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Believing in keys, no matter the mintage
By Mark Benvenuto
August 09, 2018

One of the pleasures of building a great collection of any series of coins, U.S. or otherwise, is finding a good-looking example of the key coin in that series. After all, the key is that desirable piece which brings an entire series together, or around which we build the rest of the series. Admittedly, some series have no keys to them at all, like the Roosevelt dimes, for example. Even the smallest mintages for those ten-cent pieces have been in the tens of millions. Other series have coins so rare that they might be considered to be beyond the definition of a key, such as the unique 1849 Coronet double eagle, the unique 1873-CC Seated Liberty dime, or the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels.

But many series have one or more dates that collectors all agree is that special key, the linchpin for the series. Let’s examine a few and see just what makes them so special.



The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent,
484,000 strong


For decades, this single Lincoln cent has commanded some serious attention. Collectors of limited means are happy to land one in a higher circulated grade, even though there is some wear and even though they will still be spending hundreds of dollars. For the hard core cent aficionados among us, it might be worth saving up and bidding on some mint state piece at auction, as these higher-end pieces are seldom the type of coin seen casually placed in some dealer’s display.

But is the 1909-S VDB really all that rare a coin? The question is a fair one, as the official tally lists almost half a million of them. It’s fair to begin to think that maybe this coin isn’t so much a rare piece as one that is perceived to be rare. Let’s compare this to a few other keys.


The 1916-D Mercury dime


This little ten-cent piece has been the object of desire for so many collectors for so long that there is probably no way to tally up who has been willing to pay what for it over the years. It has been a known rarity for such a long time that even back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when collectors avidly used blue books and folders to assemble their sets, the hole for this coin was filled with a piece of blue cardboard with the word “rare” or some such warning printed on it. It was expected that most of us would never own one. Digging an old “Red Book” off the shelves (a 1952 edition), one finds that in a time when folks paid anywhere from 30 cents for common Mercury dimes in uncirculated condition to perhaps $17.50 for less common ones with the ‘S’ mint mark, the 1916-D still cost $100. That was a princely sum back then – and probably one our most senior members now wish they had paid.

Still, there are 264,000 of these ’16-D dimes listed in all the reference books. Yes, that makes it less common than the just-mentioned 1909-S VDB cent. But is it really worth $1,400 in a grade as low as VG-8, or an amazing $11,000 for an MS-60 example! It’s tough to think that anything except our group belief as collectors is what keeps this price so high.


The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter,

only 52,000 total


Moving to another famous rarity, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter has been another long-sought key, in this case for the relatively short-lived Standing Liberty quarter series.  Plenty has been written about the original, bare-breasted Liberty design, as well as that Mr. MacNeil’s artwork was only put into production at the tail end of that first year. Whatever the circumstances, this is the first key coin that we’ve looked at for which we can give a resounding “Yes!” to the question, is it rare? Doing some crude math, if there are about 24,000 members of the American Numismatic Association, and possibly an assumed 240,000 collectors overall, many of whom have not joined the ANA or any other club, we have now arrived at a number in which all the collectors can not get their hands on one of these quarters, simply because it is too rare. By that standard, this is definitely a key coin for the series and not just a piece that we all want to believe is rare.


The 1921 and 1928 Peace dollars


These two coins have long been recognized as the keys to the gorgeous design that is the Peace dollar series. But even more so than before, we have to wonder just how hard to find they really are – especially that 1921. Since the mintages are 1,006,473 and 360,649, respectively, it is fair to assume the 1928 qualifies as some sort of key – maybe. But we have to ask ourselves if a million of anything in any hobby qualifies it as rare or even as scarce. To be fair, though, the long-standing collector love affair with Morgan and Peace dollars – especially when they are in some upper level of mint state – means that we will probably be paying some premium on the 1921 no matter what. The top flakes of the upper crust of this series are the type of coins that make it into registry sets and that fetch high prices at auctions, the 1921 included. So, a key? Possibly. A coin we believe to be rare? Most definitely.


The entire $3 gold  piece series


When it comes to key coins within any specific series, most of us think in terms of one or two coins for a specific denomination, set, or group. We seldom think of the entire series as some sort of rarity. Yet the $3 gold pieces, issued from 1854 all the way up to 1889, have an entire issue – a total output of all the coins in it together – that is less than some of the keys we have just looked at. And of that entire 35-year output, only two of the dates can even be considered common. Those two we are talking about are the first year of issue, the 1854, with 138,618 as the official total, and the much later 1878, with a tally of 82,304. Both of these totals are far less than all but one of the “key” coins we have looked at. The many years in which less were produced, the rare coins as it were, within the $3 series, are far, far less common than any of them. And yet when it comes to price tags, those for the $3 gold piece series, while high, are nowhere near as high as they could be. Why is this?

The answer to this strange reversal of what we might call “the normal rarity” is something we’ve been alluding to as we look at each key and each series. It’s both a matter of how heavily collected a particular series is and how much we believe it to be a rarity. There are certainly folks out there who are collecting $3 gold pieces and trying to assemble a complete set, or as complete a set as their wallets will allow. But they are far less in number than those of us who have fun with Lincoln cents, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, or even silver dollars. Partly, it’s the price. That 1854 costs about $2,500 in MS-60 – although the 1866, with its tiny total of 4,000, costs only $4,250 in the same grade (if you can find one!). Partly, it’s simply the fact that this has never been a popular series for collectors. And so, even though most of the coins in this series are rare enough to be keys in others, they are not exorbitantly priced. Strange but true!


All things considered?


On purpose, we have thrown that curve ball at the end of our list to try and prove a point. An entire series can be quite scarce, even rare, and yet if the collector base for it is very small, there isn’t really too much by way of extremely high prices.

Yet when a series is avidly collected, becomes the focus of not only the collectors but of the numismatic press, and is known to the point where we start believing in the scarcity of a key date or mintmark – even when it isn’t all that rare – well, then the price of that coveted piece rises despite how common that coin actually is. It may then be fair to say: the belief in the key is what is really key. Food for thought as we continue to hunt for that special piece to complete our collections?


This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.


  More Collecting Resources

• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .

• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.

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