One of the most asked questions we receive here at The Wholesaler is: Just what is a key coin, anyway? Like most things in life, the answer isn’t exactly cut and dried, but here’s our take on ‘key date’. It’s a hard-to-find coin that is often the last to be placed in a collection, not only because the date or date and/or mint mark combination is especially rare or hard to find but it is also often a very pricey item. Therefore, it is the coin that most collectors need to complete their collections. Unfortunately, it is also often the last one added to a collection. More on that later.
For example, the 1914-D cent is a Key coin in the Wheat Ears series because it is fairly rare, and hard to find due to scarcity and high collector demand. Also, it wasn’t extensively hoarded when first minted, so many are severely worn. But without it….Your set is not complete!
The king of key coins is the historic and famous (or infamous) 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. A perfect example of bureaucratic government bungling, this gem was inadvertently struck -- on brand new dies, no less -- by the U.S. Mint as gifts for foreign dignitaries in 1834 - 30 years after the original 1804 date. At present there are only 15 examples of this super rare gem known to exist and all are accounted for.
But it’s not only low mintage that provides the reason for determining key coins, survival rate can be equally important. The fairly high mintage 1901- S Barber Quarter, for example, entered circulation normally where it remained for decades until its rarity was appreciated.
By the time collectors started to search for the 1901-S Barber Quarters, many had been lost to time and attrition and it was soon realized that few had survived in collectible condition. Only a tiny number of uncirculated examples survived the ravages of time. Most examples grade ‘AG-3’ or worse! Any higher grade example of this key coin rarity command great interest when and if they hit the market. One uncirculated example graded PCGS MS68+ was recently sold in a private transaction, reportedly for more than its last reported auction sale price, which was a record $327,750.
Even modern day issues can often become key coins. There’s even a significant key date within the popular American Silver Eagle series, a coin that was originally issued and offered as a free bonus to loyal U.S. Mint customers not so long ago.
In 1995, the United States Mint sought to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the American Eagle program by creating a special set of coins for collectors. This set would include the four 1995-dated proof Gold Eagles and a 1995 proof Silver Eagle, with all five coins struck at the West Point Mint and carrying the “W” mint mark. This mint mark was very significant for the silver coin included in the set. While the regularly issued proof gold coins always contained the “W” mint mark, the regularly issued silver proof coin usually contained the “P” mint mark. This meant that this “W” mint marked silver coin given away in the 10th anniversary set was only available in that set.
The catch was that this special 10th anniversary set was offered at an astonishingly high price of $999 per set, which was many times what the average collector was used to paying for such sets. Many Silver Eagle collectors were therefore priced out of the market and sales of the set totaled only a modest 30,125. This figure was much lower than the typical proof Silver Eagle mintages which had averaged 500,000 over the years.
In time, that originally ignored single silver coin went on to command a price higher than the other four gold coins included in the set. Today, this elusive rarity has become a truly key coin and is considered the centerpiece of any complete collection of the silver Eagle series.
But enough history. Let’s talk about some of the more realistically affordable and available key coins that should be among every collector’s holdings because they’re scarce, hard to find and in great demand by collectors everywhere. Here are a few on our list:
• Key date 1950-D Jefferson Nickel. With a mintage of less than 2,500,000 this is definitely the key to the series.
• 1893-S Morgan Dollars. Only 100,000 of these babies were struck and no one knows how many have survived over the years. This scarce date is missing from most collections -- even in lower grades. Problem free graded examples can be pricey but have an unlimited upside potential. Wise investor/collectors will take advantage of our 10-month interest-free layaway plan to ensure availability of this one.
Many examples of this silver gem will be in well circulated grades, although a few astoundingly high grades are known to exist. Values can range from $7,000 for VF-20 coins to a price in excess of $1 million realized for one of the finest known examples.
• 1900 O/CC Morgan Dollars. Why are these key coins? The reverse die for these was originally punched with the CC Mintmark, and sent to the Carson City Mint for use. But, when the mint closed in 1893, they were ‘leftovers’ and remained in the mint until it was cleaned out in the 1890’s by the Treasury Department. It was re-punched with the “O” mintmark in order to salvage the dies quickly. The New Orleans Mint had requested additional dies, and this was just an early example of ‘recycling’!. It was a typical shortcut of the day, but is now a ‘Key’ coin in the Morgan Dollar series. These can make a fine addition to any collection even in VF condition.
• 1931-S Lincoln Cent. This copper gem is missing from most collections and had a fairly low mintage of only 866,000 coins, many of which have long disappeared. Get ‘em while you can.
• 1922 ‘No-D’ Lincoln Cent. This coin was created by ‘bad’ dies and weak strikes at the Denver Mint in 1922. There are several different ‘die marriages’ and each commands varying degrees of price. Some are very pricey! The 1922 (D) or those with the ‘D’ visible are the only minor coins struck in 1922. (Silver dollars were struck in large numbers and some gold coins were made.)
• 1924-D Lincoln Cent is the fifth lowest mintage of the Series. Again, this little copper gem is missing from most sets.
• 1934-S Peace Dollar. One of only three in the Peace Dollar Series (behind the 1921 and 1928 coins) and getting harder to find each and every day.
• 1926-S Dime. While considered a semi-key but is so hard-to-find we included it in this list. It’s a bargain at about one quarter the price of the key 1921-P Dime.
• Gem BU 1939-S Nickels. This baby was issued before the designer’s (FS) initials were added to the coin. This is truly the key coin to the series in Gem BU but, as of this writing, is still affordable even in that condition. We suggest early ordering on this one.
Okay, we hope we’ve piqued your interest in key coins. Now, the rest is up to you. As loyal readers and clients, we know you’ll be ordering one or more of these keys to add to your ever-growing holdings. However there’s more to it than that.
We suggest you also learn as much as you can about those precious “keys” because as with any endeavor, knowledge can be power. Buy the best book you can on the series you’re collecting and learn about the coins you need before buying.
One more suggestion. There’s no time like the present. Order those keys now. Because they are ‘keys’, history has shown that they appreciate in value much faster than their common brothers. Each day you put off adding that key coin to your collection, that rarity is gaining in value. While no one can predict the future, experience tells us that true ‘Keys’ don’t usually come down in price!
Best of all you’ll have the satisfaction of finally completing some of those sets you began collecting years ago and of watching them grow in both value and collectibility day after day.