The beloved Indian Cent series is one of the 19th century’s most collected by date and mintmark, a coin cherished as a relic from the past and often passed on down from one generation to the next. The series, designed by James Barton Longacre and originally released in 1859, has kept countless collectors busy for decades in part due to the number of pricey keys and semi-keys involved in building a complete set as well as the overall complexity of the objective. There are many varieties in the Indian Cent series, including doubled dies, variations in date numerals and designer initials, and many other points of interest. Then there are the two die varieties of 1886.
The 1886 Indian Cent is a common coin in the absolute sense. But collectors many decades ago discovered minor yet significant differences in the obverse design of the 1886 Indian Cent – differences that effectively serve as a nuanced design change. In 1886, Chief Engraver of the United States Mint Charles E. Barber made some modifications to the obverse of the Indian Cent, including slight alterations to the overall shape of the portrait, lowering the relief, and elimination of superfluous, shelf-like lines in the design. These changes in the design were first brough to the numismatic light by collector James Reynolds of Flint, Michigan, in August 1954.
These design modifications, which are sometimes described as “Type of 1885” (Variety I) and “Type of 1887” (Variety II), are most readily attributed by ascertaining the location and orientation of the last, or lowest, prominent feather in Miss Liberty’s headdress. The last feather points between the “I” and “C” of “AMERICA” on the Variety I piece, whereas on the Variety II it is seen pointing between the letters “C” and “A.”
There are no known hard mintage figures to give for the two varieties. While the total mintage for all business-strike 1886 Indian Cents is a cumulative 17,650,000 pieces, the Variety II is believed to be much scarcer. Indian Cent expert Richard Snow estimates the total mintage for the Variety I to have been approximately 14,000,000 versus 3,650,000 for the Variety II. Of course, the actual number of survivors is much lower today. PCGS estimates there are around 4,500 to 4,600 examples of the Variety I surviving across all grades, while there are perhaps 3,450 extant representatives of the Variety II.
While both types are readily available, the Variety II proves much tougher in better circulated grades and is rare in the higher uncirculated grades. Prices run around $150 for either variety in the grade of XF40, but great pricing disparities become apparent in the uncirculated levels. Variety I trades for $275 graded PCGS MS63BN while the Variety II in the same grade goes for $450 – owing to the scarceness of either piece in that uncirculated grade and particularly the difficulty of the Variety II at that level.
Pieces with the more coveted RB and RD designations are even more challenging still. In the grade of PCGS MS64RB, a Variety I takes $700 while the Variety II commands $1,500. Either design type is rare in MS65RD, and especially so for the Variety II. It’s at that Gem level where one sees the biggest pricing differential. The Variety I in PCGS MS65RD realizes $4,000 while the Variety II triples that figure at $12,500. Record prices for either of the two designs types are well into the five figures. An 1886 Variety I graded PCGS MS66+RD sold for a record $34,075 in 2016, while a PCGS-graded MS66RD Variety II specimen that sold in 2000 still holds the top price for its type at a whopping $48,300.
- Breen, Walter. Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- Robertson, Ron. “Collecting Indian Cent Varieties.” Longacre’s Ledger. Vol. 20.1. April 2010, pp. 11-16.
- Snow, Richard. A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents. Whitman Publishing, 2016.