Saturday, October 21, 2006

Every Coin Collector Needs to Learn About Die Varieties

Okay, "need" is probably too strong a word, but there are many reasons why you as a collector should be familiar with the die varieties that exist among the coins that you collect, even if you don’t collect by die variety. If for no other reason, you should learn about die varieties because it can save or make you money.

Throughout the 19th century, people that tried to put together a complete set of coins usually did so by only acquiring one example per date. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century that people began to collect by date and mint. In the latter half of the twentieth century, collecting by die variety became more common as more information about die varieties became available to collectors. Today, with so much information about die varieties being published, there really is no roadblock to learning about the die varieties for what you collect.

Definition of Die Variety

New collectors may be asking, “What exactly is a die variety?” A die variety is the result of some form of change or damage done to the die. This change or damage is repeated on every coin struck with that die. What it does not include is planchet errors that occur before the coin is struck or damage done to a coin after it is struck. Both of these situations result in errors or varieties that are unique to the coin struck and are not repeated on other coins.

In general, how can you tell the difference between damage to the die versus damage to the coin? One of the best examples to illustrate the difference is to look at die scratches versus coin scratches. How do you know a scratch occurred to the die before a coin was struck versus a scratch to the coin after it was struck? The way to identify a die scratch versus a coin scratch is to look at the scratch under magnification. If the scratch occurred to the die, it would result in a “raised line” on the coin when the coin is struck. A scratch on the coin itself would leave a “sunken or incuse line” on the coin. Also, a scratch will sometimes run uninterrupted from the field to the devices; a die scratch will usually occur in the field and end abruptly at the devices.

Example of scratched coin
(click to enlarge)

More common than die scratches are die cracks. These will leave an “irregular raised line” on the coin’s surface similar to a die scratch.

Example of die crack
(Click to enlarge)

Reasons to Learn about Die Varieties

You may be thinking “who cares about die varieties, I don’t collect them anyway.” If you collect raw, uncertified coins, knowing what die varieties are out there can help to identify if a coin is authentic or not. One of the main diagnostics used by collectors to authenticate an 1859-O $20 Double Eagle is a group of clash-marks that are found on the obverse of most, but not all, examples. One set of clash-marks appear as horizontal stripes above the ear of Liberty. Another set of clash-marks appear as somewhat vertical stripes on the neck between the two lowest curls. Although the presence of these clash-marks helps to identify an authentic 1859-O double eagle, care should be taken to not dismiss examples based on the absence of the clash-marks, as these examples do exist too.

Another reason to learn about die varieties is that it can be financially rewarding. I saved myself from losing $8,500 because I knew about the different varieties for the 1854 $20 Double Eagle. Large date examples graded AU55 currently run about $10,000 while small date examples in that same grade are only about $1,500. I made a purchase, site unseen, of a supposed large date double-date variety that was reportedly recovered from the S.S. Republic shipwreck and graded AU55 by NGC. Since doubled-date varieties were previously unknown for the large date variety, it seemed that this was an even rarer variety of large date. Unfortunately, when I received the coin, it just didn’t look right for a large date. After comparing it to a small date doubled-date variety, I realized that NGC had mislabeled the holder as large date doubled-date when in fact it was really a small date doubled-date. Had I not caught this error, this could have cost me $8,500 by overpaying for a small date doubled-date variety. Knowing what varieties exist and what they look like allowed me to catch this error and save losing that money. (More about the mislabeled holder story can be found by clicking here: Link)

Finally, knowing what varieties exist can allow you to cherrypick varieties that might otherwise be overlooked. As previously stated, the 1854 $20 Double Eagle of the large date variety is currently priced about $10,000 versus $1,500 for its small date counterpart. The 1854 large date in The Arlington Collection of Type 1 Double Eagles is in a holder that does not designate the large date variety. This is an example of how knowing what varieties are out there would allow you to know that this is the $10,000 variety versus the $1,500 variety since the description on the holder does not reveal its true identity.

There is also the possibility of finding a new die variety that was previously unknown. If other collectors think the variety is significant, it is possible that the price could command a substantial premium versus the price of a normal variety.

Some Die Variety Examples from The Arlington Collection of Type 1 Double Eagles

1853/2 Overdate

The 1853/2 Overdate variety shows what is believed to be a part of a 2 within the lower loop of the 3. This variety is listed separately in the Redbook and currently commands a substantial premium over a normal 1853 example.

Example of 1853/2 Overdate
(Click to enlarge)

1854 Small Date versus Large Date Doubled-Date Varieties

The large date variety is said to be anywhere from 5 to 10 times more rare than the small date variety. The large date variety was apparently caused by a die being punched with a date normally used on silver dollars. The image below shows the difference between a small date variety (top) versus the large date variety (bottom). The Redbook lists both varieties separately and the large date variety does command a considerable premium over the small date variety.

Example of 1854 Small Date (Top)
Versus 1854 Large Date (Bottom)
(Click to enlarge)

1854 Small Date Doubled-Date Variety

This doubled-date variety occurred on one of the dies of the small date variety. You can see this doubling in the tops of the 1, 5, and 4. Currently, this variety is not listed separately in the Redbook and carries a small or no premium over the non-doubled variety. If this variety should get a separate listing in the Redbook in the future, it is reasonable to expect the values of this variety to begin commanding a premium. All else being equal, I would choose the doubled-date variety over the normal variety.

Example of 1854 Small Date Doubled-Date
(Click to enlarge)

1854 Large Date Variety not Labeled as such on the Holder
This is an example where the holder does not designate the coin as the rarer large date variety. Only by being familiar with the various die varieties would you know that this is currently a $10,000 coin and not a $1,500 coin.

Example of 1854 Large Date
Not Designated on Holder
(Click to enlarge)

1859-S Double-Die Obverse

The doubled-die of the 1859-S shows up best in the “BERTY” of the word LIBERTY. This variety is considered scarce and is now starting to show a premium over its normal counterpart. If you plan to purchase an 1859-S, this would be a good coin to try and cherrypick a doubled-die variety of the coin that is not already designated as such.

Example of 1859-S Doubled-Die Obverse
(Click to enlarge)

1859-O Clashed-Die Obverse

There are a couple of sets of clash-marks that show up on most examples of the 1859-O. One set of clash-marks appear as horizontal stripes above the ear of Liberty. Another set of clash-marks appear as somewhat vertical stripes on the neck between the two lowest curls. If you look closely, you can see how the former set of clash-marks match up to the shield on the eagle while the latter set of clash-marks match the rays above the eagle’s head. Currently there is no premium being realized on either variety. Part of the reason for this is because of the overall rarity of the 1859-O makes obtaining any example a challenge.

Example of 1859-O Clash-marks above Ear

Example of 1859-O Clash-marks on Neck

1859-O Cracked-Die Reverse
In addition to the obverse clash-marks, some examples also show a very noticeable die crack on the reverse. The die crack extends from the eagle’s wing-tip through the “E” in UNITED out towards the denticles along the rim. Although this variety does not command a premium and probably won’t in the future, it is a good example of die progression or change in appearance over the life of the die.

Example of 1859-O Cracked-Die Reverse
(Click to enlarge)

1859-O Die Progression
There have been three 1859-O examples in The Arlington Collection of Type 1 Double Eagles over the years. The current example shows neither the obverse clash-marks nor the reverse die crack. Another example showed the clash-marks without the die crack. The final example showed both the clash-marks and die crack. It is believed that all three coins came from the same obverse and reverse die pair. If this is the case, then you can easily follow the die progression and know in what order the coins were struck.

So just because you don’t collect by die variety does not mean that you do not need to know about the different die varieties. Just one incident regarding the fantasy 1854 $20 large date, doubled-date variety saved me from losing $8,500. Hopefully you will find being knowledgable about die varieties to be just as profitable as I have.

Recommended Reading:
Cherrypickers' Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins: Half Dimes Through Dollars, Gold, and Commemoratives (Official Whitman Guidebook)


At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a beginner - though learning rapidly. Still, there are some basic concepts that I haven't quite grasped. Perhaps you would be willing to help me.

With respect to grading: I know that a 70 point scale is used and that the lower 59 are reserved for circulated coins and that 60-70 are for "mint state" coins. My question is: What constitutes a "circulated" - or, for that matter - a "mint state" or "uncirculated" coin and are the last two the same thing?

Further, when does a coin become "circulated." For example, I just bought a roll of what appear to be "mint state" coins (2006D Roosevelts dimes); brand new, not a mark on them. Were they "mint state" just because the coin wrapper was unopened? Clearly, they had not been in circulation; hence, I assume they would fit the category "uncirculated." Did they become "circulated" when I unwrapped them?

What about coins in the bags that one can buy from the mint? From my point of view, such coins have probably seen more "wear and tear" just from having been in the bag than these "fresh from the roll" coins that are now sitting on my desk.

I'd appreciate any help you can offer.


Ron Nelson
A Rank Beginner

At 11:53 AM, Blogger A.C. Dwyer (aka The Arlington Collection) said...

Thanks for the comment Ron. I can certainly help you out. I remember having the exact same questions when I first started out. The questions are important enough that I will probably follow-up with a new blog entry on the topic, but for right now, let's see if I can give you some quick answers.

First, "mint state" and "uncirculated" are the exact same thing. It's just two different ways to describe the same thing.

So what defines whether or not a coin is circulated versus uncirculated? Well first, you need to dispell the notion that it has anything to do with the source of the coin. That is to say, it doesn't matter whether the coin came from the bank in an unopened wrapper, or from another collector, or found in an old trunk in the attic. Very simply, a circulated coin is one that shows some form of wear on the coin. Uncirculated or mint state coins must not show any signs of wear.
The first place to look for wear is on the high points of the coin. On the Roosevelt dimes you mentioned, wear will first appear on the cheekbone or the hair above the ear on the obverse. On the reverse, wear first shows up on the high points of the flame and on the tops of the leaves. Any wear, no matter how nice the coin, will cause it to grade no higher than AU58 (AU = about uncirculated which is basically a very nice circulated coin).

A coin grading MS60, on the other hand, may not show any signs of wear but instead has some really ugly dings or bag marks from contact with other coins. So technically this would still be uncirculated but could have very bad eye appeal. Contact with other coins is not considered wear.

So unwrapping your coins would have nothing to do with whether or not they would be considered circulated or uncirculated. How you handle them afterwards would.

So always hold them by the edge, and if you really want to protect them, get some cheap cotton gloves for handling them and a small jeweler's tray to work over in case you drop them.

Sometimes determining what is wear can be a little difficult when you just start out. To give a recent example, I had lunch recently with a friend who was in town for the day. At lunch he pulled out the only gem uncirculated (gem is usually referred to for grades MS65 and up) 1853 double eagle. It is the finest known example and overall a beautiful coin with almost no contact marks and no wear. But what it did have was one big thumb print in the field just to the left of Liberty's face. You couldn't help but notice this thumb print. So while the coin still technically graded MS65 and is considered the finest known, that thumb print definitely causes the eye appeal for the coin to go down.

Thanks for the questions. Watch over the next week and I will put up a blog entry for a better discussion of grading along with books that I find are the best references on this topic.

At 3:26 AM, Blogger khamar said...

recntly i brougt a surposed ms-66 gem 1909 (IH) penny,only to find out it had been cleaned,how does one new to collecting tell when a coin has been cleaned when buying from a dealer.

At 11:51 PM, Blogger A.C. Dwyer (aka The Arlington Collection) said...

Thanks for the question khamar. This is a tough one to answer since there is no quick solution other than to find a dealer you can trust. If the coin has been returned by a grading service as "improperly cleaned", a reputable dealer should give you a refund.

As to your actual question about how to tell that a coin has been cleaned, there are really two ways to look at this. One is a properly cleaned coin, or as some say, "conserved" coin. This is where a coin has been cleaned and no damage has been done to the coins surfaces. Unfortunately, most people do not know how to do this and some form of damage usually occurs. So if in doubt, don't clean anything yourself.

As a novice, the only ways to detect improper cleaning on a coin is to learn what methods are used and what affect each has on a coin's surfaces.

For example, you will hear talk about coins being dipped to remove toning or other coloring. What dipping actually does is remove a layer of the metal surface to accomplish this. Dip a coin too many times and the original "flow lines" are removed which dull the original mint luster or "cartwheel" effect. The coin eventually takes on a dull or lackluster look about it.

Another form of improper cleaning is "whizzing" a coin. This is actually taking a wire brush or dremel tool to remove metal at the surface of a coin. This is pretty easy to detect by looking at the devices on a coin. Whizzing leaves a ridge of metal along the edges of the devices.

Many new collectors also make the mistake of polishing their coins to make them brighter and shinier. Unfortunately, this polishing usually results in "hairlines" on the surfaces of a coin.

Finally, many times a circulated coin will just be too unnaturally clean and bright, and just not look quite right. Handle enough original color coins and you will start to notice the difference.

So unfortunately there is no quick way for a novice to learn to identify improper cleaning without spending the time to learn what affects each type of cleaning has, and looking at enough coins to be able to detect it yourself. This is one area that takes time to master. The key here is to find a reputable dealer that can help you along the way.

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous CathyJo63 said...

Hi,I have been to your site several times and it is very interesting,I myself have never been into coins until appro. a month ago and it is so interesting and I regret never doing it before!
It is amazing what your eye can spot even if you have bed
Anyway I don't expect anyone to come running to help me but if you can't is there anyone you know who could help me with a penny I found in a roll,actually had it for a bit and noticed it looked odd but couldn't for the life of me put my finger on and just laid it aside!
This morning though i picked it up again and only took me 1 sec. to figure out that it is a 1942 penny with everything standing out very well axcept it has no "T"
in "Trust" on the obverse and i cannot figure why it never seemed as abvious
I have scanned it,enlarged it,everything but marry it and I can't find a T!! Actually it has a shadow maybe of an R there but it is very faint! And the reverse side has 2 nicks on the rim?? that seem to be not new damage because it is raised and the same color as the rest of the coin!
I would be so grateful to anyone who can tell me what this is??
Thank You in Advance!!

At 1:07 AM, Blogger A.C. Dwyer said...

Hi Cathy, without seeing the coin, it seems to me that there are a number of possibilities about why your 1942 cent is missing the T in Trust. In any case, I wouldn't get your hopes up that it adds value to the coin. I know that there are some doubled die 1942s that command a few extra bucks, but only enough to maybe buy lunch. But if you want to be sure, my suggestion is to contact Ken Potter. He is considered a leading expert on error coins and frequently writes articles about errors that appear in leading numismatic publications. His website with contact information is at:

Good luck.


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