Lincoln Cents: A Partial History
When it comes to grading Lincoln cents, the grades range from AG-3(About Good) to MS-70(Mint State). This grading scale does not apply to proofs. Each grade affects the value of the coin.
Prior to 1959, Lincoln cents had a reverse design with twin wheat sheaves that flanked the words "one cent.” From 1959-2008, the reverse design was changed to the image of the Lincoln Memorial.
The year of 1959 marked the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln and the penny’s new design was to commemorate and honor the occasion.
The portrait of Lincoln on the obverse faces to the right and part of the grading includes the detail in Lincoln's hair. For all Lincoln cents except the 1909 VDB and 1909 S VDB, the initials "VDB" were carved into Lincoln's shoulder.
VDB stands for Victor David Brenner, who was the designer of the Lincoln cent, which took over for the Indian Head cent after 1908. The small letters associated with the date, such as the "S" in the 1909 S VDB or the "D" associated with the 1973 D penny indicate the mint where the coin was struck.
There are three such mint marks associated with Lincoln cents:
S is for San Francisco
D is for Denver
P is for Philadelphia
The "P" mark only found its way on Lincoln cents in the beginning of 2017. Prior to that time, Philadelphia Lincoln cents had no mint marks.
What’s So Special About the 1973 Penny
More than three billion 1973 D Lincoln cents were minted in Denver, which means the coin is not rare. Most of the graded 1973 D Lincoln cents are worth their face value.
There are exceptions, such as the 1973 D Lincoln cents that are in mint condition and have a grading of MS-70. As of February 2017, these coins fetch a price of around $9 each at public auction.
Comparatively, the 1973 Lincoln cents that were minted in Philadelphia fetch a price of $8 at public auction, so there is little difference.
Interestingly, there were only 300 million Lincoln cents minted in San Francisco in 1973, which is 10 times less than either Denver or Philadelphia, yet the value of a 1973 S Lincoln cent in MS-70 is also only about $9.
So the special thing about the 1973 penny is that perhaps it’s not so special. Values are subject to change at any time, however.
Counterfeiting and Valuable Coins
When there are large differences in value between coins minted at different mints in the same year, nefarious dealers or private individuals might try to alter the coins.
As an example, the 1914 and 1914 S Lincoln cents are worth about $30 and $90, respectively, when in mint condition. Conversely, the 1914 D Lincoln cent is worth about $5,000 in the same condition.
As the 1914 D Lincoln cent is highly sought after and collectible, counterfeiters have been known to try to fool collectors in two ways.
The first is to shave away the left part of the first “4” on 1944 D Lincoln cents to make it a “1.” 1944 then becomes 1914.
The second way is that counterfeiters might remove the "D" mint mark from another coin, such as the 1973 D Lincoln cent, and affix it to the plain 1914 Lincoln cent. They use glue to attach the fake mint mark, sometimes doing such an expert job that even collectors might not spot the fake.
However, a foolproof test aids in determining a counterfeit from the real thing. A drop of acetone can be placed on the coin, and if the mint mark is fake, it will fall off. The beauty of the test is that the acetone won’t hurt a genuine coin or it’s mint mark and the counterfeit will be revealed for what it is.
At some point in the future, even the 1973 D might wind up being significantly more valuable than its Philadelphia counterpart, so it would be wise to know this and other tricks for spotting counterfeit coins.
Even the 1914 D, and other valuable Lincoln cents, such as the 1931 S, 1909 S VDB, and the ultra-rare 1955 double die, pale in comparison, however, to the rarest of the rare: The 1943 copper Lincoln cent.
There are only 40 of these coins known to exist, and they were minted by mistake. As any coin collector knows, every other Lincoln cent minted in 1943 was made of steel.
The same thieves who glue mint marks try to fool the unwary by electroplating copper over the steel. But the joke can be on the bad guys – use a magnet and you can spot the fakes!
Some people will try anything for a score, especially when the coin in question might bring a price of $1.7 million.
Collecting Lincoln cents is likely one of a budding numismatist's first projects. It’s a smart endeavor. They are attractive, easily stored, and affordable. Even the most expensive of them, with the exception of the 1943 copper, are more easily attained than most other coins.
You should be careful even when collecting the "rank and file" Lincoln cents and make sure they're truly graded as advertised. The American Numismatic Association provides a comprehensive guide, referenced above, in grading Lincoln cents.
So, grab your loupe and start collecting. Have fun!