Seeing Double: The Popularity of Doubled-Die Varieties
Posted on 3/14/1999
As the coin industry continues to mature, one of its fastest growing segments is the field of variety collecting. Variety coins may be defined as those which stray from the norm as the result of some unique quality in the dies from which they were struck. Unlike error coins, which are usually random in nature and rarely identical, variety coins will appear similar and reflect the character of a single pair of dies. When properly identified and numbered, these varieties become highly collectable.
Among the most popular of varieties are doubled-die coins. In fact, a specialty club was recently formed whose focus is placed solely on doubled-dies. These coins exhibit multiple images of the design elements or legends on one or both sides as the result of doubling (or even tripling or quadrupling) inherent in the dies. Most dealers are already familiar with some of the more popular and marketable doubled-die coins such as the cents of 1955 and 1972 or the nickel of 1916, but how many dealers are aware of how die doubling occurs and can distinguish this type of doubling from common and less valuable forms of doubling?
The answer seems to be that relatively few dealers know the difference. This fact was driven home to me by the great number of inquiries I've received from dealers whose coins exhibited the most common form of doubling, usually called "strike doubling." This occurs when a die is loose in the press and it twists when separating from the struck coin, causing a lateral shift in the design elements and legends. The resulting doubled images have a flat, shelf-like quality which, while interesting, is not especially rare and carries no premium among knowledgeable dealers and collectors. This type of doubling is especially common in the lower third of the obverse of Mercury Dimes, and these are the subject coins most often brought to me for examination.
As the market for doubled-die coins grows, the stakes for collectors and dealers who hope to trade in these coins become much higher. Just as making a mistake in grading can be costly, so too can misattributing a variety. Fortunately, the solution to the first problem has become the solution to the second, as well. I'm speaking of certification. With NGC's VarietyPlus service, which includes both attribution and grading of variety coins, the guesswork is removed.
There still exists a challenge for the coin's owner, however, as he or she must decide whether a coin is worth the cost of certifying. This requires that the coins first be screened by someone having the ability to distinguish between recognized varieties and miscellaneous oddities of little or no value. This takes a bit of practice and familiarity with a few popular references. Therein lies the greatest obstacle to wider acceptance of variety trading, as many people are reluctant to learn new skills and to spend even a few moments with simple books that the specialists have already memorized from cover to cover.
The subject of doubled-die coins is at once both simple and complex. The root cause of all die doubling is a misalignment between hub and die during the die-sinking process. The hub bears a right-reading, relief image of the coin design and looks very much like a coin mounted at the end of a cylinder. The die, however, receives an impression from the hub and become a reverse-reading, negative image of the coin. More than one impression is required to fully sink the die, and it is sent to the furnace for annealing (heat softening) before the second impression is taken. If the two impressions are not in perfect alignment, the result is a doubled-die.
While this operation is simple enough to understand, the subject becomes more complex when it's revealed that there are actually no less than seven types of die doubling (or eight-the experts disagree). These are defined by the orientation between the misaligned first and second impressions. The first recognized type of doubling (known as Class I doubling) occurs when the second impression is simply rotated around the die's centerpoint, creating a duplicated image which is uniformly spaced throughout. An example of this class of doubling is the 1955 doubled-die cent, the grand-daddy in the field of popular doubled-die coins, not because it's the oldest occurrence of this variety but because it was the first to catch on with collectors in a big way. Among doubled-die collectors, this variety is more properly designated as (1-O-I). This is shorthand for Sequential Number One, Obverse doubling, Class I. In contrast, the 1916 doubled-die nickel is an example of Class V (five) doubling. While there are indeed several classes of die doubling recognized by specialists, what they are and how to distinguish one class from another is not important to everyone. What is important is that collectors and dealers learn to distinguish coins that display true die doubling from those which exhibit other forms of doubling or have simply been damaged subsequent to minting.
As mentioned previously, one way to know for certain is to submit a suspected doubled-die coin to NGC under its VarietyPlus service. The downside to this plan is that the coin may come back with a grade alone, because it did not qualify as a recognized variety. Depending on the basic value of the coin in that particular grade, this can be costly and frustrating, and it will not win a new recruit to the field of varieties. A better solution is to know in advance whether or not a coin is a doubled-die variety recognized by NGC. The most popular doubled-dies may be found numbered, illustrated and priced in The Cherrypickers' Guide to Rare Die Varieties. This handy reference by Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton is presently in its third edition and provides quite an education in doubled-dies and other popular varieties. NGC's VarietyPlus service certifies all varieties listed in this book, except for those designated by the authors as "low interest."
The impressive values registered for doubled-die varieties of these otherwise common dates speaks well for the potential of other doubled-die coins which are currently increasing in popularity. Everyone's hopes were raised with the February 1995 discovery of a bold doubled-die obverse variety for the Philadelphia Mint cents of that year, but these hopes faded as enormous quantities of the new variety coins turned up over the next several months. It's interesting to note, however, that the Professional Numismatists Guild included a hole for this variety in its recently issued Penny Boards. Since these are targeted at attracting new collectors to the hobby of coin collecting, this new generation of collectors may view the 1995 doubled-die cent in a more favorable light than do market veterans.
As doubled-die coins in general gain a greater acceptance within the coin industry, and as more of these varieties are certified by NGC, collectors and dealers are destined to become more familiar with their respective values. This will ease the trading of these coins considerably, as this segment of the market may currently be a bit intimidating to those not already familiar with it. As in so many areas of numismatics, a little bit of reading goes a long way toward making the difficult more understandable.
This article was adapted from one published in the March 14, 1997 edition of The Coin Dealer Newsletter Monthly Supplement.
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