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Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each, Part 12: Copper-Nickel Indian Cents

classiccoins500centCoin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #261

 A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
From 1793 to 1857, one cent coins were about the size of quarters. During the 1850s,‘ups and downs’ in markets for copper, as a metal, and a growing dislike for large cents spurred support for smaller cents. Copper-nickel Indian cents were minted from 1859 to 1864 before being replaced by coins of the same Indian design that were specified to be 95% copper. For less than $500 per coin, a complete set of ‘mint state’ copper-nickel Indian cents could be completed, without difficulty. Substantially circulated copper-nickel Indian cents may be obtained for much lower amounts, often for less than $20 per coin.

Flying Eagle cents were minted from 1856 to 1858. Although those dated 1856 have been traditionally regarded as patterns, and perhaps are so in a technical-legal sense, they are often collected as regular issues. The law authorizing small cents was not passed until Feb. 1857.

“Merchants and banks complained” about Flying Eagle cents, R. W. Julian states. “Mint Director Snowden changed the design in order to make the cent more popular. A secondary reason was the difficulty in getting the design to strike up fully on the Flying Eagle cents.”

R. W. Julian has spent countless hours reading original documents relating to U.S. coinage and has written hundreds of articles relating to the history of the U.S. Mint.

I suggest that many of the complaints about Flying Eagle cents were irrational. They were durable and one cent coins were very much needed in commerce. In any event, Indian cents were introduced in 1859.

John Albanese notes that the copper-nickel cents of 1859 to 1864 “are extremely popular because they are a subset of Indian pennies, because they are thicker and because they are from the Civil War era.” Albanese is the founder and president of CAC.

Scott Travers recollects, as a kid, “it was fun to hold copper-nickel Indian cents because they are so thick,” much more so than “bronze” Indian or Lincoln cents. Scott now emphasizes that copper-nickel Indian cents often tone in an especially attractive manner. Travers is the author of best-selling books about coins.

Among copper-nickel Indian cents, those dated 1859 are of a design type that is slightly different from those that were minted from 1860 to 1864. The reverse of the 1859 cent features a laurel wreath. In 1860, the laurel wreath device was replaced by an oak wreath and a small shield design element was added.

What are nickels and copper-nickel coins?

Copper-nickel Indian cents are neither bronze nor brass. Although 88% copper, they are never referred to as being coppers. The 12% nickel content has a dramatic effect on the texture of the overall copper-nickel coin. Indeed, when such a coin is viewed, it appears as though the copper content is well under 88%. Importantly, copper-nickel Indian cents are considerably different, in alloy and appearance, from so-called “bronze” Indian cents, which date from 1864 to 1909.

There is no widely agreed upon definition of the metallic composition of ‘bronze.’ In this context, ‘bronze’ is generally defined as an alloy that is 95% copper, with the remaining 5% being tin and/or zinc. In addition to being unscientific, this definition overlaps with common definitions of brass. The concept of a ‘nickel’ is not clear either.

3cn_msIn the minds of coin collectors, the first U.S. nickels were Three Cent Nickels, not five-cent nickels. Three Cent Nickels were introduced in 1865 and five-cent nickels were not made for circulation until 1866. Before the notion of a U.S. nickel coin was even considered, silver half dimes were minted, starting in 1794 and ending in 1873. Half dimes weighed half as much as corresponding silver dimes.

From 1851 to 1873, Three Cent Silvers were minted. Except for one dollar gold pieces of the type dating from 1849 to 1854, these are the smallest of all U.S. coins. So, one-cent silvers, if they existed, would have been far smaller.

When and why was nickel used in cents? In the early to mid-1850s, there was a consensus that cents should contain less copper. Nickel was more practical than silver in this regard. A Three Cent Nickel, 0.7 inch in diameter, is larger than a Three Cent Silver or a half dime.

Three Cent Silvers are nine-sixteenths of an inch in diameter (0.5625 inches). If there had existed a one-cent silver, it would have been less than a half inch in diameter, maybe just a quarter-inch!

Copper-nickel Flying Eagle and Indian cents are 0.75 inches in diameter. They are wider and heavier than Three Cent Silvers, Three Cent Nickels, and half dimes. They are smaller than large cents, though large enough to be widely accepted and often used in commerce. They seemed to be a logical and practical replacement for large cents and they were 88% copper, so one cent coins continued to be ‘copper’ in a sense.

Curiously, ‘nickels’ consist of only 25% nickel. Three Cent Nickels and all five cent nickels are specified to be 25% nickel and 75% copper. (‘War nickels’ dated from 1942 to 1945 do not contain any nickel and are an exception.) If the nickel content of nickels had been much more than 25%, the planchets (prepared blanks to be transformed into coins) would have been too hard; dies would break often and/or wear down too fast.

This 12% nickel composition of Flying Eagle cents and copper-nickel Indian cents is just enough for the coins to have a whitish tint. In 1857, years before Three Cent Nickels or five cent nickels were minted, Flying Eagle cents were often called ‘nickels,’ as the color of the coins was so much different from that of large cents, which are nearly 100% copper. In the 19th century, the unplanned presence of trace metals prevented any coins from being truly 100% copper and a minuscule amount of a trace metal could often affect the color of the respective coin.

Although it is clear that one-cent silvers would not have been practical for commerce, as readily apparent silver cents would have been just too small, a curious question is why nickel was employed at all? There are other metals that could have included in an alloy dominated by copper.

Most relevant historians maintain that Joseph Wharton, directly or indirectly, persuaded mint officials, relevant Congressmen and other very interested people to favor Three Cent Nickels and five-cent nickels. Wharton was the leader in the nickel industry.

“Wharton had nothing to do with the 1856 proposals and did not, in fact, sell any nickel to the Mint until the spring of 1864,” R. W. Julian declares, in correspondence with me. “The original push for nickel in the cent coinage came primarily from U.S. Mint Melter and Refiner James C. Booth,” Julian emphasizes.

Coins with nickel content could each circulate for a long time and, as Julian points out, “the difficulty of working nickel” discouraged counterfeiting. One reason why less expensive metals were not considered was also to discourage counterfeiting. As making counterfeit copper-nickel cents was costly, time-consuming and required particularly special skills to produce planchets, many people who would have liked to produce counterfeits did not even attempt to do so.

Special Appeal of Copper-Nickel Cents

The 12% nickel and 88% copper alloy is much more stable than copper alone, any kind of bronze, or brass. Even so, the color of copper-nickel cents varies, too, due to the presence of trace metals, mint-caused inconsistencies, natural toning, environmental effects and/or mistreatment by dealers or collectors. Generally, though, copper-nickel Indian cents naturally tone in a pleasant manner, if stored properly, and they almost never become as dark as most, surviving ‘mint state’ Indian cents that date from mid-1864 to 1909.cop_nikIndian2

Indeed, the Indian Cents of 1859 to 1864 appear very different from the Indian cents of 1864 to 1909. As Indian cents minted from the middle 1864 to 1909 and the vast majority of Lincoln cents dating from 1909 to 1982 are around 95% copper, interested collectors are accustomed to viewing 95% copper cents. Variations in tin and zinc content, among other factors, had some effect on original color. Many variables affect natural toning of cents dating from 1864 to 1982. Indeed, these are especially sensitive to environmental factors and deliberate modifications.

“Dipped copper-nickel pennies are not altered as much; they do not look much different than they look before they are dipped. When you dip a bronze Indian cent, it turns pink and is certainly not gradable,” John Albanese notes.

IC1862whitishDipping is the immersion of a coin in an acidic solution, with the idea of stripping layers and artificially brightening the coin. In general, cents that contain nickel are more resilient to environmental variables and deliberate modifications than coins that consist of 90% to 100% copper, and 0% nickel. Indeed, surviving ‘mint state’ copper-nickel Indian cents are less likely to have problems than surviving, mint state “bronze” (95% copper, plus tin and/or zinc) Indian cents.

Although the veteran and very active collector known as Easton “really likes copper-nickel Indian cents, the bronze ones are better struck,” Easton emphasizes. Furthermore, he prefers “original red-copper color” to original copper-nickel color. Nevertheless, Easton would “rather have an MS-63 copper-nickel Indian cent than a brown MS-63 bronze Indian”!

The Easton Collection of bust dimes is listed in the PCGS Set Registry. Easton has been collecting coins since he “was 12 or 13 years old.” I started even earlier.

When I was a kid, I found copper-nickel Indian Cents to be cool and fascinating. By the time I started attending coin shows at age seven, I had seen innumerable Indian cents, especially relatively common ones dating from 1891 to 1907. Indeed, my grandmother had given some to me when I was five. Seeing copper-nickel Indian cents was very exciting.

The 1859

1859 Indian Head CentAs 1859 Indian cents are not very expensive, there is not a need to have a long debate as to whether one is needed for a type set: of all classic U.S. coin series, of cents, of 19th century coins, or of U.S. coins that contain nickel. Indeed, collectors who do not wish to collect representatives of all design types of classic U.S. coins, dating from 1793 to the 1930s, may form other kinds of type sets. It is always easy and often logical to include an 1859 cent in a type set.

An 1859 cent in Good-04 grade might be obtained for around $10, $20 at most. A Fair-02 to AG-03 grade 1859 could probably be purchased for less than seven dollars if found at a small-to-medium-sized coin show.

In the context of the $500 per coin limit that is central to the theme of this series of discussions, each interested collector would be very likely to be able to acquire a PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-62 1859 cent. Since October, Heritage (HA) has sold four different NGC-graded MS-62 1859 cents for $646.26 on Oct. 12, $367.78 on Nov. 19, $329 on Nov. 11 and $270.25 on Nov. 16. The differences in price might be a function of variations in eye appeal. The presence of distracting mint-caused imperfections could be a factor as well. Also, there are coins that wholesalers seek to resubmit to PCGS or NGC while hoping to receive a grade that is higher than a grade that was assigned in the past.


The 1860 is the first issue with an oak wreath and a shield on the reverse (back). The obverse (front) seems about the same as the obverse of 1859 Indian cents, though the variety with the ‘pointed bust’ is more like 1859 cents than most other 1860 cents, which have a slightly different “Indian” head.

For less than $500, a PCGS- or NGC-certified MS-63 grade 1860 could be obtained without difficulty. A PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-64 coin might be an option as well.

In Oct. 2014, HA sold a PCGS-graded MS-63 1860 cent for $258.50. In March, a PCGS-graded MS-63 1860, with a CAC sticker of approval, brought $381.88.

This month, on Jan. 13, HA sold a PCGS-graded MS-64 1860 for $423. Five days later, an NGC-certified MS-64 1860 brought $376.

A minor die variety with a “pointed bust” costs a little more than a typical 1860 cent. The dimensions of the lower area of the Indian design element on these is like that on 1859 Indian cents.

In Oct., HA auctioned an NGC-graded MS-63 ‘pointed bust’ 1860 for $440.63. In Nov. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded ‘MS-64+’ representative of this variety for $1821.25.

Should ‘pointed bust’ 1860 cents be worth a 35% to 65% premium? “Collectors should not feel that they need it for a set,” John Albanese asserts. “It is not much different from other 1860 cents.”


1861centThe 1861 is worth a premium over the other dates in the series of copper-nickel Indian cents, which is short relative to most other series of U.S. coins. It is possible to find a PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-64 1861 for less than $500, though this is not likely and perhaps is not a good idea. A coin that sells for a seemingly low price for its respective certified grade may be regarded as being overgraded by many experts or may have other problems.

It is easy to find a PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-63 1861 for less than $500. On Nov. 18, HA sold a PCGS-graded MS-63 1861 for $352.50. On Nov. 15, Eric Newman’s 1861 cent brought this exact same price. Newman’s coin is NGC-graded MS-63 and CAC approved. Back on April 26, a PCGS-graded MS-63 1861 also went for this same price, $352.50. Other certified MS-63 grade 1861 cents have sold for a little more than $352.50, over the last two years.


During the past year, PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-64 1862 cents tended to realize from $270 to $315 at auction. Retail prices are higher.

PCGS-graded MS-64 1862 cents, each with a CAC sticker, sold for $440.63 in two different HA events in 2014. Later, a PCGS-graded MS-64 1862, without a CAC sticker, brought that same price, $440.63. In order to properly analyze auction results, there is a need to actually view the respective coins.

Prices realized are provided here as background information so that collectors seeking copper-nickel Indian cents may have a good idea as to market price ranges for these. Retail prices are frequently higher than related auction results.

Whenever practical, it makes sense to discuss specific coins with an expert. I recommend that collectors carefully examine coins and ask questions.


Either the 1862 or the 1863 is the most common date of the short-lived series of copper-nickel Indian cents. Typically, one or the other is chosen for type sets. PCGS and NGC together have probably graded 900 to 1000 different 1863 Indian cents as MS-64. The CAC has approved one hundred as MS-64, probably eighty to ninety of which are different 1863 cents. IC1863unusual

During 2014, PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-64 1863 cents tended to publicly sell for between $250 and $375. In Sept., the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS-graded, and CAC-approved, MS-64 1863 for $329. So far in 2015, however, demand for these seems to have increased.


The year 1864 in the realm of Indian cents is interesting in that three issues are often collected as distinct dates by those who collect both copper-nickel and “bronze” Indian cents ‘by date.’ The 1864 copper-nickel cent is considered to be of a type that is different from that of the 1864 ‘bronze,’ because the alloy is markedly different.

There are typical, 1864 “bronze” Indian cents and relatively scarcer 1864 “bronze” Indian cents with the designer’s initial, “L,” very apparently on the ribbon of the headdress. Indian cents were designed by James Longacre.

In the series of copper-nickel (88% copper, 12% nickel) cents, the 1864 issue is less common than the 1862 or the 1863. Although PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-64 1864 copper-nickel cents have sold at auction for less than $500, a collector with a $500 per coin limit should probably seek a certified MS-63 grade 1864. Collectors who continually ‘shop around’ for the lowest price for a coin with a particular certification are likely to often acquire coins with significant problems or other drawbacks.

On Dec. 21, HA sold a PCGS-graded MS-63 1864 for $258.50. On March 2, HA auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-63 1864, with a CAC sticker, for $381.88, the same price that the already mentioned PCGS-graded 1860, with a CAC sticker, brought in the same auction.


A PCGS- or NGC-certified MS-62 1859 plus MS-63 or MS-64 representatives of copper-nickel cents dating from 1860 to 1864, all for from $200 to $450 per coin, would amount to a complete set of copper-nickel Indian cents. “Properly graded, MS-63 and MS-64 copper-nickel Indian cents are excellent values at current levels,” Scott Travers declares.

These are among the most popular of all classic U.S. coins. All Indian cents are highly demanded. Copper-nickel Indian cents are light colored, pennies that notably contain nickel and have excited collectors since they were issued during a pivotal period in U.S. history.

©2015 Greg Reynolds

Collectors who are interested in other types of classic U.S. coins, and do not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin, may wish to click to read earlier parts of this series:



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. Very wonderful read. I’ve always preferred the thicker IHPs. It would be neat if they ever created a 25% nickel, 75% silver coin, or something along those lines. I also think aluminum should be tried or should have been. Is there such a thing as aluminum alloyed with silver? As far as nickel and copper being harder to counterfeit, I think these could have been done because it’s hard to tell if a coin is pure or near pure in bronze or brass alloys, especially when they are worn and aged. Maybe aluminum would psychologically affect Americans; in other words, if aluminum coins were adopted now or in the past they could have led people to believe more readily that our fiat money is in fact cheap or virtually worthless (as far as intrinsic worth). It’s all interesting to think about


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