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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: U.S. coins for less than $500 each, Part 1; Copper

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #170 …..

The purpose here is to put forth options, mention some pertinent facts related to coin prices, and provide advice, for people who would like to obtain classic U.S. coins and do not wish to pay more than $500 for any one coin. Those who will not spend an amount near $500 may prefer my earlier series on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $250 each, or my piece for absolute beginners. (Clickable links are in blue.)

“You do not have to be in the top two percent of the earners to buy great coins with a lot of potential,” John Albanese declares. “Circulated, classic U.S. coins are often good deals.” 

copper_coins_grThis series is aimed at people who have not committed to present collecting objectives or are wondering about future collecting plans. A very general understanding of coin types and coin grades is all that is needed to understand the points being discussed. (Coins are graded on a scale from 01 to 70: Poor-01; Fair-02; AG-03; Good-04,06; VG-08,10; Fine-12,15; VF-20,25,30, 35; Extremely Fine-XF-40,45; AU-50,53,55,58; ‘Mint State’ -60 to -70.) Many exciting, classic U.S. coins are not expensive.

I. Indian Cents

Indian Cents are similar in dimensions to currently issued Lincoln Cents, “pennies,” which people often receive in change. Generally, Flying Eagle Cents (1856-58), Copper-Nickel Indian Cents (1859-64), and “Bronze” Indian Cents (1864-1909) are all loosely termed “Indian Cents,” and tend to be included by collectors in the same sets. For collecting Indian Cents, several different strategies are practical.

“Indian Head pennies have always been extremely popular,” John Albanese notes. Given a $500 per coin limit, “collectors should buy choice, circulated Indian Cents,” John advises, “mostly Very Fine (VF) to Extremely Fine (XF) grades, [with] some of the better dates in Very Good to Fine grades.” Furthermore, Albanese suggests selecting Indian Cents of a “chocolate brown color. Avoid pennies with rim nicks, edge bumps, or green corrosion spots,” John adds. Albanese is the founder of the CAC and of the NCA, which helps people who have been harmed by sellers of coins.

“Copper-Nickel” Indian Cents (1859-64) consist of an alloy of about 12% nickel and 88% copper. (In this discussion, coins that are at least 88% copper are referred to as ‘copper coins.’) Even a nickel content of just 12%, though, results in these coins appearing a little white. Flying Eagle Cents are of this same ‘Copper-Nickel’ composition.

1877_ag3_ind_centLarge cents and half cents were minted from 1793 to 1857, though not in every year along the way. These are more than 99% copper and do not ever appear somewhat white, at least not naturally.

All dates of Copper-Nickel Indian Cents (1858-64) can be found in AU grades for much less than $500 per coin. Indeed, except for the 1859, these could all be acquired in MS-63 grade for less than $500 per coin.

“I do not think you should have an 1872 in Very Fine-20 in the same set as an 1898 in MS-66-Red-Brown,” Albanese says. John likes the idea of a relatively “matched set.”

For less than $500 per coin, a collector could acquire an 1858/7 Flying Eagle Cent in Very Fine grade, along with an 1857 ‘Normal Date’ and both varieties of 1858s in most any circulated (sub-60) grade. An 1856 Flying Eagle Cent would have to be excluded, as even a Poor-01 grade 1856 would cost more than $500. These are often regarded as patterns, anyhow.

All six of the Copper-Nickel Cents of the Indian design in Extremely Fine-40 or -45 grades could be acquired for less than $500 each. A very much matched set of those would be a very practical objective. Indian Cents in Good-04 to Fine-15 grades, however, are easier to locate than those in Extremely Fine (XF-40 and -45) grades. (Extremely Fine is frequently, though illogically, termed “Extra Fine” and the “XF” abbreviation is very widely used.)

As for “Bronze” (95% copper) Indian Cents (1864-1909), a complete set is not costly. Most collectors ignore the 1888/7 overdate, the 1869 “recut date,” and Doubled Die varieties. Except for the 1872, the 1877, and the 1909-S, a whole set ‘by date’ (and mint location) could easily be assembled in AU grades for much less than $500 per coin. Except 1908 San Francisco Mint and 1909-S Indian Cents, all the coins mentioned herein, or referred to indirectly, were minted in Philadelphia..

An 1872 Indian Cent in Very Fine-20 or so might be found for less than $400. A 1909-S in Fine-12 grade should be available for less than $500. The stumbling block for a set of Indian Cents is the 1877, the key date.

Over the last three years, Heritage has auctioned 1877 Indians in “PCGS Genuine” holders for less than $500 each on six separate occasions. Even so, it is true that other 1877 Indian Cents in “PCGS Genuine” holders have been auctioned for far more than $500 each. Some of the non-gradable pieces that are available for less than $500 each are decent enough. For example, an 1877 penny that was once bent and is appealing in most other ways could sit alongside carefully selected circulated Indian Cents in the same set.

Acquiring an 1877 that grades below Good-04 is another option. In Jan. 2010, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded AG-03 1877 Indian Cent for $460. In late Dec. 2012, Heritage sold a PCGS graded AG-03 coin, with a CAC sticker, for $411.25, and another “PCGS AG-03” 1877, without a CAC sticker, earlier that same month, for $329. It is not too difficult to acquire a gradable 1877 for less than $500.

II. Two Cent Pieces

Two Cent Pieces were minted from 1864 to 1873. These are of the same composition as ‘Bronze’ Indian Cents. The diameter of a Two Cent Piece is about nine tenths of an inch. In contrast, the diameter of a five cent nickel is five-sixths of an inch, more or less.

1867_2cFor details about this series, please click to read my article on Collecting Two Cent Pieces. For under $500 per coin, a complete set of business strike Two Cent Pieces could easily be completed.

The key 1864 ‘Small Motto’ in Fine-12 or -15 grade should cost less than $500. The other key business strike, the 1872, has a retail value of around $500 in Very Good-08 grade. Certainly, a Good-06 grade 1872 could be purchased for less than $500.

All the other dates in the set could be found in PCGS or NGC certified, MS-64 or MS-65 grades (with ‘Brown’ designations) for less than $500 each, except the 1871. A certified MS-63-Brown 1871 would probably cost less than $500.

“My favorite series, relating to coins in the $200 to $500 price range, is Two Cent Pieces,” Matt Kleinsteuber states boldly. Those that are PCGS or NGC certified from “63-Brown to 65-Red & Brown are phenomenally good values,” Matt emphasizes. Kleinsteuber is the lead grader and trader with NFC coins.

I note that 1865, 1866 and 1867 Two Cent Pieces that are PCGS or NGC certified as ‘MS-64-Red & Brown’ should be obtainable for less than $500 each. I suggest discussing the concept of original ‘Mint Red’ and specific, ‘Red-Brown’ designated coins with experts. In my view, choice uncirculated, very much original (“MS-63” and higher grade) Two Cent Pieces are really neat.

III. Large Cents

Large cents were minted from 1793 to 1857, and are usually a little larger than quarters minted after 1830. There are so many large cents available for less than $500 each that it would not be sensible to list a substantial portion of them here.

Collectors who have never seriously pursued large cents before may wish to form a type set of large cents. There would be no point, however, in seeking a 1793 large cent, of any type, for less than $500. An abbreviated type set of large cents may still have great significance: Liberty Cap (1793-96), Draped Bust (1796-1807), Classic Head (1808-14), Matron or Coronet (1816-39), and Braided Hair (1839-57).

1797_s140bThe ‘Head of ‘1835-39’ is really a separate design type that is markedly different from the Matron Head (1816-35) design and is also much different from the Braided Hair (1839-57) type. This type of 1835 to 1839 includes the 1835 with the ‘Head of 1836’ and the 1839 with the ‘Head of 1838.’ This design type needs a name that will be widely accepted. In any event, an AU-58 grade, or a higher grade, ‘Head of 1835-39’ large cent could easily be acquired for less than $500.

Early large cents tend to be more expensive than later dates. A PCGS or NGC graded Good-04, 1794 or 1795, Liberty Cap Cent could be obtained for less than $500. Certainly, a substantial number of AG-03 grade Liberty Cap Cents are available for prices below $500 each. AU grade Liberty Cap Large Cents, though, are a whole different matter.

Among Draped Bust Cents (1796-1807), there are many dates available for under $500. Eighteenth century dates tend to have a special appeal. A 1798 cent in Fine-12 grade could probably be found for a price less than $500, as could a 1796 in VG-08. On Sept. 25, 2010, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded VG-10 1797, with a CAC sticker, for $402.50, and on Sept. 8, 2012, the same firm auctioned an NGC graded VG-10 1797 for $305.50.

For the buyer who is collecting ‘by date,’ not ‘by variety,’ 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, 1805 and 1807 Draped Bust Cents, all in Fine-12 or -15 grade, could be acquired for less than $500 each, often for less than $400. The 1804 is a key date is not available in this price range.

Regarding Classic Head Cents (1808-14), all the dates are available in VG-08 or higher grades for prices below $500 each. This is a neat set to complete.

A set of Matron Head and ‘Head of 1835-39’ cents is practical to complete as well. Most dates could be found in AU-50 or higher grade for less than $500!

The keys are the 1823/2 overdate, the 1823, and the 1839/6 overdate. For less than $500 each, a collector could buy Very Good-08 or -10 grade 1823/2 and 1823 large cents. An 1839/6 in Good-06 grade could be obtained as well. In most situations, nevertheless, these three keys cannot be obtained in chosen grades immediately. Patience is likely to be required.

Besides, if an excellent collection could be assembled an instant, then most collectors would not find it to be fun or rewarding. Coin collecting is a process.

For the collector ‘in a hurry,’a set of business strike, Braided Hair Large Cents (1839-57) could be finished in a rapid manner. Regarding series of classic U.S. coins, it is among the easiest to complete. There are no rarities. Attractive, relatively original coins are available and it may take time to carefully select, especially appealing coins.

Matt Kleinsteuber recommends “choice Mint State, Braided Hair Large Cents, MS-63-Brown, 63-Red & Brown, 64-Brown or 64-Red & Brown, depending on the date. A collector might be able to get an 1852 in 64-Red & Brown for less than $500. If not, buy a MS-64-Brown 1852.” Matt also recommends “845 and 1848 large cents in MS-63-Brown, great values if bought for less than $500.”

IV. Half Cents

Like large cents, half cents were minted from 1793 to 1857. Half cents, though, were not minted as often or to the same extent as large cents. They were not very popular in their own time, though collectors are fascinated with them in the present.

halfcent_ngcIt is not practical to seek gradable, 1793 or 1794 half cents for under $500. In June 2012, Heritage did, though, sell an NGC graded Poor-01 1794 for $241.50. Moreover, there are quite a few non-gradable 1794 half cents that may, when available, sell for less than $500. It is unlikely that any genuine 1793 half cent could be acquired for less than $500.

If truly gradable, 1795 half cents in Good-04 grade could be found for less than $500 each, then these would be tremendous values. These are very scarce coins overall. Even an AG-03 grade 1795 half cent for less than $400 could be an excellent acquisition, from historical and logical perspectives.

Draped Bust Half Cents were minted from 1800 to 1808 and these are much more accessible than the earlier Liberty Cap issues. Indeed, as type coins, these are plentiful. For under $500 each, a collector could probably buy an 1800 in a Very Fine grade, an 1802/0 in Poor-01 grade, an 1803 in VF-20 grade, an 1804 in Extremely Fine-45 grade, an 1805 and an 1806 in EF-40 or EF-45, an 1807 in VF-20 or higher grade, an 1808/7 in VG-08 grade, and an 1808 in VF-20 to VF-30.

Each collector may have to wait months, or even years, for some of these in grades of his or her choice. Assembling a type set of half cents would take less time.

Classic Head Half Cents date from 1809 to 1811 and then from 1825 to 1836, though none are dated 1827 or 1830. An 1809 in any grade below 58 costs less than $500. An 1810 generally costs less than $500 in Very Fine grades. The 1811 issue is scarcer and a collector who keeps his purchases in the stated $200 to $500 price range may have to settle for a Good-04 grade 1811.

The 1831 and the 1836 are usually considered to be Proof-only dates, though some 1831 half cents are very controversial as to their respective method of manufacture. Other than the 1828 with twelve stars on the front (obverse), all the generally accepted, business strikes from 1825 to 1835 have current market values below $500 in AU-55 or AU-58 grades.

An 1828 half cent, with twelve stars on the obverse, in AU-55 grade probably retails for around $500. Surely, an AU-50 grade representative of this issue would be likely to sell for less than $500.

Braided Hair Half Cents are dated from 1840 to 1857, though many dates are Proof-only. Business strikes were minted from 1849 to 1857, though no business strikes are dated 1852. Matt Kleinsteuber maintains that PCGS or NGC “certified MS-63-Brown Braided Hair Half Cents are really great values at prices below $500.”

I note that a set of business strike, Braided Hair Half Cents, all PCGS or NGC certified as grading from MS-61 to MS-63, could probably be assembled for less than $500 per coin. In many cases, though, coins that grade AU-55 are more appealing than corresponding coins of the same date and type that are certified as grading MS-60, MS-61 or MS-62.

In sum, collectors who are determined not to spend more than $500 for any one coin can easily build collections and greatly enjoy collecting U.S. copper coins. There are many coins and collecting options from which to choose. Some ‘date sets’ and limited type sets can be completed. Collectors should be careful, however, in regard to the coins selected.

Although the purchase of PCGS or NGC certified coins involves much less risk than relevant purchases of non-certified coins, it is not a good idea to take certified grades too seriously. Collectors should ask questions of experts, find advisors, study images of coins AND examine coins in actuality. It helps to learn at least a little about the types of coins that are being purchased. Importantly, coin collecting should be fun.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

Readers 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:

1) Copper

2) Dimes

3) Quarters

4) Bust Half Dollars

5) Liberty Seated Half Dollars

6) Barber Half Dollars

7) Trade Dollars


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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