Small coins can be worth big money.

A few years ago, a man from upstate New York discovered a 1965 Roosevelt dime in his pocket change with an edge that appeared to be silver. The year 1964 was the last one in which the US Mint officially manufactured silver dimes, and the man’s 1965 coin, indeed silver, was a mistake made by the Mint. I wrote about this in an earlier blog and discussed how he sold his dime for nearly $9,000. Millions of 1965 Roosevelt dimes, worth 10 cents apiece, were manufactured from a combination of copper and nickel. Each of these coins have a brown strip on the edge. Only the silver 1965 Roosevelt dime is valuable.

This pocket change discovery, although unusual, is not unique. Over time, many thousands of people have come across coins of value in their change or discovered that birth-year sets of coins given as gifts turned out to be prized collector coins worth a substantial amount.

Armed with a price guide and a magnifying glass, you can play the pocket change lottery. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to list every coin of value out there that you can hope to find, but I’ll discuss a couple of categories so that you can understand the concept.

The Mint’s Mistake Is Your Good Fortune

Coins that were made by mistake are often the easiest ones to find because they often appear strange, misshapen or just different. I often liken identifying one of these coins to finding buried treasure.

Some Mint errors are subtle. For example, sometimes doubling on the letters can dramatically increase a coin’s value. In 1955, Lincoln cents from the Philadelphia Mint with doubled letters showed up in change in New England and New York. The date “1955,” motto “In God We Trust,” word “Liberty,” and date “1955,” were all doubled. Collectors call this the “1955 Doubled Die Lincoln cent.” Well-worn examples command more than $1,000, with high-grade Mint-state examples valued at tens of thousands of dollars.

1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cent, Value: $40,000
Photo courtesy PCGS

Doubled Die Lincoln cents also appeared with dates 1972 (value $100 to $1,000+) and 1995 (value $2 to $50+). Your chance of finding a 1969 Doubled Die Lincoln cent from the San Francisco Mint (look for a small “S” under the year “1969”) is slim. But should lightning strike, $75,000 or more is in your future. Keep in mind: There has to be prominent doubling on the lettering on the front of these Lincoln cents from 1955, 1969-S, 1972 and 1995 for the value premiums to kick in.

The most famous Lincoln cent error of all is the 1943 copper or bronze cent, which I discussed at length in my March 2018 blog. Millions of 1943 steel cents were made to conserve copper or bronze for wartime munitions. These white cents, often corroded, are worth about a nickel or less apiece. But the 1943 cents that are copper or bronze and brown in color can be worth up to a couple of million dollars if they are in pristine, “Gem” condition. A magnet will help you to positively identify the near-worthless white steel cent. If your 1943 Lincoln cent sticks to a magnet, then the magnet is probably worth more than the coin.

Key-Date Coins Hold the Keys to Wealth

Successful coin collecting requires a “project” mentality. Collectors ideally would like examples of each year from every US Mint of the coin type they collect. Some coins with certain dates are so rare that they are known as the “key” to the series.

For example, collectors of small cents (one-cent pieces with a 0.75-inch diameter) consider the 1856 Flying Eagle Cent, valued from $7,000 to $100,000+, depending on its condition, to be a key coin, as its official mintage is only 1,000 coins. Even though the coin was experimental and known as a “pattern,” it is considered part of the small-cent set. Flying Eagle cents were made from 1856 through 1858.

An Indian Head cent dated 1888 that has a numeral “7” visible underneath the last 8 of the date is known as the 1888/7 Indian head cent. It’s worth anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000+, depending on its condition. The Indian cent series stretched from 1859 to 1909.

The king of the wheat-stalk Lincoln head cents, a series minted from 1909 through 1958, is the 1909-S V.D.B., with a small “S” under the date and the designer’s initials, V.D.B., for Victor David Brenner, visible on the reverse under the wheat stalks. These command from $1,000 for a well-worn example to more than $50,000 for fire-red Gems. Collectors of copper coins pay a premium price (sometimes a huge one) for coins that have the original red color that they had when minted. Most copper coins fall prey to moisture in the environment, which serves as a catalyst to turn these coins brown.  

The Liberty Head nickel series was manufactured from 1883 to 1913. There are five known 1913 Liberty Head nickels, all accounted for. Each of these keys is worth millions of dollars. As an aside, one example of the five was unaccounted for up until 2003, when it was discovered at the bottom of a closet.

Mercury or Winged Liberty Head dimes, struck from 1916 through 1945, have as the key the 1916 version from the Denver Mint. This 1916-D (look for a little “D” to the right of the word “ONE” on the reverse) has a value from $1,000 in a well-worn state to $50,000 and above in Gem condition.

The Walking Liberty Half Dollar series, minted from 1916 through 1947, has a number of key-date coins. You need a price guide to assist you here, but I will give one example. The 1921 from the San Francisco Mint, known as the 1921-S, can be worth a few thousand dollars in a nice high-circulated (worn) grade. But a Gem can command $100,000 or more. Look for a tiny “S” at the 8:00 position on the reverse.

No discussion of key-date coins would be complete without a mention of some of the scarce dates of the Morgan silver dollars series, 1878 through 1921. Although it would be unlikely for you to come across a $50,000-valued 1895 silver dollar in the attic or cookie jar, as these were manufactured especially for collectors and infrequently circulated, there are many other dates that frequently are found among casual assemblages. I’ll give you two examples.

The 1903 silver dollars from the New Orleans and San Francisco Mints are worth several hundred dollars apiece. These often get mixed in with their common-date counterparts worth $25 each. The scarcer-date coins are known as the 1903-O and 1903-S Morgan dollars. You can find the “Mint-mark” letters “O” and “S” respectively on the reverse of each coin above the “DO” of “DOLLAR.”

You can confirm the authenticity of each of your more valuable finds with a coin dealer who can submit your coins to an independent certification service such as the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation or the Professional Coin Grading Service.

Best of luck in playing the pocket change lottery.