U.S. & World Coin News and Articles
Rare Coins in Your Pocket -- Can You Still Hope for That Surprise Treasure?
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 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 this 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
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
- 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
- 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
- The 1964 Jefferson nickel with the motto E PLURIDUS
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
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
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
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
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!