HomeCollecting StrategiesModern US Coins: Collecting the Ultimate 1981 Mint Set

Modern US Coins: Collecting the Ultimate 1981 Mint Set

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
1981 marked the beginning of the Reagan administration and the seeming end of the coin Wilmington, Delaware shopkeeper Judson Ryan famously dubbed “Carter’s Quarter”[1]. Relegated to mint-set-only status, the near quarter-sized Susan B. Anthony dollar, with its quirky hendecagonal ornamental rim and its non-sequitur Apollo 11 reverse, played its would-be coda in the 1981 mint set, mercifully put to bed by a new president quick to undo, at least publicly, as many initiatives of the previous administration as possible.

In 1982, the mint set itself would bow out for two years, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. After some vociferous public complaint by a few well-connected hobby insiders, production of mint sets resumed in 1984 – minus the Susan B. Anthony dollar. There were no panegyrics for the piece, no public outcry. The eccentric coin bid adieu quietly and without much fanfare.

But beyond the passing of the dollar coin nobody wanted, the composition of the cent was also changed in the 1984 mint set, with copper-plated zinc replacing the penny’s traditional bronze alloy in the middle of 1982. These things, plus all new envelope packaging, gave the reintroduced mint sets a completely new feel from those produced between 1968-1981.

Therefore, this column will take a second look at the 1981 set, for it truly was the last of its kind.

What is the landscape like for collecting mint-sets?

A recent development (and one we wholeheartedly welcome, by the way) is the further sub-division of set types that is taking place within the registry sets at NGC and PCGS. By breaking down large series into smaller, more palatable sub-sets, collectors of various means can hone in on a specialty and devote themselves to putting together quality sets. A mint set registry set allows a collector to look for quality coins within one date. Whereas in the past one might be wholly content to pick up a white-enveloped mint set and be done with it, the drive for better and better coins has taken this once ancillary effort (that is, keeping current) and turned it into a quest to make or acquire the best possible set from any one particular year.

Focusing on one year and trying to put together your own strong set is an excellent way to not only learn how to grade coins, but also to get a real education on strike, die state, planchet quality, and toning. We say this because the mint’s output is different year after year, and by focusing on a one-year date set you force yourself to recognize the subtle differences between pieces. We think for those willing to take this advanced course in minting, the 1981 mint set offers plenty of challenge in the higher grades while also being an excellent starting point for those wanting to learn how to submit their own coins for profit. Also, it is a historically important set, which is one of the factors that set it apart from the rest of the other 1980s-era mint sets.

To understand why business strike coins from 1981 are the way to go, take a look at this chart showing PCGS-certified populations of business strike coins versus their San Francisco-minted Proof counterparts:


The glut of purple on this chart should tell you in an instant that business strike coinage is being ignored.

In a nutshell, Proofs of all modern coin series tower over their business strike counterparts. They’ve saturated the market to the point where they far exceed all foreseeable demand. Proof coins by their nature are attractive and should come in excellent condition; it takes very little scrutiny to sort out PR69DCAM Proofs from problem coins. Business strikes, on the other hand, require hours of searching, careful scrutiny, and a wealth of examples to choose from. Looking at the chart above, you can clearly see that this searching isn’t being done, which means the time is right to seek out quality examples while nobody’s looking…

What type of set should I build?

For the collector not trying to break the bank, we suggest aiming for a set that composed of Better-Than-Typical graded coins. This is a subtle yet important tweaking of Q. David Bowers’ Optimum Collecting Grade™. The key difference between the two concepts is that Bowers prefers coins in a condition where the next grade up is accompanied by a large jump in price. This concept works reasonably well when dealing with classic coinage, since the grading schema of classics has been well established over a number of years; for moderns, however, we see the pursuit of conditionally rare coins, and the commonly found mint state grades have few long-term prospects for appreciating in value even if one religiously adhered to the OCG formula. Not to mention that Bowers himself is not exactly clear on how he would apply OCG to series where a coin is readily available near face value in the low-to-middle range of mint state. See our article on Bicentennial quarters to see what we mean.

Better-Than-Typical collecting means that you evaluate the quality of each date and mint separately. Determine what the typical grade is for each issue and strive to collect coins in grades that are better. The farther away you are from the typical grade, the scarcer coins in that condition will be, and the farther we get from their date of issue, the less likely it is that large quantities of superior coins are going to surface. It’s not a foolproof strategy – all numismatic premiums are the result of supply and demand – but it is a way to hedge in favor of tighter supply. Be aware, however, that the market for moderns is not as well established as the market for classics and many dealers are already building in premiums they should apply to mature markets and mature coins. This built-in premium is a godsend if you are good at submitting your own high-end material (and selling pieces you don’t need), but it can be a long-term trap if you buy in at the top of the market and more material in that grade comes out.

In that case, OCG may save a collector from losing his shirt, but it certainly won’t make him any appreciable profit on his investment. Better-Than-Typical collecting offers rewards for self-submitters and dealers, and, if properly nurtured, can make a market viable and healthy for years to come. This is because Better-Than-Typical collecting gives the holder of these coins far more leverage when it comes time to sell than they’d have otherwise.

What is Typical, Better-Than-Typical, and Rare for 1981?

Denomination Typical Price Better Price Rare Price
1981 Cent MS-66 $20 MS-67 $194 MS-68 Pop 1
1981-D Cent MS-66 $40 MS-67 $295
1981 FS Nickel NOT FS $11 MS-64+ $206 MS-66 $3,161[1]
1981-D FS Nickel MS-64 $19 MS-65 $71 MS-66 $190
1981 FT Dime MS-65-66 $39 MS-67 $50 MS-68 Pop 2
1981-D FT Dime MS-66-67 $49 MS-68 $319
1981 Quarter MS-65-66 $37 MS-67 $327[2]
1981-D Quarter MS-65-66 $34 MS-67 $375
1981 Half Dollar MS-64-65 $15 MS-66 $83 MS-67 $175
1981-D Half Dollar MS-64-65 $15 MS-66 $88 MS-67 $625[3]
1981-P Dollar MS-64-65 $17 MS-66 $58 MS-67 $2,450[4]
1981-D Dollar MS-63-66 $28 MS-67 $423
1981-S Dollar MS-64-65 $35 MS-66 $541 MS-67 Pop 1


For strike-attributable coins, we use coins that are not fully struck to determine what is typical for the year or mint, but we do not consider these coins, unless found in the highest grades, to be all that collectible. Likewise, cents should always be red in a set like this. Prices are based on the last five public auctions of PCGS-graded coins at the time of original publication[7].

Coins listed without a Better-Than-Typical grade are by no means easy pulls. Finding them in the raw requires discipline and patience. It also requires access to a rather large sample population. Fresher mint sets and original rolls are your best bets, but there is no rhyme or reason as to which avenue will be your best option for finding those elusive higher-grade pieces. Also, we recommend searching auction listings regularly. The random nature of auction listings allows for the chance that a high-end piece will sell at a significant discount. In these auctions, be careful: a holder is a holder and a coin is a coin – don’t confuse one with the other. And don’t get hung up on grade consistency across the set. The chart above illustrates why: a mint state 67 (or higher) 1981-P quarter is not likely to come on the market, so in this instance your best bet is to either settle for a 66 or try to make your own 67. In the case of the 1981 Full Step Jefferson nickel, even finding a coin in MS-64 will prove challenging. Knowing what makes up your date mint set is the key to knowing which grades to look for and which grades to avoid.


Before venturing into high-end modern coin sets, it’s a good idea to contemplate total costs[8].

The top PCGS registry set belongs to a collector out of San Francisco who specializes in high-end clad-era coinage. The first mint set registry set he put together was actually the 1975 set (see our write-up of the possible key date 1975 Full Torch Roosevelt dime). His goal is to put together high-quality mint sets in every year from 1965 to the present. He, like most registry set collectors, is always looking at which coins in his set he’d like to upgrade.

The show-stopping piece in his set, in terms of overall scarcity, is his 1981-S Susan B. Anthony dollar. His MS-67 example comes with a serious pedigree. It was found by clad-specialist Rob Anglemeir, before being sold to Charles’ friend and fellow Ike Group member Dr. David Golan, who built one of the most impressive Susan B. Anthony sets ever assembled, pulling many of his coins from $1,000 mint-sewn bags held in surplus and offered to the general public for face value by the U.S. Mint. The coin was then owned by another notable clad collector, Gabriel Murphy, who himself is a 39-time winner of PCGS’s annual Registry Set Awards. The piece is the only MS-67 known, a beast of a coin, one that made its way from the San Francisco Mint to the Denver Mint without suffering major damage from bag friction.

In the end, one doesn’t need to chase down near-impossible-to-find top-pop coins to put together something special. 1981 coinage was meant to be spent, and most of it was. Taking the time to comb over what’s left and assemble the best set you can–by making it your goal to find the coins amongst what remains of the 2.9 million mint sets, saved rolls and single coins housed in 2” x 2”s–will not only give you a rich and deep understanding of the modern coin-minting process, but also will save quality pieces for future generations that wouldn’t necessarily survive without your efforts. And who knows, that second 1979-S in MS-67 might be one white envelope away. Would you know what it looked like in the wild?

Flip of a Coin:

Did you know that the trime, that quaint bygone mid-19th-century denomination, almost made a comeback in 1911? Prompted by two Ohio mayors, United States Representative Robert J. Bulkley (D-OH21) introduced legislation to reinstate the three cent piece, this time making the coin in an alloy of 95% aluminum and 5% copper. When this metal was deemed unsuitable for coining, an annular design was considered, this one being made from the same nickel-copper alloy used to make the nickel. The final bill relating to the reintroduced three cent piece passed the House but failed to clear the senate. Don Taxay recalls this story and many others in his 1966 volume, The U.S. Mint and Coinage.[9] We do love the classics.

* * *


[1] Phillips, Kevin. “New Dollar Coin Symbolizes Federal Flubs” Sarasota Herald Tribune. August 25, 1979

[2] Totals pulled 6/20/2012 from pcgs.com; proof totals include Type 1 and Type 2 mintmarks.

[3] Only two published sales since 2001.

[4] Only two known in 2000 when two examples sold by teletrade.com for $327 each; current pricing would likely be significantly higher if available today.

[5] Only two examples have traded publicly since 2000.

[6] Three examples sold since 2007.

[7] As reported by PCGS.com.

[8] Costs based on current market trends, data collected from last five public auctions. Source PCGS.com

[9] Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Sanford J. Durst Numismatic Publications. New York, NY. Print. P 305.

Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker have been contributing authors on CoinWeek since 2012. They also wrote the monthly "Market Whimsy" column and various feature articles for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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