By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com ……
I recently had the guts to spend more than $100 in buying unsearched rolls of old one-cent coins on eBay. I know, I know, you’re probably wondering what possessed me to spend so much money on a bunch of circulated, common-date wheat cents. I’m sure I’d be giving P.T. Barnum a hearty chuckle or two if he were still alive.
But, really, are unsearched penny rolls from eBay a good risk? Are “unsearched” rolls even unsearched at all?
Well, let’s put it this way: the moment I see an eBay listing showcasing a roll of purportedly unsearched pennies sporting the reverse of a Denver-mint Mercury dime on the end, I’m the one chuckling – and scrolling on to the next lot.
Really, what are the chances that a Mercury dime with a “D” mintmark – surely situated at the end of the roll to entice naïve buyers who think they’re scoring a scarce 1916-D Mercury dime for a song – would just happen to end up in a “numismatically unsearched” roll of pennies? An eBay article I recently came across entertainingly breaks down the chances that a 1916-D Mercury dime would randomly appear at the end of a bona fide bank roll of one-cent coins.
Spoiler Alert: The Odds Certainly Aren’t In Your Favor.
We can probably all agree that, unless the rolls in question were recovered from a hoard that hasn’t seen the light of day since before the stock market crash of 1929, there’s really little chance of finding any obvious rarities in an “unsearched” roll of pennies. Obscure die varieties? Maybe. Token semi-key dates? Perhaps.
But a 1909-S VDB penny? A 1914-D cent? C’mon.
If you see an eBay advertisement claiming other buyers have found such rarities among the same trove of coin rolls you’re looking to purchase from, then you’ll probably want to question the quality of those key dates. Peppering a corroded 1909-S VDB penny or cull 1914-D cent into a pool of pennies slated to be sold on eBay in rolled quantities of 50 will more than pay for itself in the profits made from hawking dozens upon dozens of $10 rolls of “unsearched” common-date wheat pennies from a supposedly “hot” hoard.
Remember, a common-date, average-circulated wheat cent is normally worth two to five cents. A roll of 48 such coins–plus a couple of well-worn semi-key (1924-S or 1932, anyone?) cents worth about one to three dollars each to keep the rolls interesting for the buyer–means the lot may be worth somewhere in the $4 to $8 range. A $2-6 profit is sure to be pocketed by the seller. Even a roll of 49 wheat cents and a common, average-circulated Indian Head cent, all told, is likely an outlay of just $4 to $6 for the seller. Again, these so-called “unsearched” rolls of cents are generally profit-making ventures for the sellers. Relatively few of them turn up really good finds worth more than the going price of a roll.
That being said, I wanted to see what really does turn up in these unsearched rolls of one-cent coins. My previous attempt at poring through unsearched rolls of pennies was in 1994, when I was buying them from my local hobby shop for $3.49 each. What about the unsearched rolls I saw on eBay with VDB pennies on the ends? Mercury dimes? Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coins? (Sorry, couldn’t resist the joke.) Are they really worth buying?
Knowing I’d recoup the funds, I had a little fun buying these unsearched penny rolls. I even got into a bidding war on a roll of pennies capped on one end with an 1864 Civil War token and a 1909 (-S?) V.D.B. cent on the other. I ran the lot up from $28 to $76, hoping to snag the roll and see what was inside for the sake of this article.
Don’t judge. I, at least, got free shipping with the order. You read correctly. Free shipping, people! It was the deal of the century.
What I Found
Except in the case of a twin-roll deal, each lot I bought for this experiment came from different eBay sellers. The highest buy price was $76. The lowest was just $5.49, plus $2.50 in shipping and handling.
Here’s a breakdown of what I found in the six rolls of unsearched pennies, starting with the el cheapo $5.49 lot. All coins average circulated unless otherwise specified.
Commentary: This really wasn’t a bad roll for the base of $5.49, considering I picked up decent 1911, 1917-S and 1931 cents, as well as five solid “red” uncirculated wheat cents.
Commentary: OK, I get it, there is no Santa Claus in numismatics, as Lee F. Hewitt, founder and editor of the Numismatic Scrapbook, was known for saying. But rolls like this restore a little bit of my faith that maybe, every once in a while, the Easter Bunny hides a chocolate-filled egg or two for you to find. The decent 1902 Indian Head cent and nice, brown pre-1934 cents made this roll well worth its $6.50 base price, in my humble opinion.
Commentary: This one reminds me of those “unsearched” Lincoln cent rolls I bought at the hobby shop in the mid-1990s for $3.49. Sure, they’re fun to look through, but short of obscure die varieties (none evident here), these types of rolls are generally money losers from the financial investment standpoint.
Commentary: Half of a $36 twin-roll purchase, this one was a good buy. For $18 (let’s say), I wound up with five decent, average-circulated Mercury dimes; a 1914 Lincoln cent, two 1924-S Lincoln cents, and a 1931 Lincoln penny, not to mention a few other neat dates.
Commentary: Neither of the rolls in this twin pack was advertised as exclusively pre-1940 cents, as was the case with this roll. So, what a wonderful surprise to open up this roll and find six Indian Head cents, a 1912-S and two 1932 pennies! I felt this roll was definitely well worth its $18 share of the $36 twin-roll lot.
Commentary: A general survey of eBay sales records shows my 1864 “Union Forever” Civil War patriotic token is probably worth $20 to $30 in the condition it’s in. Taking into account the Extremely Fine (-ish) grade of my 1909 VDB Lincoln cent (worth about $12), the Very Good-Fine Indian Head cents (cumulatively worth about $10-12), the Fine 1932-D Lincoln cent (retails for about $2), and the “Red” uncirculated wheat cents that popped up (together worth about $5-7) and I may just about break even on the retail side with this $76 roll, throwing the other common-dates into the mix. I’d probably lose $20 on this roll if I sold these coins for bid to a coin dealer. Would you get lucky on a $76 roll of “unsearched” pennies? Maybe, but don’t count on it. This was a neat roll to go through, but the best roll in this group, dollar for dollar on returns, didn’t cost $76 – I’ll say that with confidence.
What’s the takeaway here? Buying “unsearched” rolls on eBay can be a lot of fun, but it’s better to look at them for what they are: culls, common dates, and the occasional oddball coin. You may get lucky, but you probably won’t. And, in the case of eBay sellers who offer tons of rolls, the financially smart ones will be earning a profit at the end of the day. Guaranteed.
You might score and find some semi-key dates (I found the 1912-S Lincoln cent and several other lesser semi-keys, too). But your chances of finding a 1909-S VDB cent are pretty low. In the incredibly long chance that you do find one, it will likely be well-worn or exhibit other problems. But, hey! Don’t give up all hope. You never know. You might end up getting lucky, like this guy!
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For more roll searching adventures with Josh, check out his earlier entries in the series:
1909-S VDB Lincoln Cents Currently Available on eBay