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Odd coins make desirable collection
By Ginger Rapsus
June 29, 2017

If you want to collect something really different, try an odd denomination such as two or three-cent pieces, or even the short-lived 20-cent piece.

The two-cent piece was the first coin to bear the motto “In God We Trust.” The bronze coin, larger than a cent, was minted from 1864-1873. Designed by James Longacre, the obverse design shows a shield, similar to the one used on the Shield nickel two years later. The reverse bears the denomination within a wreath. It’s not a glamorous or beautiful coin, but this coin was issued during the Civil War, when usefulness of a coin was important, not appearance. One-cent coins were not circulating, and no one really cared about the artistry of a coin’s design.

It’s a short set, but not impossible to complete, and has varieties and overdates to keep a collector hunting.  The first year of issue, 1864, comes in large and small motto varieties. The small motto is much scarcer. The difference is obvious to the naked eye: the lettering in the motto “In God We Trust” is smaller, with the letters shaped differently. The 1865 has a plain or a fancy “5.” Doubled-die obverses are known for 1867 and 1869.

Proofs are available for every year of the series. The 1864 small motto proof is a scarce coin, with only 20-30 known. Mintages for other years range from about 1,000 for the 1870, to 100 or so for the 1864 large motto. Proofs are expensive, but much less than, say, a silver dollar or gold coin of the same scarcity. A collection of proof two-cent pieces is attractive and historical, besides being a truly rare set. How many proofs of these coins still exist?

Type collectors usually pick an 1864 for their set, as the mintage was over 19 million. Over 13 million of the 1865 were struck, with mintages becoming smaller each year, down to the final proof-only year, 1873. A Mint State set can be assembled with some searching. Look for unspotted coins with nice surfaces and natural color.

Most people don’t know the United States struck any three-cent coins, let alone in two different compositions.  From a numismatist’s point of view, a set of three-cent coins can be challenging, but not impossible. The nickel coins wore well and kept their basic design, although the tiny silver coins showed more wear and were more prone to bending and other abuses. And both nickel and silver coins had the denomination in Roman numerals – talk about different!

Both the nickel and silver three-cent coins were designed by James Longacre.

A set of nickel three-cent coins covers the years from 1865-1889. All were minted at Philadelphia. None is especially rare, with no real stoppers to a set. Mintage figures are healthy until 1877. The issues of 1877 and 1878 were proofs only. Mintage for 1879 was only 38,000 and even less for 1880 – only 21,000.  Over one million 1881 nickel three-cent coins were struck, but after that year, mintage figures drop dramatically until the end of the series. 1886 is another proof-only date.

Type collectors often choose an 1865 nickel three-cent piece. This date is by far the most common, and is not expensive or hard to find in Mint State.  High-grade coins are quite attractive, and can show toning common to nickel alloy coins. Shades of gray or blue are found, making these coins even more desirable to collectors looking for eye appeal.

Collectors who want a complete set of proof coinage may want to consider the nickel three-cent piece. Mintages range from 6,609 for the 1883 to 600 for the 1868 and 1869. Check the prices for these last two dates. These are two truly scarce coins that can be obtained for far less than much more common silver dollars or other more popular coins. A Mint State set can be completed with a bit of looking, as the coins are not all that expensive, although there are three proof-only dates. Some of the proof only coins show signs of circulation.

There are even distinct varieties available in this series, with one overdate, the 1887/6. The overdate is known only in proof. The total proof mintage was 2,960, but the price of this coin is not outrageous. Sometimes, the regular date can sell for more than the overdate! And check the prices for this overdate. A truly scarce coin can be obtained for less than a thousand dollars.

The 1873 issues have open “3” and close “3” varieties, as do most coins of this date.

Silver three-cent coins were minted from 1851-1873, with all struck at Philadelphia except for some 1851-O coins minted in New Orleans.  While this coin is not particularly rare – 720,000 were minted – it’s an interesting coin, and one that could spice up a type set. There were three distinct types, known to type collectors. Type I coins have no lines bordering the star, while Type II coins have two lines and Type III coins have one line. In addition, the Type I coins lack the olive branch and arrows under the numeral III. Also, the Type I coins were not struck in the familiar .900 fine silver composition; they were made in .750 fine silver.

This tiny coin also comes in varieties, including repunched dates and an overdate, the 1862/1. A good magnifier is needed.

Sometimes called “trimes,” the three -cent silver piece was the smallest sized silver coin minted by the United States. Many of these coins show wear, nicks and scratches, and are not the best looking coins in such state. But Mint State and proof coins are pretty. Colorful toning is seen on many proof coins in shades of blue and purple.

Proofs of the early years, 1851-1857, are quite rare and seldom seen. In later years, more proofs were coined, as many as 1,000 in 1860, 1861 and 1870. Proof specimens of these little silver coins can look like little gems and can be quite beautiful, with cameo effects or lovely toning. The 1873, the final year of issue, is a proof only, and all are of the close “3” variety.

Collecting a set of silver three-cent pieces may be more challenging than pursuing the two-cent or three-cent nickels. Finding choice pieces can be difficult. A great number of the 1863-1872 circulation strikes were melted. And a set of proofs of each year is definitely not within reach of the average numismatist. Only one specimen is known of the 1852, with one or two known of the 1851, and no 1853 proofs are known.

The 20-cent piece was undoubtedly one of the most unpopular coins ever minted, due to its similarity to the quarter. It was only struck 1875-1878, four years, with the final two years in proof only.  Coins were minted at Philadelphia, San Francisco and Carson City. In this short set, there is a major rarity: the 1876-CC.

Twenty-cent coins bore the familiar Seated Liberty design on the obverse, the same as the quarter. The reverse showed an eagle, similar to the eagle on the Trade dollar, and the edge was plain, not reeded, as on the quarter. Despite these differences, the 20-cent coins were often mistaken for quarters – a complaint made about another unpopular coin, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, struck over one hundred years later.

Type collectors almost always choose an 1875-S 20-cent coin, as the mintage was over a million; the next highest mintage was 133,290 for the 1875-CC. Proofs were struck in each of the four years of issue. A few 1875-S proofs are known.

The 1876-CC is one of the rarest coins in the American series. 10,000 were struck, but nearly all were melted; perhaps two dozen still exist.

Numismatists who really want to specialize in these odd denominations may locate a few of the patterns of these coins.  Plain two-cent patterns were made in 1836, showing a small eagle, the kind beloved by specialists in early silver coinage. The reverse bears a wreath and the denomination. These patterns were struck in a variety of metals, such as copper, copper-nickel, billon and white metal.

Two-cent patterns of 1863 bear a patriotic design, appropriate for a Civil War year. George Washington appears on the obverse, with the legend “God and our Country.” The reverse is similar to the adopted design. Some 1863 patterns are known with the regular design, but the motto reads, “God our Trust.” A few of these two-cent patterns have the word “cents” more curved. Other experimental pieces were made in different metals, such as nickel and aluminum.

Historians can appreciate these patterns, as three different mottoes were used on them and the regular issue.

Large-sized patterns for a three-cent piece were made, dated 1863. The obverse is quite similar to that used on large cents of the 1840s and 1850s. A pretty little pattern trime appeared in 1850, with a Liberty Cap on the obverse and the denomination on the reverse.

Many other three-cent patterns were made throughout the 1860s, in different metals, such as nickel, copper, and aluminum. One famous three-cent pattern of 1849 bears the number “3” on one side and Roman numeral III on the other, plain as can be.

One of the more attractive unused designs is William Barber’s “sailor head” of Liberty, which appears on 20-cent patterns of 1875, with a shield on the reverse. The famous “Liberty by the seashore” patterns appeared this year, showing Liberty seated by the seashore, with a ship in the distance; the ship’s smoke and sails are in opposite directions. Reverse designs vary, with one giving the denomination as “1/5 of a dollar.”

A discussion of odd denominations cannot be complete without a mention of the $3 gold piece. Minted from 1854-1889, this coin did not circulate much, and mintage figures are small. The first year of issue, 1854, had a mintage of over 138,000, by far the highest. Mintage figures in later years can be a few thousand or even less. The 1881 had a mintage of only 500; 1885, a mintage of 801; and in 1883, a mintage of 900.  1875 and 1876 were proof only, with mintages of only 20 and 45, respectively. Collecting $3 gold is not for the average collector.

The coin is attractive, designed by James Longacre, with the Indian Princess on the obverse and a wreath on the reverse. The wreath is made of corn, wheat, tobacco and cotton.

Three dollar gold coins were minted at Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dahlonega, and New Orleans; the latter two mints struck coins in 1854 only. The Dahlonega coin is a scarce coin, with only 1,120 minted. The first year coins show distinct differences in the lettering on the reverse; the letters are taller in later years.

The 1870-S coin is unique, and resides in the Harry Bass collection, on display at the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum. Perhaps there is another, struck for the cornerstone at the San Francisco Mint, but it has never been found.

Three dollar experimental pieces in different metals are known and are much sought after by pattern specialists. The regular design was struck in copper, copper-nickel, nickel, silver and aluminum from 1864 through 1889.

Odd denominations, unfamiliar coins, unpopular pieces – any or all of these coins can keep a numismatist looking for many years. And because these coins are not all that popular, a collector can quietly pursue really scarce coins and build sets of desirable coins that not everyone can own. Sleepers abound within these sets.  A devoted numismatist can specialize in odd denominations and find satisfaction for a lifetime.

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