HomeBullion & Precious MetalsThe Book on Silver Coins That Shook Me to My Core

The Book on Silver Coins That Shook Me to My Core

By K.W. Callahan …..
If you’re anything like me, you may have caught yourself wondering a time or two just how many coins have been lost or destroyed over the years. While pondering said losses, I’ve inwardly debated what the true values of certain coins would actually be if people knew how rare they really were.

But that’s all pie-in-the-sky thinking, right? There’s no way of knowing how many coins have been buried in playgrounds, plunked into wishing wells, annihilated on train tracks, eviscerated in high school science experiments, washed down sewer drains, or destroyed in numerous and at times almost unimaginable other ways. At least that’s what I thought.

It’s true that we’ll never get an exact count on the number of coins still out there. But there is a way to tilt the scales in our favor, at least regarding certain 90-percent silver coins.

This insider information comes to us in the form of a somewhat obscure book entitled, The Big Silver Melt, by Henry Merton. It is the self-described, “…untold story of the illegal melting of U.S. coinage…”

But it’s oh so much more.

Many collectors know well the minted quantities quoted in various coin guides regarding 1916-1964, 90-percent silver coins. In the past, the vast quantities of certain dates or mints made them less than desirable to collectors and dealers alike.

Now I’ve been sorting bags of pre-1965 silver coinage (in particular, Winged Liberty or Mercury dimes) long enough to realize that certain dates and mints weren’t showing up in the quantities they should be if I were gauging them solely by the quoted listings in my well-worn coin guide. Having sorted literally tens of thousands of such coins, I’ve noticed trends in the quantities I find in said bags. But I never had any real statistical evidence to back these up. Until, that is, I got a hold of a copy of Mr. Merton’s book. Then the curtains were drawn back.

According to Merton, when it comes to dimes in particular:

There were over 656,000 bags – each worth $1,000 – burned by the illegal melters and the United States Treasury during the Big Silver Melt. The bag count on quarters was near 705,000, while around 373,000 bags of half dollars were reduced to bars of silver.”

Merton utilizes information gleaned from “clandestine smelters” that includes statistical mixes from randomly selected bagged silver coins. In turn, he extrapolates, based on the quantities of dates and mints in those random bags, the numbers out over the hundreds of thousands of bags melted. Through these statistics, he deduces estimates regarding the number of dates/mints melted, and thus, the number of dates/mints remaining.

For example, while a total of 5,537,000, 1938-D Mercury dimes were minted, Merton produces a “maximum quantity remaining” of just 1,384,000. Maybe more shocking are his numbers for the 1935-D, a fairly non-remarkable coin of which 10,477,000 were minted. Merton’s maximum quantity remaining for this coin is a low 2,619,000.

Merton goes on to produce estimates for the quarters and half dollars minted during the 1916-1964 timeframe, as well. These estimates contain their own share of surprises, such as the 1944-D Washington quarter: 14,600,800 of these coins were minted, but Merton assigns an estimated maximum quantity remaining of just 3,650,000!

But I won’t ruin all the surprises for you. Instead, order a copy of Merton’s book or pick it up from your local library and discover just how many of those seemingly abundant 90-percent silver coins might be far rarer than you thought and could be garnering a greater premium than you expected.

As a final note, bear in mind, The Big Silver Melt was published in 1983. Just how many more of these remaining coins have disappeared in the meantime? Your guess is as good as mine!

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About the Author

K.W. Callahan is a writer and coin collector living in Chicago, Illinois. His numismatic focus is geared toward pre-1965 silver coins, Mercury dimes in particular.

Many days when he’s not writing, you’ll find K.W. at LaGrange Coin and Stamp, the local coin shop at which he has gleaned much of his knowledge about coins and coin collecting.

Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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    • If this one sentence alone is any indication, you are neither “upcoming” nor “inspiring.” I would imagin that you are, “aspiring,” though. Best of luck.

  1. Sounds like either the same book or an updated version of a similar book I bought in the mid-80’s.

    It’s irrelevant whether his estimates are accurate, as there will never be anywhere near enough collectors to absorb the current supply of the post 1933 dates, except at the disproportionately immaterial prices that exist today. Most of the coins are presumably low grade but anyone can look at the TPG population reports to see that all of these coins are still common to extremely common in higher quality.

    As for the 1916-1933, many of these are already expensive and overpriced given the relative collectible attributes. In the internet age, the overwhelming percentage (absolutely and across the quality distribution) are likely to underperform.

  2. Later date silver coins with a remaining supply of 250,000 pieces should be considered fairly common and available. Try finding an undamaged 1864-S quarter if you are hungry for something scarce

  3. In 1986 I wrote an article for The Numismatist, “Endgame the last years of silver coinage” using the Merton book among other sources. I remember how fast the metal disappeared in accordance with Gresham’s economic law. Guessing how much junk or collectible silver is left is fun but other than certified coins can be only an approximation. The loss of Morgan’s in the world war 1 melt and gold after 1933 must have really distorted things too.

  4. I keep reading in all of the UTube postings that silver is getting ready to shoot up the price to the moon. I always wondered what century is that’ going to happen in.

  5. I haven’t read the book so I can only go by the limited info provided above. But all three examples are exactly the same percentage; a hair under 25%, so according to Merton, 75% of the coins were melted in the late 60’s alone. (Unless I missed something and the figuire includes all those melted legally, especially in ’79-’80.) Another article written 20 years ago suggested that 90% of all existing coins were melted during the 79-80 period and it would have been more if there hadn’t been a backlog that outlasted the price spike. It’s all rather impossible to come up with even a ball park figure. But there were 14.7 Billion dimes, quarters, and half dollars mintyed from 1916-1964, so even if only 7% exist, that’s still a billion coins.


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