USA Coin Album: Numbers Game

Posted on 9/12/2017

Mintage figures are just the beginning in determining rarity.

The relative rarities of United States coins are well established, probably more so than for those of any other nation. Entire books have been written that cover a single coin series in extreme detail, describing each issue's rarity across different grades.

For most coins, these rarity ratings correlate fairly closely to published mintage figures. It thus comes as no surprise that a 1912-S nickel, with its mintage of just 238,000 pieces, is far more rare than its Philadelphia cousin, of which more than 26 million were coined. The reason this relationship works is that there were no mitigating factors weighing against the widespread and long time circulation of both issues. The collecting of coins from circulation by date and mint did not really catch on in a big way until the mid 1930s, by which time both issues were already nearing the end of their expected circulation life. By then collectors were more apt to hoard 1912-S nickels, while keeping just a single example of the common 1912(P), but the opportunity to find the rare issue had largely passed.

Mintage figures, however, are not always the final determiner of relative rarity. For one thing, the published numbers for early coins do not necessarily reflect the actual dates carried by coins made in that year. The US Mint was quite thrifty and would use dies for as long as they lasted, regardless of the date they bore. For example, 1795 and 1797 half eagles having the Heraldic Eagle reverse were not coined during those years, as that design was not even put into use for half eagles until 1798. Researchers believe that these varieties date instead from that later year. Collectors studying the die states of early United States coins know of many instances in which an undated reverse die was paired first with one dated obverse and then used again with an obverse bearing an earlier date. Thus, the annual mintage figures, themselves later reconstructions, are almost meaningless without a closer study of the actual coins.

Mintage figures for the 20th Century are far more reliable, even though the numbers were calculated on a fiscal year basis. Until the 1980s, the US Mint's fiscal year ran July 1 through June 30, and it straddled two calendar years. It was not required to publish calendar year numbers, but these were easily reconstructed from in-house monthly reports. In fact, these monthly figures were routinely published in The Numismatist and other periodicals throughout much of the last century, and such information did affect the survival of many coins, starting in the 1930s. For example, collectors reading these monthly reports were alerted to the relatively low mintage of 1950-D nickels. These coins were produced in small batches over several months and began to draw the attention of speculators. With publication of the December figures in the March, 1951 issue of The Numismatist, it was revealed that no additional nickels had been coined in Denver, and the rush was on to secure rolls as an investment. Thus did the 1950-D nickel become perhaps more common in Mint State than in worn condition.

The number of coins struck are entirely meaningless with certain coin issues, as circumstances caused them to remain idle or even be destroyed in huge numbers. Most collectors of the popular Morgan dollar series are aware that millions of these coins were simply stored in vaults for decades, as there existed little demand for them in circulation. They served as a backing for silver certificates, Americans preferring these paper substitutes over the heavy coins. It was not until the late 1950s that a collector market really developed for this series, and most dates remained plentiful in unworn condition.

There have been times, too, when original production numbers have become obsolete through the deliberate destruction of stored coins. Under terms of the Pittman Act of 1918, more than 270 million silver dollars were either rendered into bullion bars for export or recoined as domestic fractional pieces. A smaller mass melting occurred during World War II, and much of the recovered silver was directed toward the Manhattan Project, which developed America's first atomic bombs.

Gold coins were likewise vulnerable to mass meltings. Though they commonly circulated between 1834 and 1861, after that time only the western states and territories used gold as medium of currency. Most were exported or stored in vaults as a backing for loans and paper currency. When the order was given in 1934 to destroy the pieces on hand at the US Treasury and the various mints, millions of coins were melted indiscriminately. Issues with large mintage that had never been distributed were lost almost in their entirety. For example, while more than a million double eagles were coined at Philadelphia in 1921, Mint records show only 25 pieces being paid out by the Treasury. While the number known today may be greater, this date remains a notable rarity.

The coining of millions of unneeded coins often led to their later destruction, but it also has made common pieces out of former rarities. When the Treasury ceased paying out silver dollars in 1964, an audit revealed that a large percentage of the 228,000 1885-CC dollars struck had survived, making this low-mintage issue widely collectable for the first time.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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