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From the December 2003 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:


Two Undervalued Key Date Coins In One Series

By Mike Nourse  


        As coin collectors, we are all aware of the success of the state quarter program in terms of getting people to look at their change. Supposedly, 100 million people are 'collecting' state quarters, though I suspect that the folks that arrived at that number are using a very loose definition of the word collecting. I personally doubt that any more than 10 million people, mostly kids, are actually making any serious effort to collect all of the state quarters in a map or other inexpensive holder.  

        However, let's err on the side of caution and assume that my number is too high as well, by a factor of two, and the actual number of people that are somewhat seriously pursuing a collection of state quarters is only 5 million, or merely one out of every 55 people in the United States. That is still a HUGE number, folks! Go grab your Redbook, and I know that yours is within arms reach right now, and take a look at the mintage figures for a variety of series. You will notice that there are an awful lot of coins listed in that book that have a mintage of under 5 million pieces. We also know that mintage is only half of the story, as what is really important now is how many of those old coins have survived loss and meltings to survive to this day.

         What we, as collectors of coins that are no longer in circulation, are interested in is how many of those millions of people will join us in the pursuit of older coins in order to form a collection. It seems logical that many of those potential new collectors may first consider the possibility of continuing their Washington quarter sets going back in time. The first thing they will likely discover is that the composition of our quarters changed from silver to copper nickel clad in 1965, and that quarters may be found in circulation all the way back to that date. It will be quite a challenge to fill in all of those holes in the 1965 to date Whitman folder. Eventually, it is likely that a few of the clad dates will evade our new collector despite their best efforts to fill all those spaces. That is when our new collector may be drawn to a local coin shop or internet coin dealer, and be directly exposed to those old silver coins that will never be found in circulation.

         Once the silver coins are discovered, the curious collector will probably soon discover that Washington quarters were first minted in 1932, and more importantly, it is possible to build a complete set in average circulated condition without having to pawn the TV set. It is a very short jump from this level of awareness to the point where this beginner will first hear about the two key date coins of the series, the 1932-D and 1932-S Washington quarters.

         Now that we have set the scene, with our new collector discovering that a set of Washingtons can be built with a modest budget, and that the keys are the mint marked issues of 1932, imagine this same scenario playing out in the minds of all of the 5 million potential new collectors that we were introduced to a few paragraphs up. While most of the collectors of state quarters are youngsters with minimal income, these kids are probably building their set with the assistance of an adult who will hopefully also have some interest in building the full set. What is the problem that will unfold if this happens? Anyone? Anyone? The problem is that the 1932-D quarter only had a mintage of 436,800 pieces while the 1932-S had only 408,000 pieces produced. With mintages like that, it is unlikely that any more than 350,000 of each are still in existence now that over 80 years have passed since they were struck. So you see, the dilemma arises that there are not nearly enough 1932-D's and -S's to go around if lots of people suddenly decide to start forming complete Washington quarter collections.

         What do we know about these two key date quarters? Well, we do know that they were minted in 1932, which coincidentally happens to have been about the worst year of the depression that hit the world early in that decade. We also know that a quarter dollar in 1932 had about as much spending power as a five dollar bill does today. While that only goes to show that one quarter was probably not any big deal, but the prospects of putting a set of them together would require a sizeable monetary output, and that a ten dollar face value roll of 40 coins would be a burden of some size if your financial situation was less than ideal, as was the case for many people at that time, coin collectors or not.

         If people were not saving quarters, then it stands to reason that they were spending them. This conclusion is backed up today by the relative abundance of these two coins in well worn condition compared to the rather thin supply of high grade specimens. This is a very different case from the situation which occurred in San Francisco the previous year in which the 1931-S cents were snapped up right from the banks when it was determined that the mintage would be unusually low. In contrast, those cents (with a mintage that is double that of the two key quarters) are abundant in Uncirculated condition and virtually unobtainable in Good through Fine condition. This difference becomes apparent when one studies the pricing structure of these two coins. The 1931-S cent increases in value only slightly each time one moves up a notch in the condition scale from Good through MS-63, while the two key quarters make fairly significant jumps in value as you go up from one grade to the next.

         So, are these two key dates undervalued? Nobody knows for sure, but the evidence seems to point in that direction. They apparently were undervalued back in 1999 when the state quarter program got started. In most circulated conditions, particularly the low grade conditions, prices have about doubled on these two coins since that time. We will just have to wait and see if they will double once more during the second half of the state quarter program. It is now approaching the point where almost any 1932-D or 1932-S quarter that has no damage or is not worn to oblivion sells for $75 and up. This may dampen the enthusiasm for people to consider putting a full set together, which will reduce the growth in demand for these two dates, causing their prices to stabilize. Alternately, when the end of the state quarter series is within sight, that may be the catalyst for a new surge in demand for Washington quarters, particularly if a completely new design is launched at that time. Under that scenario, prices of these two keys should be expected to surge due to the limited supply available.

         In any case, key date coins in all series have performed exceptionally well over the last few years as new collectors have increased the number of people that wish to own these coins combined with a steady or slowly declining supply. If you have a Redbook from ten years or so, you can compare prices with your current edition to see how key dates such as these two quarters, 1916-D dimes, 1909-S VDB cents, and others have done in that time. Large profits have been made by the folks who are holding these coins!

         Good luck on completing your set of Washington quarters if you have already started one, and consider starting a set of the silver Washingtons in Circulated or Uncirculated condition before too many other people start theirs and drive prices up.

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