviving examples of both issues. In 1920 over 19 million dimes had been struck in Denver alone plus 14 million in San Francisco and a whopping over 59 million in Philadelphia, which makes it easy to understand why production was curtailed so much in 1921 as the economy contracted, and all those 1920 dimes were around.

Similarly, when it comes to the popular Standing Liberty quarter, after the key coin of 1916 with a mintage of just 52,000 and a status as the debut issue comes the 1923-S, with 1,360,000 struck. And then comes the 1921, with an original mintage of 1.9 million that is a semi-key and one of the most valuable coins of the series in XF-40 (valued at $800). In 1920, a total of about 30 million quarters had been struck at the three mints, so that was again a sharp drop.

In 1921, the only coins made at all three mints besides Morgans were the Walking Liberty half dollars. As with dimes and quarters, a lot of coins had been made in 1920 – over 12 million at the three branches – plus in times of economic distress higher denominations are even less widely used than the workhorse lower denominations and fewer people can afford to save them, which helps explain the sharp reduction in mintages in 1921 to 246,000 made in Philadelphia, 208,000 in Denver and 548,000 in San Francisco.

The first two are much more valuable even in the lowest circulated grades than the rest of the coins in the series. And in Mint State they are even scarcer, with only a couple hundred of each graded by PCGS that are at least MS60 for the 1921 trio out of about 9,000 examples graded.

Double Eagle

As for gold coins, the demand for them in an economic panic like that of 1920-1921 is clearly much reduced from the boom years of World War I, which probably explains why $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagles are the only gold coins made in 1921.

1921: A Year of Many Key and Semi-Key CoinsThe amazing thing about the 1921 $20 gold coin is that, of an original mintage of 528,500 coins, no more than 150 coins in total are estimated to still exist. And only 102 of those have been graded by PCGS, with an MS63 having sold in 2006 for an amazing $1,495,000! And there are eight coins graded higher by the same service. In fact, PCGS estimates a coin grading just XF-40 to be worth $50,000.

The reason for such high values and a minuscule survival rate is that they were among the coins that had been sitting in government storage vaults in the years leading up to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s recall of gold coins in 1933. Thus, most of them likely perished in the massive melting of gold coins back then.

For coin collectors and those interested in the history of American coinage, the coins of 1921 represent an important, fascinating, and valuable group of coins that would make for an amazing year set.

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