Going for the Keys
By Mike Thorne
familiar with the saying, "Do as I say, not as I
do"? In other words, don't use my behavior as
your guide, use my words instead. Listen to the
advice I give you and ignore my actions.
Coin collectors are often advised to buy the key
coins in a series first, as these are the coins
most likely to appreciate. Yet, despite the
wisdom of this advice, few collectors actually
Before I get into the psychology behind this
failure, let me define what I mean by a key
A key coin is just what the name implies: It's
the key that unlocks the door leading to set
completion. Without this coin or coins, you'll
never fill all the holes in the album.
Of course, that's also true of the most common
coin in the set, but the difference is that the
common piece is nearly always attainable, in any
condition you desire. The key coin, on the other
hand, is often simply not available when you
want it, or it may not be readily available in
the grade you want.
Key coins are often obvious because of their
mintage, which is generally the lowest in the
series. Notice that I said "generally the
lowest." There are many exceptions, coins with
super-low mintages that are not nearly as scarce
as other, higher-mintage coins in the same
series. The reason for this lack of scarcity of
some low-mintage pieces is that their low
mintage was recognized at the time they were
issued, and they were differentially retained as
One classic example of this phenomenon is the
1931-S Lincoln cent. Its mintage of just 866,000
pieces was known at the time, and many
uncirculated examples were put away by people.
As a result, the 1931-S is a nice coin to have,
but relative to several other dates in the
series with higher mintages (e.g., 1914-D,
1909-S), the 1931-S is less expensive,
particularly in higher grades.
As another example, the 1927-S Standing Liberty
quarter has a mintage of just 396,000 pieces,
which gives it the second lowest mintage in the
series, behind only the 1916. Yet the 1923-S,
with a mintage of 1,360,000, is much scarcer and
more expensive in all grades below About
Here, it is time to throw in another wrinkle:
mintage rarity vs. condition rarity. There are
many coins in popularly collected series that
are relatively common in lower grades and are
valued accordingly, that are quite scarce in
high grades. In other words, they are rare only
in superb condition. Other coins were minted in
limited quantities and are scarce and high
valued throughout the condition spectrum.
So this gives us coins that are keys in any
grade vs. coins that are keys only if you're
putting together a high-grade set. As an example
of the former, we have the 1893-S Morgan dollar,
which had a mintage of just 100,000 pieces and
is worth a lot in any grade. Looking at the 2009
U.S. Coin Digest, the 1893-S is valued at $3,750
in Very Good-8.
By contrast, the 1892-S Morgan, with a mintage
of 1,200,000 pieces, is a prime example of a
condition rarity. It's worth just $26 in VG-8,
whereas in Mint State-65, it's valued at a
Still, for most collectors the key coins are the
mintage rarities, as many people are satisfied
to obtain a decent specimen of each
date/mintmark combination. Thus, most collectors
would be happy with a nice Extremely Fine-40
1892-S dollar, which lists for $365. They
wouldn't feel the need to have an uncirculated
specimen of the date, when such a coin has a
five-figure value (e.g., $34,500 in MS-60).
Summarizing, rarity keys are the coins in a
series that are typically expensive in any
grade, all the way from About Good-3 to MS-65
and beyond. They are the pieces that anyone
attempting to put together a date/mintmark run
of the series must have for completion. If the
series is popular enough, there may well be more
collectors than there are specimens of the key
Worse, there are often hoarders of the keys,
people who are not content to have just one
1909-S V.D.B. cent, for example, but who want to
have as many as they can afford. This, of
course, means that there are even fewer of the
keys to meet the demand of collectors wishing to
complete their sets. All of this translates into
higher and higher values of the recognized
I think you can see from what I've said so far
that the demand for the key coins in popular
series puts continuous upward pressure on the
value of these coins. In other words, if there's
any upward price movement at all in a particular
series, it's going to affect the key dates
differentially. Also, they're likely to move
upward even when no other date does.
OK, let's assume that you've bought my argument
about the reason for price increases in the key
coins in a series, that they're always in
demand, and no more are being created. Why is
there such a tendency on the part of collectors
to work around the keys, to buy the non-keys
first and save the big keys untill last?
The answer, of course, is price. The rarity keys
cost a lot in any grade because they're scarce
in any grade. And this high price in any grade
deters the typical collector from buying the
Let's take a specific example. Suppose you're
starting to put together a set of Lincoln cents
from 1909-1958, the wheat-back cents, in other
words. You're advised to buy the keys first,
which means that you look at the dates with the
lowest mintages: in order, the 1909-S V.D.B.,
1931-S, 1914-D, and 1909-S.
You focus on the 1909-S V.D.B. and see that in
any grade beginning with Very Fine-20, it lists
for more than $1,000. Actually, lower values are
given for this date in grades Good-4 ($750)
through Fine-12 ($900), but these lower grades
are likely to be harder to find than higher
grades simply because people began taking this
date out of circulation long before it could
circulate long enough to attain a low grade.
At any rate, no matter what grade you want for
your set, the 1909-S V.D.B. is likely to cost
you close to $1,000. And what other early
Lincolns can you buy for that $1,000?
Let's say you want to buy coins in VF-20. For
the $1,000 the 1909-S V.D.B. would cost you, you
could buy a VF-20 1909-S ($165), a VF-20 1910-S
($25), a VF-20 1911-S ($38), a VF-20 1912-S
($34), a VF-20 1914-D ($440), a VF-20 1931-S
($125), and still have enough left to buy the
rest of the semi-keys. Of course, if you opted
to buy only common dates, you could get all of
them in nice grades for less than the price of
the 1909-S V.D.B.
In other words, if you bypass the big key or
keys at the outset, you can get a whole lot more
"bang for your buck" buying common or relatively
common dates. If you think about it in terms of
reinforcement theory, you'll get a lot more
reward from your multiple purchases than from
the single purchase of the big key.
However, and it's a big "however," you bypass
the keys at your peril. By the time you get to
the point where a major key is all you have left
to finish your set, the value of this coin may
have risen so much that you can't afford it.
Here's an example from my collecting history:
Many years ago I set out to complete sets of all
the Barber silver coins minted from 1892-1916.
Putting together the dimes and halves was no
problem, as the holes in my albums filled
quickly and relatively inexpensively. Remember,
this was years ago, and coins like the 1895-O
Barber dime and the 1892-O Barber half dollar
were priced well below $100 in G-VG condition.
My Barber quarter album filled quickly, also,
and even the 1896-S and 1913-S quarters were
under $100 apiece in G-VG. As I recall, I paid
$90 for my first 1913-S in G-6.
Early in the process of putting together the
Barber sets, I agonized over the purchase of the
1901-S 25 cent in a low grade. The seller
described it as solid G on the obverse with some
wear into the letters on the reverse. Today, it
would probably grade AG-3 or maybe G-4 if you
caught the graders at a certification service in
a good mood. The price was $250.
The seller was someone I had done a lot of
business with in the past, so I had no doubt
that the coin was genuine and at least as good
as he described it. Still, it was more than I
had ever paid for a coin, so I hesitated and
eventually passed. After all, I still had
several more Barbers to buy.
Can you guess what happened when I got to the
point where the 1901-S 25 cent was the only
Barber left for me to buy? Well, that $250 price
was now the better part of $1,000, which was
definitely out of my league at the time.
And now, when I could afford to spend more and
have bought coins that cost more than $1,000,
the 1901-S lists for $7,000 in G-4 and $11,000
in VG-8. In other words, it's still out of my
Obviously, if I had bought the 1901-S early, I
could have gotten a decent G-VG for less than
$500. Had I done that, set completion would have
been a reality.
I've done analyses in the past of how the key
coins in popular series have fared pricewise
relative to either relatively common dates or
semi-keys. Can you guess what I've found? That's
right, the keys almost invariably outperform the
other dates in the series.
At this point, let me go through some popularly
collected series and tell you which of the
rarity keys I think you should purchase early if
you want to put together a complete
In Indian Head cents, the first two dates that
should be on your "must buy" list are the 1877
and the 1909-S. Obviously, these are the two
dates with mintages below 1 million pieces, and
even though the 1909-S has by far the lower
mintage, the 1877 is the one to purchase first.
The 1909-S will continue its upward trend, but
being the last year of mintage, many were saved
so it's more plentiful than the 1877. By the
way, the first 1909-S I bought cost me $50 in
In Lincoln cents, the order in which you should
purchase the key dates is as follows: 1909-S
V.D.B., 1914-D, 1909-S, and 1931-S. Although the
1931-S has risen in value over the years, it has
done so at a slower pace than the other keys
because of its availability. Also, because there
is little difference in value between most
grades of the 1931-S, you should buy the best
piece you can afford, preferably at least MS-63.
In U.S. Coin Digest, values range from $110 in
G-4 (hard to find because most were saved soon
after minting) and $140 in MS-60. Obviously, a
$30 dollar difference between the lowest
collectible grade and an uncirculated coin is a
paltry amount for a $100+ coin.
Although I haven't mentioned it, key coins in
particular are likely to be faked by adding,
altering, or occasionally subtracting a
mintmark. Thus, my standard advice is to buy
only coins that have been certified as authentic
by one of the major certification services. If
you do buy a "raw" piece, submit it as soon as
possible to a certification service and be sure
that you can return it to the seller for a
refund if it's not genuine.
In Liberty Head nickels, the keys are
traditionally the 1885, 1886, and the 1912-S. Of
these three, the 1912-S has by far the lowest
mintage (238,000), with the 1885 a distant
second with a mintage of nearly 1.5 million. The
1886 is even farther back at 3,330,290. Again,
the mintages are deceiving in terms of survival,
as there were several reasons for differential
retention of the 1912-S.
For one thing, it was the first nickel minted in
San Francisco. Further, it came at the tail end
of the series and was recognized early as having
a low mintage.
For years, the 1912-S advanced slowly, if at
all, in value, but in recent years it has really
taken off. I paid about $50 for my first
specimen, which graded F but had a planchet
flaw. I bought one more recently from Tom
Delorey at Harlem Berk in Chicago. It cost me
$95 and was graded F by PCI. This was in May of
2001; the value of this coin in U.S. Coin Digest
is $280, which should give you an idea of how
the price has risen lately.
I paid $415 for a G-4 1885 in 2005 from a dealer
in, of all places, New Zealand. How did that
coin get so far from its place of origin? U.S.
Coin Digest cites a value of $600 in that grade.
The order in which I would buy the Liberty Head
nickel keys is 1912-S, 1885, and 1886.
The key Mercury dime is the 1916-D, with the
1921 and 1921-D as distant semi-keys. If you
want to complete a date-mint run of Mercury
dimes, save your money and buy the 1916-D in as
good a grade as you can afford. Be sure that
I've talked a lot about the three big keys in
the Barber quarter set, so I won't say much more
about them. Don't be afraid to buy any of the
three (1896-S, 1901-S, 1913-S) in AG-3 even
though this grade is not considered collectible
by many "experts." When the price for a G-4
rises well above $1,000 (or $6,000 in the case
of the 1901-S), I can assure you that there will
be a market for coins that grade less than G-4.
From my experience, there can be a world of
difference between coins of the same date
certified as AG-3 or even G-4. I've seen coins
with either grade from the major services that I
wouldn't want if you gave them to me, whereas
I've seen other coins in really low grades that
were quite nice for the grade. At the present
time, I have two 1913-S Barber quarters that are
certified by different services as AG-3 that are
significantly better looking (correct color,
amount of detail) than most of the G-4s I see
pictured on the Internet.
If you're going to try to put together a set of
Standing Liberty quarters, you're going to have
to have the 1916 and the 1923-S. The 1916, of
course, is the big key, with the 1923-S a
distant second. I often disagree with the grades
of certified examples of these dates
(particularly the 1923-S) that I see pictured
online. The problem with the 1923-S is that any
coin less than about VF is likely to be missing
one or more of the numbers in the date.
The 1916, on the other hand, tends to have the
bottoms of all four digits even in grades as low
as G and VG. All I can say about the 1916 is
that you should buy it as quickly as you can if
you're interested in set completion, as it will
undoubtedly continue its ascent.
The rarity keys in the Washington quarter series
are the 1932-D and 1932-S, with the 1932-D
surpassing in value the slightly lower mintage
1932-S in higher grades. Both coins are readily
available in virtually any grade you can afford.
Although they've risen in value a great deal in
the last decade or so, I've seen some resistance
to higher prices recently. Thus, I'm not sure
that you need to buy these quickly as a hedge
against continuing price increases.
One thing I can say with certainty about the
1932-D and -S is that you should only purchase
certified examples. I read years ago that there
were more of these two in collections than were
minted in 1932, which means that there are lots
of fakes around.
Walking Liberty half dollars are nice coins to
collect, and they form a series that can be
assembled rather easily in circulated condition.
Even so, I would advise you to buy the keys as
soon as possible, as they tend to go up in value
with regularity. The ones to look for, in order,
are the 1921-D, 1921, and the 1916-S. Other
dates, such as the 1916, 1917-S obverse, 1921-S,
and 1938-D, are pretty easy to find in lower
circulated grades. Just be sure you get an
uncleaned coin with full date and rim and no
Like lots of collectors, I love Morgan dollars.
They are big, contain a lot of silver, and you
can buy quite a few for rather nominal prices.
Of course, there are also quite a few key dates,
all of which seem to go up in value regularly.
Again, if you're going to try to put together a
complete date/mintmark collection, then you need
to get the following as quickly as you can:
1893-S, 1889-CC, and 1894. Certification is a
In Peace dollars, there is really only one key
date, not counting condition rarities, of
course. This is the 1928, which is expensive in
all grades. However, you'll find that there's
only a gradual increase in prices until you get
to MS-65, which means that there's little reason
for buying a well-circulated piece. For example,
the value of the date in EF-40 is $465, in AU-50
is $475, and in MS-60 is $525. It would make
little sense to me to choose the AU-50 when for
$50 more you could get an uncirculated specimen.
We could continue this exercise into U.S. gold
pieces, but I think you get the picture:
Determine the key dates in any series you want
to collect, buy them as soon as you can if set
completion is important to you, and be sure
they're certified by one of the major services.
If you take my advice, I think you'll thank me
when you insert the last common date into your