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ONCE UPON A DIME: LIBERTY BY ANOTHER NAME

A 1916 D Mercury Dime, graded as nearly uncirculated, sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Gold Standard Auctions. Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Misconceptions can be stubborn things. The Pilgrims didn’t initially land on a rock at Plymouth Harbor. Betsy Ross didn’t sew the first American Flag. The Mercury dime doesn’t feature an image of the Roman god Mercury on its obverse side. Yet these ideas persist, and coin collectors continue to call the early 20th century American 10-cent coin the Mercury Dime. It has become part of the American lexicon.

In actuality, the profile on the dime is a Winged Liberty Head a woman wearing the Phrygian Cap of Liberty with wings denoting freedom. But the debut of the coin was misunderstood by the press, and it was nicknamed “Mercury” instead. 

In 1915, the Mint started the ball rolling to secure a new coin design to replace the Seated Liberty dime that had been in circulation since 1892. After a sponsored design competition failed to produce a suitable winner, a commission was given to sculptor and artist Adolph Weinman, who had created the Walking Liberty Half Dollar and several military campaign medals.

An antique-tone 1916-D Mercury Dime with a PCGS grade of MS-66 sold for $49,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

Weinman’s vision featured a side profile of the aforementioned Winged Liberty Head on the obverse and a Roman fasces with an olive branch on the reverse to symbolize both war and peace. From its introduction in late 1916 until its run ended in 1945, the Mercury Dime rose to become one of the most popular coins produced in the United States. 

As with most types of collectibles, condition is key for coins. But Mercury Dimes usually show more wear than most, because the collar surrounding the outside of the coin was reduced to better interact with coin-operated machines. The higher relief of the leather bands of the fasces on the reverse is key to grading a Mercury Dime. If the bands are crisp and distinct, it is considered a “full strike,” which is something not all mints were able to produce consistently.

Rarities and mistrikes that collectors prize so highly appeared throughout the three-plus decades of the Mercury Dime’s lifespan.

1910s

The Mercury Dime was first issued in October 1916 at the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver Mints. However, the Denver Mint was told to stop production of the Mercury Dime in favor of the Standing Liberty quarter. Denver issued only 264,000 Mercury Dimes in 1916, with most entering circulation before being collected. Production didn’t restart until late 1917 making both years from Denver relatively scarce for the dime in any condition.

1920s

Production for the 1921 Mercury Dime was relatively low, with about 1.2 million in Philadelphia and about a million in Denver. No dimes were issued in 1922 and no 1923 dimes were issued in Denver. If you see a 1923 D Mercury Dime, it’s a counterfeit.

1930s

The Denver Mint did not issue Mercury Dimes in 1930, which means any coins shown as 1930 D are bogus. In 1931, San Francisco and Denver issued relatively few dimes, making the 1931 D and 1931 S desirable to numismatists. In 1932, when America endured the peak of the Great Depression and the song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? captured the mood of the moment, American mints didn’t issue any dimes at all. The same held true in 1933 no new dimes were struck. 

A 1942/41 Mercury Dime, displaying a (noted by white edge) double-strike error, sold for $4,100 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at 3 Kings Auction. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

1940s

The rarest Mercury Dimes are the 1942/1941 double-die errors. Both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints suffered this hiccup, produced when a mint planchet overstruck a 1942 dime with a 1941 date, in effect double-striking it. The problem is hard to spot. Usually, magnification is required to see it properly.

The 1945 S series, which was minted in San Francisco, may show a smaller than usual “s” due to using a puncheon intended for coins bound for the Philippines. While the 1945 is one of the most common Mercury Dimes, the quality of the strikes was inconsistent, and the high relief of the fasces on the reverse was more vulnerable to wear. Only about two percent of the dimes display the leather bands as clear, distinct “full-strike” examples, adding extra collectability and value to these dimes.

A 24K gold Mercury Dime, issued in 2016 to commemorate the dime’s centennial, sold for $275 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service, Wikimedia.org and LiveAuctioneers

2016

In 2016, a commemorative 24K gold Mercury Dime, weighing a little more than three grams, was issued at the West Point Mint in business proof condition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Mercury Dime in 1916. Only 125,000 gold proof coins were issued, and they sold out fast. At auction, the commemorative is usually valued more for its gold content, which is about a tenth of an ounce, than for its mintage.

No coin is immune to counterfeiting, artificial aging, and other forms of doctoring, but collectors of silver coins, the Mercury Dime included, must be wary of an extra hazard: it’s possible to reduce the silver content of a coin.

A lot of 23 Mercury and two Barber Dimes sold at auction for its silver value at $42 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Lot 14 Auctions. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

When mulling the purchase of a 1916 D Mercury Dime, check its date. It should be on a straight line, not canted upward as a counterfeit will be. Also take care to weigh the coin. A genuine Mercury Dime weighs 2.34 grams and has 90% silver content (.07234ozt). A counterfeit will weigh more due to the heavier metal added to replace the silver. Note: Be sure the troy ounce setting of 31.10 is used, not the standard ounce setting of 28.35.

Counterfeiters may also cut away the bands on the fasces on the reverse to create the “full binding” look to increase its grade. Close examination under powerful magnification will easily identify the cuts.

It is always a good idea to have any high-value Mercury Dimes authenticated under magnification, have their weight checked, and have them screened for errors by members of the American Numismatic Association, who you can find at www.money.org.

Collecting Mercury Dimes requires a modicum of due diligence, but it’s worth it. Adolph Weinman’s creation is considered the most beautiful dime design ever struck, and it was immediately popular with the public and coin fans alike. A total of 2.6 billion Mercury Dimes were issued. Assembling a set is both rewarding and fun, and you can often find these coins in online auctions, such as those on LiveAuctioneers. 

The Wheat Penny: rare ones harvest big money

A 1909-S VDB bearing the initials of Victor David Brenner, sold for $700 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The one-cent coin that became known as the “wheat penny” was minted in the United States for nearly half a century, from 1909 to 1958. Yet that span of time represents one of the most collectible periods for the penny because of the unusual number of changes to its design.

The 1909 centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln generated a great deal of attention from the public and from commercial vendors who were eager to have new coins and commemoratives honoring the beloved president. The Chief Executive at that time, President Theodore Roosevelt, commissioned sculptor Victor David Brenner to create a penny design based on his acclaimed bronze plaque of a right-facing profile of President Lincoln, shown below.

President Theodore Roosevelt was impressed by sculptor Victor David Brenner’s plaque of Abraham Lincoln and commissioned him to redesign the penny in 1908 based on the image seen on the plaque. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and available on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

The debut of Brenner’s penny made history in and of itself. Prior to 1909, allegorical figures such as Lady Liberty or a composite image of a Native American wearing a headdress were the most common elements in American coin design. The wheat penny, boasting the image of Lincoln, represented the first time a real person appeared on an American coin.

But it was the artwork on the reverse side of the penny that prompted its enduring nickname. It was a simple design featuring the words One Cent; United States of America flanked by a pair of curving wheat stalks. Brenner’s artistic flourish almost ensured that the coin would be dubbed the “wheat penny.”

During its five-decade reign, changes in the production of the wheat penny some major and some minor, some intended and some not – sparked interest that has yet to abate. Its journey shows just how determined collectors are in their quest to locate coins that display quirks, oddities or deviations from the norm.

1909 Wheat Penny

The Philadelphia Mint issued around 22 million wheat pennies in 1909, making them the most common variety of this mintage. The San Francisco Mint, however, issued only about 484,000 wheat pennies in that inaugural year, identifiable by the “S” mint mark and “VDB” (representing sculptor Victor David Brenner’s initials) on the reverse. The initials stirred controversy because of their prominent appearance on the coin, and ultimately mint officials decided to remove them. The letters would not return until 1918, and once reinstated, they remained part of the coin design until its discontinuation. The relative scarcity of the San Francisco Mint 1909 wheat penny makes it one of the most valuable pennies minted that year, and a 1909 S that lacks the “VDB” is a rare prize, indeed.

1910s

In 1911, the Denver Mint began striking the wheat penny with the mint mark “D,” joining mints in San Francisco (S) and Philadelphia (which did not use a mint mark) in producing the coin. D pennies from 1914 are among the lowest-circulated wheat pennies, making them a favorite among collectors and auctioneers, and, unfortunately, counterfeiters.

Wheat penny completists make a point of obtaining a 1916 example of the coin. In that year, a slightly different die was used for the Lincoln portrait, which sharpened some of the facial features such as his cheek and part of his coat.

Some examples of the 1917 wheat penny are affected by what is known as a “double-die strike” – an occurrence in which two impressions of the die overlap enough to cause a noticeable error. In this case, the word “Trust” and the date are marred. Production flubs such as these generally make a coin more valuable.

This 1922 wheat penny lacking its ‘D’ mint mark realized $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. 
Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

1920s

Another favorite from the Denver Mint dates to 1922, a year when the city’s mint was the sole manufacturer of the wheat penny, yielding 500,000 for the nation’s needs. Some 1922 specimens feature a faint “D” mint mark or don’t have a mint mark at all. Naturally, they turn the heads of collectors, but care must be taken – would-be owners will want to confirm the mint mark was not deliberately removed.

1930s

The 1931 S wheat penny was the only one issued that year due to the impact of the Great Depression. It had a rather low mintage, and most of the coins were held in US Mint vaults due to low consumer interest. For this reason, 1931 S specimens are more like proof coins – the highest quality grade of coin issued by the mint. (Proof coins are struck twice instead of just once like regular coins. The extra strike gives the coins a much shinier, cleaner-looking finish and makes the fine details of the design pop. Most proofs can be identified by their mirror-like background.)

1936 brought the issuance of one of the first proof wheat pennies, except it had a satin finish that gave it an uncirculated appearance. A second strike was issued with a more brilliant finish. Both versions are sought after by collectors.

This 1943 copper wheat penny sold for $220 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Rare Treasures in Harrisburg, Pa. Image courtesy of Rare Treasures and LiveAuctioneers

1940s

The 1940s are notable for producing the greatest variety of wheat pennies and the most error-strike coins. To reserve copper and tin for wartime needs, a zinc-coated steel wheat penny was issued for 1943 instead of the usual copper ones (which also included zinc and tin). About one billion were minted, making this issue not particularly valuable. However, a few dozen copper 1943 wheat pennies were struck from 1942 copper planchets, and these particular 1943 coins are extremely collectible.

Not surprisingly, the 1943 copper wheat penny is often forged. A favorite technique for producing a bogus specimen is removing the left side of the number “8” from a 1948 copper penny, or electroplating a 1943 steel penny with a thin layer of copper to pass it off as a full-copper issue.

By 1944, conditions had improved to the point that American mints resumed striking pennies from copper. Production of steel wheat pennies waned. As a result, the relatively small number of steel wheat pennies dated “1944” are the lead numismatic prizes from that year.

Also notable are 1944 copper wheat pennies with the “S-over-D” flaw. Some pennies minted in 1944 in Denver somehow ended up with an “S” mint mark, forcing the stewards of the mint to mechanically remove the “S” and replace it with a “D.” This type of error coin typically sells well at auction.

A double-die strike 1955 wheat penny sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Premier Auction House in Englewood, Fla.
Image courtesy of Premier Auction House, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

1950s

The final decade of the wheat penny was relatively quiet, yielding few variations of note. One worth discussing is the 1955 double-die wheat penny, an error coin that displays the “shadow” appearance produced when a coin is accidentally struck twice with the same die. The effect is most visible in the motto “In God We Trust,” the date, and the word “Libert”’ on the obverse, or back, of the penny. Because of its notoriety, many counterfeits are sold to dealers and collectors and consigned to auctions.

What Collectors Look For

What we’ve discussed here are just the better-known varieties and errors of the wheat penny. The full range of variations and subtleties would keep a completist busy for a lifetime and beyond. As with most collectibles produced in massive numbers, condition comes first and foremost. The crispness and legibility of the date, the motto, the Lincoln profile, and the overall appearance of the coin affect a wheat penny’s value. So, too, do smaller details, such as the raised rim, the quality of the strike, the weight and composition of the coin, and the number of examples in circulation.

All production information for each wheat penny is available for public review at usmint.gov. Connect with other collectors online at the American Numismatic Association’s website: money.org.

The seemingly endless campaign to eliminate the one-cent piece from America’s currency will succeed at some point in time. Until then, it’s wise to stop and swap at the “take a penny, leave a penny” tray when you’re out shopping. A variety or error wheat penny just might be your reward.

World coins, commemoratives offered in online auction May 27

Collectible coins from around the globe – more than 300 lots – are offered in an online auction that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, May 27. Countries represented in the auction include Denmark, Korea, The Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Australia and China.

Cook Islands 2010 $20 three-ounce silver coin, depicting Viktor Vasnetzov’s ‘Three Bogatyrs,’ Masterpieces of Art Series. Estimate $550-$700. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Rare world coins to be tendered in online auction May 20

Nearly 350 lots of collectible coins are offered in a Jasper52 online auction that will take place Wednesday, May 20. The diversity of this auction is revealed with coins from the United States, Denmark, Korea, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Australia and beyond.

Kingdom of Persis, Vadfrad; ad I 3-early 2 cent, AR. Estimate: $2,500-$3,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

All-American coins to change hands in online auction Jan. 15

Good old American dollars and cents are on the block in an Exclusive Coins Auction that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, Jan. 15. The sale consists of nearly 100 lots of gold and silver dollars, commemorative gold coins and other scarce U.S. coins.

1878-S Liberty Head Double Eagle – Type 3, gold coin, condition: XF40. Estimate: $2,000-$2,500. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Heads up for gold coins in numismatic auction Oct. 1

U.S. gold coins stand out in a Jasper52 online numismatic auction that will be conducted on Tuesday, Oct. 1. The highlight of the 87-lot sale is a brilliant uncirculated 1878 Liberty Head $20 double eagle. The auction catalog also contains proof sets, silver certificates and commemoratives.

1878 U.S. Liberty Head $20 double eagle gold, BU++. Estimate: $3,000-$3,500. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Three ways to collect gold coins

NEW YORK – Gold shows off its attractive properties well in jewelry and watches. It’s also a key metal in medicine, electronics, science and even used in space exploration as reflective shielding because gold is malleable, noncorrosive, reflects heat well and it won’t rust or decay.

But gold is relatively scarce. In fact, all the gold mined in recorded history would reach only a third of the way up the Washington Monument, about 186,700 tons. That makes it a precious metal, enough for governments to buy and trade large ingots as part of a stable national economic policy. You can own gold for your own security, too, but because it has one of the heavier atomic weight of all precious metals, it must be acquired in smaller, more portable ways such as coins.

A 1-ounce gold Krugerrand gold coin sold for near spot price for $1,275 on July 21, but a 25 percent buyer’s premium placed it just over the spot price of $1,425. Image courtesy Antique Finders Service and LiveAuctioneers

Gold coins are classified in three categories: bullion, numismatic and commemorative.

Bullion Gold Coins

There is a reason why all the gold heists you see in the movies requires heavy equipment. Gold has an atomic weight of 79, one of the heavier of precious metals. A standard gold ingot weighs about 27 pounds or 400 troy ounces with a value of about $500,000, give or take. That’s fine for Fort Knox; not so great for your safety deposit box.

But because government central banks own most of the gold (the United States owns the most of any country at about 8,000 tons), they are able to mint national gold coins in stable weights that are certifiable and secure.

You can own gold ingots in smaller troy ounce sizes for portability or you can opt for the artistic design elements of brilliant, uncirculated, government-issue gold coins from one-quarter troy ounce to as high as five troy ounces of between 90 and 99.99% pure gold. They can be bought directly from any national mint, but it is better to buy from authorized dealers designated by the U.S. Mint, for example, for a small percentage over the daily spot price or at auction.

Bullion coins don’t circulate and so are always considered to be at the highest condition and are common, so it is unnecessary to have them professionally graded, unlike numismatic gold coins. The value of bullion coins is set by market forces determined by the buying and selling of gold on the open market on a daily basis, usually by central banks, large institutions and individual investors.

This 1904-S Liberty Head $20 gold coin is valued based on its somewhat imperfect condition and rarity that sold for $1,200 or near the spot price of gold. Image courtesy: Seized Assets Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Numismatic Gold Coins

Gold coins have been in circulation since at least 560 B.C. under King Croesus of Lydia in Bronze Age Asia Minor. Since that time, each historic age has had their national gold coins minted with their history, heroes, monuments, conquerors and kings. Holding a numismatic gold coin is to feel the weight of history.

These gold coins, known as numismatic, usually trade higher than the spot price of gold for several reasons usually defined as rarity, condition, age and historic significance. All these factors affect its final value.

Numismatic gold coins aren’t regulated by the ups and downs of the spot market based on intrinsic weight (although it’s a starting point). Collectors instead value numismatic gold coins based on history. Unlike bullion gold coins, numismatic gold coins have been circulated over time and are generally uncommon the longer ago they were minted. That’s why it is generally sound advice to have a numismatic gold coin professionally graded for rarity, age, condition and overall available quantity so as to provide a regulated basis for future value, especially for auction where values are usually set.

A gold coin representing Kanishka, an early emperor of the Kushan Dynasty from circa A.D. 400 that sold in February 2016 for $2,050 based more on its history than its intrinsic value of .28 of an ounce or about $400 of gold. Image courtesy Ancient Art & Antiques and LiveAuctioneers

Grading is usually from 0 to 70, the highest being without flaws. The lower grades, though, can still command higher auction values simply because of its rarity without regard to condition. That is the wonder of collecting numismatic gold coins. Bullion gold coins are considered only for investment while numismatic gold coins tell a great story.

Commemorative Gold Coins

Remembering an historic event, whether ancient or modern, is easily commemorated in the form of a gold coin. The U.S. Mint, for example, routinely mints many commemorative gold coins such as the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this year. Still, these gold coins are legal tender, usually uncirculated and, with some exceptions, are considered bullion despite its commemorative mint.

On the other hand, private mints produce commemorative gold coins in large volumes for special events such as a presidential inauguration. They are unregulated, are not legal tender and grading them is usually unnecessary as they are not considered numismatic. It is sometimes difficult to know whether the gold used is gold filled, gold plated or just an alloy with silver, perhaps. Yet, their cost is usually much higher than the cost of acquiring bullion gold coins and even higher than gold coins bought at auction.

When a privately minted commemorative gold coin is eventually sold out of a personal collection, the value would be in the intrinsic value of the gold it contains, not the commemorative event itself regardless of its original “limited edition” price paid for it. And that’s usually disappointing to the collector.

A proof set of three U.S. Bicentennial gold coins by the Franklin Mint that sold for $80, no doubt a fraction of its selling price in 1976. Notice that there is only 6 grams of 500/1000 gold. 
Image courtesy Midwest Auction Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Still, commemorating a special event in a gold coin that has special personal meaning makes a great memory, too. Just understand that their value over time is limited relative to bullion or numismatic gold coins.

Fakes, scams and forgeries

As long as gold coins have circulated, counterfeiters have had a field day trying to pass off lower levels of gold in a coin as the real thing. One way to accomplish this is by using tungsten as a base metal (the closest in density to gold), minting it into a recognizable coin, and adding a small layer of pure gold overall. The weight is similar to an authentic gold coin if not subjected to a higher level of professional scrutiny. Coins from the Middle East, China and North Korea, for example, account for some of the highest gold counterfeits circulating today.

One way to quickly detect a counterfeit gold coin is through its manufacture. If the details are somewhat uneven, incorrect in its original design or missing altogether, chances are the coin is a counterfeit. National mints pride themselves on the extremely high quality of their design and manufacture.

Collecting gold coins is great for investment, for history and even for personal memories. Just be sure to understand the complexities of each as your collection grows.

How to identify fake gold coins

NEW YORK – Ever since the first gold coins were produced in Lydia, in present day western Turkey, in the sixth century B.C., counterfeiters have been at work in what has been called the world’s second oldest profession.

The first gold coins were made from electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver found in the region’s rivers. The coins typically showed a picture of a lion or bull on the face and a punch mark or seal on the other side. They weighed from 17.2 grams (0.55 troy ounces) to as little as 0.2 grams (.006 troy ounces). The introduction of these coins to the masses is said to have been by the Lydian King Croesus (561-547 B.C.). Improvements in refining soon led to the distinct minting of gold coins.

The detail on this counterfeit 1877 $2.50 Liberty gold coin (left) shows limited sharpness throughout. It was identified and properly represented by the auctioneer as a counterfeit and sold for $190. An original 1877 $2.50 Liberty gold coin is pictured on the right and can sell for twice that amount. Image courtesy Affiliated Auctions, GovernmentAuction and LiveAuctioneers.com

Earlier coinage consisted of ingots of silver before base metal coins were introduced for wider circulation. Pure silver coins were reserved for higher denominations.

The common method for making counterfeit coins has changed little over the centuries. Take a base metal, cover it seamlessly with a precious metal – gold or silver – then die stamp it using a forged engraving of an authentic coin. Then use the debased coin, or fourrée (French for “stuffed”), at face value in regular commercial transactions.

The counterfeiter can also create fourrées by making a clay or ceramic mold of an original coin, then pour the alloy, create the coin, then cover with a thin veneer of precious metal using a “fire gilding” process that involves dissolving mercury to adhere the gold to the base metal. Early silver ingots were also counterfeited the same way.

An example of a counterfeit silver clad Roman coin for Emperor Domitian over a copper alloy, called a fourrée, French for ‘stuffed.’ Image courtesy: Wikipedia.com

While counterfeiting can be successful, the penalties for being caught were rather extreme. Besides disrupting trade in general, counterfeiting was considered to be a personal offense against the state and the emporer. During Roman times, for example, a counterfeiter could be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias, loosely translated as being fed to the lions during festival days. Death by hanging for counterfeiters was still common in 17th and 18th century Europe.

A third century A.D. clay mold for counterfeiting an early Roman coin. Image courtesy: By Geni and Wikipedia.com

Gold coins are still being counterfeited, according to of industry studies. A recent study of the 50 most commonly counterfeited U.S. coins by the Numismatic Guaranty Corp., an industry grading company, 43 are gold coins of different eras. And that’s a concern for collectors.

While detecting counterfeits is getting easier in the age of electronics, counterfeiting is still a game of numbers. In 2016, Deutsche Bundesbank, the central bank of the Federal Republic of Germany, reported finding 33,000 counterfeit Euro coins, but only 1,570 precious metal ones. This begs the question: How many others did they miss?

For gold coins it’s getting more difficult to know for sure. Counterfeiters have employed science to help. They have found a particular alloy that replicates a similar density of gold as an alloy in the center. They then cover this alloy with a respectable layer of gold and die stamps them with a counterfeit example of the original. The alloy of choice for gold coins is tungsten. Gold and tungsten are close in density. For that reason, a thin layer of pure gold over tungsten is the ideal combination for counterfeiters because the overall weight is very close. Tungsten has a face value of about one-third of gold per ounce, which makes producing a counterfeit cost effective.

So how do you determine if your gold coin is a counterfeit or not? Biting it won’t work. That was something early gold miners might have done to distinguish the soft gold from the hard pyrite, but otherwise has no relevance as a reliable test. After all, if you have a proof gold coin, for example, biting it, drilling into it, carving a piece out of it to examine, or otherwise removing it from its original plastic slab to test would devalue the coin. You could weigh it, but if the scale isn’t properly balanced or doesn’t weigh past two decimal places, it would be hard to detect if an alloy such as tungsten is being used.

The other, less intrusive way is to examine the coin details. Check that the date is consistent with official production records along with its official weight, diameter and thickness. Under magnification small details such as sloppy lettering, the use of a wrong typeface for numbers and letters, misspelled or missing words, unusual or missing design features, rim or edgings that are spaced incorrectly or missing altogether, and other obvious defects like foundry marks will show up clearly.

One of the ways to quickly determine a counterfeit is by its details, such as this obviously unskilled attempt to replicate the detail along the rim of a coin. Image courtesy: By Peterlewis and Wikipedia.com

Other more professional methods include a gravity balance test, the use of an x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy using ultraviolet light to measure the electrons, and a device that measures electrical conductivity consistent with gold and any other metals that might be present. All the tests are done with no harm to the coin and usually in their original packaging. Ask a respected local coin or bullion dealer for assistance.

Where are these counterfeit gold coins originating? According to several respected coin and bullion dealers, many of the counterfeit gold coins are being produced in China, among other places. One longtime dealer simply will not accept any gold coins from Iran, for example, knowing that most of their gold coins may be counterfeit. And yet, collecting obvious or suspected counterfeits is another collecting category that can be both a learning experience and an interesting look at the history of gold coinage, without the premium intrinsic value. Even the British Museum has a large collection of ancient and modern counterfeits in its official inventory.

The rule of thumb is to always associate with respected dealers and auction houses when adding gold coins or bullion to your collection. Once a counterfeit is verified, the coin is usually confiscated and destroyed with no recourse for the collector. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, cautious is as cautious does.

Collector’s guide to Morgan silver dollars

The Morgan Silver Dollar is considered the most widely collected and traded coin minted by the United States. Named for its British-born engraver, George T. Morgan (1845-1925), the Morgan Dollar was minted from 1878 to 1904 and once again in 1921. Total mintage was near 657 million. About half of all the Morgan Dollars have been melted down as silver bullion since 1918. Even with that taken into account, there are still approximately 275 million such coins in existence, so in terms of supply, there definitely isn’t a shortage.

The 1893S Morgan Dollar is known as the ‘King of the Morgan Dollar’ because of its rarity. Image courtesy: LiveAuctioneers and Silver Towne Auctions

Description

  • Years minted: 1878 to 1904 and 1921
  • Measurements: 1.5 inches in diameter (38.1 mm); 2.4 mm thick
  • Composition: 90 percent silver, 10 percent copper
  • Weight: 26.73 grams
  • Obverse: half profile of “Liberty,” motto “E Pluribus Unum” above, seven six-pointed stars around the left edges to the date and six six-pointed stars around the edge after the date
  • Reverse: eagle with wings standing upright holding arrows and olive branches, motto “United States of America” around the top edge, olive branches stretching under each wing under the eagle, “One Dollar” around bottom edge with one six-pointed star separating the mottos.
  • Edging: Reeded edging
  • Mint Marks: None (Philadelphia Mint), CC (Carson City), D (Denver), O (New Orleans), S (San Francisco); placed on reverse between bottom of olive branch and motto “One Dollar”

The Most Common

Most Morgan Silver Dollars are considered to be common at an uncirculated grade or Grade 50 or less because of the high mintage, particularly the 1921 Morgan Dollar, those minted at the San Francisco Mint of 1880-1882 and those minted at the Carson City Mint of 1882-1884 in grades up to 66. New Orleans minted coins are known to have been minted indifferently, with generally poor strikes. The 1878 mintage was made with different dies.

The 1921 Morgan Silver Dollar is the most common U.S. silver dollar, with nearly 90 million minted at the Philadelphia, San Francisco and the Denver Mints. Image courtesy: LiveAuctioneers and Premier Auction House Inc.

The Most Scarce

Only one 1889-CC Morgan in its original GSA holder has been found to date. (The U.S. General Services Administration was responsible for sorting and marketing the U.S. Treasury’s hoard of silver dollars after the Treasury ceased issuing dollar coins. In a series of sales lasting from 1973 to 1980, this hoard of several million silver dollars, mostly Morgan Dollars minted at Carson City, was dispersed via auction and fixed prices in plastic holders with a black insert—today known as GSA holders.) The 1895 Morgan Dollar, “The King of the Morgan Dollar,” exists only as a proof. Only about 100,000 1893-S Morgan silver dollars were originally minted, with an unknown number in existence [post meltdowns].

What Collectors and Dealers Look For

When taking a coin to a dealer or collector, do not clean it with solvents or scrub it. Just remove obvious loose dirt or grime. The date should be as clear as possible, since that will be the first thing that needs to be checked.

If it is a precious metal coin (bullion), then the content will be tested and weighed to ensure it corresponds to the official percentage of metal as determined by the Mint and to ascertain whether the coin has a historical value or a melt value. If the coin is destined for melt value, each dealer will quote a percentage of the official spot price of the precious metal for that day, usually 90% or less.

Next, condition will determine whether it is a collectible coin that can easily be resold. Coloring, normal wear from circulation, toning, “bag marks,” scratches and large marks will detract from the final value. The better the condition, the better the chances of the coin being bought. A grade will be assigned to the coin based on condition from 1 (poor) to 70 (uncirculated).

The last step will be the mint mark, which indicates the U.S. Mint facility where the coin was minted. Certain mints are more collectible than others of the same type of coin, based on how many were minted in total from each mint. Any mint mark can add or detract from the final value.

While examining the coin, the dealer/collector will be looking for any error marks that were added by the Mint accidentally during the minting process or any parts of the design that appear to be missing. That could affect the final value.

The dealer will then look up how many were minted for circulation based on the mint mark and determine the demand for that particular coin from that particular mint.

The final value will be determined as a percentage from an industry publication called the Grey Sheet, which updates the values of coins on a consistent basis (individuals can review the Red Book to get a sense of recent value). Each dealer/collector has a different value for each coin they buy.

The 1895 Morgan Dollar is one of is one of the scarcer U.S. silver dollars, with only 862,000 minted at the Philadelphia (only 12,000 minted), New Orleans and San Francisco Mints as proofs. Image courtesy: LiveAuctioneers and Regency-Superior Ltd

Resources and Alphabetical Glossary

Condition: the overall quality of a coin as judged against others of its type. Key factors affecting condition include: the number of marks, abrasions, cuts and wear. The fewer the number of exceptions to condition, the higher the value is.

Demand: With any given coin, the more there are in circulation, the less interest there will be for collectors to add one to their collection or for dealers to add one to their inventory.

Error marks are generally design flaws such as double strikes, chips, missing designs, wrong obverse or reverse, missing date, and anything that doesn’t belong.

Grading: based on condition of the coin overall, grades are generally; 1 (P-poor), 2 (F-fair), 3 (AG-about good), 4-6 (G-good), 8-10 (VG-very good), 12-15 (F-fine), 20-35 (VF-very fine), 40-45 (XF of EF-extremely fine), 50-58 (AU-almost uncirculated), 60-70 (UNC-uncirculated). Commercial grading companies include Professional Coin Grading Service (www.pcgs.com) and Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (www.ngccoin.com).

Grey Sheet (www.greysheet.com): an industry subscription service that updates coin values on a monthly basis.

Historical value: a coin whose value is more collectible than the metal it contains.

Melt value: For coins minted in precious metal such as silver, gold and platinum, it is possible that the mintage was so high that the value is more in the metal content than the historical value of the coin itself. This applies mostly to silver coins, but other precious-metal coins in poor condition might also qualify.

Mint mark: The exact same coin may have a higher value than another similar coin if a particular official government mint produced a smaller quantity of them for circulation.

Mintage: the official quantity of coins released into circulation or as commemoratives; the lower the number, the more valuable the coin is to collectors.

Obverse: the “heads” of the coin, usually is a profile of a historical figure or person.

Red Book: a consumer publication known as A Guide Book of United States Coins by Whitman’s Publishing LLC that updates coin values on a yearly basis.

Reeded edging: coin edging that has been ridged or milled when struck at this mint. Such features discourage slicing of edges to remove some of the precious metal.

Reverse: the “tails” of the coin, usually featuring an eagle or some other historical image

The US Dollar Coin: 500 Years in the Making

Liberty, Eagle, Morgan, Peace, Eisenhower and Sacagawea are a few of the better-known US dollar coins. Most are silver, but some are gold, while others are just “golden” in color. But to trace the origin of dollar coins, we must go back 500 years to a small town in Bohemia.

First, there was the Joachimsthaler …

By 1518, the Counts of Shlick in the town of Joachimsthal in the Kingdom of Bohemia were mining their own silver to create the Joachimsthaler, their own local silver coin. As the coin caught on elsewhere, it became known simply as a “thaler.” Over time,”‘thaler” was translated as “dollar,” which became the official currency adopted by the new United States and eventually by at least 20 other countries as far afield as Hong Kong, Australia and Liberia.

An early example of an original Dutch Thaler that stabilized the weight of silver, eventually becoming the dollar. Courtesy: LiveAuctioneers and Captain Ahab’s Antiques

Then, the ‘Piece of Eight’

Just as the US dollar is the most ubiquitous currency today, the Spanish dollar, or “piece of eight,” was the world’s currency beginning in 1598 and remained legal tender in the United States until 1857. It was equal to the thaler in size and weight but was more accessible. During the colonial era, England insisted that the colonies supply them with silver and reduced its silver coinage accordingly. The Spanish dollar filled the void until the Coinage Act of 1792 changed all that.

The United States adopts a currency

Once the US Constitution was adopted, the new Congress was able to provide more economic stability in the national economy through its standardized coinage. President George Washington signed the Coinage Act of 1792, which officially adopted the dollar as the national currency within a decimal system, making the United States the first country to do so.

Mint marks were added to coins to show which US Mint produced them. Initially, there were nine US Mints, beginning with Philadelphia (no mint mark until 1980 when P was used). Subsequent marks were: C for Charlotte, North Carolina; D for Dahlonega, Georgia (1838-1861); O for New Orleans; S for San Francisco; CC for Carson City, Nevada; D for Denver (1906-present); M for Manila, The Philippines; and W for West Point, New York.

Silver Dollars Were the First

A total of eight silver dollars have been issued by the US Mints since 1794, with the American Eagle being the most recent.

The first dollar minted after the Coinage Act of 1792, this Flowing Hair Dollar example sold for $1,800 in 2012. Courtesy: LiveAuctioneers and Kennedys Auction Service LLC

Flowing Hair Dollar (1794-1795; no mint mark)

The Flowing Hair Dollar was the first official dollar coin minted in the United States under the Coinage Act of 1792. It was intended to equal the Spanish Dollar in size and weight. It became known as the Flowing Hair Dollar in reference to Liberty’s long hair that flowed past her shoulders, as designed by Chief Engraver Robert Scot. The coin’s composition was 90% silver (more than the 89.2% was required per the Coinage Act of 1792) and 10% copper. Only 1,758 of these silver dollars were hand-pressed in 1794, with an additional 160,000 or so minted in 1795, the last year of production. There is no mint mark.

The Draped Bust Dollar (1795-1803; no mint mark)

Lady Liberty was featured on the obverse with flowing hair to the shoulders showing a more open bust draped with cloth, as was the fashion of the day. It’s said that the model was from a portrait, possibly by Gilbert Stuart, of socialite Ann Willing Bingham, but it is not certain. The reverse is characterized by a small eagle on coins that were minted from 1795 to 1798 and a more majestic heraldic eagle on those examples minted from 1798 through 1803. The composition returned to the original official composition of 89.2% silver and 10.8% copper authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792. There is no mint mark. Silver dollars were no longer minted after 1806. There was a Draped Bust Dollar with an 1804 mint date, but it was actually struck in 1835 and intended only for official overseas gifts as part of commemorative sets. None were circulated, and only six are known to exist.

Gobrecht Dollar (1836-1839; no mint mark)

Named for engraver Christian Gobrecht, the Gobrecht Dollar was the first silver coin to be reissued (in 1836) since the discontinuation of the Draped Bust Dollar in 1806. The design was a sitting Lady Liberty with a composition of 89.2% silver and 10.8% copper, as authorized by Congress in 1792. One of the rarest US dollars minted (about 1,000 may have been minted), the engraver’s name appeared prominently at first under Liberty, but later was reduced and finally eliminated altogether. It was discontinued in 1839, and is worthy of note that all Gobrecht Dollars struck in 1837 bore an 1836 date. There were restrikes in 1859 and 1860 that would show the eagle on the reverse flying straight rather than forward when tilted on its axis.

This design by Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht shows Liberty seated for the first time. It was minted with two different reverses. The earlier version is shown here. Courtesy: Wikipedia, US Mint and Heritage Auctions

Seated Liberty Dollar (1840-1873; no mint mark, O)

In 1840 a new silver dollar was minted with a seated Liberty engraved by Christian Gobrecht. It’s composition returned to the 90% silver and 10% copper of the earlier Flowing Hair Dollar and were struck at the Philadelphia Mint until 1846 when production included the New Orleans Mint (O), the San Francisco Mint (S) and the Carson City Mint (CC) after 1858. In 1866, the motto “In God We Trust” was added to the Seated Liberty Dollar for the first time. Production ended in 1873.

Trade Dollar (1873-1885; no mint mark, CC, S)

The Coinage Act of 1873 stopped production of circulating silver dollars, putting the country firmly on the gold standard, where it would remain until 1971. A Trade Dollar was instead minted for use as currency, primarily for payment in trade to China and the Far East. It did circulate in the US as a coin for business transactions, but was unpopular because it traded for less than the $1 face value due to the low value of silver and was legal tender only up to $5. The circulation of Trade Dollars ended in 1878, with only proofs officially produced until 1883 (10 dated 1884 and 5 dated 1885 weren’t discovered until much later).

So named for Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan who, in 1878, designed the first circulating silver dollar since the Seated Liberty Dollar was discontinued in 1873. Courtesy: Wikipedia and Brandon Grossardt

Morgan Dollar (1878-1904, 1921; struck with no mint mark or with CC, S, O, or D)

Silver interests prevailed in returning the US to a silver coin with the Bland-Allison Act of 1878. It authorized the minting the first new legal tender silver coins for circulation since 1873. Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan designed a Liberty Head on the obverse from a profile of Anna Willess Williams of Philadelphia, and an eagle and olive branch design on the reverse. It remained in circulation through 1904 and was again minted in 1921. It was the longest-circulating of all US silver coins.

Peace Dollar (1921-1928; 1934-1935; struck with no mint mark or with D or S)

With the passage of the Pittman Act of 1918, silver interests again prompted government to strike a new silver dollar coin at a fixed price of $1 an ounce. About 270 million new silver coins were minted overall in the form of a Peace Dollar. So named for the word “Peace” under the bald eagle resting on a branch on the reverse, it symbolized the end of World War I in 1918. The coin’s designer, Anthony de Francisci used his wife, Teresa, as the model for Liberty on the obverse. Production was interrupted in 1928 until a new Congressional act allowed for additional coins, about 7 million, to be struck in 1934 and 1935, after which the dies were destroyed.

American Silver Eagle (1986-present; no mint mark for bullion, P, S, W for proof sets)

Although this new American Silver Eagle was minted at three US Mints (Philadelphia, San Francisco and West Point), no mint marks were added for the bullion strike (bullion coins were kept mostly for trade). Only the proof sets that were bought by collectors were struck with mint marks. From 2006 to 2008 and again in 2011, a series of uncirculated coins was struck with the W mint mark. Special Issues such as the “Philadelphia Set” of 1993, the “Legacies of Freedom” set of 2004 and 10 other different commemorative sets included the American Silver Eagle coin. A 2008 version was struck on a 2007 die and is considered a rare error coin.

1964-D Peace Dollar (1964-1965; D)

A reissue of the Peace Dollar in 1964 was intended as a new circulating dollar coin, but objections were raised that the coin was intended mostly for collectors and was therefore a waste of Mint resources if it didn’t circulate. About 316,000 of the new silver dollars were minted in Denver, but they were withdrawn and subsequently melted down. No known example is said to exist (a private mint later struck a base-metal commemorative one).

Dollar Coins Struck in Gold

Only three gold dollar coin designs were struck for circulation in the United States, and only between 1849 and 1889 (commemoratives were struck between 1909 and 1922, but never circulated). Each was minted in 90% gold (about .048 a troy oz) and 10% copper measuring only about a half-inch in diameter.

Liberty Head (1849-1854; struck with no mint mark or with C, D, O, or S)

After much debate through the years, a gold coin was finally struck in 1849. Called “Type 1,” it was designed by engraver James B. Longacre to show Liberty with a coronet facing to the left and surrounded by 13 six-pointed stars. On the reverse was an olive wreath (some minted open at the top; others closed), the year 1849 and the legend “United States of America” and “1 DOLLAR” in all caps. There are five different design variations, one with an “L” for Longacre on the obverse.

Liberty is engraved as a small Indian Princess with a coronet known as ‘Type 2’ and minted in 1854. Courtesy: Wikipedia and US Mint

Indian Head (1854-1859 small head; struck with no mint mark or with C, D, O, or S)

This coin, called “Type 2,” is similar in pattern to the Liberty Head, except the obverse shows a small head of an Indian princess with a feathered coronet on the obverse, with the legend “United States of America” along the rim instead of the 13 six-pointed stars. The reverse shows a larger wreath of cotton, corn, tobacco and wheat rather than the previous olive branches.

Indian Head (1859-1889 large head; struck with no mint mark or with C, D, O, or S)

Known as “Type 3,” the last gold dollar coin in circulation featured an Indian princess with a larger, more fully developed head with a fuller feathered coronet on the obverse (face). The reverse was very similar to the ‘Type 2’ design, both from Engraver James B. Longacre.

Dollar Coins Struck in Base Metal

There were four distinctive dollar coins struck in base metal, the Eisenhower Dollar, the Susan B. Anthony Dollar, and the two gold-colored ones known as the Sacagawea Dollar and the Presidential Dollar. None have circulated well and were discontinued after a relatively short time.

The first base-metal circulating dollar honored President Dwight Eisenhower, who died in 1970. It features the Apollo 11 moon landing on the reverse. Courtesy: Wikipedia and Brandon Grossardt

Eisenhower Dollar (1971-1978; 1975-1976 Bicentennial; struck with no mint mark or with D or S)

Newly authorized in 1970, a new circulating dollar coin featured a profile of President Dwight D. Eisenhower by engraver Frank Gasparro with the phrase “In God We Trust” on the obverse (a national motto adopted in 1956 during Eisenhower’s Administration).

On the reverse was a tribute to the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 (Eisenhower had created NASA in 1958). The design was based on the NASA mission patch depicting an eagle clutching an olive branch near the surface of the moon, except for the years 1975-1976 when a Liberty Bell design was substituted to celebrate the US Bicentennial.

The coin was a relatively large size at 1.5 inches and difficult for consumers and merchants to use. As a result, it was unpopular, except at casinos. There are silver and proof sets that collectors know as “blue Ike” (encased in a blue US Treasury presentation box) and “brown Ike” (encased in a brown presentation box with a silver Great Seal-type logo).

Susan B. Anthony Dollar (1979-1981, 1999; P, D, S)

A new dollar design was favored over the cumbersome Eisenhower Dollar with the image of 19th-century women’s rights advocate and anti-slavery activist Susan B. Anthony. Frank Gasparro was chosen to engrave her image on the new coin.

The new coin would be only about an inch in diameter, just a shade bigger than a circulating quarter, and thus was often confused by consumers. The reverse continued the Apollo 11 tribute from the previous Eisenhower Dollar, sparking criticism that it had no relevance to Susan B. Anthony at all. The coin had a unique 11-sided border. Overall, the coin was not well received and was used mostly by the post office, mass transit authorities and the vending machine industry.

The 1981 strike of this coin is more valuable because it was issued mostly for collectors. The 1999 proof series and some 1979 and 1981 mint marks are also of collector interest.

Sacagawea Dollar (2000-present; P, D, S, W)

It is nicknamed “the golden dollar” because of the shiny gold-colored manganese brass that covers the mostly copper coin. The obverse features a three-quarter profile of Sacagawea, the Shoshone scout for the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific in 1804, as designed by artist Glenna Goodacre.

The reverse was a flying eagle design with a wide spread-wing design by Thomas Rogers. This coin design (with a smooth edge) would be in circulation from 2000 to 2008. From 2009 to the present, the reverse would feature a new design each year depicting Native-American life by different artists with a lettered edge of stars, the motto “E Pluribus Unum” and the strike date.

As with the earlier base metal dollar coins, the Sacagawea Dollar was not popular in circulation even with a mass marketing program by the US Mint (even giving them away in boxes of cereal as prizes). However, they have proved useful for fare boxes and the vending machine industry.

Presidential $1 Coin Program (2007-2016; P, D)

Another “golden dollar” with a similar composition of manganese brass over mostly copper as the Sacagawea Dollar featured each of the presidents of the United States in order of election beginning with George Washington. The entire series lasted until the Ronald Reagan presidential coin was struck in 2016 (living persons are not featured on coins), after which the program was discontinued. Coins struck from 2012 (Chester A. Arthur) were minted only for collectors.

The reverse featured the State of Liberty by engraver Don Everhart with the motto “United States of America” and “$1.” Edging included the year, mint mark, 13 stars, and the legend “E Pluribus Unum” or “In God We Trust” from 2007-2009. Some Washington and John Adams dollars were missing the edging or had double edging, but there are relatively few, making them highly collectible.