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What’s Left to Collect from Circulation?

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If you’ve been in the hobby long enough, you may have seen a marked shift in the types of coins you can find in pocket change. At one time just a few decades ago, say the 1970s or even 1980s, the typical coin collector could expect to find random Lincoln Wheat Cents in circulation from time to time, maybe even the occasional silver coin. Go back a couple decades earlier, and early 20th-century types such as Barbers and Standing Liberties were periodically comingling in handfuls of change that regularly included Mercury and Roosevelt Dimes, Washington Quarters, and Walking Liberty and Franklin Half Dollars.

Lincoln Cent (Wheat Reverse), 1941 1C, BN, PCGS MS66+BN. Click image to enlarge.

Where Did All the Old Coins Go?

So, what happened? Have all those old coins just vanished into oblivion? And perhaps more importantly, what’s left to collect in circulation today?

It can seem to many collectors that all the coins we now regard as “vintage” all but vanished from circulation a generation or two ago. As the United States Mint produces new coins, they replace older ones that age out of circulation through obliterating wear, collector intervention (I.E., they’re intentionally plucked from the wild by astute numismatists), or other forms of attrition. Many are sadly lost to the hands of time – they’re buried, stolen, or destroyed by fire or other natural disasters. The latter particularly exemplifies why collectors shouldn’t get too fixated on mintage numbers when determining how “rare” a coin is; reading population reports, such as the ones found on PCGS CoinFacts, is a far better way to gauge the real scarcity of a coin.

Walking Liberty Half Dollar, 1934 50C, PCGS MS68. Click image to enlarge.

Those who look back to an earlier time, such as the mid-20th century, and long for the coin finds of yore may recall the great coin shortage of the early 1960s and the public run on circulating silver coinage that helped cause it. The setting was 1963, and silver had just pushed to $1.29 an ounce – the point at which the silver in 90% silver circulating coins was worth more than their respective face values. Many of the folks who routinely pulled silver circulating coins from circulation weren’t necessarily collectors – they were bullion stackers keenly aware that silver coins had become more valuable as bullion than as circulating money. This situation helped siphon a great many vintage silver coins from circulation.

Searching for Change

The United States Mint dropped deluges of new base-metal coins that were less expensive to produce into circulation, filling voids in commerce amid the coin shortage of the time. As silver increased in value, many of the silver coins that remained in circulation were snapped up by the public, and along with these coins went most of the remaining base-metal vintage coins, including Indian Head Cents and Buffalo Nickels, which were already waning from the circulation scene anyway due to extensive wear.

Some collectors will say the last of the classic coins disappeared from circulation by the early 1980s. However, Lincoln Wheat Cents still make occasional cameo appearances in pocket change, and some lucky collectors still strike silver during rolls searches and fortunate change drops from vending machines.

Of course, there’s nothing really scientific about these general observations. One thing to remember is that, for many of us, the aura of nostalgia always makes yesteryear appear a little better than it really may have been. And, besides, who’s to stop someone from peppering circulation with a few old-time rarities today? There have been some much-publicized coin drops in recent years involving collectors and dealers stocking general circulation with valuable pieces, and there’s no telling how many numismatic good Samaritans discreetly do this sort of thing day to day just because.

Though coverage of this topic does beg the rhetorical question: what’s left for collectors who want to make worthy finds in circulation today? The literal answer may be delightfully more complex than some would expect.

The Quest for Rarities

Many would argue there was a sort of lull in circulation finds throughout the early 1970s through mid-1990s. With the exceptions of the 1976 Bicentennial coin program and the release of the Susan B. Anthony Dollar in 1979, there was relatively little in the way of regular-issue United States circulating coinage to get excited about for a generation. Then along came the 50 State Quarters program in 1999, and the United States Mint has been on a blitz creating a diverse array of exciting new coins ever since.

While mostly worth face value in circulated grades, these modern United States coin initiatives give collectors a virtually endless array of fun set-building objectives, while uncirculated and proof versions of these coins (including their precious-metal variants) offer a tantalizing degree of numismatic and financial challenge for collectors building PCGS Registry Sets encompassing these new coins.

Washington America the Beautiful Quarters, 2019-W 25C Lowell NP First Week of Discovery, PCGS MS66. Click image to enlarge.

Meanwhile, the United States Mint has more recently endeavored on creating so-called “circulating rarities,” or limited-mintage coins that can only be found in circulation. Among the most popular of these have been the W-Quarters, or America The Beautiful Quarters struck to the tune of just 2 million pieces each at the West Point Mint. These scarce quarters, bearing the “W” mintmark and in some cases other distinctive features, are worth more than face value even in circulated grades. And those who have submitted First Discovery pieces to PCGS can earn significant cash bounties and limited-edition PCGS Special Labels.

And don’t forget about error coins and die varieties. These oddities include doubled dies, repunched mintmarks, and die breaks. These perennially cool pieces never go out of fashion and they can be quite rare and valuable, too. Perhaps best of all? Quirky coins like these often go completely unnoticed by non-collectors and even many diehard coin collectors, giving eagle-eyed cherrypickers the opportunity to locate these fascinating error coins and varieties in circulation at face value.

Circulation Finds Coin Collecting: Basics