From the June 2002 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
Indian Cents of 1865 To 1876: Bargains One And All
Anybody out there who has ever collected Indian cents, which is probably just about every one of you, is aware that there is one major key coin in the set: the 1877. The 1877 date also serves as a dividing line between the generally scarce early issues and the common later coins. All of the cents produced in 1878 and later are readily available, though some of them may prove to be somewhat elusive in Extra Fine or better condition. Conversely, the 1876 and earlier coins are noticeably scarcer and substantially more expensive.
The same general trend is evident among the Proof Indian cents, with 1877 being the pivot date which divides the scarcer early Indians from the more common later ones. There is, however, a very dramatic difference between the price action of circulated Indian cents versus the Proofs. Let’s look at the circulated coins first. We can focus on the popular mid level grades of Fine and Very Fine, as these are attractive coins with much of their original detail still visible. A quick look at a price guide shows that most of the later dates are really very inexpensive in these grades. But, go back before 1877 and you will find that prices have increased by an incredible 20 to 100 times! Quite a few of these early dates cost between $50 and $200 in Fine condition.
Now do the same thing with the Proofs, using attractive mid level grades of Proof-63 Red and Brown (RB) and Proof-64 RB. What happens? Well, prices for the early dates are roughly double what they are for the later dates, a far cry from the 20 to 100 times difference that we saw on the circulated coins.
Nobody expects that just because the circulated early dates cost 20 to 100 times as much as the later dates that the Proofs must show the same pricing pattern. However, at only double the price of the later coins, the early Proofs seem like real bargains! What do the earlier Proofs have to offer that makes them so great? Low mintages for one thing. The largest Proof mintage you will find in the pre-1877 era is a mere 1150 pieces for the Proof 1876 cent. We have all heard that mintage is not necessarily a great determinant of rarity, but it does put a lid on the number of possible survivors. It is absolutely certain that there are no more than 1150 Proof 1876 cents in collectors’ hands today. This compares with the later dates, which typically have mintages between 1000 and 3500 pieces (which is still very low!).
Remember that original mintage is just the starting point. Now, over 125 years later, only a fraction of those coins produced back then are still in collectible Proof condition. What is that fraction? Nobody knows for sure, but my work shows that it is approximately one third. Where did the other two thirds of the original mintage go to? Well, they have managed to get themselves in all kinds of trouble over the years. Way back then, Proof coins were sold by the mint for only a tiny premium price over face value, so it was not that big of a deal if a collector had to spend some of his or her Proof cents in times of financial need, or even if they just lost interest in collecting. Yes, that AG 1868 Indian cent in your Whitman folder may have actually started its existence as a Proof coin!
Beyond being spent, some of the early Proofs have been sneezed on (eventually causing corrosion), touched with dirty fingers (also causing corrosion), buried in a box for safe keeping (causes wicked corrosion), or simply crammed into a mounting of some kind for use as a piece of jewelry. Floods and fires continue to decrease the available supply of Proof Indian cents even today. Then there is cleaning. It used to be acceptable to clean coins, even abrasively, and as recently as just a few decades ago. Coins that suffered this fate show extensive parallel hairlines and are no longer collectable as Proofs, and may have lost so much of their original surfaces to no longer even be identifiable as Proofs. Any multitude of other things may have happened to these old cents. The result is that the original mintages of 500 to 1150 pieces per year from 1865 through 1876 translates to roughly 200 to 400 pieces of each date in decent Proof condition remaining today.
So, these are scarce coins by any measure. But are they necessarily bargains? Let’s look at the prices. In Proof-63 RB, retail prices should range between about $225 and $400 for the twelve early dates we are looking at. Going up to the next level, Proof-64 RB, will show that retail prices increase into a range of roughly $350 to $600. Certainly these are not inexpensive coins in an absolute sense, but they sure seem cheap when looked at in terms of their low original mintages and low numbers of survivors. In my opinion, these scarce gems are true bargains, one and all.
Why are the prices so reasonable for coins with about 200 to 400 known specimens? It would seem that demand for these pieces is very limited. Obviously there are less than about 200 collectors worldwide looking to build Indian cent sets in Proof condition. Old Proof coins in general are currently out of favor, and have been thus for quite a while. Proof Indian cents also suffer from a (true) perception that they are hard to keep, as they have a severe tendency to change color and become darker over time. That is why I generally recommend that collectors who are intent on building a set of Proof Indian cents focus their energy on Red and Brown coins rather than taking their chances with full Red specimens.
Of course, the prices scare some people away from Proof Indian cents. While many collectors can afford to acquire one specimen as a type coin, the individual doing this would most likely be purchasing one of the more common (and less expensive) later dates from the 1880’s or later, so these folks do not put any pricing pressure on the early dates. A full 52 piece set in Proof will likely cost about $10,000 to $15,000, which counts out a great number of average collectors. However, I think that one of the largest reasons that so few people collect Proof Indians (and all early Proofs) is a lack of coverage. While one can easily find a great deal of pricing information about Mint State Indians and other series in multiple MS grades, Proof coins are generally given just a brief listing in one grade only, if they are even priced at all. It is simply a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ at work. The idea of buying an early Proof coin tends to not even cross most collectors’ minds. If they were aware of how reasonably priced these coins are, the small available supply of early Proof coins could dry up very quickly.
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