By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
Production of the ever-popular Indian cent spanned six fascinating decades of United States history.
Struck from 1859 until 1909, there are 52 Proof emission dates contained within that run, and these 52 also Proofs feature subtle die varieties and a couple of major design changes. Overall, the Proofs are beautiful representations of United States Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre’s work are coveted by the copper enthusiast, the type set collector, and the Indian cent aficionado alike. The following is a brief description of the series grouped into decades. This is not intended to be an end-all analysis but rather a starting point for collectors to dive into this exciting numismatic adventure.
By the mid-1850s the cost of producing the large cent and half-cent had made the denominations untenable. The coins themselves were unpopular and barely circulated outside of the larger metropolitan areas. With the Act of February 1857, these obsolete designs were discontinued and the Mint began producing a smaller one cent coin struck in copper-nickel. The short-lived Flying Eagle cent was produced for three years before being replaced by another James Longacre design – the Indian cent. The Indian Head cent was produced in 1858 with Proof patterns of various types. The first issue intended for circulation was produced in 1859 and featured a laurel wreath on the reverse. This is a one-year type with an original mintage of 800. Today the date is very rare in Proof, as many of these went unsold and were melted.
The design was updated in 1860 to feature an oak wreath reverse and shield at 12:00. The original mintage was around 1,000 examples of two basic types: one with a pointed bust and one with a rounded bust at the collar. Most of these went unsold and the remaining examples were melted, leaving under 600 specimens. The design underwent a major change in 1864 when the base metal was changed to bronze. There are two Proof types for the first-year bronze: one without the designer’s initial and the uber-rare ‘L’ in Ribbon type. Throughout the decade, Proofs were produced in small quantities with all original mintages under 1,000 (except 1861 when just 1,000 were minted). The numbers surviving the melting pots are all under 500. The mintages during the Civil War were small and all mintages remained low until 1870.
Mintages began to increase during the ‘70s and by the end of the decade mintage figures were in the thousands. The decade produced the key to both the circulating examples and the Proofs in 1877. The planchets for the early 1870s were produced mainly from melted obsolete coinages, but by 1877 that supply had been exhausted and production was reduced drastically, hence the rarity. The rarity of the 1877 Proof is similar to the rarity of other Proofs from the decade, but prices are driven by demand for the business strike. As private suppliers began to feed the Mint copper, production increased, and by 1880 Proof mintages were approaching 4,000 annually.
Throughout the eighties, Proof production remained robust. Charles Barber was installed as Chief Engraver in 1879. Whether through his fault or by coincidence–and to the delight of advanced collectors–the Proofs of the decade are plagued with a number of re-punched and over-struck date varieties. The 1880s also has one of the most common Proof dates in the 1883, which has the highest mintage (6,600) for the entire Proof run. This mid-series date makes a great target for type collectors. Production from the period saw the use of alloys from various private suppliers, combined with reported Mint experimentation with packaging, resulting in colorful examples that have patinated over time.
Despite the economic troubles seen in the early part of the 1890s, the mintage figures for both the circulating and Proof examples remained high throughout the decade. The Proof figures averaged 2,235 per year, with only three of the 10 years dropping slightly below a couple thousand produced. More than 10% of each date survive today in Red Brown, with Choice and Gem examples available if you’re diligent.
The series closes out after the turn of the century, a victim of the rare coin renaissance. In 1909, the Indian Head cent was replaced by the Lincoln wheat cent. The final decade has no scarce dates, with the mintages all at 1,600 or higher. The PCGS population report shows around 300 examples in Red Brown for each date, offering an adequate supply of Choice and Gem specimens for patient collectors. The 20th-century dates are more available with the Red designation than any examples from the previous decades.
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So to sum it all up, the early copper-nickel dates are elusive regardless of grade. The surviving bronze examples are most plentiful in Red Brown, with each date having a handful of examples in Red. Cameos are scarce to varying degrees, with Deep Cameos exceptionally rare for the entire series. PCGS population reports show most examples after 1880 exist in choice grades, with 100 – 150 Red Brown examples extant per date. Gems become tough, however, with premium Gem and higher-quality coins scarce.
The series is painted here with a very broad brush, but the Proof examples of the classic Indian Head cent series represent a fascinating era in U.S. numismatics. We hope this brief summary of the six decades piques your interest and leads you to explore this exciting series and the historic time the specie represents.