by Scott A. Travers
Coin collectors often complain that there’s nothing worthwhile left to find today in pocket change. Indeed, this is often cited as one of the major reasons for a widely perceived failure to attract new collectors–particularly youngsters–to the hobby.
Without a doubt, there are far fewer scarce-date, premium-value coins in circulation today than there were when COINage magazine began publication in 1964. And one of the major reasons for this is a watershed event that occurred at about the time the magazine first appeared: the introduction of “clad” coins with little or no silver content. Up to then, silver coins dating back 30 years or more were commonplace in pocket change, but after that they vanished–along with all the rest of the silver coins.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the COINage years–the three decades during which that magazine has been published–constitute a vast waistland in terms of circulation finds. It may not be as easy to find “a fortune in pocket change” as it was when B. Max Mehl coined that phrase back in the good old days, but plenty of desirable, valuable coins are still out there today for fortune-hunters with patience and perseverance. And many of them have come into being during the last 30 years.
Any kind of treasure hunt is easier and more fun when you have a map to guide you, so I’ve drawn up a list of 10 of the more intriguing coins you have a realistic chance to find–today, this very minute–in the change in your pocket or purse. Every single one has been issued by the U.S. Mint since 1964.
For a fuller discussion of these coins and others like them, I recommend that you read my best-selling Dell paperback One-Minute Coin Expert. It contains a wealth of detail on how to spot scarce and valuable coins not only in pocket change but also in old accumulations.
Here, then, are 10 top circulation finds still out there today from the COINage years:
The 1970-S “Atheist” cent.
The motto IN GOD WE TRUST has appeared on the Lincoln cent right from the coin’s inception in 1909. But in 1970, small numbers of cents from the San Francisco Mint seemed to have been sabotaged by a devil’s advocate: The words WE TRUST were covered by a blob of metal. Part of the metal on one or more obverse dies had broken off, causing what is known as a “cud,” or lump of metal, to appear on that part of the coin instead of the regular imprint of the design. Because this error impaired the tribute to the Almighty, the coin was promptly dubbed the “Atheist” cent. It isn’t a great rarity, but it’s certainly an interesting conversation piece, it’s worth a few dollars–and it’s findable in ordinary pocket change.
The 1970-S small-date Lincoln cent.
Most collectors know about the small- and large-date varieties of the 1960 Lincoln cent, but fewer are aware that similar varieties occurred a decade later. And, once again, the one with the smaller date proved to be scarcer and more valuable. Actually, the 1970-S small date is worth several times as much as the far more highly publicized 1960-P small date. To identify this variety, check the tops of the numbers in the date: In the large date, the tops of the 9 and the 0 are higher than the top of the 7; in the small date, the tops of all four numbers are uniform.
The 1972 doubled-die Lincoln cent.
By 1972, silver coins were all but gone from circulation and so were the pre-1959 Lincoln cents with the “wheat ears” design on the reverse. Then, out of the blue, just as many collectors were bemoaning the lack of worthwhile coins in circulation, sharp-eyed hobbyists began turning up newly struck cents with obvious doubling in the date and inscriptions on the obverse. These “doubled-die” cents have commanded impressive premiums–upwards of $100 apiece–ever since. And since they’re Lincoln Memorial cents and thus haven’t been subject to indiscriminate withdrawal from circulation (as the “wheaties” cents have), there undoubtedly are still more examples waiting to be plucked from pocket change.
The 1983 doubled-die Lincoln cent.
With coin errors, lightning can strike not only twice but many times. So it was that in 1983, Lincoln cents with doubled features turned up once again–this time with the doubling on the reverse. Mint-state examples of this particular error coin are valued today at about $200, circulated pieces roughly half that much. And more are almost certainly waiting to be found in circulation.
The 1984 doubled-die Lincoln cent.
You just can’t get too much of a good thing. In 1984, for the third time in a dozen years, the Mint produced a cent with obvious doubling. In this case, it appeared on the obverse. This coin’s premium value is parallel to that of the other two.
The 1964 Jefferson nickel with the motto E PLURIDUS UNUM.
Most people are familiar with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM on U.S. coins, even though many don’t know what it means (it’s a Latin phrase meaning “Out of many, one,” and signifies that out of my states, one nation has been forged in this country). But often, familiarity breeds inattentiveness. That’s why many collectors didn’t notice at first when 1964-D Jefferson nickels appeared with PLURIBUS misspelled as PLURIDUS. Heavy polishing of one or more dies had caused the center of the letter “B” to become obliterated, leading to this interesting error.
This isn’t a high-priced rarity, but it does bring a modest premium. And it underscores the importance of paying close attention to the coins you find in change: Many of the pieces that command premium value will do so because of just this kind of detail. So you’ll need a sharp pair of eyes–and a magnifying glass would be helpful, too. An inexpensive glass with 5-power magnification would be fine.
The 1982 no-P Roosevelt dime.
Up until 1980, dimes produced at the Philadelphia Mint never carried a mint mark. Starting that year, a small letter “P” was placed on Philly dimes just above the date–and just two years later, a major error occurred when the mint mark was omitted from a small number of dimes made at that mint. Collectors have determined that the number was small indeed, and as a result this coin is now worth well over $100 in mint condition. Circulated examples bring somewhat less–but still, it would be well worth your while to find one. And if you look hard enough, you just may!
The 1989 no-P Washington quarter.
Unlike the error dime seven years earlier, the no-P quarter of 1989 seems to have resulted from dirt or grease in the die, rather than someone’s failure to stamp the mint mark into the die to begin with. Essentially, the clogging caused the letter “P” to be missing, or barely visible, on some of the P-mint quarters struck that year. There has been some controversy over just how significant this particular error coin may be. There’s no disputing, though, that many examples have changed hands for $50 or more. That should be incentive enough for you to seek this coin in your pocket or purse.
The 1972-D Kennedy half dollar without the designer’s initials.
Frank Gasparro, former chief sculptor-engraver of the United States Mint, designed the reverse of the Kennedy half dollar, which features the presidential coat of arms. And, as is customary, he was permitted to place his initials on the coin as a form of “signature.” The letters “FG” can be found just to the right of the eagle’s tail. Occasionally, however, overzealous die polishing led to the production of Kennedy halves without these distinctive initials. One such instance took place at the Denver Mint in 1972.
Some of the issues with missing initials are relatively common, but the 1972-D is fairly scarce–and, as a consequence, it brings a higher premium. Here again, a 5- power magnifying glass will enable you to identify the error quickly and easily. Other Kennedy halves known to have been struck without the “FG” include the 1966, the 1973 and the 1982.
Incidentally, Frank Gasparro’s initials also appear on the reverse of the Lincoln Memorial cent, another of his creations–and also FAIL to appear on some of those because of similar die-polishing errors. It almost makes you wonder whether someone at the Mint had it in for him!
The 1974-D doubled-die Kennedy half dollar.
On small numbers of Kennedy halves minted at Denver in 1974, there’s doubling on the obverse. This can be seen most easily in the mottos, rather than the date–and possibly for that reason, this particular error didn’t come to light until quite recently. It appears to be a rare variety, and that is reflected in its price tag of several hundred dollars.
In addition to seeking this coin in circulation, you also should examine any 1974 uncirculated coin sets–or “mint sets”–that you may have in your safety deposit box or dresser drawer. There have been reports of examples turning up in such sets. And since those particular coins are in mint condition, their premium value is maximized.
The fact that this error wasn’t identified, or at least widely publicized, for more than a dozen years should encourage you to intensify your treasure-hunting efforts. It underscores my point that valuable coins are indeed out there waiting to be found–and in some cases literally waiting to be discovered.
Half dollars in general could prove to be a fertile hunting ground, since they haven’t seen much use in daily commerce and therefore haven’t been subject to the same intensive scrutiny as lower denominations. Also, many people apparently don’t realize that Kennedy half dollars retained silver content–although a reduced amount–from 1965 through 1970. Kennedys of those dates are encountered in rolls and bags, and even in regular pocket change, more often than you might imagine. Your best bet here might be to obtain some rolls from your neighborhood bank, since half dollars really don’t circulate in most areas.
Here’s another tip: Of all the current coins, the Jefferson nickel offers the greatest hope of finding a scarcer date, as opposed to a variety whose value is tied to a mint error. That’s because with the exception of the silver “war nickels,” Jeffersons have remained essentially the same in design and composition since the series started in 1938.
All of the other current U.S. coins have undergone crucial changes that led to the withdrawal of earlier examples from circulation. Pre-1959 Lincoln cents have disappeared because of the design change that year, and pre- 1965 Roosevelt dimes and Washington quarters and pre-1971 Kennedy halves have been hoarded because of their silver content.
With Jeffersons, you stand a legitimate chance of finding a scarce date like the 1938-D and S, 1939-D and S and 1950-D. Admittedly, that chance is small–but at least you have the advantage that if the coins are out there, they’ll look like all the rest of the nickels around them and someone else won’t beat you to the punch for a strictly generic reason having nothing to do with the rarity of the dates.
Looking for treasure in pocket change is fun and can be rewarding in a tangible sense, as well. Best of all, the price of the coins you find is unbeatably low.
Circulation finds were exciting 30 years ago, and they’re still exciting today. Why not grab some pocket change and find out for yourself!