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Ten Great Dream Coins
By Mike Thorne

In my personal experience, money has always been an object. I've been known, for example, to bypass a type of fish at the grocery story because I thought the price was a dollar a pound too high. My wife thinks I'm foolish to act this way, but I can't help it: It's just become part of my nature.

Having said that, for this article I'm going to fight my normal tendencies and go for broke. I'm going to choose coins that have always appealed to me at least in part because they really are so far out of my league.

In fact, some of the coins I've chosen are out of almost everyone's league. I will start by telling you that my 10 Dream Coins are not the usual suspects. I haven't chosen, for example, coins such as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the 1804 dollar, or the 1894-S dime. For some reason, those coins have never particularly appealed to me. Don't get me wrong: If you want to offer me one, I'll be more than willing to take it off your hands.

For my first Dream Coin, I'm going to start with one of America's early coin issues. As you would expect, for each of the coins I'm choosing, I want one in the best condition possible.

Dream Coin No. 1: 1793 Liberty Cap cent.

I can already hear your question: Why not the 1793 cent with the chain design? Well, to put it bluntly, I agree with the many detractors of that coin's obverse design. As Walter Breen so colorfully put it in his Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, "The hair looks disheveled, then connoting failure of respectability and either madness or savagery, explaining Carlile Pollock's oft-quoted comment&, 'A plough and a sheaf of wheat would be better than an idiot's head with flowing hair which was meant to denote Liberty, but which the world will suppose was intended to designate the head of an Indian squaw.'" Of course, the term "Indian squaw" is politically incorrect to the extreme, but you get the picture: The obverse is not particularly attractive.

There were also complaints aplenty about the reverse chain design, which some contemporary citizens characterized as an "attempt to associate liberty with the chains of slavery." Of course, as slaves would not be emancipated in America for many decades, the chain cent could be perceived as a case of "telling it like it is."

So, bypassing the 1793 Flowing Hair chain cent and the Flowing Hair 1793 Wreath cent, my first Dream Coin is the large cent designed by Joseph Wright, the 1793 Liberty Cap cent. According to Breen, Wright's design for this cent came in the "last few weeks of life, before he succumbed to yellow fever.& Wright died five or six days before the single delivery, 11,056 pieces (Sept. 18, 1793), so that he most likely never saw any of the coins made from his dies.&" This is reminiscent of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the gold $20 that bears his name. Like Wright, Saint-Gaudens died before seeing his coin in circulation.

If money indeed were no object and I could actually afford a 1793 Liberty Cap cent, what would it cost me? Breen estimates survival of the coin at a little over 2 percent of the original issue or somewhat under 250 pieces, most of which are in low grades. He suggests that "possibly as many as six grade AU to Unc., eight EF." According to Numismatic News "Coin Market," the coin is worth $67,500 in Extremely Fine and $40,000 in About Uncirculated, which has to be a typo. Surely it should be $140,000. Small wonder that Breen calls the 1793 Liberty Cap "the most famous of the 1793 cents and possibly the most prized of all large cents."

Dream Coin No. 2: 1916-D Mercury dime.

Now this may seem like an odd choice, as the 1916-D Mercury dime is not particularly rare, at least in most grades, and I even own a low-grade example. However, it's the key date to an extremely popular series and, as such, is always in great demand. I particularly like it because it's a coin that was actually still circulating when I did my roll searches in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of course, the few still "out there" were almost surely in the Fair to Good range of grades.

Adolph A. Weinman, whose initials "AW" are on the obverse opposite the back of Liberty's neck, designed the dime to replace the unlamented Barber version. He also designed the half dollar, of course, but none of them are on my Dream Coin list.

Weinman dressed his head of Liberty in a winged cap, and somehow the notion stuck that this represented the fleet Mercury, whose wings were on his feet! Thus, the coin came to be known popularly as the Mercury Head (or just Mercury) dime.

With a mintage of 264,000 pieces and differential retention because of its being the first year of issue, you wouldn't expect the coin to be worth $1,000 in G-4, but that's what demand will do for you. In Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth's book, 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, the 1916-D is coin No. 65. Under the heading "Rarity," the authors label the 1916-D "scarce," with the following caution: "The true scarcity of the 1916-D Dime has been masked by the presence of numerous fakes, most of which were created by the addition of a small mint mark on the back of a Philadelphia Dime. Certification remains a must.&" To which I say, "Amen."

Because price is no object, naturally I want the best one I can find. "Coin Market" prices it at $44,500 in Mint State-65 FSB (full split bands). On June 2, 2008, a Professional Coin Grading Service-graded specimen in MS-65 FB sold for $57,500. Searching Heritage Rare Coin's massive auction archives, I found that a PCGS MS-66 FB 1916-D sold for $63,250 in November 2005. However, the ultimate specimen, graded MS-67 FB by PCGS, realized $128,800 in 2001. That's the one I want.

Dream Coin #3: 1916 Standing Liberty quarter.

Like the 1916-D dime, this is really just a "normal" collector coin. In fact, it's the key to completing a set of Standing Liberty quarters, which are believed by many collectors to have one of the all-time best designs on U.S. coins.

The date is expensive for several reasons. First, just 52,000 were minted at the tail-end of 1916. Second, attrition because of the elevated placement of the date (which soon wore away) made an already scarce coin even scarcer. Third, there's the demand factor, which in many cases trumps availability. Even though there are quite a few uncirculated specimens available because of differential retention (first year of a new design), the coin is quite valuable in any grade.

Designed by Hermon MacNeil, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter is coin No. 59 in Garrett and Guth's list. They write, "Above MS-65, the 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter becomes extremely rare; superb pieces are virtually non-existent." "Coin Market" assigns it a value of $37,500 in MS-65 FH (full head). Searching Heritage's auction archives, I found that an NGC-graded MS-67 FH sold for $97,750 in June 2005. Surely, a comparable piece would bring more than $100,000 in today's market.

Dream Coin #4: 1895 Morgan dollar.

Now this is a coin that's actually worth a lot more than it ought to be. Supposedly, 12,000 of this date were made for circulation, with another 880 proofs. However, no one has ever found a specimen made for circulation, so all the coins of the date available to Morgan dollar collectors are actually proofs, although many made it into circulation.

So, if we're talking about a coin with a mintage of just 880 pieces, of which many are undoubtedly no longer with us, how can I say the 1895 Morgan is worth more than it ought to be worth? Well, it turns out that there are several proof Morgan dates with considerably lower mintages that are worth considerably less than the 1895. For example, a PCGS-graded PR-67 Cameo specimen of the 1890 proof, which had a mintage of just 590 pieces, sold in a Heritage auction in August 2006 for $20,700. A comparable 1895 is worth at least five times as much.

The difference is that the 1895 proof is often collected as part of the complete date-mintmark set of Morgan dollars, whereas the 1890 proof is collected as part of the set of Morgan proofs. The former series enjoys wide collector interest and demand, whereas there are relatively few collectors of the proof series.

Although not the priciest, the best 1895 I found in the Heritage auction archives was one graded PR-68 Deep Cameo by PCGS. In July 2003, this spectacular coin sold for $120,750. In April 2007, a PCGS-graded 1895 PR-66 DC went for $126,500, which leads me to believe that if the PR-68 again comes on the market, it'll fetch more than it did in 2003.

Garrett and Guth concur with this prediction, as they write: "A couple of incredibly beautiful Proof-68 examples are known; these always turn heads and fetch record prices whenever they appear on the market." The 1895 Morgan dollar is coin No. 66 on the list of the top 100 U.S. coins. Naturally, I want one of the PR-68 DCs for my dream collection.

Dream Coin No. 5 and No. 6: Stella $4 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair gold pieces.

The Stella or gold $4 pieces are actually pattern coins that are collected almost like regularly issued coins. One variety, the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella, is more like the 1856 Flying Eagle cent in terms of its mintage and availability than it is like other patterns. Mintage of this piece was at least 425 and possibly as many as 725, as it was struck for review by Congress.

The Stella, which is named for the large five-pointed star on the reverse ("stellar" means of or pertaining to stars), was proposed as an international trade token. Although this odd-denomination coin never made it into production as a trade piece, four different versions were minted: Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair varieties in both 1879 and 1880.

The Flowing Hair Liberty design was the work of Charles E. Barber, whereas the Coiled Hair version was the handiwork of George T. Morgan. Although quite a few of the 1879 with Flowing Hair are known, as stated above, the other varieties are exceedingly scarce. According to the A Guide Book of United States Coins, the number of 1879 Coiled Hair, 1880 Flowing Hair, and 1880 Coiled Hair pieces known are 12, 17, and 18, respectively. These two designs share No. 28 on Garrett and Guth's list.

Values are steep, as you would expect for beautiful coins with significant demand and limited (sometimes extremely limited) availability. According to the Red Book, in PR-67 the 1879 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair and 1880 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stellas are worth $400,000, $950,000, $575,000, and $1,500,000, respectively. I'll take one of each.

Dream Coin #7: 1822 $5 gold piece.

The reason I chose this particular coin is that I remember its having the highest value of any coin listed in my first Red Book. The value back in 1958 was $15,000, which was a hefty sum 50 years ago. In the current Red Book, there's a figure of $5,000,000 for the date. "Coin Market" gives a $1,000,000 value, with a note that a Very Fin-30 specimen sold in a private sale in 1993 for that amount.

This is a coin with a total of three known from an original mintage of 17,796. What happened to the rest? According to Garrett and Guth, who place the 1822 half eagle at No. 9 in their top 100 U.S. coins, melting because of the changing value of gold was the culprit. Of the three remaining pieces, two are in the Smithsonian and are thus unavailable to collectors. There's no telling what I'll have to pay the next time one comes up for auction, but price is no object!

Dream Coin #8: 1907 Saint-Gaudens ultra high relief gold $20.

The Saint-Gaudens gold $20 is widely held to be the pinnacle of U.S. coinage art, and the ultra high relief specimens are the penultimate expressions of that design. According to Garrett and Guth, who rank this particular coin No. 5 on the list of the top 100 U.S. coins, "The MCMVII (1907) Ultra-High Relief&double eagle is a magnificent example of the minting craft. It takes America's most beautiful coin to a new level.& Perhaps no other U.S. coin, or world coin for that matter, has the visual appeal of the ultra high relief. It is truly sad that this gorgeous coin is so expensive and can only be possessed by a very few lucky collectors." They might have added "and rich" before "lucky collectors."

The ultra high relief coins were minted during February and March of 1907, each coin requiring nine strikes with 172 tons of hydraulic pressure. According to Breen, "Some 24 proof specimens were made of this incredible design, each nearly double the thickness at edge of the regular double eagle.& Only these faithfully represent St. Gaudens's conception, cherished as the stunning climax of American coin design. The art expert Cornelius Vermeule has justly compared it to the Nike of Samothrace!"

Garrett and Guth give an estimate of 16 to 18 known specimens of the lettered-edge variety, with a single plain-edge version. The Red Book assigns the coin a value of $2,250,000 in PR-67 and note that a PR-69 version brought $2,990,000 in a November 2005 Heritage auction. For my Dream Coin collection, I'll take the PR-69 specimen the next time it's for sale.

Dream Coin #9: 1927-D Saint-Gaudens gold $20.

Compared to the last coin, this Saint-Gaudens gold $20 is relatively ordinary, at least in appearance. Several years ago, I decided to see how many different Saints I could accumulate before I was stopped by either rarity or price or both. When I mentioned this quest to one of my brothers, who happens to be interested in coins, he asked me if I had a 1927-D.

I was pretty sure this was a better date, but I had to consult a current Red Book to see just how much better it actually was. After all, in my 1958 edition, the 1927-D appeared to be a better date but not a great rarity, with a Fine value of $275 (common dates listed for well below $100) and an uncirculated price of $850, which is the highest of any date and even higher than the high relief varieties in proof ($750). In hindsight, knowing what I now know, I should have saved my money and bought one of the few 1927-Ds that actually existed.

The 1927-D wasn't always considered so prohibitively rare. Other dates, such as the 1924-D and the 1926-D, were considered rarer until small groups of them were found in Europe. This has not happened with the 1927-D, and today the number available is on the order of a dozen or so.

Garrett and Guth place the 1927-D at No. 50 in their list of the top 100 U.S. coins and write that survivors are mostly in higher mint-state grades. The value of this date depends on the latest one sold at auction, as each new sale seems to set a record for the date in the particular grade. The value listed in the Red Book is for one sold by Heritage in November 2005. With a PCGS grade of MS-67, it sold for $1,897,500. Naturally, this is the 1927-D I want.

Dream Coin No. 10: 1915-S Panama-Pacific Exposition Octagonal $50 gold piece.

Yes, I realize that I'm choosing the version of this coin with the largest distribution (645 vs. 483), but you've got to admit that an octagonal coin is somehow more interesting than its round counterpart. Like how many octagonal coins do you have in your collection? How many round? I rest my case.

This spectacular coin was minted as part of the commemorative set for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. In addition to the two $50 pieces, there was also a silver half dollar and gold $1 and $2.50 pieces.

Robert Aitken designed the coin, putting the helmeted head of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom (among other things), on the obverse, and a large owl, symbol of wisdom, on the reverse. Obviously, these were wise choices. One feature the octagonal variety has that the round one doesn't have is a series of dolphins swimming in the angles.

Each $50 coin, or "slug" as they are sometimes called, contains nearly 2.5 ounces of gold. In Garrett and Guth's 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, this is coin No. 26. According to the authors, the "survival of the original net mintage is high, perhaps 80-90%." Still, 80 percent of 645 is a little more than 500 pieces, and with tremendous demand, you know the coin is going to be expensive. "Coin Market" values the octagonal piece at $148,000 in MS-65.

Well, there they are, 10 coins that I would want if money were no object. Of course, in addition to money, one huge problem with my list is availability. Some of these coins will probably not come on the market during the rest of my lifetime.

In addition, these are the coins I just happened to think of at this time. Ask me tomorrow, and my list might be entirely different.

But that would necessitate another article, and my deadline is fast approaching. I guess these will have to do.

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