Collecting United States coins has been a popular pastime for longer than anyone alive can remember. Many hobbyists enjoy acquiring every date and mint mark on an individual series of United States coins. Such a collector who focuses on, let’s say, Buffalo Nickels, would want a specimen from each mint for every year the Buffalo Nickel was issued, with the goal being to complete the entire set.
There are a few US coin types that, over time, mainstream numismatic tradition has spotlighted as leaders of the pack. These include, but are not limited to: Indian Head Cents, Lincoln Cents, Buffalo Nickels, Mercury Dimes, Standing Liberty Quarters, Walking Liberty Half Dollars, and Morgan Silver Dollars. Key dates in these groups (i.e. the scarcest of the bunch) experience heavy pressure from the collector class and increase consistently in value far greater than most collectible coins. Thus, many 20th century coins with larger supplies carry premiums above their 19th century counterparts with smaller supplies, because more people actively seek the later date coins to round out their coin collector albums. For example, the demand for Lincoln Cents is heavier than that for Large Cents, since there are many times more people who are interested in Lincoln Cents. A 1914-D Lincoln Cent with an original mintage of 1,193,000 commands $200 in Good condition, while an 1821 Large Cent in the same condition brings only about $50, even if only 389,000 were made.
A large segment of the collector class also has a deep abiding respect for history, and view silver coins as time travelers of sorts. For instance, if only coins had the ability to talk, they could tell us of what it was like during the early years of uncertainty under the new government of the people established by the United States Constitution. Perhaps we could learn about a conversation with an 1861 innkeeper and better understand the fear that swept across both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line as prospects of a bloody civil war became reality. What must it have been like sitting in a New York barber shop as news broke that the Great War in Europe was finally ending? A 1918 Walking Liberty Half Dollar could tell us.
By now you get the picture; the possibilities are endless. In this light, all coins from the long ago past have at least some collector value, even those with relatively large supplies. A combination of great historical significance and extreme rarity create the highest values. The 1796 Draped Bust Quarter bears this out. This was the first quarter minted by the United States, which makes it special. Genuine specimens are very hard to come by because of low production and heavy melting. On top of that, a 1796 quarter theoretically might have been spent by President George Washington to buy a wooden tooth!
The design of a coin can have a bearing on its demand. Many numismatists seek to acquire a specimen of each design change in the entire United States series. They are called “type set collectors”, and this method of collecting puts pressure on certain designs minted for only a short period of time. The 1796 Draped Bust Quarter again illustrates this point. Aside from its obvious historical significance, it so happens 1796 was the only year the US quarter was minted with a small eagle reverse, making it a one of a kind coin. Type set collectors must compete ferociously with other buyers to acquire an example from the small available supply. The supply is nowhere near sufficient to meet demand which is what makes this coin so valuable.
Part of the “Silver Coin Series” of articles, written by numismatic expert Daniel J. Goevert.
Part 2: Mintage and Condition