Collectors’ Guide to Lincoln Cents

110 Years Old, More Popular Than Ever

Lincoln Wheat Cents
The year 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, with an obverse design that remains largely unchanged. (There have been minor hub changes and changes in metal composition over time.) The Lincoln cent obverse of 2009 thus marked the first time in American coinage history that a coin design (or half of one, anyway) has endured for 100 years.

The U.S. Mint introduced the Lincoln cent with Wheat Ear reverse in 1909, designed by Victor D. Brenner, on the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt to observe the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Struck in Philadelphia and San Francisco, the first issues bore a small “V.D.B.” designer’s initials on the reverse at the bottom rim. After an uproar arose, the initials were removed. The mintage of the 1909 VDB was nearly 28 million, and today those pieces are popular type coins, with pieces available up to MS67 Red. The 1909-S VDB, however, saw only 484,000 coins made. Although many were hoarded at the time, they are the first key to the series, even if not as costly and much less elusive in higher Mint State grades than many later issues. Beware of 1909-S VDB forgeries! Buy only 1909-S VDB cents certified by a reputable third-party grading service such as PCGS or NGC or from a coin dealer who has earned your trust, unless you are a true expert; many dangerous counterfeits exist, and more are being made all the time. (This is true for most expensive coins, but the 1909-S VDB and 1916-D Mercury dime are among the most frequently counterfeited coins.)

1909 VDB-1916 matte proof issues were made, extremely popular coins today, of which the 1909 VDB is the rarest. Again, beware of counterfeits. The removal of the VDB initials created the 1909 “Plain,” mintage 72 million, and the 1909-S, mintage 1.8 million. The 1909-S is also considered a key to the series in circulated grades, along with the 1914-D, 1922 “Plain” (No D mintmark) and 1931-S. Together with the 1909-S VDB, these make up the five keys to the 1909-1934 circulated set.

Two 1909 Doubled Die Obverse varieties, listed in the Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties by Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton as FS-1101 and FS-1102, are among the many collectible errors and varieties in the series, some of which are also listed in the Guide Book. The two-volume Cherrypickers’ set is highly recommended for variety collectors.

In higher Mint State grades (MS65-finer) and more especially with certified Red color, many, if not most, of the early mintmarked business strikes from 1909 through 1933 are actually much more expensive and elusive than the 1909-S VDB. For reference, we show the PCGS-certified populations (or, more accurately, the number of submissions) of each mintmarked Lincoln from 1909 through 1933, showing the total certified in MS65 Red, MS66 Red, and MS67 Red as of January 2015 (including Plus coins and excluding varieties):

Issue. MS65RD/MS66RD/MS67RD
1909-S VDB.
63/1/0 (finest one MS66 Red)
134/28/1 (finest one MS67 Red)
23/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
30/7/1 (finest one MS65 Red)
16/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
61/12/1 (finest one MS67 Red)
20/1/0 (finest one MS66 Red)
10/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
17/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
1922 “Plain” (No D, Strong Reverse).
0/0/0 (finest one MS64RD)
90/10/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red)
16/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
40/1/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
9/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
48/2/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
11/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
45/4/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
1926-S. 2/0/0
(a second Gem Red was certified at PCGS sometime between 2012 and 2015)
53/2/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
16/0/0 (unavailable above MS65 Red at PCGS)
82/13/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
48/5/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
199/28/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
246/25/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
145/34/1 (one MS67 Red finest at PCGS)
775/97/0 (unavailable above MS66 Red at PCGS)
495/298/47 (finest one MS67+ Red at PCGS)

According to these data, in MS65 Red or finer the 1922 Plain (0) is the rarest Lincoln, followed by the 1926-S (2), 1924-S (9), 1920-S (10), 1925-S (11), 1918-S (16), 1927-S (16), 1923-S (16), 1917-S (17), 1919-S (20), and 1916-S (23). The 1909-S VDB in Gem Red condition is incredibly popular rather than conditionally rare, much like the 1937-D Three-Legged Buffalo nickel.

The designer’s initials VDB were restored to an inconspicuous position on Lincoln’s shoulder beginning in 1918. The 1914-D is another issue frequently counterfeited due to its popularity; genuine examples have no VDB initials on Lincoln’s shoulder. Genuine examples have a triangular opening in the D mintmark, which is small and of a style used only from 1911 through the first part of 1917. The mintmark on a genuine 1914-D rests in a small depression, and there are five different mintmark positions known. The spacing of the date digits will differ from an altered 1944-D, which will read 19 14. Again, certification or buying from a trusted dealer is your best protection.

Only the Denver Mint struck cents in 1922, the popular 1922-D. The 1922 “Plain” or No D cents were produced by die fatigue, where the D mintmark slowly disappeared entirely. One variety, the so-called Strong Reverse, has just that, a fresh new reverse die combined with an obverse that shows no trace of the D. This is the only 1922 No D cent that PCGS certifies. The so-called 1922 Weak D varieties, two different, show a trace or shadow of a D and are combined with a weak reverse; they generally trade for less than the Strong Reverse variety. Authentication is recommended.

The 1931-S had a low mintage of only 866,000 coins, but by the 1930s it appears as though a few collectors in San Francisco kept a few rolls of Uncirculated coins. The 1931-S would be the last S-mint coin produced until the 1935-S. The 1932 and 1933 cents were produced only in Philadelphia and Denver. Of the four issues—1932, 1932-D, 1933, 1933-D—the 1932-D is the most elusive in high grade.

After 1934, as the nation slowly staggered out of the depths of the Great Depression, mintages for all Lincoln cent issues took a noticeable upturn. Most of the cents from 1934-present can be found in any grade desired up to Gem Red condition, the only limit being your pocketbook.

The popular 1943-PDS cents were made of a zinc-coated steel composition, and are a subtype within the set. A few rare 1943-PDS copper cents and 1944 steel cents are known to be genuine, although fakes abound and authentication is mandatory. In 1955 one of the most famous error coins in U.S. numismatics was produced, the 1955 Double Die Obverse, in which a single working die was misaligned between the multiple impressions required. The result was two bold impressions rotated with respect to each other from the coin’s center. The San Francisco Mint struck its last circulation strike cents that same year, the 1955-S.

Brown and Red-Brown Cents
Another fertile ground for Lincoln cent collectors is assembling high-grade sets of “so-called” Brown or Red and Brown coins, which in reality can come in a wonderful, endless array of stunning colors due to the high reactivity of copper. I am pretty sure I will never be able to purchase a Gem Red 1926-S, and even if I did, I would worry about its color stability. Collectors of Brown and Red and Brown coins can assemble wonderful sets at much lower prices than for Red coins. The only trouble is, for many issues (the early D- and S-mints), there are actually fewer around, grade-for-grade, than there are Red examples … and their owners tend to hang onto them tightly! Click this link to see what one dedicated collector has done in assembling the top Toned Lincoln Cents PCGS Registry Set: Winged Liberty’s ‘Fireball Rainbow’ Lincolns.

Lincoln Memorial Cents
The Lincoln Memorial reverse commemorates the Washington, D.C., edifice and the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth—but its design, by Frank Gasparro, won little favor with the legions of collectors for whom it resembles a streetcar. It lasted another 50 years, until the 2009 Bicentennial Lincoln cent reverses.

A hub change in 1960 resulted in two different date sizes, the 1960 and 1960-D Small Date and Large Date cents. Among business strikes the 1960 Small Date was the most elusive, and at one time during 1960 after Coin World published a story on the varieties, the price of a $50 bag of bank-wrapped BU 1960 Small Date rolls soared to more than $12,000. Other rolls, especially the 1950-D Jefferson nickel, were also the subject of much hoarding and speculation. During the early to mid-1960s numerous factors—increasing silver prices, BU roll speculation, increased use of coin vending machines/pay telephones that accept cents (and slower collections therefrom), and introduction of a dealer-to-dealer Teletype system—led to a coin shortage that was largely (and wrongly) blamed on collectors. There are also proof 1960 Large Date and Small Date cents, as well as hub-doubled dies such as the 1960 Large Date Over Small Date proof (FS-101), 1960 Small Date Over Large Date proof (FS-102), and 1960 Tripled Die Obverse (FS-103), technically a Large Date Over Large Date Over Small Date. Business strike 1960-D Small Date Over Large Date cents (FS-101) are known that also have a widely repunched mintmark.

No proof Lincoln cents were made in 1965 through 1967; when proof coinage resumed in 1968, it was at the San Francisco Mint, which makes proof coins to this day. The proof Lincolns beginning with 1968-S proofs henceforth bore an S mintmark, although San Francisco also made 1968-S through 1974-S business strikes.

Many other Repunched Mintmarks and Doubled Die Obverse and Doubled Die Reverse varieties are sprinkled throughout the Lincoln cent series, with many of the most popular listed in the Cherrypickers’ Guide. Another remarkable error coin is the 1969-S Doubled Die, which also shows spectacularly wide die doubling and is considered the king of the Lincoln Memorial series. Do not confuse this variety with the many, many 1969-S cent that show strike or shift doubling and have no numismatic premium.

Another hub change for proof dies resulted in the 1970-S Large Date and rarer 1970-S Small Date proofs, alternately called Low 7 and Level 7, respectively. There are nine different 1972 Doubled Die Obverse cent varieties known, of which the 1972 DDO FS-101 is the most popular, with strong spread on the date, LIBERTY, and IN GOD WE TRUST. Genuine pieces show a small die gouge on the reverse, near the rim above (UNITE)D. The 1979-S and 1981-S proofs are known in two different mintmark styles.

In 1982 the cent composition was changed from 95% copper/5% zinc (technically brass) to about 95% zinc with copper-plating. At the same time, there were 1982-P and 1982-D Large Date and Small Date cents produced, so all told there are seven varieties for the year, the 1982-D copper (brass) being unknown. The copper (brass) coins should weigh about 3.1 gm while the zinc coins should weigh about 2.5 gm.

1992 and 1992-D Close AM cents. These cents bear a reverse design style only regularly adopted in 1993. Before 1993, a Wide AM style was in use on both business strike and proof Lincoln cents. In 1993 the Close AM was adopted for business strikes and proofs. After 1993 the Wide AM style was reserved for proof coins through 2008, the last year of the Lincoln Memorial reverse. About 15 1992-D Close AM Lincolns are known, and only the second 1992 Close AM cent was discovered in July 2009. A Coin World article on Sept. 7, 2009, called the 1992 Close AM cent “many times more rare than a 1969-S Lincoln, Doubled Die Obverse cent (with an MS-64 red example that sold for $126,500 in 2008).” Other varieties are being discovered; collectors should continue checking all the following table may be helpful. (Many thanks to error specialist Ken Potter for some of this information.)

Bus Strk Close AM
P Mint
Bus Strk Close AM D Mint Bus Strk Wide AM P Mint Bus Strk Wide AM
D Mint
Close AM
S Mint
Wide AM
S Mint
1992 Close AM ext. rare 7-10 known 1992-D Close AM v. rare 30-40 known 1992 Wide AM normal var. 1992-D Wide AM normal var. 1992-S prf Close AM unknown 1992-S Wide AM normal var.
1993 Close AM normal var. 1993-D normal var. 1993 Wide AM unknown 1993-D Wide AM unknown 1993-S prf Close AM normal var. 1993-S prf Wide AM unconfirmed
1994-after Close AM normal var. 1994-D & after Close AM normal var. 1994-after Wide AM unknown 1994-D & after Wide AM unknown 1994-S & after prf Close AM unknown 1994-S & after prf Wide AM normal var.
Close AM normal var.
1998-D Close AM normal var. 1998 Wide AM scarce 1998-D Wide AM unknown 1998-S prf Close AM rare 1998-S prf
Wide AM normal var.
1999 Close AM normal var. 1999-D Close AM normal var. 1999 Wide AM rare 1999-D Wide AM unknown 1999-S prf Close AM rare 1999-S prf Wide AM normal var.
2000 Close AM normal var. 2000-D Close AM normal var. 2000 Wide AM fairly scarce 2000-D Wide AM unknown 2000-S prf Close AM unknown 2000-S prf Wide AM normal var.

The year 2009 saw the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. For the occasion the Mint issued four new commemorative reverses—Birthplace, Formative Years, Professional Life, and Presidency. The 2009 Mint Sets contain special 2009-PD Satin Finish coins, one of each reverse, that are 95% copper/5% tin and zinc composition, just like the original 1909 VDB cents. The 2009-S proof sets also contain the cents in the same original composition, but they lack the Satin Finish of the mint sets.

The Lincoln cents of 2010-after bear a Union Shield reverse, symbolizing President Lincoln’s success in preserving the Union. The 2010 Lincoln cents are thus another first-year subtype, just like the 1909, 1959, and 2009 cents. With a Mint that continues to produce new numismatic products for collectors, a government that seems unwilling to discontinue the cent denomination for fear it will be seen as a concession to inflation (even though Canada, our mighty neighbor to the north, discontinued the cent in 2013), and legions of eager collectors for both the mightiest and humblest issues in the series, the future of Lincoln cent collecting appears as bright today as a Gem Red 1909-S VDB cent. Thank you for including in your collecting activities.

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