By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
[Editor’s note: The original column first appeared in the PCGS E-Zine newsletter of February 26, 2013. —CoinWeek]
Six years ago, we took an in-depth look at what it would take to build a competitive PCGS Set Registry 1956 Mint Set, evaluating each coin released by the United States Mint on the basis of condition and strike rarity and tabulating what it would cost to build a top-tier set, a competitive set, and gem-quality “budget” set.
Not surprisingly, in the seven years since our initial analysis, this particular set’s leaderboard has seen some changes at the top end.
The new “King of 1956” is Utah billionaire Del Loy Hansen, whose 100%-complete set, with its weighted grade of 68.79, is nearly a point higher than the now-retired CJK’s New Set, which held court as the top set in this category from 2005 to 2015. Another competitive set on the list is the one put together by noted quarter collector and outspoken purveyor of wonder coins, Mitch Spivack. Spivack’s set is rated 0.79 points behind Hansen’s, which in competitions like this can mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars.
But while these high-end collectors may seem to have the top spots in the PCGS Set Registry leaderboards locked up, that shouldn’t dissuade collectors from building their own set. Assembling one comprised of affordable Gem-quality coins can still be a rewarding endeavor.
With that in mind, let’s look at what kind of challenges await those seeking to complete a competitive 1956 Mint Set that and how today’s market differs from the one we first analyzed seven years ago.
The 1956 Double Mint Set
By today’s standards, the 45,475 mint sets manufactured by the United States Mint in 1956 is a minuscule amount. Compare that number to 337,902, the last reported mintage numbers for the 2019 Uncirculated Set [As of October 1, 2020. —CoinWeek], and you get a sense of just how underappreciated this issue can be in today’s market.
Coin storage media from this period created a dazzling array of color for many surviving examples, giving collectors who enjoy toning equal consideration to those who enjoy blast white silver and original copper and nickel coins. The number of extant original sets has dwindled in recent years, and with many already broken up to farm high-end toners, a majority of the sets that remain likely contain B-grade material. Any set that even hinted at high Mint State Franklins or Washington quarters has probably already been taken off the market, but the very few that are left command a healthy premium over the typical milquetoast set.
In theory, it’s a simple set to assemble. But the 1956 set, like most date sets from the 1950s, offers complexity both in terms of color and completeness of strike. These factors provide the collector an array of challenges, especially for those looking to assemble a top-three set in original brilliance. For those looking for color, 1956 is awash in it. PCGS Coinfacts shows a gallery of fantastically toned specimens, from rainbow Lincoln cents to fluorescent Full Bell Line Franklins.
Here’s a coin-by-coin breakdown of how the 1956 Mint Set plays out.
Wheat cents from the ’50s, especially circulated ones, have long been the bane of “unsearched roll” hunters.
In raw Mint State and in certified grades below MS-67, the coins have only marginal value. But, oh! What a difference between 66 and 67. Up until recently, the top grade for a 1956 Philadelphia strike was MS67.
An April 2012 Heritage auction saw a sharply struck 1956 Philly strike sell for $4,300 with the juice. That example had prominent hits on the forehead and immediately to the right of Lincoln’s eye line and was starting to mellow, color-wise. That result stood as a high watermark for the grade, and subsequent auctions held through 2014, which saw MS67 RD cents flirt with falling below the $1,000 mark. A June 2019 Heritage sale of a PCGS MS67RD realized only $264.
Additional coins in the population census account for some of the loss, but the bigger reason is the formation of a discreet population of three MS67+RD coins. A January 2017 sale of one of the three (then one of two in the grade) brought $3,290.
The conditionally-rare grade MS-67+ aside, we like the idea of building a great set with MS-66+ Red Lincoln cents serving as the anchor. And prices have come down dramatically, as well. One fantastic example was sold by Heritage in August 2012 for $528, an 11x increase over MS-66RD. In our 2013 analysis of the issue, we put forth that the law of averages dictates that a number of already-made 66s would upgrade to 66+. We assume that’s what happened, and supplementing this was a steady flow of fresh coins deserving of the grade. Today the population for PCGS MS66+RD cents stands at 40 pieces–a fraction of the 1,086 graded MS66RD. The cost of an MS66+RD in today’s market is roughly double that of a 66.
1956-D cents consistently come nicer than their Philly counterparts. Evidence of this is borne out in the almost 2:1 ratio in which Denver-minted cents have been submitted to PCGS for grading. For this issue, the perception of scarcity of high-end 66s seems to affect PCGS’s pricing guidance of $140, which is affected in part by the population of 15 coins at this grade. We feel this is low and that there’s still plenty of opportunity at the 66+ level for collectors to not only improve their Registry Set rankings (if that’s your goal) but also to have a coin with slightly more upside than the now-common example in a PCGS 66RD holder.
We also like attractively toned cents from both mints in 66RB. Coinfacts shows a number of exceptionally colored pieces, most of which grade MS-65. If you want to build a set based on the appearance of a premium-conditioned set pulled out of double mint set paper packaging, this grade is ideal for staying true to the concept.
If you seek out a Full Step example from 1956, you’ll likely choose to go for the Philly strike, which is twice as common in MS-66 than the 1956-D Five Full Step Jefferson is in all grades combined. Bernard Nagengast estimates that in every roll of 1956-P nickels, up to four of them will have five full steps. Of course, who knows how many rolls you’d have to go through to find an example that can actually make it into a PCGS MS-67FS holder? You’d be better off trying to cherry a top-tier 66 and upgrading it.
The closest we’ve seen to an MS67FS from PCGS is a quartet of MS66+FS examples led by the coin illustrated above, which, in our opinion, is the finest of the four currently certified.
The 1956-D in Full Steps is a coin for serious series specialists only. In gem, a five-stepper is downright elusive, with PCGS certifying only 54 in all grades. The coin jumps at multiples of three from 64 to 65 and then by another multiple of three by the time you get to the population of 13 graded MS-66 FS. Non-Full Step coins in PCGS holders are clustered around MS-65, with slightly more pieces grading 66 than 64. These coins, no doubt, have been cherry-picked for quality and are not representative of the overall condition of the issue, which has characteristic 1950s mushiness and typically comes in MS-63 to MS-64.
The 1956-P is an easier get. PCGS’ pop reports suggest that 124 examples in MS-66 exist. This is a significant increase from the 45 certified in 2013. Clearly, some of this is due to resubmissions, as the price for a 67 with Full Steps can be between $2,500 and $3,000. In 2013, the PCGS suggested price was $10,000. A June 2015 Heritage auction saw one sell for $9,400. At the time, it was a pop two coin. Today, PCGS counts 10 at this level. We believe that resubmissions may have inflated this population as well.
The 1956 Roosevelt dime is another issue where Denver outperforms Philly in terms of the strength and clarity of strike.
The quality of Philadelphia issues was a consistent problem throughout the fifties. Only one branch mint dime is tougher to find in MS-67FB, and that’s the 1953-S. Meanwhile, 1953, 1955, 1957, and 1958 Phillies are even tougher to find in superb Gem with full bands.
The diminutive Roosevelt dime is particularly susceptible to dark rim toning, but colorful pieces–especially those in blue and green hues–are available. The 1956-D in MS-66FB is a common coin that sells for under $20 unless it has great color. The current pop of 473 pieces indicates an issue that has likely seen at least one large bulk submission.
The 1956-P, on the other hand, will sell for between $50 and $60 at this grade. This is a steep decline in value from where this issue in this grade sat in 2013 even though the certified population of coins at this grade level is a relatively modest 85 pieces.
67FB coins for both issues are offered for sale a few times every year. The populations of P and D mint issues remain relatively low and collectors should expect to pay about $200 for an example of each. Both are rare at MS68FB and examples from both mints have realized nearly $10,000 apiece at auction.
The 1956-D quarter is the one piece in this set that will give color connoisseurs the most problems.
There are a number of great toners in this issue, mostly from mint sets. But by and large, a majority of the high-end coins from this issue have splotchy toning. The few great toners that exist can command a premium over the soft price of $40 to $50 for MS-66. This is a 20% price increase over where these coins were trading seven years ago. In MS-67, coins are considerably tougher but the certified population has risen from 16 pieces to 50 – with an additional six in MS67+. In 2013, CAC-approved MS67 examples were selling for $2,500 to $3,000.
Amazingly, this NGC MS67 CAC example slipped through the cracks, selling for just $305 at the time in a Heritage sale.
The first PCGS MS67+ CAC example to sell at auction brought $8,519 at a January 2016 Heritage auction. That coin traded again three years later and realized $8,400. In the time since, PCGS has added five coins to the 67+ column, including the fantastic D. Brent Pogue Collection specimen, which was recently graded MS67 by PCGS and offered in the March 20, 2020, Stack’s Bowers sale. This is an example that obviously deserved the 67+ and one wonder’s how PCGS would have missed that the second time around.
The bidders certainly didn’t. Despite the fact that 67s routinely bring between $450 and $550, the hammer price for the Pogue coin was $5,280. In today’s market (given the increased population), $5,280 may be on the high end for a 67+ CAC. The Pogue coin has it all and it’s clear that bidders were putting up PQ 67+ money on the coin back in March.
1956, on the other hand, tends to be a much better coin. PCGS has graded a few brilliant (read: probably dipped) pieces and dozens of beautifully toned examples in MS-67. Philadelphia Mint quarters from ’56 are known for fantastic color. Unlike their Denver counterparts, you have plenty to choose from. It’s our opinion that MS-67 pieces are undervalued in the current market (they can be had for a $70 premium over MS-66). Even with fantastic color, you can generally win an MS-66 for under $50 at auction (some dealers expect much more, but will back off if you’re a sound negotiator).
Franklin Half Dollar
The 1956 Franklin half dollar is one of the more accessible dates for well-struck and colorful pieces. PCGS has graded more high-end pieces from this date with full bell lines than without, and the total non-FB population barely edges out the population of coins PCGS has certified FB.
In 2013, there was a baker’s dozen 1956 Franklins in MS67FB, and we said that we preferred the MS66FB as a coin with great resale value and eye appeal. At the time, we found the category lacking based on eye appeal and value for the money. Today, the MS67FB population has increased dramatically, with the current population for 67FB sitting at 67 and seven pieces in 67+FB.
You probably won’t dethrone someone like D.L. Hansen from the number one spot without a 67+, but had you purchased an MS67FB coin at the March 2014 Heritage offering of this example for a little over $4,400, then you likely lost a significant amount of coin equity as that very example sold in December 2019 for $1,080.
The MS66FB population has expanded from 660 pieces to 883 in that same time period, but the retail price at this grade level has more or less held steady.
Blue, gold, and red toning is common, but we’ve seen amazing toners bathed in tangerine, sun yellow, aubergine, and merlot, as well as gallimaufry russet toning. Most undipped examples are speckled with some color but expect the most brilliant pieces to have been dipped. It’s obviously not always the case, but we’re hesitant to overpay for a high-end white example without seeing the piece in hand first.
Pricing Guidance: MS-66FB with fantastic color: $250 and up. A nice MS-67 will command $1,000 or more.
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 Nagengast, Bernard A. The Jefferson Nickel Analyst – 2nd Edition. E & K Cointainer Co., 2002. Print.