The 1928-S "Large S" Coins
Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 9/1/2003
"Cherrypicking" is the term applied by collectors to the hunt for scarce and rare coins that can be purchased at the price of common items. My favorite cherrypick has long been the Large S mintmark varieties unique to 1928. For reasons now lost to history, the U.S. Mint created a large and distinctively configured ‘S’ puncheon that was used only during the latter half of 1928 on just a very few dies sent to the San Francisco Mint. As a result of this experiment (if that’s what it was), a couple of rarities were created for that date.
The normal ‘S’ mintmark for this period was the small, symmetrical letter puncheon introduced in 1917 and phased out during 1941-42 (these latter dates are transitional with larger mintmarks). During this long period, it had no rivals on the San Francisco Mint coinage, except in 1928. During that year both the usual Small S and the unique Large S were used on the dies for 1928-S cents, dimes, quarters and halves. Nickels and silver dollars of that date are known only with the Small S mintmark. Since the coining of dollars ceased early in 1928, this suggests that the Large S puncheon was not employed until later in the year.
For the quarters and halves, the differential in rarity between Small S specimens and those having the Large S is not enough that a premium price is in order. While the Small S coins are clearly more common, perhaps one out of every ten pieces examined have the Large S. Thus, these coins may be found with a bit of searching. The other denominations having both mintmarks offer much greater opportunities for the dedicated cherrypicker. Since writing books on both the Lincoln cent and Mercury dime series, I’ve become well acquainted with just how rare the Large S varieties are for these coin types. In my books I was overly conservative regarding the rarity of Large S coins, as I hadn’t had enough time to mount a thorough search. I estimated that about one out of 30 1928-S cents feature the Large S mintmark, while my ratio for dimes was just one out of five.
While the correct ratio for cents in circulated grades appears to be more like one out of 40, the rarity of mint state 1928 Large S cents is much greater still. Uncirculated examples are extremely difficult to locate and offer a real prize for the astute cherrypicker. My initial rarity estimate for the dimes was way off; probably no more than one out of 30 1928-S dimes will have the Large S mintmark. Fortunately, this same ratio seems to hold true for both circulated and mint state coins. While an uncirculated 1928 Large S dime is very scarce, it is somewhat easier to find than the similar cent.
Though acknowledged with a footnote in the popular Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins, by R. S. Yeoman), these varieties are not priced in that reference, and collectors seem to have little interest in them. This is strange to me, since so much attention is paid to the transitional mintmark varieties of 1979 and 1981, which are far more difficult to distinguish than the naked-eye varieties of 1928.
One cautionary note is in order: Late die states of the 1928 Small S coins may show mintmarks that are elongated by die erosion. Do not mistake these for the Large S, which has an entirely different shape. It is noticeably taller, has prominent serifs and is quite a bit thicker at its diagonal stroke than the Small S. This puncheon was never used again, though it is somewhat similar to the Serif S found on various denominations in 1942-44.
David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association