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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Assembling Sets of Silver Coins, part 3, Three Cent Silvers

News and Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the collecting community #80

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

Here are facts and ideas for beginning and intermediate level collectors who wish to complete or nearly complete a set of circulated Three Cent Silvers. The discussion is geared towards collectors who would like to assemble a set without spending a fortune.

Last week, I wrote about assembling sets of silver quarters at reasonable costs. The week before, I discussed sets of silver dimes and half dollars. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) Three Cent Silvers are different. They are small and unusual. Three cent coins were only minted for a relatively short time in the 19th century. They are sometimes called trimes.

I. Types of Three Cent Silvers

U.S. Three Cent Silver coins were minted from 1851 to 1873. Reportedly, only Proofs were struck in 1873. “All the 1873s that I have ever seen are obvious Proofs,” John Albanese states. John is the founder and president of the CAC.

The focus here is on business strikes that thousands of collectors can afford to buy. A set of Proof Three Cent Silvers is a separate topic, which I will discuss in the future.

Three Cent Silvers should not be confused with Three Cent Nickels, which are larger and do not contain any silver. Three Cent Nickels were minted from 1865 to 1889. Three Cent Nickels predate five cent nickels, which were not introduced until 1866. Please see my recent piece on Collecting Three Cent Nickels.

Except for the 1851-O issue, all Three Cent Silvers were struck in Philadelphia and do not bear mintmarks. The 1851-O Three Cent Silvers were struck at a Branch Mint in New Orleans and feature an ‘O’ mintmark on the reverse (back) of the coin.

Three Cent Silvers dated from 1851 to 1853 are clearly of a design type that is different from those minted in 1854 and later. Indeed, the differences are substantial. A third type or subtype was minted from 1859 to 1873.

The differences between those dated from 1854 to ’58 and those dated from 1859 to ’73 are slight. The outlines of the star on the obverse (front of the coin) are different. The letters in ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’ are laid out differently. Furthermore, the numerals in the year of issue are smaller. While noticeable, these differences seem to relate more to die varieties than to a whole new type.

A type collector ‘on a budget’ could, from a logical perspective, not need to acquire a ‘Type 3’ Three Cent Silver. He or she could just acquire two Three Cent Silvers, a Type 1 coin and a Type 2 coin.

The differences between Type 1 and Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are substantial. Type 1 coins are 75% silver and 25% copper, while Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are 90% silver and 10% copper, as are almost all U.S. silver coins minted from 1837 to 1964. Before 1837, U.S. silver coins were 1485/1664 silver, about 89.24%. I will explain this odd fraction at another time.

Each Type 2 Three Cent Silver has a much larger star on the obverse than does each Type 1 Three Cent Silver. Additionally, the new reverse design has more design elements. Above the denomination, the Roman numeral III, a branch with leaves was added, and three arrows were added below the denomination. Also, the obverse star on the Type 2 coins has a noticeable double border, while the obverse star on each Type 1 Three Cent Silver does not have such a border. Generally, if a Type I Three Cent Silver is laid alongside a Type II Three Cent Silver, major differences are readily noticeable.

Contrary to popular belief, Three Cent Silvers are not the smallest U.S. coins of all time and were not even the smallest coins of the early 1850s. As a point of reference, each dime then had a diameter of seven tenths of an inch. (A diameter is the length of a straight line through the center of an object. In a sense, a round coin’s width and height are the same, its diameter. A coin’s thickness is its depth.) Current clad dimes, those minted since 1965, have a slightly greater diameter, about 0.705 inch, which is approximately 17.9 millimeters.

The diameter of a Three Cent Silver is nine-sixteenths of an inch, about 14.3 millimeters. A half dime, which is silver, is slightly larger, ten-sixteenths of an inch, about 15.9 mm. A one dollar gold coin of the first type, however, has a diameter of only one half an inch, approximately 12.7 mm. Type 1 Gold Dollars were minted from 1849 to 1854 and are the smallest U.S. coins.

II. Buying Type 1 Three Cent Silvers

It is easy to complete a set of Type 1 Three Cent Silvers. Only four dates are needed, an 1851, an 1851-O, an 1852 and an 1853. Each of the Philadelphia Mint dates is available in Good-04 grade for less than $35. A Good-04 grade 1851-O may cost from $40 to $70. Prices for these tend to vary considerably among dealers. In Fine-12 grade, the Philadelphia Mint dates probably cost from $45 to $60 each, while the 1851-O may cost from $60 to $85.

Problematic coins, including those that have been terribly cleaned or have been holed, can be found for much less than $30 each. Many Three Cent Silver coins were holed for use in jewelry.

For the collector who can afford to spend more, I suggest Type 1 Three Cent Silvers in Extremely Fine-40 or 45 grade. I suggest buying coins that are PCGS or NGC certified. Grading Three Cent Silvers is not easy, as striking quality varies. Further, some have been modified by those who are not knowledgeable or are unethical.

Philadelphia Mint, PCGS certified Type 1 Three Cent Silvers in EF-40 grade should be available for around $70 each, certainly less than $85 each. A certified 1851-O costs more in Extremely Fine grade, between $160 and $250, depending upon the characteristics of the individual coin.

Some leading price guides include an 1852 “Inverted Date” along with regular issues, thus implying that collectors do or should include such a variety in a regular set along with a normal date 1852. Supposedly, the numeral ‘1’ was punched over an upside down ‘2.’ If so, this feature is not clear. In response to an inquiry of mine, John Brush indicates that the coin experts at David Lawrence Rare Coins “do not view it as a necessary part of the Three Cent Silver set.”

In my opinion, the so-called 1852 “Inverted Date” is just a die variety and is hardly noticeable. Albanese agrees, “this variety is minor and not very important.”

A few collectors seek all varieties of Three Cent Silvers, but such a degree of specialization in this series is very unusual. Most collectors need not be concerned about varieties of Three Cent Silvers, most of which require high magnification to identify. I repeat that just four coins are needed for a complete set of Type 1 Three Cent Silvers.

The fact that Type 1 Three Cent Silvers are 75% copper results in these toning in a manner that is different from the toning of Type 2 and Type 3 Three Cent Silvers. In my view, the natural toning of Type 1 Three Cent Silvers is distinctive and often very appealing. Orange russet patches are often seen. Also, Type 1 Three Cent Silvers are likely to be harmed to a worse extent by dipping (immersing in acidic solutions) than are Type 2 or Type 3 Three Cent Silvers.

“The 1851-O is the neatest Three Cent Silver,” John Albanese says. “It is the only Three Cent Silver with a mintmark and the large ‘O’ on such a small coin is cool. When I was a kid, I really wanted an 1851-O.” I did, too.

III. Type 2 Three Cent Silvers

A Type 2 Three Cent Silvers were struck from 1854 to 1858. I already mentioned the differences in design, which are readily apparent. It is important to emphasize that these are 90% silver, like all other silver denominations from 1837 to 1964, while Type One Three Cent Silvers are 75% silver. The Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are lighter, about 11½ grains. An uncirculated Type 1 Three Cent Silver weighs 12⅜ grains, give or take a ½ grain. A grain is less than 0.0023 ounce; there are about 437.5 grains in one ounce.

In 1853, a law was passed that reduced the silver content of half dimes, dimes, quarters, and half dollars. Curiously, silver dollars were not affected by this law. This same law resulted in Three Cent Silvers being 90% silver, starting in 1854, and containing the same amount of silver per one cent of face value, 3.456 grains, the same as the other silver denominations, except silver dollars, which continued to contain 3.7125 grains of silver per one cent of face value, 371.25 in total. The current bullion value of silver does not affect current market prices of Three Cent Silvers.

John Albanese is surprised that, in Good-04 through Fine-12 grades, market prices for 1854, 1856, 1857 and 1858 Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are very similar to market prices for Type 3 Three Cent Silvers dating from 1859 to 1862. “At those prices, Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are better values. As type coins [non-rare dates], the Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are definitely tougher than Type 3 coins,” Albanese relates.

Both and the PCGS price guide value these at around $30 in Good-04 grade and around $50 in Fine-12 grade. These estimates, though, may be below average market prices. For 1854, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1859, 1860, 1861 and 1862 Three Cent Silvers, collectors may sometimes have to pay $40 or more for Good grade coins and sometimes more than $60 for Fine grade coins. Collectors should be able to find a Type 2 and a Type 3 Three Cent Silver in Very Fine grade for $70 to $85 each.

There are only five issues of Type 2 Three Cent Silvers and the 1855 is scarcer than the other four. Depending upon how much patience he or she has, a collector may have to pay as much as $50 for an 1855 in Good-04 grade or even $80 to $100 for one in Fine-12 grade. Sometimes, collectors will get lucky and fine nice examples of better dates for low prices at small coin shows. Collectors will also find coins that have been artificially toned or otherwise doctored. It makes sense to be careful and to pose questions to experts.

Certainly, a problem-free set of all five Type 2 Three Cent Silvers that grade from Good to Fine should cost in the $200 to $500 range, hopefully closer to $200. Other than the 1855, each of the others should be available in EF-40 grade for $95 to $135 each. I suggest that collectors be willing, if necessary, to pay a slight premium, less than a grading fee, for EF-40 grade Three Cent Silvers that are PCGS or NGC certified. In some instances, a dealer will be willing to split the grading fee with a collector-buyer, if the collector pays in advance.

IV. Type 3: 1859-62

Type 3 Three Cent Silvers were minted from 1859 to 1873. A short set dating from 1859 to 1862 is not difficult to build. After the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, many banks stopped exchanging silver coins for paper money, and people began to hoard silver coins. As the Civil War progressed, and political unrest continued after this war ended in 1865, silver coins gradually disappeared from circulation. It is not unusual for people to hoard precious metals during times of political and economic uncertainty.

As for Three Cent Silvers dating from 1859 to 1862, these circulated, were saved and are not difficult to locate now. The 1862/1 overdate is really the only overdate in the series that is often collected as a distinct date.

“The 1862/1 is easier to see than most so called overdates” or other varieties, remarks John Albanese who does “not think it is worth a premium” over an 1862 normal date. Albanese “never paid a premium for an 1862/1. Though it has been around for a long time as a [recognized] overdate, it is not rare.” As for the so called “1869/8” overdate, Albanese does not acknowledge it.

Whether the so called “1869/8” Three Cent Silver is an overdate or a re-cut date is debatable. Breen asserts that both a “repunched” date and an overdate exist from this year. In my view, an overdate has to be readily apparent without magnification to even be considered for the status of a distinct ‘date.’ While I am not disputing Breen’s point that there are at least three or four varieties of 1869 Three Cent Silvers, these may all be very subtle. For the time being, I find that only one 1869 and no overdate is needed for a complete set of Three Cent Silvers.

Albanese agrees. “I think a lot of overdate designations are due to marketing. Some are gimmicks. Collectors do not need a [so called 1869/8] for a set,” in John’s view.

Three Cent Silvers dating from 1859 to 1862, including the 1862/1, tend to cost from $25 to $40 each in Good grades and around $50 in Very Good-08 grade. In VF-20 grade, prices in the $70 to $85 range are fair. In Extremely Fine-40 grade, the retail price range for these may be from $85 to $115. Again, I suggest purchasing EF-40 or -45 grade Three Cent Silvers that are PCGS or NGC certified.

V. Type 3: 1863-73

Three Cent Silvers dating from 1863 to 1872 are relatively expensive in circulated grades. Not that many were minted and most business strikes were melted.

Collectors acquired coins, often Proofs, directly from the Philadelphia Mint. Researcher Breen asserts that U.S. Mint personnel, on many occasions, negligently or irresponsibly placed business strike Three Cent Silvers in Proof Sets, or otherwise sold them as Proofs, during the mid 1860s. He suggests that many of the survivors of these dates are coins that were sold directly to collectors or to people who acquired them as collectibles.

Some circulated Three Cent Silvers from the 1863 to ’72 period are Proofs that found their way into circulation. In the mid to late 19th century, many Proofs circulated. People who bought Proofs ‘on whim’ or as novelty items often spent them.

John Brush, states that the “dates from 1863-1872 have dwindling mintages and can be near impossible to locate in circulated grades.” Brush is vice president of David Lawrence Rare Coins.

John Albanese points out, in contrast, that “there are probably not a lot of people looking for them. A set can be done and could be a lot of fun to build.” Also, Albanese mentions that quite a few of the Three Cent Silvers dating from 1863 to 1872 that grade from 40 to 60 are “circulated Proofs.”

A collector who is seeking to complete a set of Three Cent Silvers should consider mixing Proofs, especially circulated Proofs, and business strikes in the same set. Generally, though not always, for Three Cent Silvers dating from 1863 to 1872, Proofs are less expensive than business strikes of the same date with the same numerical grade. While a certified Proof-50 1870 may be worth around $250, a certified AU-50 grade 1870 that is implicitly classified as a business strike is probably worth more than twice as much. Given the opportunity, I suggest that the collector on a budget save a considerable amount by buying an 1870 that is certified as a Proof rather than buy a business strike.

Of course, coins that grade less than 50 are less expensive. In reality, though, for most dates, from 1863 to 1872, it is very hard to find Three Cent Silvers that grade less than ’50.’ Indeed, finding them all in Good to Extremely Fine grades “would be a very difficult if not impossible venture,” declares Brush. “This is perhaps one of the toughest sets to collect in circulated grades.”

For logical reasons for mixing Proofs and business strikes in the same sets, please click to read my piece on Collecting Three Cent Nickels. Besides, John Albanese points out that, for many Three Cent Silvers from the 1860s, “it is hard” to distinguish “Proofs from business strikes.” John mentions that the two major grading services sometimes “get these wrong.”

In the series of Two Cent Pieces, Three Cent Nickels, and Shield Nickels, as well as Three Cent Silvers, there are coin issues where Proofs cost significantly less than corresponding business strikes. In some of these cases, the Proof or business strike status of many individual coins is controversial. When a certified Proof costs less than a certified business strike of the same date with the same numerical grade assigned by the same grading service, it makes sense for coin buyers, especially beginning to intermediate level collectors, to acquire the certified ‘Proof,’ assuming that the quality for the certified grade is acceptable.

VI. Conclusion

In sum, the least costly and most fun manner for a beginning or intermediate level collector to complete a set of Three Cent Silvers is to buy business strikes for all dates from 1851 to 1862 and then mix Proofs and business strikes, including purchases of several coins that are PCGS or NGC certified as Proofs, for the dates from 1863 to 1873.

In this way, a true set of Three Cent Silvers could be completed for a relatively low amount. Probably, all of the coins dating from 1863 to 1872 can be found for prices ranging from $300 to $850 each. Certainly, coins with substantial problems are likely to be priced in the lower part of this range, or even less than $300. A problem-free 1873 is likely to cost more than $850.

I repeat that Three Cent Silvers dating from 1851 to 1862 are much less expensive, sometimes less than $40 each. If a collector plans on spending five to seven years on a set of Three Cent Silvers, circulated ‘late dates’ will surface, and the annual costs of this quest may be manageable.

A collector who finishes a set of Three Cent Silvers, with decent coins in relatively low grades, should feel a sense of accomplishment. It is challenging to seek Three Cent Silvers that date from 1863 to 1872 in grades below 60. It takes time, effort and concentration to finish an appealing set of Three Cent Silvers without spending more than $1000 on any one coin, especially if most of the post-1863 dates are acquired for less than $650 each.

©2011 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. Greg always writes well and does great research, I have to say that it certainly is cool to have the 1852 inverted date, the 1863/2 and the 1869/8 The reason most dealers don’t want to include them is that they are such a challenge to locate! At Scarsdale Coin we spent over twenty years assembling the finest collection of business strike and proof coins, with errors, patterns, and varieties. It is known as the Scarsdale Coin “Magic Star” Collection


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