By Eric Brothers for CoinWeek …..
There is a lot of romance associated with coin collecting, and certain popular and greatly coveted coins convey that romance simply by mentioning them. One that comes to mind is the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent. That coin has a “perfect storm” of romance surrounding it: a new design, a low mintage, and a great story.
The Lincoln cent was the first coin to feature the image of an American president–a martyred one at that–instead of the ubiquitous Liberty. That new design happened to be placed on the most significantly collected denomination, the one-cent piece, and therefore any story about that coin would be heard in every corner of the numismatic community.
And what a story it was. The branch mint in San Francisco was where Lincoln cents were first produced but, in the midst of production, the Secretary of the Treasury had the mint stop making them. Why? Because of three little letters: VDB. Somebody was upset that the initials of the designer, Victor David Brenner, were visible at the rim on the bottom of the coin’s reverse. But why was that so? The design was approved by Treasury officials who must have seen the supposedly offending initials well before the first coins were minted.
‘Stop the presses!’ It reads like an old-fashioned newsroom drama where the headline on a newspaper has to be changed mid-print because of big news that utterly changes the story. But it was the proverbial stopping of the presses that was the big news about the 1909-S VDB, which became the most popular Lincoln cent ever. Removing the VDB made the collective mouths of collectors salivate as they wondered, “Why did they remove the VDB? I’ve got to have one of them!” The fact that the mintage stopped at 484,000 pieces was also a talking point. And this is the coin that began the love affair that numismatists have with San Francisco Mint Lincoln cents dated 1909-55, which typically had much lower mintages than those produced in Philadelphia and Denver.
This coin became an instant classic to collectors in 1909 and its appeal continues to this day. Paul M. Green wrote in Numismatic News that “It was an immediate sensation….There are a few other coins like the 1909-S VDB that bring higher prices than would be expected based on numbers available, but the 1909-S VDB remains the poster child as the coin where the demand simply overwhelms the supply in every grade.”
But how did this famous collectible end up in so many collections with so many uncirculated examples?
In the beginning, collectors and interested members of the public would pull nice examples out of pocket change and put them aside for safe keeping. Those living in San Francisco in 1909 had the opportunity of purchasing original rolls of them. It is not known, however, how many of those rolls were bought and kept intact over the years.
One hoard of 1909-S VDB cents was identified by Q. David Bowers. In his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Bowers tells us that John Zug, who was in the mail-order coin business, possessed a hoard numbering 25,000 examples of the famous coin. At that time, dealers rarely concerned themselves with modern coins, no matter how low the mintages. This hoard was relatively short-lived, however, as Zug (writes Paul Green), “…in 1918 reportedly sold his hoard of 25,000 pieces acquired for prices close to their face value.”
That is the only documented case of a massive stockpile of 1909-S VDB cents.
“In 1930 the coin market remained stable,” Bowers tells us. “No one could have predicted that as the American economy went down, interest in coins went up!” Pushing the popularity of collecting Lincoln cents was the introduction of “penny boards” by J.K. Post in Wisconsin. Collectors sifted through pocket change to fill the holes, and the coin they wanted the most was the hard-to-find 1909-S VDB. By 1932, coins were no longer priced generically. The 1909-S VDB was difficult to find in circulation, and collectors turned to dealers, whose stock of the rarity dwindled quickly. It was then that the date/mintmark craze began in earnest.
While an untold number of collectors pinned their hopes on locating a single 1909-S VDB in pocket change or at a coin dealer, some dealers sat on a small cache of them, protected by paper bankrolls and waiting for the right moment to sell. Additionally, some savvy collectors had original rolls squirreled away for the future – in bank vaults, safes, desk drawers, and other storage spots. Little by little, however, these rolls were sold or given to loved ones, who made them available to numismatists.
“By 1941,” says Bowers, “Collecting coins from circulation was the launchpad for nearly every hobbyist.” Collectors never gave up the hunt for the elusive 1909-S VDB, buying up rolls of “wheaties” from banks or sifting through piles of “pennies” acquired from relatives or shopkeepers.
The 1950s saw the continued interest in Lincoln cents. Bowers writes, “The Holy Grail was the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent. Now and again, a lucky collector would find one and report it to Lee Hewitt, editor of the monthly Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, the largest-circulation publication in the hobby.”
Bowers reports that in the 1950s dealer Art Kagin purchased 10 original rolls of the 1909-S VDB at $500 per roll. What’s more, Kagin’s source was suspected of having had even more original rolls, from which the coins were sold at $12 to $15 a piece at the time. In that way, more of those popular rarities made it into collectors’ hands. It was in September of 1958 that Daniel D. Wiseman and his wife finished sorting through around one million cents from circulation. Wiseman wrote, “It took us one year to do so. We found no 1909-S VDBs, seven 1909-S, five 1914-D, and three 1931-S.” They also found several dozen Indian head cents.
It was, apparently, becoming more difficult to find the popular 1909-S VDB in circulation.
The 1909-S VDB captured the imagination of many people, including Q. David Bowers, who wrote in CoinWeek that his ‘magical coin’ “was a 1909-S VDB. Or, more accurately, the desire to own one.” It was in 1952 at the age of 13 that Bowers was an active collector of rocks and gems. He met a man in his home town, Robert Rusbar, who also collected rocks. He asked Bowers if he collected coins, which he did not at the time. Rusbar showed the young Bowers a green-covered album of Lincoln cents, pointing out a coin that he had purchased at Gimbels department store in New York City for $10. It was a 1909-S VDB.
Bowers “felt absolutely certain that [he] would find several 1909-S VDB cents — after all … 484,000 had been minted. Certainly … there must be hundreds waiting for me!” He searched through several thousand cents but found no 1909-S VDB cents. He filled up two Lincoln cent folders except for the 1909-S VDB, 1914-D, 1931-S and a few others.
“Within a few weeks the coin bug bit me and wouldn’t let go. No sooner than I learned to pronounce ‘numismatist’ I was at least a beginning one,” Bowers said of the experience.
Every once in a while there is a report in the numismatic press of the discovery of original rolls of 1909-S VDB Lincoln cents. It was in November of 2013 that CoinWeek reported that an original roll of them had been discovered. A report in Numismatic News of March 2015 tells us that Charmy Harker, aka ‘The Penny Lady‘, said the 1909-S VDB may have seen some flooding on the market at that time.
“I heard that a little hoard had been released,” she said. “There’s been an abundance on the market.” She also said that “a surprising number of people want [it] in good.”
In August of 2017, Jeff Garrett wrote that “[p]opulation reports can also jump widely when a large hoard or group is discovered. In the last couple of years, two original rolls of 1909-S VDB cents were discovered and certified. The population of certified examples jumped considerably, and prices fell as well. Specialists of this series would find this information extremely important.”
Collectors who would like to acquire a mint-state example of the 1909-S VDB cent are in luck. Researching the population reports of the primary third-party grading services reveals that PCGS has graded a total of 11,734 with 1,536 in MS60 through MS67, while NGC has slabbed 6,750 of them with 1,182 in MS60 to MS69. These population figures, however, are fluid and change frequently. Plus, there are uncirculated pieces that have been graded by ANACS, ICG, and other grading companies. Additionally, there probably are still original rolls that have not hit the market yet.
Q. David Bowers writes in his book A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents that “In Mint State the 1909-S VDB is the most plentiful issue of its era, a record it does not yield until the late 1920s… High quality 1909-S VDB cents certified by the leading services run into the thousands; more than 1,000 are MS-65RD or higher.”
Relatively common, this coin is so valuable and sought out by so many collectors because, writes Bowers, “The demand for this coin is incredible, and in comparison to the number of people seeking it, the 1909-S VDB is indeed a key issue.”
However, sometimes it seems that there are too many 1909-S VDBs available on the market.
Writing in CoinWeek in 2011, Greg Reynolds tells us that at the “June 2011 Long Beach auction, I noted that Heritage sold 20 1909-S VDB cents in that event. In the Stack’s-Bowers June 2011 Baltimore auction, there are 18. When I was seven years old, I thought these were extremely rare and of the utmost importance. I would have been rattled if I had then been told that someday so many would be offered in single auctions.”
Circulated examples are also very popular. David Lange wrote in his book, The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents, that “The most challenging coins to locate are problem-free specimens grading Good through Fine. These escaped the initial hoarding and were generally lost among the millions of ordinary cents in circulation.” For those who cannot afford an uncirculated one, an option is to look for an attractive circulated coin in grades VF to AU. Those coins still have a lot of their details remaining. Only purchase such a coin if it is certified by a major grading service, for, as Bowers tells us, “There are thousands of fakes on the market.”
The bottom line is that if you’re a romantic like so many coin collectors and want to have a 1909-S VDB of your very own, you can get one. Depending upon your resources, you can pick from one in Good (or even AG) all the way up to MS65 and beyond!
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