U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

The Importance of Key-Date Coins

The first coin I ever made payments on was a 1937-D 3-Leg Buffalo nickel. The coin was raw but I trusted the dealer implicitly. It was a nice VF specimen for the circulated full-horn set I was assembling at the time. Around 1995, while attending the Long Beach Coin Show in Southern California, I saw an interesting series of events unfold on the show floor.

A small crowd had gathered around a dealer's table, and I noticed people gesturing to each other excitedly, and some were trying to get a closer look at the item of interest. I decided to see for myself and there it was... the dealer had a beautiful 1937-D 3-Leg Buffalo nickel, freshly graded MS65 by PCGS, that was being offered at $12,500.00, which was about 20% more than retail "ask" at the time. The coin was as stunning as its asking price, with mint luster more at home on a silver dollar, amid subtle rose-gold patina. I had never seen a mint state example before that day, and this one was truly a gem.

A few minutes passed and a gentleman in the group wrote a check and became the new owner of this classic "key-date" piece. The men shook hands, excitement faded, and things drifted back to normal, or so it seemed. Within 15 minutes, I learned that the new owner sold the coin on the same aisle to an eager buyer for $17,500.00. Even at this lofty price, perhaps a record for the time, both buyers were happy to pay a substantial premium for a desirable specimen and nothing has changed 15 years later.

Even the discovery in 1996 of the 1914/3 Buffalo nickel over-dates from all three branch mints caused little or no negative impact on the allure of the 1937-D 3-Leg Buffalo nickel. Its place as a must-have key date among collectors is forever secure. That coin today might qualify for a plus grade, and would go for somewhere around $50,000.00 or possibly much more to the right buyer – not a bad return if you actually held on to it. Only 50 pieces have been certified at PCGS as MS65 since 1986, with four at MS66 and none higher.

The demand for gem-quality key-date coins is very high, as another fresh generation of coin collectors has reached a level of maturity and stature that allows for such discretionary spending. This demand is intensified when one considers that many key-date coins are quietly put away for a generation or so before coming to market again, and this reduced supply translates to ever-increasing values. This has caused a trickle-down effect on many key-date issues in lower, collectible grades, which have also seen significant price increases over the last decade.

If you are looking to buy investment-quality coins, there are a few things to consider:

  • Know what you are looking for and why – key dates from almost any series are a great place to start.
  • When considering the pressures of supply and demand, be prepared to spend more than published values for key and semi-key dates, especially for gem-quality examples with exceptional eye appeal.
  • Buy from a reputable dealer. They can also help locate hard-to-find coins and fill want lists.
  • Always buy certified coins graded by top-tier grading companies. Do not waver from this.
Here is a snap shot of other key date coins and their auction prices (includes buyer's premium) from the 1990's compared to now (courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries):
  • 1909-S VDB 1C PCGS MS65RD – $1,320.00 in 1999, $5,462.50 in 2010.
  • 1918/7-D 5C PCGS F15 – $805.00 in 1998, $2,760.00 in 2009.
  • 1916 25C PCGS XF40 – $3,450.00 in 2001, $8,625.00 in 2009.
  • 1932-D 25C PCGS MS64 – $990.00 in 1993, $3,450.00 in 2010.
  • 1934-S $1 PCGS MS65 – $4,312.50 in 2000, $6,325.00 in 2010.
Try not to settle, and good luck with your search!

Mike Shickler is a third generation coin collector and student of American Pop Culture. He has a keen interest in just about anything made before 1950, whether it is classic bicycles, mechanical banks, advertising art or U.S. coins. His father's love of history and coin collecting influenced Mike's appreciation of antiques and collectibles at an early age.

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