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Memorial Cents Offer Interesting Varieties
By Paul M. Green

Make no mistake about it, Lincoln Memorial cents thanks to errors, composition changes and an assortment of interesting coins have a lot more to offer than many expect. It is an excellent time to start or finish a Lincoln Memorial reverse cent collection.

The Lincoln Memorial reverse was much bigger news in 1959 than hobby history has remembered it for us. Those of us who have personal memories know that the design was introduced at a time when the Lincoln cent was clearly the leading set in terms of collector popularity.

There were countless numbers of baby boomers starting to collect coins and the coin they zeroed in on was the Lincoln cent. Anything having an impact on cents was going to be very popular and especially a change in design.

The change in the design was fascinating and exciting for many at the time even if it did not get particularly good reviews from the art critics. In fact, it was not really the work of Frank Gasparro that was at fault. The cent is simply too small to really bring out details in something like the Lincoln Memorial.

I can remember at the time pulling out magnifying glasses simply to try to make out the famous statue of Lincoln, which we knew should be in there somewhere. The word “trolley car cent” was used at the time, but frankly that did not register me or with many as in our small town we had never seen a trolley car. We simply knew it was a new and exciting Lincoln cent, although perhaps not a perfect design.

One of the things that was to prove interesting about the whole process is that it turned out that changing the reverse on the Lincoln cent was the most dynamic thing that would be done for decades as the cent design turned 50.

The secretary of the Treasury simply ordered the change. He was perfectly within the law. It only requires 25 years before a design can be changed without consulting Congress. The secretary of the Treasury just ordered the change and while ironically we do not think of dynamic decisions by cabinet members in the Eisenhower Administration, the fact is that since the decision, the Washington quarter and Jefferson nickel each turned 50 in 1982 and 1988, respectively, with absolutely nothing special being done.

The Roosevelt dime also turned 50 in 1996 and that produced a special production of a Roosevelt dime at West Point, but realistically generations of secretaries of the Treasury have had the chance to do something to change coin designs and have not acted since 1959.

It is hard nowadays to provide evidence of the impact of the new Lincoln Memorial cent had at the time except to suggest it was considerable. A change in the quarter would have not been greeted with as much interest simply because far fewer collected the quarter in 1959. In the case of a Lincoln cent change, however, young collectors wanted not just one or two examples, but uncirculated rolls from both Philadelphia and Denver.

We can see at least some indication of the initial interest in that it is reflected in the sales of special sets in 1959. The proof set sales number went from 875,652 in 1958 to 1,149,291 in 1959. That is a substantial increase in one year. Mint set sales rose even more, going from 50,314 in 1958 to 187,000 in 1959. You do not see mint set sales more than triple normally unless something very special is happening. The only very special thing happening in 1959 was the new Lincoln cent reverse.

People at the time were realistic. Everyone knew that with more public saving, the new Lincoln Memorial reverse cent was not going to be tough or valuable. The mintages confirmed what we already knew as the Philadelphia total was 610,864,291 while the Denver total was 1,279,760,000. I remember at the time that the mintage totals translated into a new 1959 Lincoln cent that was available for almost everyone on the planet.

The enthusiasm was very real, but normally the interest in a new design fades rather quickly. That was not the case with the new Lincoln Memorial reverse simply because of something that was spotted on the obverse in 1960. The date was modified in 1960 and that produced a variety with a change in the numeral “6” in the date. The so-called small date was produced both at Philadelphia and Denver and this was followed by a large date.

The difference is the lower loop of the numeral curves back toward the back of the numeral more sharply on the large date whereas on the small date the lower loop looks like it almost wants to touch the top of the numeral to make a “0” out of it.

If you look at the prices of the 1960 small dates with the Philadelphia in MS-65 now at $12 and a Proof-65 at $16, your immediate reaction would be that they are nothing special. You would actually not be far from the truth. The Denver small date is only slightly lower priced at $10 in MS-65 and the large-date Denver is actually higher than the small-date Denver and is priced at $11.

While the proof and business strike small-date coins from Philadelphia while certainly tougher to find than a normal large date are not exactly coins that are likely to be featured in a major auction anytime soon.

What the prices today fail to capture is the spirit and excitement of the time. It has to be remembered that back in 1959 checking your change was a treasure hunt. Almost every collector felt with good reason that there were potentially valuable coins just waiting to be found. We would go through roll after roll of Lincoln cents in the hope of finding a 1909-S VDB, but would settle for a 1912-D or something else as proof that there were still great coins awaiting our attention.

It also has to be remembered that some of the best coins to be found were actually not old. The 1950-D Jefferson nickel in 1959 was still a sensation. People were looking high and low for examples of the 1950-D and they could not be found in change, so its price was near $6 in uncirculated. That seemed like a fortune and if it its subsequent price history is any guide, relatively speaking, it was fortune. Six dollars in 1960 would have been far better spent on something else.

There had been a great deal of interest in the coins of 1955 as the San Francisco coins were supposed to be the final coins to be produced at the western mint. That made them special and the 1955-S was the lowest mintage cent since the 1930s and not easy to find at all.

As if that was not enough, a 1955 doubled-die obverse was discovered during the year of issue and that got everyone excited. It was amazing as there had previously been relatively little interest in errors, but the 1955 doubled-die obverse in many minds was the perfect error as it was easy to spot with a doubled date and doubled IN GOD WE TRUST. It was easy to spot, but not many had the chance. It was rare and it started soaring in price to a point where it looked like it might really rival the famous 1909-S VDB.

Coming right after the design change and just five years after the 1955 doubled die, collectors were primed for something like the 1960 small-date Lincoln cents when they were found. The small-date coins might have been hyped a bit, but that wasn’t the first or last time.

Everyone at the time seemed to honestly believe that finding valuable coins in circulation was normal and when some started suggesting that the 1960 small dates might actually be in the same league as the 1955 doubled die that did not seem out of place. Collectors today can see how ridiculous such a claim was, but it took collectors of 1960 some months to figure it out.

Is it any wonder that anything seemed possible in 1960? There were objects passing overhead in the night sky which had been launched by rockets. There were TV sets where the picture was actually in color.

As it turned out, the 1960 small dates did not quite live up to our hopes of paying for college or World Series tickets but they did keep the interest in Lincoln cents high.

As it turned out the 1960 small dates would actually be the first of a number as date modifications in the cent to produce large and small dates. That would happen again in 1970 and again in 1982 and although there would be promotion and speculation in the newer dates, it did not seem to be quite as intense to the participants as the speculation back in 1960, but that is ironic as the 1970-S small date is now $75 in MS-65, which is far more than even the Philadelphia proof 1960 small date. That just shows you want a lot of saving at the time of issue will do to supplies and then prices over time.

Interest in cents would generally reflect the interest in coin collecting and that means it was strong through 1964. The decision to eliminate mintmarks in 1965, which was a deliberate attempt to discourage coin collecting, would do exactly that. By some measures, 1964 was a pinnacle hobby year that has never been equaled since. A market bust followed.

There were no mintmarks for three years, 1965-1967, and that is not a long time, but to young collectors it can seem like an eternity, like three years without football or baseball games. Moreover, the heart and soul of collecting from circulation was finding dates that were tougher. Those dates were almost always from San Francisco or Denver, but the idea of no mintmarks meant the mintage of Denver and Philadelphia were combined, making one very large total. There was simply no way such dates would ever be better and that certainly hurt interest.

There would never be a good time for having no mintmarks, but coming at the same time as eliminating silver from the dime and quarter and reducing it to 40 percent in the half dollar simply compounded an already bad situation.

By the end of 1968, silver coins were gone from circulation. They were hoarded for their bullion value.

The Lincoln cent had also had a composition change in 1962 which saw tin being eliminated and making the composition 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. While it was not a major change, it had to raise questions about the Lincoln cent and its future.

Composition questions came to dog the cent. Once silver prices soared, copper began to follow suit in the 1970s. Cent hoarding became a matter of interest in copper rather than of scarcer dates. Shortages resulted.

Alternative alloys were considered. The leading proposal at the time was aluminum and the Mint jumped in by making 1,579,324 aluminum 1974 cents before there was any congressional approval of a composition change. As it worked out, that approval would never come, but in the process of showing the new aluminum cents to Congress, a few got out and that put the legal status of those few 1974 aluminum cents in question.

To date one has been graded and the debate is going on as to whether the 1974 aluminum cents, while technically patterns and not cents as they were never approved, are legal to own or not. Images of seizures abound, but so far other than requests there has been no official action but that could change at any time.

Falling copper prices after a peak, relieved the pressure to change the cent’s alloy, but this turned out to simply be a stay of execution for the copper alloy.

In 1982 the strong copper market forced a change. Congress approved a composition of zinc coated with copper. The percentages work out as 97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper. This made the coin look virtually identical to the 95 percent copper alloy. Both compositions were produced in 1982.

Small and large dates came with the composition change, making the cents of 1982 virtually a mini-collection by themselves. In all there are seven possibilities as well as a 1982-S proof-only from San Francisco.

More doubled dies arrived in 1972 which as IN GOD WE TRUST and the date showed somewhat less doubling than occurred on the 1955. It was a sensation and had an interesting hoard that Q. David Bowers describes in his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards. Georgia coin dealer John Hamrick, who was driving around with some $50 bags of 1972 Lincoln cents in the trunk of his car, proved lucky. Those bags contained thousands of the 1972 doubled die. With an estimated total of perhaps 20,000 pieces minted, it was a substantial hoard and at $775 today in MS-65 a valuable one especially when the bags had been purchased at regular 1972 prices.

Other doubled dies have included a 1983 which had a reverse doubling of "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" and which is currently $400 in MS-65 while a 1984 with doubling of Lincoln’s ear is at $275. The one that has lagged behind is the 1995, which saw substantial numbers coming from a couple dealerships. It is $50 in MS-65, but the price reflects the fact that the doubling on the obverse date and “Liberty” is difficult to make out with the naked eye.

There was also a noteworthy proof error in the form of a “no S” 1990 in a few sets and that coin is $2,750 today.

San Francisco Lincoln Memorial reverse cents are an interesting group. Most are proof-only coins, but the 1968-S to 1974-S issues were also struck for circulation. These business strikes all have lower mintages, not enough lower to make them likely to command high premiums.

The proof-only San Francisco dates since 1975 are a different matter. They are a collection of themselves. They are also considered by many collectors to be part of the regular Lincoln set. Future demand from those collectors might prove to be far more than the likely supply of broken up proof sets can handle.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the cent is usually a small part of the proof set price, so the decision to break up a set usually being based on the prices of the dollars, half dollar or quarter. The cent at that point is of little concern and could be sold for low prices or perhaps even thrown into promotions by dealers. It makes for a number of possibilities that could make some dates better or not as good as mintages suggest.

In the case of business strikes, the future might hold some potential surprises. Prices will ultimate be decided by how many of the coins were save by collectors in the uncirculated grades at the time of issue.

After 1964, there was really very little saving of the Lincoln Memorial reverse cent unless something happened in the year of issue to call attention to the denomination.

There was saving in 1982 because of the composition change and the small and large dates, but in most years there was simply no special reason to save a few rolls of cents.

There were no mint sets in 1982 and 1983 and that might reduce the supply of uncirculated cents. Certainly the price of uncirculated rolls already reflect this. The 1982 is $12 for a BU roll and the 1983-D is $11.

There have also been signs of life from other dates. The 1967 for example has gone from $1.25 for an uncirculated roll in 1998 to $12.50 today (according to a John Wells ad in Numismatic News). The 1969 has also posted a gain moving to $10 per roll while the 1986 has been very interesting, having had a premium price almost from the time it was released, it has now moved to $36 to match the 1986-D.

At $23.95 per roll, the 1984-D also has a large premium and with time and additional demand there could easily be others.

The future of Memorial cents lies not in the hands of the baby boomers who remember when they were first issued, but in the hands of their children and grandchildren and whether the cent as a denomination will be as worthy of respect in future years as it was during those happy days of the Eisenhower Administration.


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