Is the 1911-S Lincoln Cent the Fifth Series Key?

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
 

Lincoln cent enthusiasts can reel off the “Big Four” key dates for their favorite series with little hesitation: 1909-S, 1909-S VDB, 1914-D, and 1931-S. That rare quartet omits the next three big dates on many Lincoln lovers’ minds, which include the 1922 No D Strong Reverse, the 1943 Bronze, and the 1955 Doubled Die. Of course, that trio consists strictly of varieties, not regular-issue dates like the first four rare Lincoln cents mentioned above.

But while there are plenty of contenders for which coin in the series should also rise to key-date prominence, the most expensive regular-issue early-date Lincoln cent in circulated condition after the 1909-S, the 1909-S VDB, and the 1914-D is the 1911-S.

Early San Francisco Mint issues are certainly the scarcest of the series, as is colorfully highlighted by all pre-1916 S-mint issues. But the 1911-S is indeed the scarcest of the semi-keys, with a mintage of only 4,026,000 and, according to PCGS, a modern population of approximately 40,000 survivors–a relatively small number for the Lincoln cent by any measurement. It also has the lowest mintage of any of the early S-mint Lincoln cents, with the exception of the 1909-S and 1909-S VDB.

But this alone isn’t the reason the 1911-S is so scarce today.

PCGS MS67BN. Image: PCGS.

As was so often the case with early branch-mint Lincoln cents, collectors simply didn’t save 1911-S Lincolns in large quantities. Being an oft-used workhorse coin of the day, many were simply worn to oblivion. Collectors didn’t really begin taking notice of this date until the 1930s and ‘40s with the emergence of “penny boards”, which encouraged hobbyists to pursue a date-and-mintmark set of Lincoln cents plucked from circulation long before the age of third-party coin grading. By then, there were relatively few 1911-S Lincoln cents left in decent grades, and by the collecting boom of the 1950s, most were gone from pockets and purses.

Par for the course with early branch-mint Lincoln cents, a weak strike is more the rule than the exception. Thus, collectors will want to seek strong strikes, which exist but can be challenging to find. Regardless of the grade level sought, the serious Lincoln cent collector will need a little patience to score a nice example, but the wait will be worth it. Eye appeal is everything, and this will prove of particular importance to collectors who want to build choice sets for display on the PCGS Set Registry, which offers more than a dozen sets incorporating the 1911-S Lincoln cent.

The coin is scarce in all grades, including G4, where prices start at around $32. The price spread is somewhat tight up the grading scale within the circulated spectrum, with an F12 fetching $40 and XF40 specimens taking $75. In MS60BN the coin can be had for $200, and in MS63RB prices hover around $425. Populations become significantly smaller at the MS65RD threshold, which offers fewer than 75 specimens as of July 2021 and with examples taking $2,150. The all-time record for the 1911-S Lincoln cent is claimed by a specimen grading PCGS MS66RD that realized $27,600 at a 2007 Heritage Auctions sale.

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