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Affordable Large Cents and Half Cents
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
January 05, 2012

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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When it comes to collecting an entire series of one specific coin not too many of us decide to go out and conquer any of the large cents, or the half cents for that matter. They seem a bit remote. Plus, they seem to be filled with strange, colorfully named varieties, which can be a bit confusing.

2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents
2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents

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Half cents, in particular, appear to be part of some long vanished past. But what at first might seem like a problem when it comes to these big chocolate-colored coppers can actually be an advantage. Precisely because large cents and half cents have fewer devoted followers than more popular series, such as the Indian Head cents or anything else called “classic” U.S. coinage, they can be fun to gather, and fun to look at from a type set point of view.

Since the earliest of the large cents, those dated in the 1790s, can be rather expensive, let’s flip things over and look in some detail at the tail end of the denomination. The year was 1857, and the cost of copper had risen high enough that in the previous year the Mint had experimented with a new, smaller copper one-cent coin, and made roughly 2,500 of them to pass about among Congress and the other folks who might have a say in just what our nation’s coinage looked like. Yet, in 1857, the large cent had a final hurrah, with the Mint pounding out more than 300,000 of what are called the Braided Hair cents, a design which had been in use since 1839.

Now, right off the bat, 300,000 of anything might seem like quite a lot. But consider the mintage of the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent, one of the now classic U.S. rarities. The number here is 484,000 coins. That’s significantly more than the 1857 large cent.

If we key off of this rarity as some sort of starting point, we would automatically think that the 1857 has to cost more in comparable grades. But the 1909-S V.D.B. runs about $750 for a specimen in Good-4, while the 1857 large cent weighs in at $250 to $300 in Extremely Fine-40.

Honestly, now what gives? The very short answer is: demand. The rather longer answer is that even though the 1857 large cent is less common than the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln, collector desire for it has just never been as high, and it has never been in the limelight nearly as much. The last of the large cents simply isn’t as well known to collectors, in terms of either mintage or scarcity.

Now, rather wonderfully, several other large cents share this semi anonymity, which translates into pretty good prices for any collector who is trying to collect them today. A type set is the easiest way to get one of each of our nation’s largest coppers, and moving back a series means moving back into the Coronet cents of 1816-1839.

For most of the years from 1816-1839 the Mint was able to pound out a few million one-cent coins annually. The output never got up to 10 million for any single year, but for several years it was well more than 2 million, and in 1837 and again in 1838 it was more than 5 million. Along the way, 1821 became the low point, with only 389,000 produced.

Once again we see a date in which a large cent has a mintage significantly below that of the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent. As the 1821 is almost an entire century older, it doesn’t take a lot to realize that much of that total might not have survived the test of time. Yet, when it comes to prices, this old large cent runs about $400 in Very Fine-20. That’s a pretty good coin—admittedly with some wear—for a lot less than we might have expected.

As one might expect, the rest of the Coronet cents do cost less than the 1821. That $400 will land any of the common dates in Mint State-60, and some of the mid-level circulated grades can be had for as little as $35 to $40. These are simply great prices for some rather early U.S. cents. Any would be a good specimen to grab for a type set. But it’s worth remembering just how attractive that 1821 can be.

Jumping back to an earlier design for the large cent means landing one of the Classic Head cents, which were only issued from 1808-1814. It probably isn’t too hard to believe that in that time frame there were a few years in which the Mint struggled, putting out a few hundred thousand cents, but no more. It’s harder to believe that any of these scarcer cents are still less expensive than a comparably graded 1909-S V.D.B. cent, but it’s true.

The rarest of the Classic Head cents is the 1811, with 218,025 coins to its tally. The $400 I just mentioned for the Coronet cent won’t get you a VF-20 specimen of this even older cent, but it will land you one in Fine-12. That’s pretty amazing really. A large cent from 1811 costs more in F-12 than the 1909-S V.D.B. in G-4.

You can obviously pick any Classic Head cent you’d like for a type collection—by definition, you only need one. But this would be a singularly tremendous one to add.

If it doesn’t stretch your belief to the breaking point, there are two years within the Draped Bust cent series, issued from 1796 to 1807, in which Mint records indicate totals less than our classic Lincoln cent rarity, and in which the prices are still lower.

The 1806 saw 348,000 of these attractive large cents produced. A single one in VF-20 actually costs a bit less than the $400 I have quoted for the Classic Head cents we just discussed. But the big news is the 1796. The 1796 Draped Bust cent lists as a $300 coin in G-4 and a $450 coin in VG-8. OK, these are not tremendous grades. But for a coin that was produced to the tune of 363,375 pieces, and that has a date prior to the year 1800, it is truly astonishing to think that it has a value less than a comparably graded 1909-S V.D.B.

There are other large cents worth looking at for any growing type set you’d like to assemble. But I’ve shown you some of the more unbelievable ones, and want to take a step into the half cents now, to see if there are some equally lucrative dates. Let’s do the same drill, and start with the Braided Hair half cents.

A quick look at any price listing in the back of Coins is going to floor you when you realize that just about every half cent from 1849-1857 has a mintage at or below 100,000 coins, and that virtually every one that is not some rare variety costs only about $100 in VF-20 to perhaps EF-40. This is a real testament to just how few collectors ever focus on half cents. They don’t have the investment potential, like the silver and gold coins do, which occupy the minds of metals traders and investors. But they are amazingly scarce coins when compared against just about any other U.S. piece. And their prices are below $100 each.

If we drop back to the Classic Head half cents, again we find numerous dates with mintages that are at least scarce and that might qualify as tiny. Yet once again, the prices don’t reflect the scarcity.

The 1825 half cent is the perfect example. Its mintage was just 63,000 coins and its price in VF-20 is around $125. This is amazing for a single date. It’s more than amazing to see this for several dates within the series.

Going back even farther, into the Draped Bust half cents, the pattern repeats itself. Picking the 1803 as an example, there were only 97,900 of these half cents minted. Yet, when it comes to price tags today, $100 can probably land you an example in F-12. Look for yourself for more examples within that short span of years from 1800 to 1808. There’s more to be found there.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Liberty Cap half cents, produced with Liberty’s head facing to the right (1794-1797), sport a couple of dates where a collector can land a worn specimen for the $400. Again, these won’t be gem coins (you’ll need a few thousand to ante into that game), but it’s something else to think you can purchase one of our earliest large cents for about the same price as a much more common key-date Lincoln cent.

A type set of large cents and type cents may not be a direction you have ever considered taking for your collection. But we have just seen that it can be affordable, and can land you some incredibly scarce coins. Why not give it a try?

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