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Classic U.S. Coins – Key Date Coins for Less Than $2,500 – Part 1: Copper

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #274

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……
In the history of coin collecting in the U.S., most coin enthusiasts, at one time or another, have sought to complete, or nearly complete, a set of a particular type of U.S. coins. Usually, the scarcest and most famous coins in sets are ‘key dates,’ some of which are legendary, and many of which cost from $300 to $1000 each.

The pursuit of key dates is an important part of the culture of coin collecting. Fortunately for prospective buyers, a large percentage of ‘key date’ coins extant in total, including some very famous issues, have market values from $100 to $2500 each, inexpensive in the context of classic U.S. coins.

Generally, a large number of 19th century coins are worth more than $10,000 each. Dozens of U.S. coins are worth more than $1 million each. It is amazing that many keys are not costly.


Keys have value mostly because they are needed to complete sets. In most other fields of collectibles, sets are not as clearly defined. For classic U.S. coins, there is substantial agreement, more or less, regarding the contents of sets in regard to collecting ‘by date.’ The building of a set involves a well defined objective and feelings of satisfaction as the project progresses.

Here in part 1, the focus is on key dates in series of copper coins. For simplicity and truthfulness, I define any coin that is or was specified to be at least 90% copper as a copper coin, including all those that are referred to as being “bronze.” A rarely mentioned, historical reality is that there never was a widely accepted definition of the term “bronze” or of “French Bronze.”

In the context of U.S. coinage, the most often used definition of the composition of bronze is 95% copper, with the balance being tin and/or zinc. Many such 95% copper coins, though, could be classified as “brass” as well. In addition to being ambiguous, definitions of bronze and brass overlap.

“Brass is an alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with zinc. In some cases, copper with tin is considered a type of brass,” remarks chemist Anne Marie Helmenstine in the chemistry section of About.com.

Copper coins of all sorts are extremely popular among collectors in the United States. Lincoln cents remain the most popular and can even be collected ‘out of change.’ I receive various Wheat cents in change every month. (Wheat cents are Lincoln cents that date from 1909 to 1958.) Ever since coin collecting became extremely popular in the U.S. during the 1850s and 1860s, large cents have been among the most avidly sought of all denominations.

More than 25,000 people collect large cents, by date or by type, in the present. A type set of 19th century large cents is not expensive. The market values of 19th century key dates are not high, from a logical perspective.

Certainly, not all coin collectors wish to complete sets and an excellent coin collection does not need to include a complete set of any sort. Alternately, a collector could just acquire ‘key dates’ of various series, without completing any sets. A collection of ‘key dates’ would be distinctive and entertaining.

Before discussing ‘key date’ copper coins, it is important to reflect upon the meaning of a “date” in the context of coin collecting. While people generally refer to the word ‘date’ as a specific day, month and year, and historians often use this word to refer to just a specific year, this word really has a whole different meaning in the realm of coin collecting.

In the context of this discussion and I believe overall, collecting ‘by date’ means collecting ‘by year and U.S. Mint location,’ along with recognized, readily apparent overdates and occasional major varieties that have the status of distinct dates. “An overdate that can be seen with the naked eye is often needed for a set,” Richard Burdick agrees. “In a way, a clear overdate is two dates, one on top of another and collected as a separate date,” Richard adds. There are no such overdates in some series and not all major varieties have the status of distinct dates.

Some guides and set registries define the ‘date’ as referring to just a year. This ‘date as a year’ definition is illogical. After all, if the definition of the word ‘date’ in the PCGS registry was true, a 1916 Philadelphia Mint Mercury dime and a 1916 Denver Mint Mercury dime would be of the same date. After all, only one or the other is needed for a complete “Mercury Dimes Date Set” in the PCGS or NGC registries. The truth is that the 1916-D is widely accepted as a key date and there is unanimous agreement that the 1916 Philadelphia Mint Mercury dime is not a key date.

The ‘date’ thus incorporates reference to the mint that made the respective coin. Other examples illustrate this point. The 1932 San Francisco Mint quarter is a ‘key date,’ while a 1932 Philadelphia Mint quarter is a different date that is definitely not a key. Of course, a 1914-D Lincoln Cent is a key date, while a 1914 Philadelphia Mint Lincoln cent is not a ‘key date.’

As there were no mintmarks on U.S. coins before 1838, and all U.S. coins from 1793 to 1837 were made in Philadelphia, other factors play a role in identifying distinct dates. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to identify all dates in all series to focus upon and understand, widely accepted key dates.

Half Cents

gr_042215_aAmong half cents, 18th century rarities, like the 1796 ‘No Pole,’ are extremely expensive and beside the theme here. The 1802/0 is the ‘key date’ of the series of Draped Bust half cents. The 1802/0 with the “reverse of 1800” is an especially rare die variety, not a separate date. All varieties of the 1802/0 are classified as representatives of the 1802/0 overdate, which is a date that is needed for a set of Draped Bust half cents, if such a set is assembled ‘by date.’

“The 1802/0 is the key, but is not very rare. You could buy several at any major show. It is hard to find one with nice surface quality,” Jim McGuigan explains. A decent 1802/0 could be found for less than $1000.

The 1811 is definitely the key to the series of Classic Head half cents, which were minted from 1809 to 1836. Though not as scarce as the 1802/0, the 1811 is scarcer than the other dates in the Classic Head series. As I said in 2011, hundreds exist, though more than 1500 survive of each of the other dates.

McGuigan’s estimates are higher than my own. Jim figures “nearly a 1000 1811 half cents are around” and “two to three thousand” survive of each of “most other pre-1825 dates in the series.” For decades, McGuigan has been a collector of and leading expert in half cents. Jim notes, though, that he does “not often think about” the quantities of “very low grade and not gradable” half cents that exist.

The record for an 1811 is the $1.21 million paid for the Tettenhorst-Pogue piece on January 26, 2014, when the Goldbergs auctioned the Tettenhorst-Missouri set of half cents. That coin, though, was PCGS certified as ‘MS-66-RB’ and CAC approved. Several lesser quality 1811 half cents have recently sold at auction for less than $1000.

Recently, Stack’s-Bowers sold two non-gradable, 1811 half cent that were authenticated by PCGS, the first, with the details of a Good grade, for $270.25. The second has the details of a Very Fine grade coin. It brought $411.25 in “The 2015 February Americana Sale.”

On January 11, Heritage auctioned two 1811 half cents. A “repaired” coin brought $616.88. A PCGS graded VG-08 1811 realized $998.75.

Budget-minded collectors may wish to note that Stack’s-Bowers auctioned two 1811 half cents last year for $193.88 each. A coin that PCGS regards as “damaged” with the details of a Good grade sold in October. An NGC graded Almost Good-03 1811 was part of the Stack’s-Bowers ANA auction in August.

McGuigan emphasizes that “there are only about 150 1811 half cents that grade Fine-12 or better. ” There is a good chance that a collector may buy a PCGS or NGC graded VF-20 1811 for less than $2500, though a waiting period may be necessary. In September 2013, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded VF-20 1811 for $2232.50. A few months earlier, in April, a PCGS graded and CAC approved VF-20 1811 brought $1880, perhaps a good deal.

There is a controversy over whether business strike 1831 half cents exist. In any event, those that are said by some coin professionals to be business strikes are all worth substantially more than $2500.

Large Cents

gr_042215_bThe concept of a ‘key date’ is not really applicable to large cents of the 18th century, except for the 1799/8 and 1799 ‘normal date.’ These tend to cost more than $2500 each, though Poor-01 to AG-03 grade coins, and a few non-gradable pieces, may, on occasion, be purchased for less than $2500 each.

In addition to the 1799/8 and 1799, the 1804 is generally regarded as a key date in the series of Draped Bust cents. The 1807/6-‘Small 7’ is rarer than the 1804, though is too obscure a variety to qualify as a distinct date. “If you are doing dates, you are happy with an 1807/6-Large 7, no need for a Small 7,” McGuigan remarks. People collecting by date “would not bother with the Small 7 variety,” Burdick concurs.

People who collect Draped Bust large cents ‘by date’ certainly need an 1804 for a complete set. An AG-03 to Good-06 grade 1804 could be found for less than $2500.

For Matron Head Large cents, which date from 1816 to 1835, the 1823 and her nearly identical twin, the 1823/2, are the keys. On January 26, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded VF-30 1823 for $1880. A PCGS or NGC graded Good-06 or at least Good-04 1823 could be found for less than $300.

A Very Fine-20 or higher grade 1823/2 overdate could easily be acquired for less than $2500, in the near future. Lower grade pieces are much more modestly priced. On March 29, Heritage sold a PCGS graded VG-10 1823/2 for $223.25. Among key dates of 19th century series, the 1823/2 cent is one of the most affordable.

I am not including the 1839/6 overdate as a key to the series of Matron Heads because it is not really a Matron Head large cent. It is of a different design.

As I have said in many published articles in the past, the ‘1835-39 Head’ is very much different from the Matron Head that was featured on large cents from 1816 to 1835. The editors of the Whitman Redbook now, in a current edition, seem to agree and refer to this type as “Matron Head Modified (1835-39): The Young Head.” This name is misleading, as the ‘head’ is artistically different from the Matron Head; the design of 1835 to ’39 is not really a modification.

Regardless of terms and names, the key to these is the 1839/6 overdate. A PCGS or NGC graded Fine-12 or -15 1839/6 would probably retail for less than $2500. Possibly, a VF-20 grade 1839/6 could be acquired for less than $2500 as well.

Braided Hair large cents were produced from 1839 to 1857. These are the last series of large cents. There are no key dates.
Copper-Nickel Flying Eagle cents, which are smaller, replaced large cents. These, in turn, were replaced by Copper-Nickel Indian cents in 1859.

95% Copper Indian Cents

gr_042215_cCopper-Nickel Indian cents are 88% copper and were minted for just five years, from 1859 to 1864. In the middle of 1864, 95% copper (“bronze”) Indian cents were introduced and continued until being replaced by Lincoln cents during 1909.

The 1877 is clearly the key to the series of Indian cents. It is the scarcest date and it is extremely famous. It is not hard to acquire an 1877 for less than $2500. Indeed, there are PCGS or NGC graded 1877 cents available for less than $500.

On February 24, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AG-03 1877 for $329, and, on March 1, this same firm sold a NGC graded AG-03 coin for $282. On January 15, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded Good-06 1877 for $441.

At “The 2015 February Americana Sale,” Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-55 coin for $2291.25, along with several other 1877 cents. A NGC graded VF-20 1877 went for $1116.25.

Though relatively rare, the “1888/7” is an obscure variety that requires high magnification to detect. It is not needed for a set of Indian cents. The 1873 with the letters of liberty doubled is a curious variety, though is not collected as a distinct date. A more typical 1873 is not relatively scarce and any 1873 Indian cent is sufficient for a collectors who is assembling a set ‘by date.’

The 1909-S Indian is a semi-key and is one of only two San Francisco Mint issues in the series. Before 1908, copper coins were not struck at the San Francisco Mint.

On April 14, Heritage sold a PCGS graded VF-25 1909-S for $352.50. For less than $2500 each, PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 to MS-65 1909-S Indians could be acquired. In February 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS certified, and CAC approved, ‘MS-64-Brown’ 1909-S Indian cent for $1762.50. Although obtaining a 1909-S Indian cent is not difficult, these are popular and exciting.

Lincoln Cents

gr_042215_dThe keys to the series of Lincoln cents are the best known of all classic U.S coins. The 1909-S VDB is probably the most famous key date. The designer’s initials, V.D.B., were boldly placed on the lower part of the reverse design. In a matter of weeks, these letters were removed from the design.

Almost any circulated 1909 S-VDB would cost less than $2500. As there are many fakes of this date around, I suggest acquiring one that is PCGS or NGC certified. An EF-40 grade coin for less than $1000 might be a good choice for someone who is assembling a set of Wheat cents or just pre-1934 Lincolns. A Good-04 grade 1909-S VDB should cost less than $740 and a non-gradable coin could be found for less than $500.

As there are multiple coin doctors who turn brown copper coins into unnaturally ‘red’ copper coins with the idea of attempting to obtain full ‘red’ designations from graders at PCGS and NGC, collectors should be sure to consult experts before acquiring copper coins that are certified as being full ‘red.’ For MS-63 and higher grade, ‘mint state’ Lincolns, I suggest those that are certified as being ‘red and brown,’ or just ‘brown,’ rather than Lincolns certified as being full ‘red.’

A PCGS or NGC certified ‘MS-64-Red & Brown’ 1909-S VDB could be acquired for less than $2500. In January, Heritage auctioned a PCGC certified ‘MS-64-RB’ coin, with a CAC sticker, for $1997.50.

The 1914-D and the 1931-S are the other keys. Though not as famous as the 1909-S VDB, these are famous too. I very much wanted them when I was seven years old. On my tenth birthday, I selected a 1914-D for my mother to buy for me. I still clearly remember the trip to a local coin shop.

I never owned a 1922 Plain, and I did not place it in the same category as the 1909-S VDB, the 1914-D and the 1931-S. The 1922 Plain was actually minted in Denver and really requires a separate discussion.

“The 1922 Plain is a die state of the 1922-D, not a date,” McGuigan asserts. Jim figures, however, that collectors might as well include a 1922 Plain in their respective sets as it listed along with dates in popular guides and is famous.

Richard Burdick agrees, “it is an error, not a date, though all the guides and boards include it along with the dates. So, people who collect ‘by date’ should probably get a 1922 Plain. It has always been a part, for as long as I can remember,” Richard recalls. Burdick has been a collector since he was a kid and a coin professional for decades.

In “The 2015 February Americana Sale,” a PCGS graded EF-40 1922 Plain, with a “strong reverse,” brought $1292.50. A 1922 Plain in Good-04 to -06 grade would tend to sell for a price in the $400 to $600 range.

All circulated 1914-D Lincolns should cost less than $2500 each. Certainly, a Good-04 or -06 grade 1914-D would sell for less than $225 at mainstream coin shows.

All 1931-S Lincolns are currently valued at less than $2500, though it is plausible that one of the most highly certified pieces could bring more than $2500 at auction. So far in 2015, many 1931-S cents have sold for less than $100 each. On February 15, Heritage sold a NGC graded VF-35 1931-S for $64.

In a few instances, a PCGS or NGC certified ‘MS-64-RB’ 1931-S, with a CAC sticker, has sold at auction for around $200. These may be good values for the buyers.

Two Cent Pieces

gr_042215_fThe 1864-‘Small Motto’ and the 1864-‘Large Motto’ are usually both included in sets formed by people who collect Two Cent pieces ‘by date.’ The ‘Small Motto’ piece is much scarcer. It has been classified as a pattern, as just a die variety, or as a separate issue. It is not practical to discuss its nature and meaning here. It is not prohibitively expensive.

In October 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS certified, and CAC approved, ‘MS-64-Brown’ 1864-‘Small Motto’ Two Cent piece for $2232.50. On January 8, 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded, and CAC approved, MS-63 coin for $1527.50. One in Good-04 grade could be found for less than $200.

The 1872 is the scarcest business strike and is often regarded as the key to the series. A Good-04 grade 1872 may cost more than $300 and Extremely Fine-40 to -45 grade coins might very well retail for more than $1000 each. An AU-55 grade 1872 would probably sell for less than $2500.

For amounts between $100 and $2500, copper keys of many different series may be purchased. These are relatively scarce, famous, and fun to collect.

©2015 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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  1. When discussing the key dates of the Lincoln series, I don’t know how the author could ignore the 1909-S, which is worth more than the 1931-S across all grades.


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