Grading Mercury Dimes (1916-1945)
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A favorite with hobbyists for generations, the Winged Head Liberty dime series is a fun one to collect. The misnomer "Mercury" was applied by the press at the time of this coin's debut in 1916 and has obviously stuck. So prevalent is its usage in the numismatic field that I'll continue to use it here for the sake of simplicity.
Circulated examples of the Mercury dime can be tricky to grade, especially in the lower grades. It seems that these coins just don't wear in a pattern that exactly matches the illustrations and descriptions in popular grading guides, such as the excellent book The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins. When preparing the grading chapter for my own book on Mercury dimes, I found that I was consistently unable to replicate the obverse/reverse conditions found in the conventional grading guides. On any given circulated coin grading Very Fine (VF-20) or lower, its reverse was always more worn than its obverse. For example, a dime whose obverse graded Good (G-4) according to the grading guides would have a reverse that graded just About Good (AG-3) or somewhere in between About Good and Good.
This problem was so consistent in the dozens of dimes I examined that I decided to take a chance by adjusting my own grading guide to match what I was seeing in the coins themselves. Since most collectors and dealers are more concerned by the appearance of a coin's obverse (as that's the side displayed face-up inside a holder or album), I elected to use the existing standards for the obverse grades and lower slightly the standards for the reverse grades in my book. As a result of my publishing this revised set of standards, a number of conservative collectors and dealers took me to task for my actions. Whatever the criticism, however, I stand by my conviction that the existing grading guides are unrealistic in their standards for circulated Mercury dimes.
In contrast to worn examples, mint state Mercury dimes are relatively simple to grade. These small and lightweight coins suffered much less from contact with others than did the larger and heavy denominations. As a result, uncirculated Mercury dimes will typically grade MS-63 or higher. Those that don't achieve at least a grade of MS-63 have usually suffered some form of mishandling by hobbyists, such as cleaning or careless storage.
There are exceptions, of course. Some Mercury dimes were struck from extremely worn dies that produced such diffused luster that these coins may grade as low as MS-60 despite being in otherwise nice condition. This is often seen in San Francisco Mint dimes of the late 1910s and ‘20s. The 1920s also witnessed the minting of dimes at the Denver and San Francisco Mints that were so poorly struck that their extreme lack of detail warrants grades in the MS-60 to MS-62 range.
In fact, quality of strike can be a critical factor in determining the grade of a Mercury dime. It's well known by dealers and most collectors that Mercury dimes exhibiting fully split and raised central bands on the fasces are typically valued more highly than those on which the bands are either flat or merely separated without being raised. The premium attached to dimes having full bands varies from one issue to another. For example, a 1945 Denver Mint dime with full bands is common, while its Philadelphia Mint counterpart of that date is a major rarity.
Ironically, some issues such as the 1921 Philadelphia Mint dimes are typically seen with full bands but with weakly struck peripheral elements, such as the date and the legend LIBERTY. It is best for collectors and dealers to familiarize themselves with the nuances of each individual issue in this series. Grading services such as Numismatic Guaranty Corporation distinguish between Mercury dimes that have full bands and those that do not. The designation FB follows the grade for coins having fully split and raised bands.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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