Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #253
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds…
For less than $500 per coin, a set of Mercury dimes ‘by date’ (including U.S. Mint locations) can be completed, with most dates represented by gem quality coins, which grade from 65 to 68. Mercury dimes were minted from 1916 to 1945. All are specified to be 90% silver. For simplicity, Mercury dimes are often referred to as “Mercs,” in the same way that Saint Gaudens double eagles ($20 gold coins) are often called “Saints.”
This is the eighth in a series of articles on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each. (Please click to read a discussion about defining classic U.S. coins.) This series is about forming collections of classic U.S. coins that are consistent with the traditions and evolved values in the culture of coin collecting in the U.S., without spending more than $500 for any one coin. It is fun and satisfying to build sets or further other collecting objectives that are considered meaningful within the rules, as opposed to whimsically buying coins without a mainstream objective.
It is not suggested that there is a need to spend an amount near $500 for any one coin to build a meaningful collections of classic U.S. coins. Indeed, classic U.S. coins of multiple series may be sensibly collected for less than $25 per coin, or possibly even for less than $5 per coin. All collecting budgets and mainstream strategies, however, cannot be considered in one series of articles. Besides, I, personally, have greater knowledge of coins that cost more than $200 each than I do of coins that cost less than $20 each.
Those interested in classic coins that cost less than $20 should travel to small and medium sized coin shows. Joining a local coin club may be a good idea as well. My suggestions, insights, observations and analytical conclusions, stem in part from more than twenty years of experience of analyzing choice U.S. coins and collections, including my attendance at countless auctions. I am certain that there are a vast number of very desirable, classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each, and several, practical, mainstream strategies for collecting these.
What are Mercury Dimes?
Mercury dimes are sometimes referred to as “Winged Liberty” dimes, or, perhaps more accurately, as ‘Winged Cap” dimes. As the portrait on the obverse (front) is somewhat similar to frequently seen artistic representations of an Ancient Roman god, Mercury, it seems fair enough to refer to these as ‘Mercury’ dimes. Not many historical figures, in reality or mythology, wear winged caps. Curiously, in Ancient Roman times, Mercury was the patron ‘god’ of businessmen, commerce, poetry, communication, travelers, trickery and thieves. The Roman concept of Mercury stems from an earlier Greek god, Hermes.
There is not a need to investigate the designer’s intentions or to draw conclusions about the thinking of U.S. Mint officials in 1916 to collect Mercury dimes or to refer to them as “Mercs.” It may be true that the Ancient Roman concept of Mercury was not a factor in the decision to approve this design. In terms of historical accuracy, a different name would be more appropriate. By now, however, collectors are so accustomed to calling these ‘Mercury’ dimes, that it would be counter-productive and annoying to adopt a new name.
These dimes were designed by A. Alexander Weinman, an accomplished and widely recognized sculptor who lived from 1870 to 1952. For around three years, from 1895 to 1898, Weinman served as an assistant to Augustus Saint Gaudens, the most famous sculptor in the history of the U.S. and the designer of Saint Gaudens double eagles. After Saint Gaudens left for Europe in 1898, the two continued to communicate and maintained a professional relationship of some sort.
In addition to the Mercury dime, Weinman designed the Walking Liberty half dollar and dozens of medals. Weinman was very proud of his large, outdoor sculptures that have been placed at train stations, parks, government buildings and private structures, in various parts of the United States. He was associated with the most distinguished architectural firm in the history of the U.S., McKim, Mead & White.
Mercury dimes are of the same size as Barber dimes and silver Roosevelt dimes. Indeed, since 1837, U.S. Dimes have had the same specified diameter, seven tenths of an inch (0.7). From 1837 to 1964, dimes were required to be 90% silver and 10% copper. Dimes dated after 1964, except for some Proof-only issues, do not contain silver. They are of a copper-nickel “clad” composition.
Mercury dimes were minted from 1916 to 1945. They followed Barber dimes, which were struck from 1892 to 1916.
Mercury dimes minted in Philadelphia do not have mintmarks. Despite claims that there might be a couple of exceptions, no official U.S. coin that was struck at the Philadelphia Mint had a mintmark until ‘war nickels,’ which date from 1942 to 1945, were struck with a ‘P’ mintmark. Other than these ‘war nickels,’ which are of a special alloy, Philadelphia Mint coins did not have mintmarks until 1980.
Mercury dimes were minted in Denver with a ‘D’ mintmark and, in San Francisco, with an ‘S’ mintmark. The 1916 Philadelphia Mint Mercury dime issue is fairly common. The 1916 Denver Mint issue is the key to the series, the scarcest date in relative terms. All dates in the series are available. The 1921 and the 1921-D are semi-keys. The 1926-S could be considered a semi-key as well.
If the 1942/41 and 1942/41-D overdates are listed in leading guides as distinct ‘dates.’ If they are to be so regarded, then these are semi-keys, too. They are scarce in all grades, probably much more so than the 1921 and the 1921-D.
“The ’42/41-D is not a very apparent overdate; it takes a strong glass and little imagination to view it as an overdate,” John Albanese declares. “The P Mint ’42/41 is very obvious. I suggest collecting overdates that can be easily seen; you should not need a glass to see the overdate,” Albanese insists. So, John figures that the ’42/41-D is not needed for a complete set of Mercs.
Other than these 1942/41 overdates, Mercs minted after 1929 are extremely common. Most of the dates from 1916 to 1929 are ‘better dates’ in the sense that they are relatively much scarcer, particularly in higher grades, than the Mercs that were minted from 1934 to 1945.
Proof Mercury dimes were minted from 1936 to 1942. Albanese points out that “CAC approved, PCGS or NGC Proof-67 Mercury dimes from 1939 to ’42 could be bought for under $500 [each]. The same for the 1938 in Proof-66 and the ’37 in Proof-65,” John adds. Albanese suggests not buying a Proof 1936 Merc, as one “for less than $500 is likely to be impaired.” John is the founder and president of CAC.
I point out that some collectors will enjoy completing a set of Proofs with a non-gradable 1936. In July 2013, Heritage auctioned a non-gradable Proof 1936, which is probably nice enough for many collectors, for $475.88.
Business strike Mercs are more popular than Proofs. These were minted from 1916 to 1945. Patterns struck in 1916 are a different topic.
For almost all dates (and U.S. Mint locations) that I do not explicitly mention herein, it is not difficult to acquire a PCGS or NGC graded MS-65 or MS-66 representative for less than $500. Indeed, this is true for all dates (and U.S. Mint locations) from 1929 to 1945, except for the 1942/41 overdates. Furthermore, besides those overdates, current retail prices for all PCGS or NGC graded MS-67 Mercs from 1935 to 1945 are less than $500 each. PCGS or NGC graded MS-68 Mercs, of several dates in the 1940s, have sold for less than $450 each over the past five years.
“The “34-D, ’35-D, and ’36-D are better values than the Mercury dimes from the 1940s,” Albanese asserts. John “would rather have a ’35-D in MS-65 than many of the coins in the 1940s in MS-67 grade.”
At some point before 1978, uncirculated Mercury Dimes with ‘full split horizontal bands’ on the fasces on the reverse (back of the coin) began to sell for large premiums over coins of the same date and grade that had such bands that were not as well defined. This historical term, “fasces,” refers to “a bundle of rods containing an ax with the blade projecting” that was “borne before Roman magistrates as an emblem of official power,” according to Dictionary.com and other sources. Does the fact that the main design element on the reverse (back) relates to Ancient Rome constitute circumstantial evidence that the obverse design might as well?
Well before PCGS was founded in 1986, collectors were paying substantial premiums for Mercs with ‘full bands.’ which amount to a small percentage of the surface area of the fasces. Indeed, the “bands” are miniscule parts of the reverse design. Magnification is required to determine if such ‘bands’ are truly full. Furthermore, there are varying opinions among experts as to the details required for a ‘full bands’ designation to be justified. Besides, a coin with ‘full bands’ is not necessarily more sharply struck overall than another coin of the same date and grade that has less than full bands.
Some ‘crack-out artists’ submit coins over and over again with the idea that some Mercury dimes that failed to be certified as having ‘full bands’ in the past will eventually be certified as having ‘full bands’ in the future. Further, many experts maintain that dimes with and without ‘full bands’ are not consistently differentiated. Moreover, there are borderline cases and experts at grading services have made mistakes. Suppose, though, that these were consistently differentiated in an absolute sense.
Put differently, suppose, for sake of discussion, that PCGS or NGC were perfectly consistent in terms of identifying Mercury dimes with ‘full bands.’ Would it then make sense, in terms of the culture of coin collecting, to pay large premiums for Merc with ‘full bands’ over otherwise nearly identical Mercs that lack ‘full bands’? This is a question for collectors to seriously ponder.
As an example, a PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 1918-S would probably sell at auction for between $225 and $325, while a PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 1918-S with a ‘full bands” designation would probably sell for between $1750 and $2500. This discussion is about Mercury dimes that do not have ‘full bands’ designations. As dimes with a ‘full bands’ designation often bring about a large premium for a small difference in detail, they tend not to be the best choices for budget-minded collectors.
For dimes with or without ‘full bands’ designations, it is not a good idea to rely entirely upon the numerical grades assigned by PCGS or NGC. It is a good idea to consult experts and closely examine related coins in addition to Mercs of interest. While very few collectors will ever develop grading skills that are on par with top-level graders, and most collectors would aggravate themselves if they attempted to do so, collectors should make an effort to gain some understanding of grading criteria and should often ask questions.
1916 to 1920
For much less than $500, a 1916 Philadelphia Mint Merc that is PCGS or NGC graded MS-66 could be easily acquired. CAC has certified ten at the MS-66 level and one of these, if available, would probably be priced well under $500 as well. Herein, Mercs that could be purchased in MS-66 or MS-65 grade for less than $500 will not be explicitly mentioned, as there are so many.
The 1916-D is the giant Merc for the budget-minded collector who is seeking to complete a set. In recent auctions, a half dozen different, PCGS graded AG-03 1916-D dimes have sold for less than $500 each, sometimes for less than $400. A PCGS or NGC graded Fair-02 1916-D would be even less expensive.
If a PCGS or NGC graded Good-04 grade 1916-D sells for, or is offered for, less than $500, then there might be a reason to be concerned or suspicious, as the retail value for one is well over $500. The coin being offered may have negative characteristics that are not shared by most other PCGS or NGC graded Good-04 1916-D Mercs. In any event, it is imperative to consider only 1916-D dimes that are certified, as a substantial percentage of non-certified 1916-D Mercs are fake.
A PCGS graded MS-64 1917-D has a retail value around $435 and an NGC graded MS-64 1917-D has a retail value below $400. For under $500 each, a collector may acquire a PCGS or NGC certified, MS-64 grade 1918-D and a 1918-S.
It is realistic to attempt to obtain a PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 1919-D for less than $500. In April 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded MS-64 1919-D for $499.38, and, on Feb. 5, 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded MS-64 1919-D for this exact same price. On Sept. 28, 2013, Heritage auctioned a different PCGS graded MS-64 1919-D for, yes, $499.38. That one, though, has a CAC sticker and has a much more natural appearance than the two just mentioned 1919-D Mercs that were auctioned in 2014, each of which was very apparently artificially brightened via dipping.
In Jan. 2014, in Stack’s-Bowers “iAuction 3463,” still another PCGS graded MS-64 1919-D brought, of course, $499.38. PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 1919-D Mercs, with a ‘full bands’ designation, have been recently selling at auction for prices ranging from around $2500 to around $4000, five to eight times as much as one without such a designation.
In Aug. 2006, Spectrum-B&M auctioned a PCGS graded MS-66 1919-D, with a ‘full bands’ designation for $143,750! A well struck MS-64 grade 1919-D, without a ‘full bands’ designation, for around $500 would be a ‘better value’ for most interested collectors.
The 1919-S is one of the scarcest dates in the series. It could be termed a semi-key, though it is much more common than the 1921 and the 1921-D.
A PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 1919-S would probably retail for less than $500. Alternately, a certified AU-58 grade 1919-S would be likely to sell for less than $200.
A PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 1920-D or 1920-S could probably be found for less than $500. A MS-63 grade representative of either the ’20-D or the ’20-S could certainly be bought for less than $400.
It is interesting that dimes and halves of the year 1921 are so much scarcer than dates shortly before and afterwards. The 1921 Standing Liberty quarter is a semi-key, too. There are no 1921-D or 1921-S quarters. The 1921-S Buffalo nickel is likewise a semi-key, though, curiously, 1921 Philadelphia Mint nickels are not particularly scarce.
No gold coins were minted in Denver or in San Francisco during 1921. Only Saint Gaudens Double Eagles were minted in Philadelphia and 1921 Saints are truly rare, in all grades.
There was a terrible economic downturn from 1920 to 1921, a steep recession, perhaps worse than the 2008-09 recession. The economy in 1921 ‘bounced back’ without a stimulus program.
Other than the 1916-D and the 1942/41 overdates, the 1921 and 1921-D are the scarcest dates in the series of Mercury Dimes. There is no 1921-S dime and dimes were not struck in 1922.
In June 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-40 1921, with a CAC sticker, for $470. This may have been an excellent value for the buyer.
On March 2, 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded EF-45 coin for $528.75, a PCGS graded EF-40 1921 for $411.25, and a PCGS graded VF-35 1921 for $329. Recent auction results for PCGS or NGC graded VF-30 1921-D Mercs tend to range from around $325 to around $400. A fair retail price might be as much as $455. A PCGS or NGC graded VF-20 1921-D would probably retail for a price in the range of $290 to $340, depending upon the circumstances of the sale and the characteristics of the specific coin sold.
A PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 1921-D could possibly be purchased for less than $500, though such an acquisition might not be a great idea. If such a coin is sold for less than $500, there would be a good chance that it has substantial problems or was mistakenly overgraded.
A better strategy may be to wait for a naturally toned, pleasing Very Fine-20 to -30 grade 1921-D, about which the buyer feels comfortable. John Albanese remarks, “1921 and 1921-D in Very Fine grades would be my favorites in the under $500 range.”
The 1923-S is a much ‘better date.’ It is surprising that, in Sept. 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded MS-64 1923-S, with a CAC sticker, for $440.63. This seems ‘too good to be true,’ a weak price. I would like to see that coin. PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 1923-S Mercs often sell for more than $500. In any event, a collector could count upon being able to buy a certified MS-63 grade 1923-S for less than $500.
In theory, a PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 or MS-63 1924-D should be available for less than $500, though these are not easy to find. Curiously, the premium for a ‘full bands’ designation is not as large for a 1924-D as such premiums tend to be for most other dates in the 1920s.
On several occasions over the last two years, PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 1924-D Mercs, with a ‘full bands’ designation, have each been auctioned for less than $500. It might take less time to find one of these than it would take to find a PCGS graded MS-63 1924-D without a ‘full bands’ designation.
On Nov. 9, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded MS-64 1924-S for $499.38. Other MS-64 graded 1924-S Mercs have been auctioned for more than $500. A PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 1924-S probably would retail for less than $450, though there are fewer certified MS-63 1924-S Mercs than certified MS-64 grade 1924-S Mercs. The buyer should be patient. For 20th century coins, it is usually better to wait and buy a pleasing coin at a price the respective buyer can surely afford than to rush to seize the next one that becomes available.
The 1925-D is scarcer than many other dates in grades above MS-63. Many of those that have been certified as grading MS-61 or MS-62 are in miserable shape or are not close to being strictly uncirculated. A collector who does not wish to spend more than $500 per coin may be able to buy a PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 or -58 1925-D at auction for an amount between $185 and $325, depending upon the characteristics of the specific coin acquired.
As for the 1925-S, it is not nearly as scarce in high grades as the 1925-D, though it commands respect and collectors should think carefully before buying a 1925-S. A MS-63 or AU-58 grade 1925-S would be a practical and logical acquisition, for the collector with a $500 per coin limit.
After the 1916-D, the ’42/41 overdates, the 1921 and the 1921-D, the 1926-S is the scarcest Merc. Fortunately, a PCGS or NGC certified, AU-50 to -55 1926-S would cost less than $500. I hope, though, that there are especially nice AU grade 1926-S Mercs available. It is curious that CAC has approved just one as AU-50, two at the AU-53 level, and two that are PCGS or NGC graded AU-55. It may be true, however, that AU grade Mercs, except for 1916-D coins, are rarely submitted to CAC.
In Nov. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded EF-45 1926-S for $262.03. In Dec. 2012, Heritage sold an NGC graded AU-55 coin for $352.50.
Unfortunately for collectors who seek them, AU grade 1926-S Mercs do not seem to be publicly offered very often. Perhaps these are on a large number of ‘want lists’ that collectors send to dealers? A collector who cannot find a suitable AU or EF grade 1926-S may be able to acquire a PCGS or NGC certified Very Fine-30 or -35 grade, 1926-S for a price well below $200.
After 1926, there are some ‘better dates’ that command respect and thought. Regarding some of these, finding naturally toned pieces, with no substantial problems, in relatively high grades may not be easy. Collectors tend to grab these soon after they emerge, and many ‘better date’ Mercs are traded quietly.
The 1927-D and the 1927-S are not quite as scarce as the 1926-D and the 1926-S, though a collector should not count upon being able to sift through a large number of these ‘better dates’ from the mid to late 1920s. With some patience, a collector could acquire a PCGS or NGC graded MS-61 to -63 1927-D for less than $500.
There is no doubt about PCGS or NGC graded MS-61 and -62 grade 1927-D Mercs retailing for less than $500. A concern is that these are rarely offered in public. Recently, in October, Heritage sold an NGC graded AU-58 ’27-D for $158.63. PCGS graded AU-55 or -58 1927-D Mercs must appear for sale at some coin shows around the nation.
If a PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 1927-S was to be offered at auction in the near future, it would be likely to sell for less than $500. As with the 1927-D, it may take time and patience to acquire a 1927-S that grades from AU-58 to MS-63.
The 1928-D is not as scarce as the 1926-D or ’26-S or even as scarce as the 1927-D and ’27-S. It could not be too difficult to acquire a PCGS or NGC graded MS-62 or -63 1928-D for less than $500.
In a matter of weeks, a collector could almost certainly acquire a PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 or MS-63 1928-S for less than $500.
Both 1941 and 1942 hubs were impressed upon at least two obverse dies. According to David Lange, during that era, each die required two impressions from a hub, typically the same hub. Presumably by accident, two different hubs, with different dates, were each impressed upon at least two individual obverse dies.
Evidently, the ‘1941’ impressions were errors and a 1942 hub was pressed on these dies over the respective impressions of the 1941 hub. A previous ‘4’ and a ‘1’ are clearly visible under and about the ‘42’ on the Philadelphia Mint overdate.
In 1943, dozens of 1942/41 Philadelphia Mint overdates were found in change. Thousands more were found over the next three decades, though 1942/41 Mercs that grade above EF-40 are relatively scarce and are expensive. These, however, are not close to being rare, even in grades above 40: PCGS alone has graded 351 as EF-40, 271 as EF-45, 134 as AU-50, 91 as AU-53, 159 as AU-55 and 94 as AU-58, though, undoubtedly, these numbers include some multiple counts of individual coins. It is not shocking that ‘mint state’ grade pieces each cost thousands, as there might be fewer than 250 of these in existence. There probably are more than 1200 that grade from 40 to 58.
A VF-20 or Fine-15 grade 1942/41 could be purchased for less than $500 in the near future. Less than a month ago, Heritage sold a PCGS graded VF-20 1942/41 for $411.25 and an NGC graded VF-20 coin for $329. Market values for these have recently fallen. Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC graded VF-25 1942/41 for $425 in Feb. 2012, and a PCGS graded VG-10 1942/41 for $393.63 in Nov. 2013.
The “1942/41-D” overdate is not quite as blatant as its Philadelphia Mint counterpart. Such variations that require magnification are classified by some experts as die varieties rather than as distinct overdates. As already mentioned, Albanese asserts that the 1942/41-D as significant enough to be collected as a distinct date. John regards it as a minor variety that should not be listed in major guides.
David Lange notes that the “1942/41-D” was discovered by early 1960 and was not widely publicized until 1963. PCGS graded Fine-15 “1942/41-D” Mercs tend to sell at auction for less than $500 each. In October 2014, in New York, Heritage sold one for $381.88. A PCGS or NGC graded VF-20 “1942/41-D” might be found for less than $500 in 2015.
Although a complete set of gradable Mercs, for less than $500 per coin, could be completed in a matter of months or weeks, I recommend that collectors take years to fulfill such a quest and gradually learn about the coins that are being acquired. Sets of more than one type or denomination may be pursued in the same time period. Generally, a collector who does not rush and has patience will enjoy collecting more and be happier with his or her acquisitions.
©2014 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: