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The Flipside with Robert R. Van Ryzin

Mind your Ps, Ds, and Ss
December 14, 2007

With silver above $14 an ounce, it is a good time to check any old coins you may have lying about. Most people know that even common-date dimes, quarters and half dollars dated 1964 and prior have most of their value tied to their bullion content.

I recently had the opportunity to go through a hoard of coins. Unfortunately, there were no rarities, but there was considerable value just from the bullion. Included were silver dimes, quarters, half dollars, 10 or 11 silver dollars, and one common-date gold $5.

Up until 1964, dimes, quarters and half dollars were being minted in 90 percent silver. What's lesser known by many in the general public, and the reason some silver can still be found, is that although 1964 was the last year for 90 percent silver halves, they continued to be coined in 40 percent silver through 1970 and still show up in searches of rolls at banks.

Another coin to watch for is the silver war nickel. These were issued during World War II to save on copper for the war effort. Thus, the normal 75 percent copper/25 percent nickel composition of all nickels before and since was changed to one that featured 56 percent copper/35 percent silver/and 9 percent manganese.

Fortunately these are easy to identify. I should say that they were easy for most to identify, with the exception being one ill-fated counterfeiter - Francis Leroy Henning. In the 1950s, Henning decided to produce counterfeit Jefferson nickels. Noted for being overweight, of poor quality and color, and sporting a defect in the "R" of "PLURIBUS," some of Henning's nickels had a more glaring error. He failed to observe that genuine wartime silver nickels (1942-1945) displayed a large mintmark above the dome of Monticello on the coin's reverse (see the color photo).

It was the first time the Mint had used a mintmark to identify coins struck at Philadelphia. Up until that point, Jeffersons from Philadelphia had no mintmark, while those from Denver and San Francisco showed a small D or S mintmark on the coin's right side, next to Monticello.

Hennings, who turned to producing other non-silver dates as well, before being arrested in 1955, was eventually sentenced to a few years in jail and fined $5,000.

The black and white photo here is of a Henning's counterfeit.

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About the Author
Robert R. Van Ryzin has been a coin collector for 30 years. He has served as editor of Krause Publications Coins and Coin Prices magazines since 1994. He joined the firm in 1986 after obtaining a master of fine arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Prior to becoming a magazine editor, he worked on World Coin News as a staff member and later served as managing editor of Numismatic News. Van Ryzin, whose specialty is U.S. coinage history, is also the award-winning author of the book Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (Krause Publications, 2001), as well as two earlier titles, Twisted Tails: Sifted Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin History (Krause Publications, 1995) and Striking Impressions: A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S. Coins (Krause Publications, 1992).

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