By Bullion Shark LLC ……
In 1916 the dime, the quarter, and the half dollar were each eligible for a new design, and the Treasury Department held a competition to select the winning motifs. Designs submitted for the dime and the half dollar by German-born sculptor Adolph A. Weinman were selected. They became his most well-known legacy: the Winged Liberty or Mercury dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar, although he also created many works of art, especially large monumental sculptures found around the United States.
Mercury Dime Design
Weiman’s dime remains the most popular type of its denomination and one of the most widely collected 20th-century series.
Its obverse design features a left-facing profile of Lady Liberty wearing a winged cap, which symbolized liberty of thought. The design is believed to be a composite portrait based partly on a bust the artist had made of Elsie Kachel Stevens (wife of the poet Wallace Stevens) and one of Weinman’s most famous monuments – the Union Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Baltimore that includes a sculpture of allegorical Victory with a head and cap that strongly resemble those on the coin.
This design was immediately popular with numismatists but was soon mistaken by many as being an image of the Roman god Mercury, a deity of trade and commerce. Which it could not be, since all U.S. coins at the time were required to feature a depiction of Miss Liberty on their obverse.
The confusion arose in large part because the winged cap looks similar to the petasos worn in ancient Greece, including by the god Hermes, Mercury’s Greek counterpart. But the Mercury name stuck, though most numismatists prefer to call it the Winged Liberty or Liberty Head dime.
The reverse design depicts a fasces, which is an ax tied to a bundle of rods, surrounded by an olive branch. The fasces had its origins in Etruscan and Greek civilization and was later carried by Roman bodyguards as a symbol of power and authority. It was co-opted by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as a symbol of fascism.
But Weinman’s fasces was intended as a symbol of unity, as he explained in a 1916 letter to the editor of The Numismatist. He added that the battleax stood for preparedness to defend the Union, while the branch of olive symbolized our country’s love of peace.
Mercury dimes are generally divided between early dates (1916-1931) and later dates (1934-1945). No dimes were issued during the depths of the Great Depression (1932-33) since there was less need for coinage then. The later dates are mostly common even in Uncirculated condition and can be found in rolls even today.
The early coins were not saved the way the later dates were. Although the design was a hit with collectors, attention to them faded quickly after about a year. This had a lot to do with the fact that there were no folders or albums to display the coins until the 1930s when there was a big jump in interest in the series and demand for the coins.
Mintages rose sharply during World War II, and the 1941-45 coins of that period are a very popular subset with collectors.
How Much is a Mercury Dime Worth?
These coins contain .07234 ounces of silver, which gives them an intrinsic value of almost $2 at today’s silver prices [$27.35 per ounce on Aug. 21, 2020. —CW]. In circulated condition, any Mercury dime sells for about a dollar over its silver value, or about $3. Rolls are readily available in circulated or better condition.
Uncirculated examples of common dates (MS60) are worth about $6-8 retail, while MS65 coins bring $25 and the top grade of MS68 is worth $200.
When it comes to BU examples, it is not just the grade but also how well-defined the bands on the fasces are that is key to their value. Flatness on the middle of the bands and the sticks of the fasces are common. Coins with sharpness in those details are known as Full Band (FB) coins, which are scarcer and more valuable. For this reason, it is important to study these details on Mercury dimes.
For example, a complete set with all dates and mintmarks runs $30,924 in MS63 and $61,638 in MS65. But the same complete set with each coin having FB jumps to $64,701 in MS63 and $304,416 in MS65! For comparison, a full set in XF40 is only about $8,000.
Looking at a coin such as the 1939-S dime shows how widely the value can vary for the best BU coins and especially FB coins. Over 10 million of these were struck, but PCGS estimates that only 20,000 exist today. An MS63 without FB runs $30 and a top-grade MS68 $775, but with FB in the same condition, it is $75 and a whopping $12,500!
1942 is one of the most common coins of the series, with the second-highest mintage after 1944 (205 million struck). But even for this date look at the gap between an MS65 coin at $25 and a top grade without FB of $600, and with FB prices jump to respectively $50 and $6,000. Yet an MS67FB is only $265, showing how much difference a point can make.
Or take the 1945 coin, which is plentiful up to MS67 but jumps to $2,500 in the top grade of MS68. And with FB in MS65 it runs $16,000, an amazing $47,500 in MS67FB, and even more with a plus grade.
Mercury Dime Key Dates
The 1916-D is the series key. It has the lowest mintage at 264,000, of which 10,000 are estimated to have survived. Yet only 100 Mint State coins are believed to exist.
This coin is one of the greatest 20th-century U.S. coins, and it tends to come well struck. Even in just Good 4 (G04) it is worth $750, while an MS63 is worth $15,000 and MS65 $27,000. With FB it is $18,500 in MS63 and an amazing $120,000 in MS67. In 2020 a record $207,000 was paid for an MS67FB.
Two other key dates are 1921 and 1926-S. About 1.2 million dimes were struck in 1921, but today there are far fewer coins left. PCGS has graded 2,386 1921 coins. In XF it runs $450 but jumps to $1,850 in MS63 and $4,000 in MS65. In MS67FB (with four graded by PCGS) it is worth $30,000.
As for the 1926-S, 1.5 million were made. Any Mercury dimes with mintages below two million are semi-key coins. This date is more valuable in Mint State than in circulated condition, with XF40 running $250 but MS63 reaching $2,000. With FB the two coins PCGS has given the top grade of MS67 to command $55,000 each. Only about 1,000 in all grades have been graded by PCGS.
Most Valuable Mercury Dimes
In addition to the key dates and certain condition rarities, the most valuable Mercury dimes are primarily the variety coins. A full set including major varieties runs a little under $10,000 in XF40, but the same set with FB in the top grade of MS67 is an impressive $750,000!
The most well-known varieties are the 1942/41 overdates struck at either the Philadelphia or Denver Mints. These coins were the result of inexperienced personnel and imperfect dies used to create 1941 and 1942 hubs, according to Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross in a 1946 letter. They were made during WWII when production had been ramped up from tens of millions of dimes to 175 and 205 million in 1941 and 1942, respectively, which created a high-pressure environment at the Mint. The Philadelphia version is easier to spot and rarer.
For both versions of this popular overdate/double die, circulated coins are not hard to locate and run about $600 in XF. But Mint State coins are very scarce, with only about 3,400 and 1,600 graded respectively at PCGS for the Philly and Denver versions. Values in MS63 are $4,750 and $7,500, respectively. The top graded coins are MS66FB and MS67FB, which run $85,000 and $120,000.