By Bullion Shark LLC ……
For generations of collectors, Indian Head pennies (issued for 50 years from 1859 to 1909), have been one of the most popular series of American coins collected by date and mintmark, while also sought by type collectors.
Because there are no major rarities other than some varieties, it’s not hard to build a complete set in circulated grades, which can be done for about $3,000 USD. Even Mint State (a complete set running around $15,000 in MS60) and Proof examples of most dates are mostly affordable apart from high-grade pieces (a top-graded MS66 set runs over $100,000), but finding well-struck and problem-free coins can be challenging – which is a big part of the fun.
The Indian Head penny was design by James B. Longacre, the fourth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, who also designed the prior Flying Eagle cents issued from 1856 to 1858, as well the Indian Princess $1 (types 2 and 3) and $3 gold coins. After submitting some other designs, Longacre settled on a design with some resemblance to his earlier gold coins. A key difference being that his gold coins featured tiaras, which struck much better than the Flying Eagle cent (which had run into production problems).
Though known as Indian Head cents, these coins actually depict on their obverse a left-facing facing profile of Liberty (as a Caucasian woman) wearing a Native American war bonnet or headdress that is normally worn instead by male Native Americans of a certain status. As numismatists have noted, the use of a Native American Liberty motif is highly ironic since the coin was created during an era when Native Americans had lost their ancestral lands and were relocated to reservations, where some still live today.
The Indian Head design was one of the first to achieve widespread popularity with the public and collectors who liked its design. It was found in circulation until the 1940s.
There are three types of Indian Head pennies, and all use the same obverse design.
Type 1 was issued only in 1859 and was composed of a mixture of 88% copper and 12% nickel, which gave the coins a whitish appearance. The reverse that year consisted of an olive or laurel wreath surrounding the denomination. The coin, which is common in most grades but scarce in Proof (with only 800 made), is also popular with type collectors.
Type 2 coins were issued from 1860 to 1864 and feature a modified wreath made of oak and other leaves. Since the coins were issued just before the Civil War started when southern states were threatening to secede, a union shield was added at the top of the reverse. Also, the letters in “one cent” are fuller.
These coins competed with many privately issued one-cent tokens that featured advertisements or patriotic themes. The tokens were thinner and lighter than the Indian Head pennies. On April 22, 1864, a law was passed banning the production but not the use of said tokens. The production of Indian cents was ramped up to give people an alternative to the tokens, which is why most coins in the series have mintages in the tens of millions.
Most dates are common in circulated grades and can be purchased in rolls of mixed dates. But finding choice uncirculated examples is not easy, especially as the wreath and the war bonnet were often weakly struck.
1861 coins are the lowest mintage but also the best struck of these, and 1862 and 1863 coins are the most common.
Type 3 was issued from 1864 to 1909 and was made of a composition of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc, which is a kind of bronze. The new composition produced pieces that were lighter and thinner than earlier coins.
The coins from this period were struck not only at the Philadelphia Mint like the Type 1 and 2 coins but also at the San Francisco Mint. They also feature several key dates as well as some scarce variety coins, especially the 1864 with small “L” (for Longacre) in Proof of which 35 coins are known. The auction record for this was in 2013 when it sold in PF66 for almost $130,000. Others include the 1873 with doubled “Liberty”; the 1888/87 overdate; and the 1894 double date.
How Much is an Indian Head Penny Worth?
In low circulated grades, these coins are worth under $10 in most cases, but prices rise substantially for high-grade and key date and variety coins.
Type 1 coins can be had for well under $100 in Extra Fine, while Mint State coins start at $300 and go all the way to $30,000 for the finest available at MS67.
Type 2 coins have similar values to type 1 but run a little less such as $50 for extra fine and $140 in MS60 but again reach many thousands in conditionally rare grades.
Type 3 coins are the most readily available and affordable for the series (especially from 1879 to 1909) with the exception of key dates and variety issues. EF40 coins are as inexpensive as $13, while MS60 pieces run as little as $50 for dates from the late 1880s to 1909 except for 1908-S and 1909-S.
Proofs are surprisingly affordable, especially from 1880 on, which in many cases are only $200-300 for lower-end Proofs. But is important to look for nice examples that do not have spots or flecks. High-end graded proofs run into the several thousands and more.
Indian Head Penny Key Dates
Key date coins include 1877, 1908-S and 1909-S, which are the three lowest-mintage issues of the series with respective mintages of 852,500, 1,115,000 and 309,000.
The 1877 Indian Head penny is the series key because of its unusually low mintage and because few examples were saved, which was related to the economic depression that began in 1873. In addition, the coinage redemption program that existed at the time resulted in 10 million cents being sent back to the Mint in 1877, lessening the need for new coins that year. It is scarce in all grades.
The 1877 starts at $1,000 in low-circulated examples and reaches $5,000 for graded MS60 coins and as much as $20-30,000 for the finest grade available (usually MS66 coins that are either red or red-brown in color and original, not dipped).
The 1908-S Indian Head penny, the first branch mint marked coin in a small denomination, starts at about $100 in low-circulated grades, reaching $290 in MS60 brown and $5,000 in MS66 red.
1909-S, the lowest-mintage of the series, starts at $300 in good, reaches at least $1,000 in MS60 brown and runs over $10,000 in MS66 red. As the final coin of the series, it was saved.
Because many collectors seek red coins, which has pushed their values up over the years, there are good values to be had in nice brown and red-brown coins without problems.