By CoinWeek ….
Among the many rare coins issued in the 20th century by the United States Mint, the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent stands out as the one of the greatest. Not because it is the rarest, but because no other coin has captivated as wide a swath of American pocket change collectors.
The release of mint-marked minor coins in the one-cent and five-cent denominations did not occur until the early 20th century. The Mint first deployed the tiny letters signifying the location of a coin’s production in 1838 when branch mints were opened in New Orleans, Charlotte (North Carolina), and Dahlonega (Georgia). Those mints were specifically opened to process foreign silver and gold (in the case of New Orleans) or locally sourced gold (in the case of Charlotte and Dahlonega).
The San Francisco Mint, which today is used strictly to produce numismatic coins for collectors, was a leading facility for the production of gold coins in the mid-19th century after nearly a decade of private coinage following the discovery of large amounts of alluvial gold in California.
The need for minor coinage in the western states was acutely felt for decades, but it wasn’t until 1908 that San Francisco struck its first one-cent coin. That coin bore James Barton Longacre’s Indian Head design.
Production of the Indian Head design would continue for part of 1909 and would be replaced near the end of the year by a new design, struck to mark the centennial of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln. The new type was beautifully executed and would become the most popularly collected coin of all time, but not before a controversy erupted over the inclusion of three tiny letters on the coin’s reverse.
The letters “V.D.B.” were the initials of the coin’s designer, Litvak-American sculptor Victor David Brenner. Following normal if not standard practice for medalists and sculptors, Brenner signed his work, placing his initials at the bottom of the cent’s wheat ear reverse.
Legend has it that the public and perhaps some Mint officials were offended by the prominence of these initials, so production of the coin was stopped and the initials were removed from the dies. Why Mint officials would be offended after they approved the design in the first place is a mystery. Brenner’s original design featured his entire last name, after all.
(While we’re at it, preliminary Lincoln cent designs didn’t even include the national motto “In God We Trust”. Talk about controversial!)
The removal of his initials was deeply hurtful to Brenner, who had plans to submit designs for other U.S. coin denominations.
At any rate, only 484,000 1909-S V.D.B. cents were struck before the ordered stoppage, making it the lowest mintage of business strike Lincoln cents ever.
The Market for the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln Cent
Besides being a first-year-of-issue type–as well as the first circulating coin in U.S. history to feature a political leader instead of Lady Liberty on the obverse (also controversial, though a tame matter now)–demand among coin collectors was already going to be relatively high. But the sudden creation of a scarce type ratcheted up collector enthusiasm to hitherto unseen heights. The 1909-S V.D.B. was hoarded from the start – and not just by collectors.
When coin dealer John Zug sold his hoard of 25,000 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cents in 1918, he was able to obtain a price of $1.75 apiece. Doing the math, Zug got paid $43,750 for what amounts to $250 face value in pennies. Using an online inflation calculator, Zug’s gross income on the hoard would be worth around $886,000–about $35 per coin–in 2023.
Ironically enough, it was the introduction of penny boards in the depths of the Great Depression that truly established the market value of the 1909-S V.D.B. as people found it hard to fill that spot out of pocket change and were forced to turn to dealers if they were serious about their hobby.
Keeping everything adjusted for inflation, Mint State Red specimens were going for $224 to $337 by the mid-1950s, and by 1960 the same quality coin sold for almost $3,100.
But because of the initial hoarding by collectors and dealers, historically, the 1909-S V.D.B. has been relatively easy to obtain in Mint State (emphasis on the “relatively”).
Several recent auctions have featured certified examples in MS65 RD. Stack’s Bowers sold a vibrant PCGS Red specimen in June 2023 for $5,880. A month earlier in May, Heritage sold three PCGS-graded examples for $6,900, $7,210.80 (CAC), and $8,400 (CAC), and in February, Heritage garnered $5,040 and $6,600 for two non-CAC PCGS coins. Looking back at the market five years ago, Heritage and Stack’s Bowers sold similar coins for $2,760 (PCGS CAC, 11/18) and $3,600 (PCGS, 8/18), respectively.
Going down a grade, Heritage sold two PCGS-certified MS64 RD cents in July 2023 for $3,240 and $4,080. In June, Stack’s Bowers sold an NGC-graded example for $3,840. And at the previously mentioned May auction, Heritage sold two PCGS MS64 RD specimens: one not approved by CAC for $4,080 and a CAC-approved one for $4,800. Taking 2018 as our benchmark again, we see that Heritage sold a CAC-approved PCGS MS64 RD cent for $3,120 in September and Stack’s Bowers sold a CAC-approved PCGS example for the same amount in June of that year.
Not to neglect lower Mint State coins designated BN (Brown), the most recent auction record for an MS63 BN cent is from March 2023 when Stack’s Bowers sold one for $1,800. Interestingly, prices from 2018 are not too much lower, with Stack’s Bowers selling specimens for $1,140 in November, $1,200 in March, and $1,080 in January.
2023 prices for XF40 (EF40) examples are similar to the 2018 MS63 BN prices. Stack’s Bowers sold two XF40 cents in April for $1,320 and $1,200, and another piece in March for $1,440. Comparing again with 2018, Stack’s Bowers sold a PCGS XF40 1909-S V.D.B. cent in October for $660. Which is perhaps the kind of price that people have in mind when they think of circulated examples of this key date, but it’s clear that prices have risen over the last half decade.
As for top pop records, Stack’s Bowers sold a PCGS MS67 RD cent for $168,000 in April 2022. Notably, it was not CAC-approved.