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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Classic U.S. coins for less than $250 each, Part 1

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #153 …..

While it is true that much of my research and analyses relate to very expensive coins, I also write about coins that are not so expensive. My discussion here is about U.S. coins that cost in the range of $250, or substantially less. Here in the first part, I put forth general commentary and I discuss Indian Cents, Lincoln Cents, large cents and classic quarters. In part 2, I will discuss silver dollars and half dollars.

I. Introduction & Commentary

I am not now reviewing basic concepts for absolute beginners. Early in 2011, a column provided advice for true beginners. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) In September 2010, I covered some U.S. coins in the $250 to $1000 range. While I would like to cover inexpensive coins more often, coins that ‘make the news’ tend to be very expensive. Moreover, since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated with truly rare coins and with epic collections. I enjoy learning about coins that I cannot afford.

I have spent a good deal of time over the years, for example, examining the Carter-Cardinal-Legend 1794 silver dollar, which recently sold for more than $10 million. I honestly believe that all collectors should learn about the rarities, values and traditions that are central to the culture of coin collecting in the U.S.

I realize that less expensive coins, and the people who collect them, are important parts of this culture, too. Further, it is not my intention here to discourage anyone from acquiring coins that cost much less than $250, including those that cost less than $25 each. John Albanese has repeatedly emphasized that desirable representatives of most dates in the series of Mercury Dimes, Walking Liberty Half Dollars and silver Washington Quarters “are obtainable for slightly above melt” (silver content) values.

To budget minded collectors who spend significant amounts on coins for their own personal collections, I advocate classic U.S. coins, not modern U.S. coins, as moderns can easily be collected for face value or for very small premiums over face value. Further, silver modern U.S. coins are often available for only a small percentage over their respective silver content (“melt value”). Proof moderns, which are more than five years old, can often be obtained for little more or less than the respective original issue prices by the U.S. Mint.

I address modern coins in an article on collecting modern coins. Additionally, I refer collectors to my two part series on why 1933/34 is the true dividing line between classic and modern U.S. coinage (part 1; part 2).

How much is a ‘significant’ sum or ‘a lot of money’? An amount that an individual collector regards as “a lot” is significant to him or her. This discussion is aimed at collectors who regard $250 as an especially significant expenditure for one coin, an amount that may serve as a limit per coin.

Of course, there are many appealing, naturally toned, pre-1934 coins that are available for less then ten dollars each, sometimes for less than one dollar. The topic here, though, is U.S. coins priced in the $250 range, or less.

II. Indian Cents & Lincoln Cents

Flying Eagle Cents (1856-58), Copper-Nickel Indian Cents (1859-64), Bronze Indian Cents (1864-1909), and various Lincoln Cents (1909-present) are all ‘small cents.’ Since most people have never seen a large cent, the size of a Lincoln Cent is the size of a one cent coin in the views of most U.S. citizens, and Lincolns are typically called “pennies” not “small cents.”

For around $250, a collector could obtain a PCGS or NGC certified AU-55 grade Flying Eagle Cent. From a logical perspective, such a purchase is a good deal. Since I was seven years old, I have have liked Flying Eagle Cents and I am not alone. Most collectors think of them as being really neat.

I still remember, when I was ten years old, two friends and I encountered some of my classmates, who we were not expecting to see, at a local coin show. A main topic of conversation was Flying Eagle Cents. Two of these classmates had each obtained one and they were very excited about them. The design, texture and natural color of Flying Eagle Cents have longstanding appeal, across generations. Even at meetings of coin clubs in the 2000s, I have heard adults, young and old, talk about Flying Eagle Cents, with enthusiasm.

As for Indian Cents, except an 1877 and a 1909-S, a whole set could be assembled for far less than $250 per coin. Indeed, most dates in MS-63 and higher grades could be obtained for less than $250 each. Furthermore, more than a few different dates in this series are available for less than $250 each in MS-65 grade. For a type set, a PCGS or NGC certified ‘MS-65 Red & Brown’ Indian Cent, with a CAC sticker of approval, could be found for less than $250.

A Fair-02 or AG-03 grade 1909-S Indian Cent maybe could be purchased for a price under $250. A 1909-S Indian that is not gradable due to serious problems, though still somewhat attractive, could certainly be obtained for less than $250.

The true key to the series of Indian Cents is the 1877 and these tend to be relatively expensive. There would be no point in even trying to acquire an 1877 cent for less than $250.

A whole set of classic (1909-34) Lincoln Cents could very easily be finished for less than $250 per coin, assuming that a not gradable 1909-S VDB is tolerated and the 1922 “plain” is excluded. Although the 1922 “plain” is typically collected ‘as if’ it is a distinct date, it is really a U.S. Mint error that is not needed for a set of business strike Lincoln Cents.

Many classic Lincolns could be purchased in VG-08 or Fine-12 grade for less than one dollar each. Within the last ten years, I found 1910 and 1913 Lincoln Cents, in Good-04 or higher grades, in change.

For around $250, a key 1914-D in Fine-12 grade could be bought. It is extremely unlikely that anyone will find a 1914-D cent in change, unless one is deliberately placed into circulation as part of a promotion for a coin convention. Modern (post-1934) Lincoln Cents are beside the theme on this discussion.

U.S. Mint Errors are sometimes very costly and really constitute a different subject. It makes sense to collect and learn about regular U.S. coins, for years, before focusing upon errors. Also, I am excluding die varieties from this discussion, as these are of interest to small groups of specialists.

III. Large Cents

Large cents were minted from 1793 to 1857, and are approximately the size of quarters. In my last two columns, I discuss early large cents in the set that was owned by the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation. Although the Cardinal coins realized vast sums at auction, a lot of money is NOT needed to collect large cents.

Personally, I find the idea of acquiring ‘Early Dates,’ which are pre-1815 large cents, for less than $250 to be very pleasing. A certified 1794 or 1795 large cent in AG-03 grade could be found for around $250, maybe. A not gradable 1794 or 1795, with the details of an Almost Good (AG) or Good grade coin, could certainly be acquired for less than $200.

Among Draped Bust Cents with 18th century dates, some that grade AG-03 or Good-04 can sometimes be purchased for prices below $250 each. Standard price guides, however, tend to underestimate retail values for these.

A ‘not gradable’ 1800 cent with the details of a VG-08 or VG-10 grade coin could be obtained for less than $100. A PCGS or NGC graded VG-08 1800 may be found for a price in the range of $250, if the collector seeking such a coin is fortunate.

An 1805 in VG-10 or Fine-12 grade could probably be purchased for around $250. This might be a pleasing choice to represent the Draped Bust Cent type in a type set of copper coins.

Classic Head Cents were minted from 1808 to 1814. Several dates of this type could be easily found in VG-08 grade for much less than $250 each.

As for Matron Head Cents (1816-35), most of the dates in the series could be quickly obtained for less than $250 each, in Very Fine-20 to Extremely Fine-45 grades, depending upon the individual issue and the characteristics of specific coins. An 1819 that is PCGS or NGC graded Extremely Fine-40 grade would probably retail for a price in the range of $250. A Very Fine-20 grade 1819 would certainly cost less than $250.

As for the ‘Head of 1835-39’ type, the second type of ‘Middle Dates,’ a certified EF-40 to AU-50 grade 1837 could be obtained for $250, more or less. Most of the varieties of the 1835-39 type could be obtained in Very Fine grades for less than $100 each.

Among Braided Hair (1839-57) Cents, so called ‘Late Dates,’ AU-55 grade representatives of most dates would be easy to find for prices below $250 each. A complete set of all major varieties of ‘Late Dates’ in grades above VF-20 could be assembled for less than $250 per coin. A neat set of ‘Late Dates,’ consisting of carefully selected coins, could be built without too much difficulty.

IV. Classic Quarters

Although a not gradable or Fair-02 grade Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Quarter (1804-07) could probably be found for less than $250, I suggest that collectors with a $250 limitation ignore Draped Bust Quarters and buy at least two Capped Bust Quarters. Those of the first type (“Large”) date from 1815 to 1828, and Capped Bust Quarters of the second type (“Small” or “Reduced Diameter”) were minted from 1831 to 1838.

An 1819, 1820 or an 1828 ‘Large Size’ Capped Bust Quarter in VG-08 or higher grade should not be too difficult to find for less than $250. Other dates in the series in VG-08, or at least Good-06, probably also could be obtained for less than $250 each. This is a scarce and perennially popular type. Assuming the coins chosen are relatively problem-free and are naturally toned, I would recommend these.

A whole set of “Small” Capped Bust Quarters, those of the second type, could be obtained, in Very Fine-20 grade, for less than $250 each. I have always found the aesthetics of coins of this type to be particularly appealing. Such a set would consist of eight coins (1831-38).

It is probably best for a beginner or intermediate level enthusiast to collect Liberty Seated Quarters ‘by type,’ rather than ‘by date.’ For the 1838-40 ‘No Drapery’ type, it would be fun to select an 1840-O in Very Fine-20 grade for around $250 each. It is the only Branch Mint issue of the first type of Liberty Seated Quarters. Indeed, these are the first U.S. quarters that were not minted in Philadelphia. If a suitable 1840-O cannot be found, then an 1838 or 1839 Philadelphia Mint, Liberty Seated Quarter could easily be acquired for less than $250.

Of the 1840-65 ‘No Motto’ type, there are many issues that are available for less than $250 each in AU grades. The motto, “In God We Trust,” was added to the reverse (back) of quarters, half dollars and silver dollars, plus some gold denominations, in 1866. Certainly, a naturally and pleasantly toned, AU-50 to -55 grade quarter of the ‘No Motto’ type could be acquired in for a price below $250.

The 1853 ‘Arrows & Rays’ issue is a one-year only type. A PCGS or NGC graded Extremely Fine-40 grade 1853 quarter would probably retail for less than $250; an EF-45 grade 1853 may sometimes as well.

Liberty Seated Quarters without a motto and without rays, though with ‘Arrows,’ were minted for just two years, 1854 and 1855. A PCGS or NGC certified 1854 in AU-50 grade may retail for around $250. An EF-40 or EF-45 grade 1854 would be very likely to retail for less than $250.

Liberty Seated Quarters ‘With Motto’ were minted from 1866 to 1891. PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 representatives of some of the least scarce dates should be readily available for well under $250 each. A naturally toned coin of this type in AU-50 or -53 grade is frequently an excellent value.

In 1873 and 1874, arrows were again added to the obverse (front) design. Each collector should be able to find an 1873 or an 1874 ‘With Arrows’ Liberty Seated Quarter in EF-40 grade (or even EF-45) for less than $250. Surely, a VF-30 grade coin of this type would cost much less than $250.

Barber Quarters were minted from 1892 to 1916. There is only one design type of Barber Quarters and there are no subtypes. A PCGS or NGC certified MS-61 or -62 Barber Quarter could be acquired for less than $250. I suggest, though, buying a nicely toned, AU-50 to -53 grade representative of this type for less than $200. Barber coins that are PCGS or NGC certified as grading 61 or 62 tend to have significant, negative issues and/or considerable friction.

If the three keys are excluded, a ‘set’ of Barber Quarters could easily be completed for less than $250 per coin. Indeed, most dates could be obtained in Very Good grades for less than $20 each and in AU grades for less than $250 each, sometimes for less than $100 each.

Even 1895-O Barber Quarters probably each retail for less than $250 in AU-50 grade. A semi-key 1896-O in VG-10 or Fine-12 grade will typically retail for well under $250. The 1897-S issue is scarcer than the 1896-O and an 1897-S in VG-08 or -10 grade is likely to be obtainable for less than $250. A PCGS or NGC certified 1904-O may retail for around $250 in EF-40 grade.

In regards to Standing Liberty Quarters (SLQs), except for the 1916 and the 1918/7-S overdate, a set could easily be completed for less than $250 per coin. A 1923-S in Good-04 grade should be obtainable for around $250, though finding a decent one may take months. A 1919-S in Fine-12 or better grade should be easier to find than a sound Good-04 grade 1923-S. A key 1921 in VG-08 grade is likely to cost significantly less than $250.

The 1920-S is one of the keys, though it is definitely a ‘better date’! An AU-50 or AU-53 grade 1920-S, with at least half a head, could be acquired for a price below $250. An EF-40 grade 1920-S, with considerable head detail, would cost less than $85 and may be a better value, for some collectors, than an AU grade 1920-S. SLQs tend to be struck with faint head detail, and those with a well defined head of Miss Liberty are considered to be especially desirable.

Although the least scarce SLQs could be found in mint state grades for less than $250 each, collectors who do not wish to pay more than $250 for a single coin should probably avoid ‘mint state’ (MS) grade SLQs. (Please click to see my article on choosing grades, which is relevant to my point here.)

AU-50 to AU-55 grade SLQs with around two-thirds head detail are not expensive and are good values for collectors. A PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 1918-D, for example, would be likely to be priced below $250. The 1918-D is a scarce date, in my view, and buying an attractively toned AU-55 1918-D for $250 may make more sense to some collectors than spending $1500 for a MS-65 grade 1918-D. After all, some PCGS or NGC certified MS-65 1918-D quarters have been artificially brightened via having been dipped in an acidic solution.

In general, for less than $250 a coin, coins of various (though not all) types from the 1790s to the 1930s are available. While gold coins in general and pre-1808 silver coins may not easily fit into a collection with a $250 per coin limit, there are a wide range of options and many wonderful choices for such a collection. I discuss silver dollars and half dollars in part 2.

©2013 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. One series you didn’t mention is the Capped Bust Half Dime. You can complete an entire set, including major varieties, in EF to AU grades and not spend over $250 on any of them. Overall a very informative article. Thanks!

  2. Very informative article. I collect silver dollars, many of which cost under $250 apiece. But then, they are hardly rare. Rare silver dollars get pretty pricy and much more limited for people like me.


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