Grading Indian Cents (1859-1909)
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The Indian Head cent was an American icon for generations, in rare instances circulating as late as the 1950s. After several decades of relative inactivity, these coins have enjoyed renewed popularity in the past dozen years or so. With greater demand for Indian Head cents has come higher values and greater concern about grading.
In circulated grades, this issue is not so complex, as the descriptions and photographs in The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins are clear enough that anyone somewhat familiar with coins can easily interpret them. The biggest issue is how to deal with coins that have been cleaned or damaged. NGC does not certify coins that bear obvious signs of cleaning, whether chemical or abrasive in nature. Damaged and altered coins likewise are rejected for encapsulation. Still, such coins do exist and will continue to be traded. For such pieces an alternative exists in the form of NCS certification. NGC's companion company will provided either details-only grading, with a notation of the problem condition, or simple authentication at the submitter's discretion.
The values for Indian Head cents are such that many collectors can complete all or most of the set in uncirculated condition. Browsing through certified population figures, it seems that most dates are readily available in the lower mint-state grades. Some factors, however, tend to keep down the population of high-grade pieces, particularly for dates before about 1897. Early Indian Head cents, struck in an alloy of .880 copper and .120 nickel, were heavy and clumsy in their proportions, and their contact with one another often produced dire consequences. Nicks and abrasions are not as big an issue for the later Indian Head cents struck in bronze, since their light weight limited the amount of damage inflicted.
As made, most coins of this type had attractive luster, though some may have lost theirs through prolonged exposure to harsh environments or because of inexpert cleaning. Quality of strike also comes into play for early dates, such as the copper-nickel issues of 1859-64, as well as some later bronze issues after about 1890. This is factored into the grading of these coins, and some allowance is made for dates that typically are a bit softly struck.
Another element in the grading of bronze cents is the amount of mint red color a coin has retained (copper-nickel cents are not distinguished by color, though this can factor into their overall grade). NGC adds to the grade of every copper or bronze coin the suffix BN for "Brown," RB for "Red and Brown," and RD for "Red."
The meaning of these terms is largely self-explanatory, but how and when they're applied is worthy of some comment. BN designates a coin that shows little or no mint red or has a non-red color such as the charming green or blue tones sometimes seen. To be designated RD, a coin must show nearly all of its original color, though this may be mellowed a bit. Those cents which fall between these extremes are labeled RB. While the percentages are subjective to some degree, in actual practice this labeling has proved remarkably consistent.
There's clearly a lot to think about when considering the grade of an Indian Head cent. With the popularity of these coins showing no sign of diminishing, accurate grading will remain a key factor in determining their value and appeal.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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