The Year in Modern Coins, Looking Back at 2011

Posted on 12/18/2011

Scott Schechter reviews new discoveries and new issues of modern US coinage in 2011.

2011 has been a very significant year for modern US coinage. A handful of new discoveries and new issues make that statement easy to prove. Here we’ll briefly discuss these coins and consider how they will rank relative to the coins included in the book 100 Greatest Modern U.S. Coins, which was released early in 2011.

One of the stated goals of 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins, the book that I co-authored with Jeff Garrett, was to stimulate discussion and interest in recently released US coinage issues, 1964 to date. We believe that the coins included in the book are of seminal importance to the area of modern coin collecting, yet new information changes our understanding of the coins that constitute the 100 Greatest. The lists looks different at the end of 2011 than it did at the beginning.

Proof 1975 No S Dime

Throughout the years, a handful of proof coins have been struck at San Francisco with the S mintmark omitted in error. All of them appear on the list of 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins, with the 1968 No S Roosevelt Dime garnering the number 3 spot. The 1975 dime, although first discovered and reported in 1977, had fallen back into the realm of “unconfirmed” by the time the 100 Greatest was published. Only two examples had been reported and neither had surfaced publicly since 1978, well over 30 years ago. We did mention this coin in the book, of course, during the discussion of the 1970 No S Roosevelt Dime (number 54): “If it does exist, the 1975 No-S dime is one of the great rarities of the 20th century and will assume a vaunted position on the list of 100 Greatest Modern U.S. Coins—likely the number one spot. But until it’s confirmed, it remains off the list.”

Well, in 2011, these two coins re-surfaced and we learned their full history. Both coins were discovered in the late 1970s by a single collector in California. After his discovery was confirmed, he sold both examples to dealer Fred Vollmer in separate transactions. Vollmer then placed them with two collectors in 1980. For 31 years, both coins, the only examples to ever come to light, have remained in their respective collections.

When an example at last sold at public auction in Stack’s-Bowers’ sale on August 18, 2011, it realized $349,600. As previously stated, it certainly deserves a lofty spot on the list of 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins.

2007 Frosted Freedom Proof Platinum Eagles

Each year the Mint changes the reverse design of the proof Platinum Eagles. In 2007, the design featured an eagle with outstretched wings behind a shield. Draped across the top of the shield is a banner inscribed with the word FREEDOM. On normal issue pieces, the word appears in mirror-finish, contrasting sharply with the frosted banner. In early 2011, a small number of preproduction strikes were made showing the entire design frosted including the word FREEDOM, thus giving this variety its name.

Mint officials said they had chosen to modify the coin’s design to make the word more readable. A small number of these prototype coins were inadvertently released to collectors. The total number of coins said to be available is as follows: $100 (1 ounce), 12 coins; $50 (1/2 ounce), 21 coins; $25 (1/4 ounce), 21 coins; $10 (1/10 ounce), none produced.

Because Platinum Eagles don’t enjoy the same popularity as some other series of modern coins, like Silver Eagles, and because the variety is a small variation on a one-year design type, this coin will likely never earn the high ranking that its rarity suggests it deserves. Based on those numbers alone, it should be a top 10 coin, but likely it will settle someplace higher. There is one coin that does appear on the list that is similar to these coins: the Cheerios Sacagawea Dollar (number 14). This is also technically a prototype coin that was released publicly.

2010-P Light Finish Grand Canyon 5-Ounce Silver Quarter

The legislation that authorized the America the Beautiful Quarters, the current circulating quarter dollars, included an unusual provision. Three inch versions of each coin, struck in five ounces of pure silver, were also to be produced. The complexity of creating this very novel coin meant that their production was much delayed. The forth issue made for collectors, the 2010 Grand Canyon issue, was actually released in July 2011.

Each of these coins was issued in a bullion version, without mintmark, and a specimen version for collectors was also made with P mintmark for Philadelphia. For each coin in the series, 27,000 pieces were produced. The specimen versions of these coins have a heavy matte or granular finish created by a relatively enigmatic mint process called vapor blasting. Variations in the blasting media or the blasting equipment settings caused the finishes of these coins to vary. In contrast to possessing a heavy granular surface, some examples could be seen with a soft satin finish, dubbed LIGHT FINISH.

It is estimated that a quarter of the mintage exhibits this light finish, around 7,000 pieces — so it’s a scarce item. Since the initial discovery, light finish examples of earlier issues have also been found. As the most widely available piece, the Grand Canyon coin is most apt to be collected in both formats, and likely will garner a spot on the top 100 list. There are no real comparables, as this is the first oversize coinage issues released by the US. Also, the finish variation makes this a rather atypical variety as well. We expect it to rank in the bottom quartile of a future compilation of the 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins.

Interestingly, the Mint quickly acknowledged these finish variations as a shortcoming of its equipment. They announced in late July 2011 that new equipment was being installed to ensure greater consistency in these coin’s finishes. Indeed, less variation was seen in the surface finish of the Mount Hood coin released a month after the Grand Canyon issue.

25th Anniversary Silver Eagles

These coins were coveted from the start. The set of five Silver Eagles went on sale at noon on October 27, 2011. Before 5:00 pm they were sold out. What makes the set truly special is that it contains two exclusive pieces, both with mintages limited to 100,000 pieces.

First, is a reverse proof Silver Eagle minted in Philadelphia, similar to the 2006 reverse proof struck to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the series. Reverse proofs have a “backwards” finish with mirrored design elements and frosted fields. Since this is seldom used on US coins, it is an unusual feature that makes these coins very popular with collectors. The 2006 issue is ranked number 11 on the list of 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins but it has a mintage of 250,000 pieces, much larger than the 2011 issue. Over time, the 2011-P Reverse Proof Silver Eagle will likely be seen as a more desirable coin and displace the 2006 issue.

Second, is the 2011-S Silver Eagle. It is the first and only uncirculated finish Silver Eagle to bear the “S” mintmark for San Francisco. While bullion issue Silver Eagles have been produced in San Francisco in the past, these were always issued without mintmark. So this coin is the only one of its type and it is limited to just 100,000 pieces.

The 2011-S Silver Eagle is similar in some respects to the Proof 1995-W Silver Eagle, struck to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Silver Eagle. The 1995-W’s mintage is very limited at just 30,125 pieces, earning it the rank of number 4 on the list. Another similar coin is the Uncirculated 2006-W Silver Eagle. It was the first uncirculated finish Silver Eagle issued with a mintmark and only 466,573 were produced; it’s number 64 on the list. This coin will certainly fall somewhere between the two on a future list of 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins.

These are just a few of the discoveries and issues that shaped the year in modern coins. While new developments were inevitable, the significance and number of these events could not have been predicted. Jeff Garrett and I are pleased to contribute to this ongoing dialogue surrounding modern coinage. We hope that the 100 Greatest U.S. Modern Coins assists in providing context to future chapters of this ever unfolding story.

Images courtesy Stack’s Bowers Galleries and Collectors Society.

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