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Ten Budget Picks
By Mike Thorne

When faced with the assignment to pick 10 (or more) great coins that retail for $100 or less, I have at least two big problems: First, how do I limit my list to just 10 coins? Second, and this is often the bigger problem, how do I keep myself from trying to buy all the coins I've talked about?

Before presenting my list of coins and the reasons I chose them, let me establish some ground rules. First, the coin values will be based on the May 2009 issue of Numismatic News "Coin Market." Second, the grade of the coin will be the one with a value closest to but below the $100 limit. Generally speaking, if I like a particular coin in one grade, I like it in all collectible grades. Thus, if a coin is worth $100 in Extremely Fine, I would also urge you to buy two of it in Very Fine if it's worth $50 in that grade, and so on.

If you've read any of my articles and columns over the years, then you're probably aware of my preference for certified coins, particularly coins certified by the major services. My reasons for recommending certified coins are that if you buy them you will avoid the potential problem of getting an altered or counterfeit piece, you won't have to worry about whether the coin has been cleaned or had its surface altered in some way, and your new acquisition will come in a holder that's desirable for long-term storage. In addition, the coin is likely to be accurately graded.

Notice that I said "likely to be accurately graded." I'm a firm believer in the admonition to buy the coin, not the holder. In other words, I think you should learn to grade for yourself and should only buy coins that you feel are at least the certified grade and have the look that you like. I have seen coins certified in high mint state or proof grades that I wouldn't want, because I think they're ugly, usually because they're darkly toned or they look cleaned. Of course, this may be just the look that you like. My point is that you should purchase a coin based on whether or not you like it, not on the grade on the holder and the price.

Finally, don't be afraid to stretch a bit on what you have to pay for the coin. The coins I've selected are scarce coins with good demand. Over time, they're almost guaranteed to be worth more than you paid for them. With that background, here's my top 10.

1. 1908-S Indian Head cent in Very Good-8. This is a coin I find hard to resist. For one thing, it was the first cent coined in San Francisco, the first branch-mint cent, in other words. For another, it had a mintage of just 1,115,000 pieces, which gives it the third lowest mintage of any Indian Head cent. Not only that, but if it were a Lincoln cent, it would also have the third lowest mintage, nudging out the much more expensive 1914-D for that ranking.

On top of all the reasons I've given you, you can still purchase a circulated specimen for less than $100. It's worth $77 in Good-4, $82 in VG-8, and just barely tops the $100 mark at $105 in Fine-12. I would urge you to buy one or more of this date as soon as you can, however, as this is a coin that I fully expect to be too high priced to make a $100 list in the not-too-distant future.

About the date, Richard Snow, writing in A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, says, "These cents are scarce and popular, so demand is high. Many come with weak feather tips. Search for fully struck examples." Of course, this tip about weak feather tips is irrelevant if you're searching for examples that cost less than $100.

Other scarce Indian Head cents that you should still be able to find for less than $100 in G-4 include the dates from 1869-1872. I predict that they'll all surpass the $100 level in the future.

2. 1911-S Lincoln cent in EF-40. Like many collectors, I got started with the Lincoln cent, and I spent many hours searching through rolls and even sacks of wheaties. Actually, they were all wheaties when I started collecting.

It turns out that 2009, as the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, is a great year for picking a Lincoln cent for my top-10-under-$100 list. With the spotlight on the series, good things are bound to happen with better, early dates. And the 1911-S is definitely a better date.

With a mintage of just slightly more than 4 million pieces, the 1911-S is the best, mintagewise, of the early S-mint semi-keys. In EF-40, the 1911-S lists for $75, and it's only $105 in AU-50. In A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents, David Bowers calls it "a key date in all grades," and I won't argue with that.

If you believe, as I do, that Lincolns are poised for better things valuewise, then another good date to consider is the 1924-D, which is still valued below $100 in some decent circulated grades. It's a $60 coin in VF-20, and with a mintage of slightly more than 2.5 million pieces, you should put it on your list along with the 1911-S. That mintage places the 1924-D fifth on the list of regular-issue Lincoln cents, behind only the 1909-S V.D.B., the 1931-S, the 1914-D, and the 1909-S, all of which are at or past the $100 mark in all collectible grades.

3. 1924-S or 1926-S Buffalo nickel in F-12. This time I'm giving you two coins for the price of one. In terms of mintage, these two dates rank fourth and first, respectively, with the 1926-S being the only date of which fewer than 1 million pieces were struck (970,000). Both dates are right at the $100 mark in F-12 ($96 and $100, respectively), and both take a huge leap in VF-20 ($455 and $375, respectively).

In The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels (3rd edition), David Lange writes the following about the 1924-S: "In low grades, 1924-S is yet another issue that performed poorly between 1960 and 1990, only to make an impressive recovery since then." A 1924-S in F-12 should have decent design detail but not enough to qualify it for the major price increase that occurs at the next level. You should buy one quickly if you want to get it under the $100 level, however, as I think it'll soon surpass that dividing line.

As indicated above, the 1926-S is already at the $100 level in F-12. Lange writes, "In the first edition of this book, published in 1992, I made the observation that 1926-S nickels grading F seemed undervalued. The market evidently agreed, as revealed by the price advance from 1990-2000, this value then doubling since 2000." I would urge you to seek out nice examples of this date in this grade before the price doubles yet again.

4. 1913-S Barber dime in VG-8. I find this date hard to resist. With a mintage of just 510,000 pieces, the 1913-S ranks second in the entire series, behind only the key date, 1895-O (440,000). Despite this super-low mintage, the 1913-S is worth only $50 in VG-8, although it does surpass $100 in F-12 ($120).

The key to the value (or I should say, lack of value) of the 1913-S is hoarding, according to David Lawrence, writing in The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes. Recognizing its low mintage at the time, collectors saved the 1913-S, with the result that it's more plentiful than some other Barber dimes with higher mintages. Its low mintage continues to be attractive, however, and "collector demand keeps the price up." I look for it to continue to rise and urge you to salt away a few while the price is still so reasonable.

5. 1926-S Mercury dime in VF-20. This is one of several Mercury dimes with a relatively low mintage. In fact, with just 1,520,000 produced, the 1926-S has the fifth lowest mintage of the entire series, behind only the 1916-D, the 1921 and -D, and the 1931-D. Here's what David Lange, writing in the second edition of The Complete Guide to Mercury Dimes, has to say about the date: "Fairly common in grades Good through Fine, grades VF and higher are genuinely scarce."

But in VF, the 1926-S is not excessively expensive at $70. In EF-40, it jumps to $290, so I would urge you to buy the coin in VF at your next opportunity. I would expect it to pass the $100 mark in that grade fairly quickly.

Before I leave the series, I would like to point out that the 1921 and 1921-D can still be purchased in a collectible grade for less than $100. The more plentiful of the two, the 1921, lists for $60 in G-4 and $75 in VG-8. Although Lange writes that it is common in grades VG and below, I predict that the price will continue to rise because of demand.

The 1921-D lists for $78 in G-4 and is well above the $100 mark in VG-8 ($125). I think we will soon see solid Gs selling for $100 and up. If you can find a nice one at a good price, jump on it.

6. 1913 Barber quarter in F-12. I like Barber coins in general and Barber quarters in particular. Beyond the big three (1896-S, 1901-S, and 1913-S), the series contains several scarce dates with mintages well below 1 million pieces. Of course, the big three have long since passed the $100 mark in any grade.

This has not happened for any of the other dates in the series, although the 1914-S is getting pretty close at $82 in G-4. Interestingly, only 264,000 pieces were struck of the 1914-S, which is the same mintage as the much more expensive 1916-D Mercury dime. The 1914-S has the fourth lowest mintage of the series.

Just 484,000 pieces were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1913, which gives the date the fifth lowest mintage in the series. I suspect the 1913 suffers by comparison with its companion date, the 1913-S, which had a mintage of just 40,000 and is fast approaching the $2,000 mark in G-4.

According to David Lawrence's second edition of The Complete Guide to Barber Quarters, the 1913 is "very scarce because of its low mintage, but saved to some extent." He classifies it as R4 ("Scarce. May or may not be available at larger shows.") in F/VF, and "Coin Market" values it at $75 in F-12. A nice VG-8 at $26 would also seem to be bargain priced.

7. 1913 Barber half dollar in VG-8. It wasn't all that many years ago that I could list the three lowest mintage Barber halves (1914, 1915, and 1913, in that order) in an article about great coins selling for $100 or less. Today, only the 1913 is left, the one with the highest mintage (188,627). To put this mintage in perspective, the two key dates in the Walking Liberty half dollar series, the 1921 and 1921-D, both have mintages over 200,000 and both have long since passed the $100 mark in any collectible grade.

In The Complete Guide to Barber Halves, David Lawrence rates the 1913 as R3 ("A tough date. Only a few likely to be found at larger shows."). This is the same rating he gives the 1914 and 1915. The 1913 lists for $77 in G-4 and $88 in VG-8. Care to wager how long it will be before this is a $100 coin in any grade?

8. 1921-S Walking Liberty half dollar in VG-8. In terms of mintage, at 548,000 produced the 1921-S ranks fifth in the series, behind only the 1921-D, 1921, 1938-D, and 1916-S, in that order. With the exception of the 1938-D, which is worth $90 in G-4 and $100 in VG-8, the other three dates are above the $100 line in all collectible grades. In G-4, the 1921-S lists for $46, and it's still only $70 in VG-8. It takes big leaps in value thereafter, going to $220 in F-12 and $750 in VF-20. From there on, it fully deserves its status as the "King of the Walkers."

If you can find decent specimens under $100, I would urge you to buy them, particularly if they just miss the requirements for a F-12. You can see how close the 1938-D is to the $100 mark in G-VG, and I believe there are more of it available than the 1921-S. Which would you think is the better buy?

9. 1886-S or 1889-S Morgan dollar in EF-40. This is another two-for-one deal, as both of these coins have similar mintages and similar values. With a mintage of 750,000, the 1886-S lists for $90 in EF-40. With a slightly lower mintage (700,000), the 1889-S is actually a little less expensive in that grade ($82).

I like any Morgan dollar with a mintage under 1 million pieces, and the 1886-S and 1889-S are two good dates to acquire. According to David Bowers, writing in A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, these are two dates that weren't released at the time of their mintage. "By the second decade of the 20th century the [1886-S] was considered to be one of the great rarities in the series, exceeded only by the 'impossible' 1889-S. Both issues were mostly stored in the San Francisco Mint. Beginning about 1942, and continuing until the 1950s, the San Francisco Mint had quantities available for the asking, and many went to the Nevada casinos, but there was no numismatic market."

In his encyclopedia of silver dollars, Bowers estimated the survival of "25,000 to 50,000 [1889-Ss], which for a Morgan dollar is not many." His estimate of 20,000 to 40,000 of the 1886-S is similar. Look for coins with nice color that don't have the appearance of being cleaned, and buy all you can afford.

10. 1927 Peace dollar in MS-60. Here, I was tempted to give you another two-for-one selection, but the coins would have to be in different grades. Specifically, I'm talking about the 1927, which I've listed, and the 1927-S. Both have mintages below 1 million pieces, and both can be purchased in decent collectible grades for less than $100. Actually, I would look for the 1927 in MS-61 or MS-62 rather than in MS-60, which can be a pretty bad-looking coin.

With a mintage of 848,000, the 1927 is worth only $70 in MS-60, with a jump to $185 in MS-63. Although its mintage is slightly higher at 866,000, the 1927-S is more expensive, with a value of $80 in AU-50 and $148 in MS-60. Bowers reports that the 1927-S is characterized by weak strikes, so keep your eyes peeled for better strikes of this date.

Well, that's my list of 10 (actually more than 10) great coins that can still be purchased for less than $100 apiece in decent collectible grades. As you should be able to guess, I could easily put together several other lists of 10 great coins. For example, I didn't mention any coins that are typically collected by type rather than by date. Just last night, I bid in a Heritage Exclusively Internet auction and won a nice-looking 1831 Liberty Cap 25-cent piece, graded VG-10 by ANACS, for less than $75. This is a coin with a "Coin Market" value of $95, so it could have been on a less-than-$100 list.

The point is that there are literally dozens of great U.S. coins that combine scarcity with relatively low prices. With a little study, you, too, can compile your own list of sub $100 coins that are fun to own and almost guaranteed to increase in value. Of course, you may find yourself bidding against me if you're trying to buy them at auction. Good luck.

 



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