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Quarters, Mints and Marks: Little Things Can Mean a Lot

The United States Mint has inadvertently struck a new collector's item: an unknown number of 1989 quarters with no mint mark.

Such oddities are often sold for thousands of times their face value; some numismatic dealers are already estimating that the coin is worth several hundred dollars.

All of the 604,900,000 quarters already minted this year should have a mark just to the right of the ribbon on George Washington's pigtail that tells where the coin was minted. A ''P'' indicates the mint at Philadelphia and a ''D'' the Denver mint. Quarters minted in Philadelphia before 1980 do not have a mint mark.

The first quarter minus the mint mark was discovered in Boston by a coin collector and sent to Numismatic News, a weekly publication for coin collectors based in Iola, Wis. The publication's editors lent the quarter, on which the second 9 in the 1989 date was partly erased, to the United States Mint for analysis.

Eugene H. Essner, the deputy director of the Mint, confirmed that the quarter was genuine. If the coin had been tampered with to remove the mark, a microscopic inspection would show signs of metal deformation, he said.

A spokesman for Stack's, a New York coin dealer, said that, based on the prices of other coins with similar errors, the 1989 quarter may be worth $250 to $1,000. The value is based on the number of coins without a mint mark; the Mint has no idea of that number.

Normally, a coin is punched from a metal blank by two opposing dies that impress the coin's design on both sides. In an effort to discover how the error might have occurred, the Mint has duplicated the quarter by injecting oil into the die that strikes the front. The incompressible oil prevents metal, which melts under the high pressure, from filling the mint-mark recess of the die. The Mint also duplicated the coin by reducing the striking pressure.

While errors in minting are sufficiently common for there to be a branch of numismatics devoted to the resulting coins, it is rare for the error to involve something as easily visible as the mint mark and rare that such a mark be fully removed. The last such error with a mint mark came on some 1982 dimes. Those dimes are now worth about $140 apiece.

The Mint does not know if the faulty quarter was minted in Philadelphia or Denver. A Second Quarter Found

Robert E. Wilhite, editor of Numismatic News, said the publication had received just one other quarter without the mint mark although a roll of such quarters was reported by a Westchester County, N.Y., storekeeper. The storekeeper, however, neither produced the coins nor contacted Numismatic News again.

Q. David Bowers, chairman of Bowers and Merena, a New Hampshire coin auction firm, said if several dozen of the coins were found, each ''could be worth several hundred dollars.''

Anyone who does find such a quarter has a difficult decision. To sell immediately might be wise, since the price of the first few coins will be high. To wait might also be wise, for the ultimate number of the pieces may be small, making each coin much more valuable.


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