Lists are all the rage these days, as the dawn of the year 2000 gives rise to compilations of everything from the most important events of the last millennium to the best movies and books of the 20th century. The numismatic field is not immune to this "bug." In fact, I made a personal contribution to the hype by preparing an article for COINage magazine recently on the men and women who deserve consideration as the numismatist (or numismatists) of the century.
In the spirit of these centennial and millennial pursuits, the editors of Coin Universe have asked me to draw up a list of the all-time Top 50 U.S. coins. Obviously, any such list must of necessity cover more than just the 20th century. On the other hand, its coverage falls considerably short of a millennium, since federal U.S. coinage didn't get under way until the final decade of the 18th century and even Colonial coinage takes the time line back to only 1652.
In accepting this challenge, I realized full well that no list would satisfy every single reader, since everyone has a different frame of reference. I also rejected the notion of basing my selections solely on rarity or price performance -- or even on historical significance. All of these elements need to be given weight, along with popularity, but I felt that the criteria must be as broad as possible, reflecting the composite importance and impact of every coinage candidate.
I've chosen a list within a list -- the créme de la créme, if you will -- consisting of the coins I consider to be the Top 10. And I've rated these in order of importance from 1 to 10. Assigning a ranking to each of the remaining coins would be arbitrary, capricious and ultimately rather meaningless, so I've listed those chronologically from oldest to most recent. In each case, I've given a brief explanation as to why I selected the coin, with much greater detail on the Top 10.
Your comments, criticisms, suggestions and substitutions would be most welcome. And although my list and yours might differ substantially, I hope you will agree that all of the 50 coins cited here are worthy of serious consideration. I know I'd be delighted to have them in my collection!
- The 1804 silver dollar. "The King of U.S. Coins" resoundingly reaffirmed its claim to that throne on Aug. 30, 1999, when the Childs specimen, the finest-known example of this famous American rarity, changed hands at auction for $4.14 million -- more than double the previous record for any U.S. coin. That previous record was held by (what else!) a different 1804 silver dollar, the Eliasberg specimen, which had sold for $1.815 million in 1997. There are rarer U.S. coins; researchers say there are 15 examples of the 1804 dollar in existence. But for hype, pizzazz, romance and historical significance, this is the winner hands-down.
- The 1913 Liberty Head nickel. If this list were restricted to just the 20th century, it would be topped by the 1913 "V" nickel. The five known examples came into being surreptitiously and some would say illegally, but over the years they have won not only acceptance but also recognition as coveted first-magnitude rarities. The Eliasberg specimen was the first U.S. coin to break the million-dollar mark at auction, bringing $1,485,000 in 1996 and holding the all-time record for more than a year.
- The 1907 ultra-high-relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle. For sheer majesty, this is the monarch of all it surveys in U.S. numismatics. It may not be the king in terms of price performance or promotability, but it is widely acclaimed as the loveliest incarnation of the single most beautiful coin in the nation's history. And with only a handful of pieces in existence, it also possesses great rarity -- enough to gain it membership in the million-dollar club.
- The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent. Rarity is relative. With a mintage of 484,000, this first-year Lincoln cent is far from rare in an absolute sense. But because it is the lowest-mintage coin in the whole Lincoln series, and so many millions of people have collected this series over the years, the '09-S VDB has become one of the hobby's Holy Grails -- a coin that almost everyone knows about and fervently desires. It is, in short, the most popular coin in the single most popular series.
- The 1943 bronze Lincoln cent. Misconceptions abound concerning this World War II variety. But everyone, it seems, has heard about this coin -- including millions of people whose coin collecting is limited to mayonnaise jars and sock drawers. The extent of public interest was underscored in February 1999 when a poorly researched story distributed by The Associated Press told of the loss of one alleged "copper" 1943 cent by an Idaho man. Coin dealers were deluged with phone calls, and there was extensive (and often inaccurate) coverage in the media. The fact is, small numbers of bronze cents were in fact produced in 1943, when zinc-coated steel was the standard composition. These coins generally command strong five-figure prices. Many U.S. coins are more valuable, but few can compare when it comes to firing up the public's imagination.
- The 1873-CC no-arrows Liberty Seated dime. The "thin dime" may be the Rodney Dangerfield of U.S. coinage, but this particular piece gets plenty of respect. That's what happens when a coin is unique. In 1950, this was the final coin needed -- and acquired -- by Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. to finish his famous collection, the only complete date-and-mint set of every U.S. coin. Eliasberg paid $4,000 for this great rarity half a century ago -- and in 1997, when that collection hit the market, Illinois collector Waldo E. Bolen Jr. bought it for $550,000. In April 1999, Bolen in turn sold it for $632,500 at the Central States auction in Milwaukee. That's the highest price ever paid for any U.S. dime at a public sale.
- The 1849 Coronet double eagle. This is another coin of which just one example is known. Its allure is compounded by the fact that the only known specimen is locked away in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Thus, it's unavailable -- at ANY price -- to collectors. Besides being the ultimate rarity, this is also a coin with exceptional historical significance, for it is the very first U.S. double eagle (or $20 gold piece) ever made. And its issuance was spawned by the California Gold Rush. Some believe that if this coin ever became available to collectors, it might challenge the $4-million-plus record established by the 1804 silver dollar.
- The Brasher doubloon. This privately produced gold piece, minted in 1787 by New York City jeweler Ephraim Brasher, isn't technically part of U.S. coinage. But it is surely an integral -- and surpassingly important -- part of the nation's coinage heritage. It also has cast a very long shadow in the marketplace: In 1979, a Brasher doubloon from the Garrett Collection sold at public auction for $725,000 -- a record that stood for nearly a decade as the highest price paid at auction for any American coin or related item.
- The 1870-S three-dollar gold piece. Uniqueness counts! Here's another coin with just one example known -- and that alone would be enough to catapult it into the Top 10. For good measure, though, it also has a touch of romantic appeal: This single example is said to have been found in the cornerstone of the San Francisco Mint. Although it is not in mint condition, having been graded Extremely Fine-40, it brought $687,500 at the 1982 auction of gold coins from the Eliasberg Collection.
- The 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Like the very first double eagle of 1849, this coin -- the very LAST U.S. coin of that denomination -- is unavailable currently to collectors. The reason, however, is quite different. The U.S. Treasury has ruled that 1933 double eagles, though minted, had not been officially issued prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order suspending gold coinage and mandating the surrender of most gold coins in private hands. On this basis, the Treasury has decreed that any 1933 double eagles are subject to confiscation if they surface. Only a handful are thought to survive -- and if the shadow of seizure is ever removed, these could well bring upwards of $1 million apiece.
Following are the 40 runners-up in my Top 50 list. They are listed chronologically, rather than in their order of importance.
- The 1792 half disme. Talk about history: George Washington is said to have provided the silver for this coin.
- The 1793 Chain cent. The very first U.S. cent -- a failure in commerce, but coveted as a collectible.
- The 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar. The first U.S. dollar, rare and historically important.
- The 1796 Draped Bust quarter. The only U.S. quarter minted in the 18th century, a type coin of exceptional rarity.
- The 1822 Capped Head half eagle. Only three examples are known, and one brought $687,500 at the 1982 auction of gold coins from the Eliasberg Collection.
- The 1827 Capped Bust quarter. Only 4,000 examples were made. Restrikes exist, and even those are rare and very valuable.
- The Gobrecht dollar. The jumping-off point for the long-lived Liberty Seated coinage, this lovely coin is rare and historically significant.
- The 1838-O Bust half dollar. The first branch-mint half dollar, with only 20 examples said to exist.
- The 1841 Coronet quarter eagle. Affectionately known as "The Little Princess," this rare proof-only issue is much loved and also much coveted.
- The 1856 Flying Eagle cent. Technically a pattern, this coin is widely collected as the very first small-size U.S. cent. It's extremely scarce and commands a substantial premium.
- The 1861 Paquet-reverse double eagle. A rare variety with tall, elegant lettering and a minuscule mintage of just three surviving pieces -- with a hefty price tag to match.
- The 1864 two-cent piece. The first U.S. coin to carry the now-familiar motto "In God We Trust."
- The 1876-CC twenty-cent piece. Despite a reported mintage of 10,000, only a handful are known to exist, and these bring handsome premiums.
- The 1877 Indian Head cent. The key coin of an enormously popular series. Not the lowest mintage, but the highest value and profile.
- The stella. A rare experimental coin struck in two years, 1879 and 1880, with two different varieties each year -- all of them extremely rare and valuable.
- The 1885 Trade dollar. A proof-only coin with a mintage of only five pieces.
- The 1892 Columbian half dollar. The very first U.S. commemorative coin, by most experts' reckoning. High mintage and relatively low value, but huge historical importance.
- The 1893-S Morgan silver dollar. In mint condition, the rarest and most valuable of all Morgan dollars.
- The 1894-S Barber dime. A great rarity, with a listed mintage of only 24 pieces and a survival rate considerably smaller.
- The 1895 Morgan silver dollar. Despite a listed mintage of 12,000 business strikes, only proofs are known to exist and these bring fancy premiums.
- The 1913 Type 1 Buffalo nickel. The original Buffalo nickel, depicting the bison standing on a mound, is a one-year type coin and the only one that shows this all-American coin in the full naturalistic beauty intended by artist James Earle Fraser. It is one-of-a-kind in more ways than one.
- The 1913-S Barber quarter. The lowest-mintage U.S. coin of the 20th century, not counting gold coins and varieties. Only 40,000 examples were produced.
- The 1914-D Lincoln cent. Next to the 1909-S VDB, the single most desired Lincoln cent. Its mintage is about three times higher than that of the '09-S VDB, but far fewer were saved in mint condition.
- The 1915 Panama-Pacific $50 gold piece. This largest (in size and face value) of all U.S. commemorative coins comes in two varieties, round and octagonal, and both have mintages well under 1,000 and price tags sometimes approaching or even exceeding $100,000.
- The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. A first-year issue with a mintage of only 52,000.
- The 1916-D "Mercury" dime. Another first-year issue with a mintage only moderately higher at 264,000. Both this and the 1916 quarter are among the most sought-after rarities of the 20th century.
- The 1918/17-D Buffalo nickel. A rare overdate coin with a rarefied price tag -- well into five figures in top mint condition.
- The 1918/17-S Standing Liberty quarter. Another rare overdate from the very same year but a different mint. Worth a comparable premium in comparable condition.
- The 1921-D Walking Liberty half dollar. The lowest-mintage coin in one of the most popular -- and most beautiful -- of all U.S. series.
- The 1922 "plain" Lincoln cent. An odd mint-error coin, actually produced in Denver but with little or no mint mark evident. Rare and valuable.
- The Oregon Trail commemorative half dollar. By virtual acclamation, the most beautiful of all U.S. commemorative coins.
- The 1937-D three-legged Buffalo nickel. Something of a novelty, but also quite rare and valuable. The right foreleg is missing, having been polished off the die.
- The 1942/1 "Mercury" dime. Another overdate, likewise rare and valuable. On high-grade specimens, the date appears to be 19421.
- The 1950-D Jefferson nickel. Not especially rare but, at just over 2.6 million, the lowest-mintage Jefferson (not counting the somewhat fluky 1994 and 1997 matte-finish nickels struck for inclusion in special sets). It's on the list because it was so important in the roll-market craze of the early 1960s.
- The 1955 doubled-die Lincoln cent. The coin that really energized mint-error collecting, making it one of the most active areas of numismatics today.
- The 1960 small-date Lincoln cent. The coin most responsible for the boom in late-date rolls in the early 1960s. Its price and popularity have waned, but its role in sparking the coin collecting boom a generation ago cannot be overstated.
- The 1964 Kennedy half dollar. A common coin in terms of mintage figures, but one that caught the imagination of people all over the world in the wake of John F. Kennedy's tragic assassination. It may well be the most popular U.S. coin of all time.
- The Bicentennial Washington quarter. Of the three Bicentennial coins, the only one that circulated widely. It caught the eye of millions of non-collectors, and still does today on the frequent occasions when it turns up in pocket change.
- The American Eagle gold bullion coin. The coin that propelled the United States into the forefront of the bullion-coin marketplace.
- The 1999 Delaware statehood Washington quarter. The first coin in a series that is giving the hobby one of the biggest boosts it has ever had. The current coin-market boom can be credited, in no small measure, to the universal appeal of the 50-state quarters.