Jim Bisognani: Numismatics — A Safe and Sane Way to Pass Your Time

Posted on 4/2/2020

Rather than welcoming spring with bat and glove, we all try not to go “batty.”

Another week begins, another month rolls in. In normal times, the glorious month of April would also herald a new season of America’s other great pastime — Major League Baseball. But now we are not living in normal times, and we aren’t in Kansas anymore, my fellow coindexters. Who of us could have envisioned that 2020 would be a year of such consequence? The magnitude and implications of COVID-19 are certainly like no other that I have experienced in my lifetime.

As I mentioned in a previous article, this worldwide pandemic has necessitated many of us not already working from home to be relegated to such. We are all finding that life as we knew it just a few weeks ago has changed dramatically, and it is still surreal. Yet we coindexters will get through this, hopefully with our safety and sanity intact.

I was thinking about the last great pandemic, the 1918 H1N1 or Spanish Flu, and the toll that vicious virus took on humankind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly a third of the world’s population at that time became infected by the virus. It was the end of World War I, and the world was immediately fighting another war — the dreaded Spanish Flu.

During this time, the federal government had no direct role in the fight against the virus, but communities took it upon themselves to defend against the blight as best they could, including isolation, school closings, limited public gatherings, wearing masks in public and hand washing. What a familiar and eerie refrain.

Collecting in the face of adversity

Amazingly, through this devastating time, coins were still being set aside and traded. Of course, the business of numismatics has completely changed from what was the normal 100 years ago. But who knows what “normal” will be a few years from now? Anyway, I decided to look at a few regular US series from 1918 to 1919 and check their respective populations and their survival rates in Mint State.

Though World War I ended in November 1918, the economic conditions it generated lingered well into 1919, and this demand pushed the mintages for minor denominations struck at Philadelphia to record or near-record levels at the time. So, for this exercise, because mintmarked coins were not yet popularly collected by the masses, I decided to limit the scope to the Philadelphia issues.

First up, the 1919 Lincoln Cent. I reviewed the coins designated as “red” for this investigation and confirmed that 147 coins appear in the NGC Census as MS 65 RD and 72 report in as MS 66 RD.

Click images to enlarge.

Those numbers for Gem/Ultra Gem Red Lincoln Cents confirm that a significant number of coppers were saved fresh prior to circulation. Perhaps collectors of the day were indeed occupying some of their downtime with this great hobby! To find a greater population of MS 65/MS 66 RD designees, I had to advance to the 1925 Philadelphia issue, which lays claim to 195 coins in MS 65 RD and 101 coins in the lofty grade of MS 66 RD.

Of course, considering that the mintage for the 1919 Philly was a massive 392 million (that output was not surpassed until the dawn of World War II for the 1940 edition), that may have also contributed to the higher population. Yet, as you can see below, there certainly was an uptick for those saved in 1919.

Lincoln Cent NGC Census – MS 65 RD NGC Census – MS 66 RD
1917 33% 13%
1918 30% 7%
1919 42% 20%
1920 29% 17%

I moved on to the 1919 Buffalo Nickel and again the Philadelphia mint produced a massive quantity of nearly 61 million, which represents the fifth-highest total in the series. Yet, in MS 63, 231 coins appear in the NGC Census. A higher population in that grade doesn’t register again until the 1928-D at 375. The same pattern holds in MS 64, which numbers 476. This figure isn’t eclipsed until the same 1928-D!

Click images to enlarge.

As evinced by this number, collectors by the end of the decade were keen on acquiring mintmarked coins for their respective collections. Branch mint issues were all the rage and were in vogue with collectors toward the end of the Roaring 20s. As such, dealers certainly took note. Buying and collecting rolls of coins was just coming into fashion as well.

On to the Mercury Dime! Here, there is a bit of anomaly. The 1919 Philadelphia issue doesn’t seem to have been saved in larger quantities in Gem or better. In fact, combined in MS 65 and MS 66, covering standard and Full Band designation, only 99 coins appear in the census! Yet, in MS 62 Full Band, 69 coins appear, which is the third-highest total in the entire series in that grade and designation, only trailing the inaugural 1916 and 1917 Philadelphia issue in like grade and designation. Go figure.

Click images to enlarge.

The Standing Liberty Quarter of 1919 reveals some interesting statistics. Coming in with 11.3 million deliveries from Philadelphia, Ms. Liberty reports in with the fourth-highest mintage of the short-lived series. However, 1919 claims the only three coins in the entire series graded as MS 69, and two are designated as Full Head! (Just take a look at the captivating MS 69 below.)

Click images to enlarge.

Coincidence, or was it because a coindexter emerged from their safe-home donning a mask (with no larceny in mind) and visited the local bank out of boredom? Also, in MS 66 Full Head, 49 examples claim that lofty grade, which wasn’t topped until the 1928-S! (There’s that 1928 again.)

With the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, I factored into consideration that the mintage for the 1919 Philadelphia Half Dollar was only 962,000. So, for this exercise, I reverted to the 1918 issue which had a robust 6.6 million Philadelphia deliveries. In MS 65, the Philadelphia coin reports 109 in the NGC Census and that total isn’t eclipsed until the 1929-S tops that with 130 coins claiming MS 65.

Click images to enlarge.

Interestingly though, the lower-mintage 1919 reveals 11 examples as Ultra Gem MS 66 in the NGC Census, and that figure isn’t surpassed until the next decade’s end with the similar mintage 1929-D, which touts 15 examples.

Perhaps through acts of self-preservation or boredom, we have some high-grade reminders that coins were collected during this other time of great hardship. Certainly, given this data, it appears that a larger percentage of higher-grade coins were set aside and saved during the year of pandemic just over a century ago than in the years immediately preceding or following it.

In the interim, as we all band together, mentally anyway, we have new coin adventures ahead to enjoy. We will all share truly mindboggling stories in the years ahead of what it was like collecting in 2020! Fortunately, unlike 100 years ago, we have the internet to browse, research, shop and bid for numismatic treasures.

Although the CSNS Convention has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all partake in the Heritage CSNS Signature auction host sale from the comfort of our favorite armchairs as pre-bidding is now underway for the great sale, which will be held live April 23 through 26 at the firm’s home office in Dallas.

Try not to go “batty”

As we all struggle to adapt with the new normal, my coindexter friend Bill from Maine called me to share a lively update: “Jim, there is talk from many doctors and scientists that this coronavirus may have started with bats… So, I think it is appropriate that our first new 2020 Parks Quarter has an *&!!ing bat on it! We already have a coin commemorating this pandemic!”

I had to laugh. He is right. Well, sort of, as the first National Park quarter of 2020 just released on February 13 is the National Park of American Samoa Quarter, which prominently features (a rather adorable) indigenous fruit bat. I replied to my old friend Bill, “Hey, try not to go batty. I hope 2020 will be hindsight for all of us.” In the meantime, I am going to search out an NGC MS or PF 70 National Park of American Samoa Quarter to add to my collection!

Until next time, be safe and sane, and happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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