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Collecting the Oddballs: Denominations With Universal Appeal
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
December 10, 2012

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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For most collectors, type collecting is the way to go, particularly for 18th- and 19th-century issues. In assembling a type set, the collector obtains one of each design type rather than one of each date and mint within a type. As David Bowers puts it, writing in A Guide Book of United States Type Coins, “Collecting United States coins by design types is in many ways an ideal numismatic pursuit.”

It’s ideal in the sense that the type collector avoids having to search for the rare dates within a particular design type. Instead, he concentrates on acquiring the best example he can afford of the least expensive date in the series.

Of course, there are many possible type sets that can be assembled. One possibility is the 20th-century non-gold set. Another might be a set consisting of all the 20th-century gold type coins. A more specialized possibility would be a type set of all the different quarters minted by the United States.

The sets I’ve mentioned are ones that would have particular appeal for coin collectors.

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Show a non-collector an array of 19th-century coins of different denominations, and chances are good that he or she will be most interested in the oddballs, the coins unlike anything he or she has ever seen before.

Early nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, even dollars are likely to be within the person’s realm of experience. On the other hand, half cents, two-cent pieces, three-cent pieces, 20-cent pieces, and gold $3 pieces are the coins that will stand out. These are the coins I’m going to focus on in this article: obsolete 18th- and 19th-century types.

Note that I’ve omitted half dimes from my list of odd coins. The reason for this is that the denomination (five cents) continues today, just as a nickel rather than as a half dime.

Half Cents

Like large cents, half cents were minted over a long time period. However, the public didn’t like them, and Bowers tells us that they were only sporadically produced after 1811 and were rarely seen in circulation. There are five different half cent types: Liberty Head facing left, Liberty Head facing right, Draped Bust, Classic Head, and Braided Hair.

For the average collector (that is, not wealthy), the Liberty Head facing left type, minted only in 1793, is likely to be out of reach price-wise. According to popular guide books (A Guide Book of United States Coins, U.S. Coin Digest) the designer was probably Henry Voigt. Bowers prefers Joseph Wright, and Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins calls it the Rittenhouse-Eckfeldt design. Take your pick.

Mintage was just 35,334 pieces, so the price of this type is steep in any grade. According to the November 2012 Numismatic News “Coin Market,” it’s worth $3,250 in Good-4, $8,500 in Fine-12, and $27,000 in Extremely Fine-40. You don’t even want to know about higher grades.

Fortunately for the type collector, the Liberty Head facing right half cent, designed by John Smith Gardner, was minted in four different years, 1794-1797. This increases the chance of finding a relatively inexpensive example. The least expensive varieties of this coin are those dated 1795. Values for the 1795 half cent with a plain edge and punctuated date are $350 in G-4, $750 in F-12, and $3,000 in EF-40. The total mintage of all 1795 types was 139,690.

Designed by Robert Scot, the Draped Bust type half cent was minted in even more years than its predecessor (1800-1808), so finding a coin you can afford should not be difficult. A number of 1804 varieties are priced around $60 in G-4, $100 in F-12, and $300-$550 in EF-40. In uncirculated grades, they’re all pricy.

John Reich-designed Classic Head half cents were minted between 1809 and 1836, so you should be able to find a nice example for your type set. With over a million pieces struck in 1809, prices for all varieties begin at around $60 in G-4, are approximately $90 in F-12, and between $515 and $550 in EF-40. MS-60 values range from $800 to $5,100.

Finally, we have the Braided Hair half cent, designed by Christian Gobrecht and minted in one form or another between 1840 and 1857. Actually, all of the half cents made for circulation were coined between 1849 and 1857, with the earlier dates minted as either proofs or restrikes of proofs. As with many proofs, some of the coins entered circulation, but even in circulated condition, they list for at least $3,000 apiece and can easily be excluded from our circulation-strike type set.

With the exception of 1852, Braided Hair half cents from 1849 (large date) through 1857 are relatively inexpensive. The date with the highest mintage, 1851 (147,672), is worth $54 in G-4, $77 in F-12, $96 in EF-40, and $195 in Mint State-60.

Two-Cent Pieces

Designed by James B. Longacre, of Indian Head cent fame, two-cent pieces were minted between 1864 and 1873, although interest in the denomination preceded this period. Their introduction came at a time of coin shortages caused by the Civil War, and their bronze composition coincided with the change of the Indian cent from a copper-nickel alloy to bronze. Nearly half of all the two-cent pieces produced were struck during the first year of issue, and mintages declined rapidly after 1868. The decline was hastened by the introduction of the nickel three-cent piece and soon after by the nickel itself.

One interesting feature of the two-cent piece is that it was the first U.S. coin to carry the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.” According to Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett’s United States Coinage: A Study by Type, “A similar motto…was proposed in 1861 to then-Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase by a Pennsylvania minister named Mark Watkinson, who felt an appeal to a higher being might help the country.” You can see the desire for such an appeal during the depths of the Civil War.

For the type collector, there’s just one type of the two-cent piece, and the least expensive date can be found in the first year of issue. The 1864 large motto variety lists for $16.50 in G-4, $20 in F-12, $42.50 in EF-40, $88 in MS-60, and $375 in MS-65. In MS-63, the coin is worth just $128.

Silver Three-Cent Pieces

Designed by Longacre, silver three-cent pieces were minted between 1851 and 1873. Within the series, there are three design types: 1851-1853 no outline to star, 1854-1858 three outlines to star, and 1859-1873 two outlines to star.

The silver three-cent piece, or trime, came into being as a result of an increase in the value of silver relative to gold, with the result that silver coins of all denominations disappeared from circulation. To remedy this, a three-cent coin was authorized, with initially a composition of 75 percent silver/25 percent copper. The odd denomination also facilitated the purchase of postage stamps, at a time when a first-class stamp cost three cents. (Note that this was the situation until 1958, when the price of first-class postage went to four cents.)

According to Bowers, “The Type I trimes served their purpose well, circulated widely, and were appreciated for their utility, although their small diameter…made them somewhat inconvenient to handle.” “Coin Market” prices the type at $32 in G-4, $51 in F-12, $68 in EF-40, $180 in MS-60, $270 in MS-63, and $825 in MS-65.

In 1854, the trime’s composition was modified, with a change from the reduced silver of the Type I coin to the standard 90 percent/10 percent alloy. In addition, “A raised border was added to the obverse star plus three line frames around it, and on the reverse, an olive branch was placed above the III denomination and a bundle of arrows below it.” One effect of the design change was to cause most Type II trimes to be poorly struck.

Although Bowers calls the Type II trime the scarcest of the three types, the values in lower grades don’t reflect this scarcity, as the least expensive date (1854) lists for the same $32 and $51 in G-4 and F-12, respectively, as the Type I trime. However, prices rise rapidly after that, with the coin valued at $112 in EF-40, $340 in MS-60, $635 in MS-63, and $2,700 in MS-65. The last year of issue, 1858, has somewhat lower values in uncirculated grades.

In 1859, the trime’s design was again modified, with one of the lines around the star removed and the reverse lettering made more delicate. As a result of the changes, most of the Type III pieces have better strikes than the Type IIs. As small as the denomination was, silver trimes were hoarded during the Civil War, and the denomination was discontinued after 1873.

From 1859 through 1862, Type III coins are relatively inexpensive. After that, prices are considerably higher. For type purposes, the 1859 lists for $40 in G-4, $56 in F-12, $87 in EF-40, $195 in MS-60, $295 in MS-63, and $975 in MS-65.

Nickel Three-Cent Pieces

Created by Longacre, nickel three-cent pieces (actually 75 percent copper/25 percdnt nickel) were minted from 1865 through 1889, although the mintages declined precipitously after 1874, with the exception of 1881. As you can see, the coin was introduced at the end of the Civil War, when circulating coins were hard to find. As a result of this, a variety of items were used by the public in everyday transactions including tokens, Encased Postage Stamps, and Fractional Currency, the smallest denomination of which was three cents. Breen tells us that the new coins were used to retire the hated fractional notes (aka shinplasters), and when this had been done the need, and mintages, dropped accordingly.

The first few years (1865-1874) plus 1881 are priced similarly, so any of these dates is appropriate for an oddballs type set. “Coin Market” values for the 1865 are $15.50 in G-4, $17.50 in F-12, $37.50 in EF-40, $100 in MS-60, $150 in MS-63, and $650 in MS-65.

Early nickel three-cent pieces are typically found weakly struck and from clashed dies. Clashed dies result when obverse and reverse dies strike each other without a planchet between them. Because of this, some of the reverse design appears on the obverse of subsequently struck coins and some of the obverse design appears on the reverse. Bowers writes, “Best-struck pieces are those toward the end of the series.” This suggests that the typical 1881 coin might be better looking than the typical 1865.

20-Cent Pieces

The Seated Liberty 20-cent piece is one of those short-lived coins that undoubtedly seemed like a good idea at the time, at least for some people in the West. Designed by William Barber and minted from 1875-1878, the biggest problem with the coin, other than that there was no need for it, was that it was too similar to a coin already in circulation, the Seated Liberty quarter.

The differences, a plain edge rather than a reeded edge and a slight reduction in size, were minor relative to the similarities. “Almost immediately,” Bowers writes, “the public confused the new coin with the Liberty Seated quarter dollar of similar size.” Similarly, Guth and Garrett write, “Many were the customers who received 25 cents’ worth of goods for only 20c, and vice versa.” I’m reminded of the Susan B. Anthony dollar and the Washington quarter.

For type purposes, the clear choice is the 1875-S, with the largest mintage by far of any date in the series (1,155,000). The next closest mintage (133,290) is held by the 1875-CC. The 1875-S is worth $100 in G-4, $120 in F-12, $210 in EF-40, $500 in MS-60, $1,100 in MS-63, and $4,900 in MS-65.

Gold $3 Pieces

Although they were minted over a long period of time (1854-1889), Longacre-designed Indian Head gold $3 pieces were little needed in commerce. Bowers writes, “The logic for having a $3 piece escapes most numismatic students today, for the $2.50 quarter eagle, of nearly the same value, was already well established in circulation.” Bowers mentions the possibility that the coin was used to purchased sheets of 100 three-cent stamps, and Guth and Garrett give this as the coin’s primary purpose. They conclude, “Today its purpose is to complete sets of gold type coins.…”

Only one of the gold $3 pieces has a mintage greater than 100,000, and that was produced at Philadelphia in the first year of the series (1854, 138,618). Although it would seem that this would be the best date for a type set, because there are so many other dates to choose from and few people collect the series by date and mintmark, you’ll find that there are several low-mintage dates with prices similar to the most common date. Given a choice, I would opt for the coin with the lowest mintage for my type set.

“Coin Market” values the 1854 $3 gold piece at $615 in F-12, $1,100 in EF-40, $3,400 in MS-60, and $18,000 in MS-65. As just one example of a similarly priced date with a small mintage, 1879, of which only 3,030 were coined, lists for $640, $1,300, $2,650, and $19,000 in the same grades. Several other dates, with mintages well below 10,000, are priced similarly.

That brings to a close my candidates for an interesting type collection of odd U.S. coins. If you can afford them, you can get one of each type of half cents, or you might elect to purchase just one coin to represent this odd denomination. The same is true for silver three cent pieces.

As always, I would recommend buying the best coin you can afford, particularly if there’s little difference in value between grades. I would also recommend that any gold $3 piece you purchase be certified by a major service.

I think you’ll find that your type collection of oddball coins is a big hit with your non-collecting friends. And perhaps with your collecting ones as well.

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