The Lincoln cent is the United States’ longest-serving coin. Its 1909 debut marked the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and its elegant sculptural design served as the vanguard of a new wave of American coin art. And while the golden era of American coin design is most associated with medallic artist and sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gardens, it is the early 20th-century work of Litvak-American sculptor Victor David Brenner that remains in circulation.
A paltry 866,000 Lincoln cents were struck at the San Francisco Mint in 1931. That total made the 1931-S the fourth cent in the small cent era (starting in 1857) to have a mintage under one million. The other coins: the 1877 Indian, the 1909-S Indian, and the 1909-S VDB brought marginally higher prices than their coins by the start of the 1930s coin boom. The Numismatist, in its standard reporting of mintages, made the collecting community aware of the 1931-S Lincoln cent’s relative scarcity. A hunt for the coins immediately commenced.
By 1935, San Francisco-based dealer R.A. Webb was offering “strictly uncirculated” examples of the 1931-S cent for 35 cents in his ads in the back of the ANA’s monthly. By then, fellow dealer Thomas Elder was selling 1877 Indian cents in BU for $2.50. The 1909-S VDB cent was going for about as much as the 1931-S; its runaway success as the series key was not yet assured.
The 1931-S was hoarded in large quantities. An oft-repeated “Breenism” has Corpus Christie, Texas hoarder Maurice Scharlack putting away 200,000 of them – but Breen’s claim of a hoard of this issue and of that size is dubious as there is no evidence of its existence. Other dealers over the years have reported hoard stories as well, but nothing that rises to the scale of the supposed Scharlack hoard.
What is more certain is that because of the coin’s popularity with collectors and speculators, the 1931-S didn’t circulate for long. This can be seen in the examples that survive to this day. Today, the 1931-S Lincoln Cent is typically found in XF or better condition, with Mint State examples being typical, but in enough demand to command a premium.
Expect to pay $100 or more for a choice example in Extra Fine or better and $300 or more for a Choice Uncirculated 1931-S Lincoln Cent.
Counterfeits and alterations of the 1931-S exist and some are deceptive. Altered dates can be quickly identified by looking at the clarity of the “1” at the end of the date and the shape of the “3”. The “3”-style used on 1931 Lincoln cents differs in style from other 3s used in any other year of the 1930s. Cast counterfeits will have a grainy or porous appearance and lack clear details, especially in the lettering. 1931-S cents are typically struck up better than average – but few would be considered by specialists to be completely struck up.
Many Mint State examples will exhibit poor color. Many have been cleaned to remove tarnish and spotting.
Brenner’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln depicts the President from the shoulder up. Lincoln is dressed in a period suit and is wearing a bow tie. Brenner’s initials “V.D.B.” appear in Lincoln’s shoulder truncation. At the top of the design, wrapping around the rim is the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST”. “LIBERTY” appears behind Lincoln’s neck, on the left side of the coin. The date 1931 appears slightly lower, in front of Lincoln’s portrait, on the coin’s right side. Below the date, appears the mintmark “S” for San Francisco.
Brenner’s “Wheat Cent” reverse. Two sheaths of wheat wrap around the right and the left side of the coin. At the top of the design, the motto “E ·PLURIBUS · UNUM” wraps around the rim. ONE CENT is inscribed in large letters, sans serif, the bottom arm of the E extends beyond the arm at the top. The middle arm is recessed. Beneath, in the same font, but smaller type: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The edge of the 1931-S Lincoln cent is plain, without reeding or edge lettering.
Victor David Brenner, born in Lithuania in 1871, immigrated to New York at the age of 19. The classically trained sculptor built a group of clients, which included the future president Theodore Roosevelt. Having previously created a medallion of Lincoln, Brenner was contracted by Roosevelt in 1908 to use one of his previous images of the 16th president for a new design of the cent. At the time of his death, Brenner had carved over 125 different medals, sculptures, and coins (View Designer’s Profile).
|Year Of Issue:||1931|
|Denomination:||One Cent (USD)|
|Mint Mark:||S (San Francisco)|
|Alloy:||95% Copper, 5% Tin and Zinc|
|OBV Designer||Victor David Brenner|
|REV Designer||Victor David Brenner|
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