USA Coin Album: Coins of the 1950s — Part 2

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 10/15/2013

Last month, David revealed some of the conditions that led to such poor quality coins being struck by the US Mints during the 1950s. This time, he’ll describe some of the issues associated with specific cents from those years.

The mintage figures for cents ranged from the tens of millions to more than a billion as the decade drew to a close. In addition, this was the era of speculative hoarding of Uncirculated cent rolls, and this activity even extended to the saving of entire $50 bags of new cents by the late 1950s. Thus, there are no rarities for these years, with gem, fully red cents being plentiful for each issue. For decades collectors typically were satisfied with obtaining any bright red example of each date/mint combination to fill their albums, and the certification and encapsulation of Lincoln cents from the 1950s was almost unknown. When my book on Lincoln cents was published in 1996, I made the remark for most of these dates that examples were readily available in all grades. By that I meant that coins grading MS 65 or 66 RD (red) could be found with a bit of searching, as the notion of Lincoln cents grading any higher was inconceivable at the time.

The market changed dramatically in the late 1990s, due in no small part to the introduction of “bulk” certification by the grading companies. This permitted the “slabbing” of coins whose value in MS 65 RD condition was not sufficient to justify the standard grading fees, as dealers could now get roll and bag quantities encapsulated at less than $10 per coin. This created a market for slabbed, modern Lincoln cents, and it also sparked a race to obtain the highest graded pieces available.

The past 15 years or so have thus seen the emergence of huge premiums for the top certified Lincoln cents, with dates that are common in MS 65 RD bringing high prices in grades of MS 67 or 68 RD. Since market grading does not place much emphasis on a coin’s die state or sharpness of strike, some of these very highly graded coins may reveal the technical deficiencies so common to the 1950s. It’s ironic that San Francisco Mint cents often get very high grades when it’s their blurry details and resulting frosty luster that makes them so pleasing to the eye (the heavy die erosion lines found on such cents aid somewhat in obscuring any small marks that may be present). In my estimation this is a superficial beauty, and I’m more inclined to seek sharply struck coins from fresh dies that may have more evident marks and thus lower numeric grades, but mine seems to be the minority opinion.

In addition to the blurriness seen on most Uncirculated S-Mint cents dated 1950-54 (the 1955-S cents were massively hoarded, and they also seem to have been more carefully made), there are other issues with the Lincoln cents of the 1950s. Due to poor quality control with the cent and nickel blanks the mints received from commercial suppliers, certain dates of each denomination are notorious for being rather dark in color. It’s more of a problem with the nickels, but one cent that often is found with an odd color is the 1954 Philadelphia Mint issue (one of only three cent issues from the 1950s to have a mintage under 100 million pieces, this date was a darling of speculators, and it was the only cent dated 1940 and later that I couldn’t find in circulation during the ‘60s). It’s not that hard to find one with normal color, given the many thousands saved Uncirculated, but quite a few will have a darker, antiqued bronze finish as made.

Another frequent flaw in 1950s cents is chipping of the dies. It seems that one of the many short cuts taken during these years of cost cutting by the mints involved the die hardening process. The lettering on Lincoln cents is necessarily small and closely spaced, and this resulted in pieces of the die steel breaking away either between two letters or numerals or between the motto IN GOD WE TRUST and the top of Lincoln’s head. This sort of die chipping may be found for most dates in the series before the 1970s, but it is more prevalent in the 1950s than in any other decade. The most familiar trouble spot concerns the letters BE of LIBERTY. The narrow strip of raised steel between these letters broke away with some frequency, resulting in that area of the die filling with what appeared to be letters BIE. This flaw exists for nearly all date/mint combinations in the 1950s, with some issues having it on multiple dies. These coins developed a cult following among collectors that prompted the publication of a book and the creation of a club devoted to BIE varieties during the early 1960s.

While BIE cents have since fallen out of favor, another very popular area of collecting that remains with us concerns the numerous repunched mintmark varieties of the 1950s. The Denver Mint cents in particular are known for a dozen or more such varieties for several dates, and they can bring good premiums in Mint State grades.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.