By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
There are few coin series that originated in the 19th century and are as widely collected by date and mintmark as the Indian Cent.
Designed by James B. Longacre, Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, and in production from 1859 through 1909, the Indian Cent saw the vast majority of its production at the Philadelphia Mint, which was long the only Mint facility authorized to produce base-metal coinage of small denominations; the bronze one-cent and copper-nickel five-cent coins could not be produced at branch mints. This changed in 1906 when the restriction that prevented branch facilities from producing small-denomination base-metal coins was lifted.
Charting as the first of these base-metal coins to be produced outside of Philadelphia was the 1908-S Indian Cent. Hailing from the San Francisco Mint, the 1908-S marked a new era for the United States Mint, as base-metal coinage production was soon to become a standard matter. This was further cemented in 1909, the year that saw the production of 1909-S Indian Cents, among the last coins to be minted for the series.
The 1908-S saw a mintage of just over one million while the 1909-S saw a much more meager output of barely over 300,000 pieces. Both S-mint issues saw considerably smaller mintages than had become customary for the Indian Cent at that time, especially as Philadelphia was routinely churning out more than 50 million pieces each year during most of the previous decade. Today, the 1908-S and 1909-S are regarded as scarce collectibles among series enthusiasts. Both issues rank as tough semi-key dates outranked in overall modern-day rarity and demand only by the series’ regular-issue key 1877 Indian Cent.
1908-S Indian Cent
With its mintage of 1,115,000 pieces, the 1908-S represents the third-lowest mintage of the series behind the 1877 and the 1909-S, details of which will be discussed shortly and in greater detail. The 1908-S is widely considered a numismatically significant coin as the first of the minor denominations to be struck outside of the Philadelphia Mint. The coin’s prominence ensures its popularity with collectors, and this is one reason even moderately circulated specimens regularly trade for three figures. Most specimens exist in the grades of Fine to Extremely Fine, with prices for these coins generally hovering between $100 and $175.
The 1908-S Indian Cent becomes much scarcer in uncirculated grades, with the vast majority of pieces grading under MS65. Most uncirculated specimens are known with Red-Brown (RB) surfaces than Brown (BN) or Red (RD) hues. A typical 1908-S in PCGS MS64RB fetches about $750, while an example in the same grade but with RD designation takes around twice that amount, or $1,500. The record price for a 1908-S was claimed in January 2021, when a PCGS MS67RD nabbed $21,600.
1909-S Indian Cent
The 1909-S Indian Cent has a mintage of only 309,000 pieces, making it the lowest-mintage circulation strike in the series – even lower than the key date 1877, which saw a mintage of 852,500. One major reason the higher-mintage 1877 Indian Cent trumps the lower-mintage 1909-S as the key date is far fewer 1877 examples were saved when they were produced; a severe economic recession in the United States at that time helped lead to this reality. Conversely, the 1909-S was saved in sufficiently large numbers as a last-year issue.
Even still, surviving numbers of the 1909-S Indian Cent are dwarfed by overall demand for this perennially popular coin. Most known specimens are found in the mid-range circulated grades, with prices trending between $350 and $600 for coins in the Fine to Extremely Fine range. Uncirculated specimens are particularly scarce, and Full Red pieces are rarer still. Examples graded PCGS MS63BN are trading around $1,300, while in PCGS MS65RB they take $3,000. The record price for a 1909-S Indian Cent goes to a PCGS MS67RD specimen that realized $97,750 in a 2006 auction.
Collecting S-Mint Indian Cents
The 1908-S and 1909-S Indian Cents have been extensively counterfeited. One of the key ways numismatic miscreants try and fake these San Francisco coins is by adding an “S” mint to the reverse of 1908 or 1909 Philadelphia strikes. One of the keys in picking out a counterfeit or altered 1908-S or 1909-S Indian Cent is by comparing mintmarks; the same “S” mint punch was used for both the 1908-S and the 1909-S working dies, so the “S” mintmarks on these pieces should match those found on plate coins and illustrations for these issues.
As always, the safest route for collecting rarities like the 1908-S and 1909-S Indian Cents is to simply buy those holdered by PCGS. These encapsulated Indian Cents can also be included in PCGS Set Registry collections of Indian Cents, and these are extremely popular. At present, there are well more than a dozen different types of Indian Cent collections on the PCGS Set Registry, affording many exciting and challenging opportunities for collectors who want to show off their 1908-S and 1909-S Indian Cents.
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