One of These Coins is not Like the Other: How a Minor Detail Can Make a Big Difference

When it comes to the 1981-S Proof, a single mint mark can alter a coin's monetary value by thousands, as Jay Turner illustrates.

Modern Coin of the MonthThroughout numismatics, a minor difference can be a big deal. The 1981-S Proof coinage is no exception. A small variation in mint mark style makes a big difference in rarity and price.

To understand why the 1981 types are considered important, you have to consider what was happening around the time of the discovery. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the coin market was booming. Metals were at an all-time high, monetary inflation was on the rise, and rare coin prices soared. The market had never seen such activity before. As an example, a 1934-S Uncirculated silver dollar would bring $1,300 in 1978 when in 1973, it would have brought in $600. That is more than double the price in five years.

Since market conditions were so good at the time, coin dealing grew as a profession. In the late 1970s, the number swelled to as high as 15,000 coin dealers. All of these people needed coins to sell. Like today, modern has always been a favored market since it is plentiful, cheap, and easily replaced. Coins with lower mintages such as the 1973-S Silver Eisenhower dollar were marketed as keys, heavily promoted, and reached prices as high as $200. When small differences or varieties appeared in newly released proof sets — as they did in 1979 and 1981 — it is no wonder that the promotion of these pieces quickly occurred.

In 1979, a number of changes occurred in numismatics. First, the Eisenhower dollar was replaced by the Susan B. Anthony dollar. These coins became widely collected like all new coin series. To make the series more interesting, the 1979 proof set came with two very different mint mark styles — one with a "filled S," better known as Type 1, and the other with a "clear S," better known as Type 2. The Type 2 mint mark style was released later in the year starting with the lower denominated coins first. It is most scarce on the half dollar and the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Being introduced at the height of the market, these small differences became instant "keys" and commanded high premiums over the other coins.

1981 Coin
1981 Coin

In 1981, the market was still considerably hot. The Susan B. Anthony dollar had failed to be accepted by the American people, but with the announcement that no coins would be released for general circulation, the series gained popularity with collectors and the sales of mint and proof sets increased. A variation in the 1981 mint mark style was discovered. Though not as dramatic a difference as the 1979, it was noticeably different. While the variety is common on dimes, nickels and quarters, the half dollar is scarce, and the cent and dollar considered rare. Unlike the 1979 sets, to find a complete 1981 Type 2 set now is extraordinarily difficult. Most of the sets have been pieced together by dealers.

The differences in the 1981 types are often what dealers and collectors have trouble identifying. The difference lies in the style of the mint mark punch. The Type 1 is the same punch used to make the Type 2 1979 coinage. The Type 1 has a pointed top when compared to a flat top of the 1981. The Type 2 has bulbous serifs in comparison to the Type 1 and the serifs do not touch the inside of the S. It is these small differences that give the coin so much more value, $325 for the set versus $11.

Surprisingly, after the market crashed in the early 1980s, the coins prices remained high and maintained value. When the number of coin dealers decreased to around 5,000, modern coins were one of the coin series that got hurt most. However, unlike the 1973 S Silver Eisenhower dollar, which went from $200 to around $15, the sets prices remained constant. More than likely, it is the short Susan B. Anthony series that kept the pieces marketable and in demand. Some help would also come from certification and condition scarcity. With certification, collectors no longer had to worry about buying a Type 1 being marketed as a Type 2, but could also get coins graded correctly and preserved for the future, thus driving the prices for the highest graded certified pieces. NGC now automatically designates all 1981 Proof coins submitted for certification as either Type 1 or Type 2; VarietyPlus service is not required.

To date, NGC has certified 279 1981 S Type 2 Cents with only 58 in 69 Ultra Cameo. These coins can bring more then $500 in this grade. Often spots, hairlines, and hits prevent these coins from grading 69. Because of this, the cent is often the hardest coin in the Type 2 set and hinders people from getting a match grade set. The dollar, while often the most desired in the set, has a current population of 694 being certified by NGC. Of these, 430 are grade 69 Ultra Cameo and 5 are in 70 Ultra Cameo. In 69, the coins can bring over $250 and 70 can bring over $2,000. This is in comparison to a Type 1, which can bring a few hundred dollars in 70.

It is a small difference between the two mint mark punches that make up the varieties but because of market trends, a short series, and promotion, these coins bring considerable differences in price. It is because they have been published and marketed that people consider them a key part of their collection and pay the price to add them to their collection.

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