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HomeCollecting StrategiesAssembling a Set of Pleasing Mercury Dimes at a Very Low Cost

Assembling a Set of Pleasing Mercury Dimes at a Very Low Cost

Mercury Dimes
News & Analysis regarding  Mercury Dimes , coins, markets, and the coin collecting community, #389

 A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds for CoinWeek …..
Although Mercury dimes were already covered in my series on Classic U.S. coins for less than $500 per coin, it is important to explain that a set comprised mostly of pleasing and relatively original Extremely-Fine-to-AU-grade coins may be completed while spending less than $50 each for most coins and less than $10 each for many of them. Except for three to five dates, a complete set of EF-40 to AU-50 grade Mercury dimes may be built without spending as much as $100 on any one coin.

Collectors on a tight budget may have to settle for semi-key Mercury dimes in lower grades. Further, the key is expensive, the 1916 Denver Mint issue. It makes sense to focus first on all the neat Mercury dimes that may be purchased for small amounts, as these involve little risk. In contrast, purchases of Gem-quality Mercury dimes are much riskier.

Mercury DimesA PCGS-graded MS-65 1919-D with a ‘Full Bands’ designation is valued in the PCGS price guide at $26,000. Without such a designation, a PCGS-graded MS-65 1919-D is valued at $1,500, more than 30 times the $47 value for an EF-40 grade 1919-D in the same price guide. In 2016, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1919-D for $29.07.

It is not implied here that the PCGS price guide is entirely accurate. It is asserted that naturally toned, Extremely Fine grade Mercury dimes are excellent values for collectors who are already attracted to Mercury dimes.

“The cool thing about Mercury dimes is that original EF to AU coins for mintmarked dates from the teens and twenties are exceptionally challenging. These are underpriced. Most of the ones that have been certified have been artificially brightened, not original. You can find original EF to AU Mercury dimes, but you must search for them. Think about the thrill of the hunt,” states Warren Mills, the chief coin expert for a major dealer in New Hampshire.

For more than 38 years, Warren has been selling circulated Mercury dimes and carefully analyzing the originality of U.S. coins in general. He is a vocal opponent of coin doctoring. On October 17, he was interviewed for this discussion.

“Over the past 25 years, there has been a lot of grade-inflation for Mercury dimes,” Warren acknowledges, but that relates mostly PCGS- or NGC-graded uncirculated coins. “There are some Mercury dimes that were PCGS-certified as ‘MS-64’ 20 years ago and are PCGS-graded MS-66 now. It is common for the 64s in the past to be today’s 65s! There has not been much grade inflation at PCGS and NGC regarding EF to AU Mercury dimes, except for the fact that PCGS and NGC are now more likely to grade washed out coins. Dipped-white Circulated coins from the 1920s do not look right,” in Mills’ view.

Most dealers of classic U.S. coins are not devoting much time to circulated Mercury dimes, even those from the 1920s. While some dealers carefully keep circulated Mercury dimes in inventory and pay competitive prices for them, a majority of U.S. coin dealers will not be willing to pay much more than bullion prices (melt values) for circulated Mercury dimes of most dates.

Mercury dimes were specified to each weigh 2.5 grams and to be 90% silver in composition. So, each uncirculated Mercury dime contains 2.25 grams of silver, which is equivalent to 0.07233918 Troy ounce.

When silver is valued at $16 an ounce, the melt value of a Mercury dime is $1.16 and is $1.23 when the market price for silver as a metal is $17 per Troy ounce. The demand for relatively common Mercury dimes varies, however, and is not strictly a function of the price of silver. In other words, if the value of silver is unchanged, the values of the most common Mercury dimes would still change.

Many coin shops have quantities of common date silver coins that are purchased from the general public or from speculators. “If you establish a friendly relationship with a coin shop that you can visit fairly often, there is a good chance that you can buy EF and maybe AU Mercury dimes for slightly more than melt value,” notes John Albanese.

Mercury DimesWarren agrees with John.

“Many proprietors of coin shops do not have the time to go through all the silver coins that they buy for bullion value. They will often let customers go through them, pick out coins, and pay minor premiums over melt value. The premiums will not always be the same, but some Extremely Fine Mercury dimes could be bought for less than $2 each,” Mills maintains.

If common-date Mercury dimes are sought from dealers who inventory and keep detailed records regarding each coin, then such dealers will often ask to be paid full retail prices. The per coin costs of keeping a detailed and documented inventory are higher than the per coin cost of keeping Mercury dimes in rolls, bags or buckets.

I remember a dealer near the East Coast who kept a bucket of silver dimes behind the counter in his store. When he picked this bucket off the floor and showed it to me in 2013, I was expecting it to be filled mostly with pre-1965 Roosevelt dimes. I was surprised that there were many Extremely Fine and higher-grade Mercury dimes in the bucket, along with a large number of Barber dimes in various grades.

What Are Mercury Dimes?

Barber dimes were minted from 1892 to 1916. Mercury dimes were struck from 1916 to 1945.

Since 1837, U.S. dimes have had the same diameter: seven-tenths of an inch (0.7). From 1837 to 1964, all U.S. dimes were specified to be 90% silver and 10% copper. Dimes dated after 1964, except for some Proof-only issues, contain no silver. They are of a copper-nickel “clad” composition.

In past articles, I discuss the artistic concepts relating to Mercury dimes and the designer, Adolph A. Weinman, who also designed the Walking Liberty half dollar. The theme here relates to advice and strategy for low-budget collectors who are already attracted to such coins

Mercury Dimes were minted in Philadelphia without mintmarks, in Denver with a ‘D’ mintmark and in San Francisco with an ‘S’. The mintmark is on the reverse (back of the coin) near the bottom, to the left of the fasces. Collecting Mercury dimes is straightforward, though finding relative original coins with pleasing surfaces is not always easy.

Very Low Cost

Representatives of the following dates in the series that grade Extremely Fine-40 or higher may be purchased for less than $10 each, sometimes for less than $4, or even less than $2 on occasion: 1929, 1929-S, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1934-D, 1935, 1935-S, and all those minted from 1936 to 1945 except the 1942/41 overdates.

“An original EF-40 or -45 1934-D is harder to find than most collectors and dealers realize,” says Warren Mills. Collectors who wish to include the 1945 “Micro S” variety, with a relatively small ‘S’ mintmark, may easily acquire an EF-40 to AU-50 grade coin for an amount in the $4 to $9 range.

Mercury DimesRepresentatives of the following dates in the series that grade Extremely Fine-40 or higher may typically be purchased, when available, for less than $15 each: 1916, 1917, 1917-S, 1919, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928 and 1931. For some of these dates, it may take months to find relatively original, naturally toned, Extremely Fine grade coins.

In Extremely Fine-40 grade, Mercury dimes of the following dates retail for less than $50, most for less than $35: 1916-S, 1917-D, 1918, 1918-D, 1918-S, 1919-D, 1919-S, 1920-D, 1920-S, 1924-S, 1926-D, 1927-S, 1928-D, 1928-S, 1929-D, 1930-S, 1931-D, and 1931-S. For those who balk at paying as much as $50 or even as much as $30, these dates in VG-08 to Fine-12 grades tend to cost less than $15 each.

On May 14, 2017, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-40 1916-S for $16.03. A week later, this same firm sold a PCGS-graded AU-50 1919-S for $36 and a PCGS-graded EF-40 1928-D for $38. In many other circumstances, such coins would be non-certified as grading fees amount to a substantial percentage of the values of such coins.

There are better dates that cost significantly more than $50, though still are modestly priced in the realm of classic U.S. coins. For less than $100 each, EF-40 or EF-45 grade representatives of the following dates may be purchased: 1923-S, 1924-D, 1925-D, 1925-S, and 1927-D.

Although at least three major price guides value the 1925-D at well over $100 in EF-40 grade, I contend that a collector could find an appealing EF-40 grade 1925-D for less than $100. Quite a few have been available. Over the past three years, the firm called GreatCollections has sold three PCGS-graded EF-40 1925-D dimes: one for $88 on November 30, 2014, $75.90 on March 22, 2015, and $81 on October 8, 2017.

Semi-Key Dates

For the key and semi-key dates, it is a good idea to acquire coins that are PCGS- or NGC-certified, as there are fakes around, including Philadelphia Mint dimes with added mintmarks. It would also be helpful to learn about natural toning and to inspect hairlines from cleanings.

The 1916-D is the key and much scarcer than any other date in the series. The 1921, the 1921-D, and probably the 1926-S are semi-keys. If the often listed overdates are regarded as additional dates of the year 1942, they are semi-keys, too.

The 1942/41 and 1942/41-D overdates are sometimes listed as if they are both distinct dates that are needed for complete sets of Mercury dimes, though I contend that they should not be listed as a pair. The overdate aspect of the 1942/41-D is barely noticeable. Logically, the 1942/41-D should not be included in a set collected ‘by date’.

Warren Mills suggests that “you don’t buy either or you buy both.” Mills disagrees with my view that the 1942/41 Philadelphia Mint overdate is a distinct date, while the 1942/41-D should be referred to as an obscure variety.

Indeed, the 1942/41 Philadelphia Mint issue is a blatant overdate. It almost seems like the year on these overdates is 19412! There is an extra numeral one just to the observer’s left of the numeral two. This Philadelphia Mint overdate is very cool.

The Denver Mint overdate, in contrast, is hardly discernible. At a glance, it just appears to be the product of sloppy workmanship rather than an overdate. With 10 times magnification, the overdate aspect is identifiable but not really clear.

Mills acknowledges that “the average collector would doubt that the existence of the 1942/41-D overdate. There are only fragments. A trained eye will look at the four,” Warren notes.

John Albanese declares that he has “never seen a Mercury dime listing in any book, registry set, coin album, or magazine price guide that listed the P mint 1942/41 overdate and not the D Mint overdate. You may not agree, but the 1942/41-D overdate been institutionalized,” John said to me. Albanese is the founder and president of Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC).

Maybe we can all agree that beginners should first reflect upon the Philadelphia Mint overdate before thinking about the Denver Mint issue? In February 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC-graded VF-20 1942/41 Philadelphia Mint overdate for $329. The Denver Mint counterpart is more expensive.

The 1926-S is a semi-key, though is much expensive than the abovementioned overdates. GreatCollections has sold quite a few 1926-S dimes so far in 2017: a PCGS-graded VG-08 coin in June for $21, a PCGS-graded VF-20 1926-S in May for $40.77, a PCGS-graded VF-25 coin on March 19 for $40 even, a PCGS-graded EF-45 1926-S on March 12 for $200.20, and a PCGS-graded AU-53 coin on March 19 for $341.

PCGS- or NGC-graded ‘Good-04’ 1921 dimes tend to sell on the Internet for less than $50. Collectors who find a coin that is pleasing and impressive for the grade may be asked to pay more than the market level for a typical 1921 dime with the same certified grade. A Fine-12 grade 1921 might retail for around $125.

“Very Fine grade 1921 and 1921-D dimes cost around half as much as EF grade coins, and there is not much difference in detail. The VF grade coins are better values. The budget-conscious collector should try to get at least a VG-08 grade 1921 and 1921-D because a lot of those that are certified as Good-04 or Good-06 are questionable,” advises Warren Mills.

In June 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded VF-20 1921 for $199.75. Earlier this month, on October 3, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1921 for $384. Market levels for these have fallen significantly over the past three years.

On October 1, 2107, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded Good-06 1921-D for $46.50.In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC-graded VG-08 1921-D for $75 and a different NGC-graded VG-08 1921-D in May for $129.25. It is a good idea to view coins in actuality before analyzing prices realized.

In August 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded VF-20 1921-D for $240. In September 2017, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded VF-30 1921-D for $312 and a PCGS-graded VF-35 1921-D for $300.

Public records of Internet sales are cited for educational purposes. These are used to provide ideas and ranges relating to current market values. I have not seen any of the coins cited in this discussion and am not specifically recommending any of them. Invariably, some have serious problems and others are wonderfully original.

Collectors are advised to study many coins. No one would expect a set of relatively inexpensive, circulated Mercury dimes to be problem-free, anyhow. There is little downside risk, and collectors may have a great deal of fun searching for appealing pieces to complete a set.

A collector on a very tight budget may consider his or her set to be complete enough without a 1916-D. Alternately, the rest of the set may be completed and the purchase of a 1916-D may be postponed until the buyer is in a better financial situation. Also, “many certified 1916-D dimes have serious problems,” Warren warns.

In April 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded Fair-02 1916-D for $305.50. Very recently, on October 15, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AG-03 1916-D for $383.62. Earlier this month, this same firm sold two different PCGS-graded Good-06 coins, each with a CAC sticker, for $815.62 and $817.88, respectively.

In the realm of classic U.S. coins, it is fortunate that a set of Mercury dimes can be truly completed at such a low cost, with almost all of the coins grading Extremely Fine-40 or higher. Even the semi-keys in Very Fine grades do not cost a fortune. Assembling a set of circulated Mercury dimes is likely to be a fun and satisfying activity, especially for the collector who studies them and slowly builds a set of particularly pleasant coins.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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