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Mintages not always good clue to rarity of different coins
By Eric Von Klinger

A high mintage does not always ensure that a coin is common, nor do low mintages necessarily equate with high prices.

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Although they tend to learn these truisms early, today's collectors might be astounded to find that standard catalogs relegated mintage figures to appendices until well into the latter part of the 20th century. The figures were generally ignored until Wayte Raymond's Standard Catalog of United States Coins first appeared in the 1930s; the book copied U.S. Mint tables, which expressed amounts in dollar and cent totals rather than number of coins. A Guide Book of United States Coins (the "Red Book") similarly partitioned mintages from valuations until the 1960s.

Early awareness

This dissociation doesn't mean collectors were unaware of the higher price potential of low-mintage coins. Their initial reactions to three highly desired Lincoln cents illustrates this point:

The 1970-S Lincoln, "Small Date" cent (Level 7) variety sold for years in the $5 range in Mint State. Mintage of the variety is unknown. As time established it is rarer than first supposed, it has climbed to $30 in MS-64 red.

Soon after the new type appeared in 1909, the prominent v.d.b. initials of designer Victor D. Brenner were removed from the reverse, and it was immediately known that 1909-S cents with the initials were going to be especially scarce (484,000). Accordingly, many high-grade examples were saved and are available today, keeping prices from being even higher.

In 1914, another relatively low quantity (1,193,000) was produced, this time at the Denver Mint. Little note was taken of this fact until albums and folders became popular in the 1930s, Q. David Bowers has noted. In strictly Uncirculated grade, the 1914-D Lincoln cent is scarcer than its 1909-S Lincoln, v.d.b. counterpart and sells for more.

In 1931, the San Francisco Mint produced only 866,000 cents and withheld many from immediate release. As they became available, collectors already aware of the low quantity were ready to snap them up. Today, in any grade, a 1931-S Lincoln cent costs less than a 1914-D cent.

In a comparison of these three coins, differences can be seen not only in absolute-numbers rarity but also in "condition rarity" (the Uncirculated 1914-D cent being "tougher" than the Uncirculated 1909-S Lincoln, v.d.b. cent).

"Condition rarity" sometimes remains unexplained. Collectors have long scratched their heads about why 1901 Morgan silver dollars are so seldom seen in About Uncirculated grade or higher.

Throughout U.S. coinage history, particular dates and Mint marks in particular series have occasionally stood out in rarity for reasons other than quantities originally produced.

It was not until 2006 that researchers found a contemporary official explanation of why only 24 1894-S Barber dimes were coined: to use up a small amount of bullion left from melting obsolete coins, and so settle an account.

Even among late issues, one can point to the 1983-P Washington quarter dollar in Mint State. Only too late did collectors realize that the Mint was not selling Uncirculated Mint sets that year and few had thought to set aside quantities of new quarter dollars.

The 1844 Seated Liberty dime was long known as the "Orphan Annie" dime because of unaccountable relative rarity. The "Red Book" even footnoted speculation about what might have happed to most of the mintage. In time, it became apparent that the coin is really not as rare as a certain dealer was touting it to be.

Collectors were largely aware of the relatively low mintage of 1931-S Lincoln cents even before the coins were released and so were waiting for them. Today, even Uncirculated examples are surprisingly affordable.

Rarity by melting pot

The earlier comment about melting opens the door onto a much larger reason for the sometimes tenuous connection between original mintages and actual rarities: deliberate destruction, through melting.

It has long been practice for the Mint to melt coins of old designs that came its way, and replace them with pieces of current design.

A study of annual Mint reports, even down to the modern day, will reveal mounting totals of "obsolete" coinage destroyed. No record is kept of dates and Mint marks involved.

Coins containing the precious metals silver and gold have been subject to numerous mass meltings, when their intrinsic worth came to exceed face value.

The last great recycling was of silver in the 1960s and 1970s, after copper-nickel "clad" coins replaced the metal in U.S. coinage.

The U.S. government tried to stave off private profit-taking by banning private melting for a while, but Henry Merton chronicled the widespread flouting of the prohibition in his book The Big Silver Melt.

Many Americans at the time could remember when the private holding of gold was severely restricted in 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the surrender of all non-numismatic gold coins, which were melted.

No reflections

"Mintages of gold and silver are no real reflection of rarity, ever," researcher Robert W. Julian said.

Standards for early U.S. gold coinage undervalued the precious metal, with the result that "tremendous numbers" of the coins were simply exported and melted, he said.

Silver coinage was similarly affected at times, too, such as in the late 1840s, in the time of the California Gold Rush, he said. (Weights of fractional silver coins were slightly reduced in 1853 to alleviate the problem.)

Official mintage figures before 1836 may be unreliable. The Mint reported numbers for a given calendar year, regardless of the date on the actual coin. The editors of the Red Book and other standard guides have tried to extrapolate correct figures by date, but disagreements can and do exist.

Variety/error specialist Fred Weinberg deals almost with a different world of unknowns.

The Mint sometimes has kept track of deliberate changes, such as the use of v.d.b. on 1909 cents. It has not kept track of others, such as use of different-size date numerals within a year, such on Lincoln cents in 1960 and on 1970-S cents.

"Today," Weinberg commented, "with population reports from the grading services, almost 20 years' worth, you can have much more accurate information than the guesstimates of the 1960s and 70s. A straight population report at least gives comparison numbers, how much rarer one variety is than another.

"The rest is based on experience.

"When there's a new variety, you don't know sometimes for many months what the rarity is. [In the case of the 1970-S Level 7 cent, it took years for a stable market to develop.] It frustrates people; but if it were not for the collecting hobby, we wouldn't even know of the variety," Weinberg said.

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