USA Coin Album: It’s an Error to Call a Variety an Error

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 5/10/2011

In this month's column, David addresses confusion about what constitutes an error versus a variety.

One of my roles at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation is to attribute varieties of United States coins. Something I’ve observed repeatedly is that many submitters don’t seem to distinguish between die varieties and mint errors. Since my colleague at NGC, David Camire, attributes the latter, we are frequently swapping boxes of coins that were directed to the wrong party. I can’t tell for certain whether the submitters intentionally mix the two categories or simply can’t comprehend the difference. Just in case there remains some confusion about what constitutes an error versus a variety, I will address that very subject in this month’s column.

The simplest distinction is that a mint error is a random occurrence that is not the result of some irregularity in the dies as created. It may be the result of a damaged or improperly installed die, or it may be caused also by a flawed planchet or mis-feed in the coin press. In other words, the dies used begin their lives as normal in all respects and remain so unless some calamity befalls them. A variety, in contrast, results from some oddity in the dies as made, such as a repunched date or mintmark, a misspelled word, a doubled die, a simple slip of the graver or some other such irregularity that is inherent in the dies as made.

Another way to distinguish between categories is that a variety repeats itself on each and every coin made from the die pair, while a mint error may occur with one coin and then not be seen on subsequent strikes. The exception to this general rule is when the error coin reflects some lasting damage to the die that prevents a normal striking of the incoming planchets. One extremely popular example of a repeating error is known as a “brockage.” This occurs when a struck coin adheres to one die and then becomes the mate to the other die. Subsequent coins will show two obverses or two reverses, the affected side having a transposed image from the coin stuck in place as acting as a die. This image is rapidly obliterated due to repeated compression of the coin. Since it is much softer than die steel, it will quickly become flattened until it either falls away or is removed by the press operator. If the die is deemed to be still serviceable, subsequent coins struck from it will appear normal.

Most mint errors are not repeating and will look different from one coin to the next. An exception to this rule, however, concerns dies that have had an area of their face broken away. A die crack that extends from one point at the edge of a die to another point may cause the entire portion outboard of this crack to break away. The metal of the incoming planchet fills this void, leaving a raised blob on the face of the resulting coin that is popularly called a “cud.” Though this actually represents a particular die state and is thus technically a variety (as the effect is repeating), such coins typically are sought more by mint error specialists. Exceptions are found among collectors of early USA coins, who are attracted to progressive die states resulting in such complete die failures. By and large, however, cuds are branded as mint errors, and they are attributed as such by NGC.

One interesting crossover coin that attracts both variety and error collectors is found in Volume One of The Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties, by Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton. Their listing FS-01-1983-401 is a 1983 cent that qualifies as both a variety and mint error. Raised letters IBE of LIBERTY appear in the obverse field at an odd angle due to an unknown cause, appealing to variety collectors. Whatever prompted this repeating feature evidently damaged the reverse die of this pair, as well, since a large cud formed partially obliterating the words ONE CENT. Thus, coins from these dies are widely sought by mint error collectors, too.

Until the 1960s, when numismatists first began to specialize in mint errors and truly study minting technology, all error coins and many variety coins were lumped together under the unflattering banner of “freaks.” Many such coins were simply pieces that had been damaged outside of the mint, and both readers and editors of numismatic publications scratched their heads over the attribution of these dubious rarities. Some legitimate errors and varieties attained great notoriety, such as the “BIE” varieties that resulted when the die steel between letters BE of LIBERTY on Lincoln cents chipped away. The filled area on subsequent coins appeared to be a letter I, and this type of variety was frequently seen on cents of the 1950s and early 1960s. So popular were BIE cents back then that books were dedicated to their cataloging, and a club was established for their collecting. Now considered common and of only minor interest to the better educated collectors of today, BIE cents are still submitted to NGC for attribution. As they add little or no value to the coin, they are not recognized by the company.

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