A Guide to Coin Die Varieties

My last article explored the fascinating world of Mint errors. There are endless numbers of possible Mint errors, each the result of a unique mistake when the coin was struck. Unfortunately, many confuse Mint varieties with Mint errors.

What is a Mint Variety?


According to The Official Redbook, A Guide Book of United States Coins, the term variety means: a coin’s design that sets it apart from the normal issue of that type. Numismatic Guaranty Company (NGC) defines a variety coin as one that differs from its basic design type in some distinctive way and is thus differentiated by collectors. These are not unique issues, such as Mint errors, but part of the authorized coinage. 

 

Early Coin Die Varieties

 

In the early years of the Mint, dies were produced by hand, the result often being coins that are nearly identical but from distinctly different dies. These often-tiny differences were noticed by early collectors of American coinage in the 19th Century. The first serious collectors of United States coins focused on colonial coinage and Large Cents. The majority of large cents were struck from several different dies, each with small differences. Some were produced in large numbers, and others were struck in small numbers, with very few surviving for modern collectors. The first cents made in 1793 are a good example. Several varieties for the year are considered common, but there are two varieties known as the “Strawberry Leaf” that are exceedingly rare.  

 

Most collectors of colonial coinage and large cents collect them by die variety, which is a very mature market with large numbers of collectors competing for the finest examples of each year and variety. Unlike large cents, collectors generally do not try to assemble every variety known for most series. Such an endeavor would be an impossible task for most series of United States coinage. 

Morgan Silver Dollar Coin Varieties


Morgan silver dollars are eagerly sought by die variety collectors, but even those collectors usually focus on the most important varieties that can be easily seen with the naked eye. There is a wonderful book on the subject of Morgan silver dollar die varieties written by Leroy Van Allen and George Mallis. It’s a massive book, with hundreds of die varieties noted. However, many collectors skip the enormous book on the subject and focus on the much smaller reference, Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties by Michael Fey and Jeff Oxman.

 

The Top 100 lists consist of the most famous and dramatic examples of the specialty. A couple of interesting examples are the 1901 Double Die reverse and the 1888-O Double Die obverse.  

Morgan Dollar 7/8 Tail Feathers Variety Morgan Dollar 7/8 Tail Feathers Variety
Morgan Dollar 7/8 Tail Feathers Variety

What Book do Coin Variety Collectors Use?


For generations, the number-one arbiter of which die varieties are considered part of the regular series of coins required for a complete collection has been The Official Redbook, A Guide Book of United States Coins. As Senior Editor, I am scrupulous about which new coins are added to the book. Each year we receive numerous letters suggesting new additions to varieties in the Redbook. If the Redbook listed every known die variety, the book would be thousands of pages long. Plus, collectors count on the Redbook for guidance on what they should collect. Therefore, only important varieties that have stood the test of time are listed. Several years ago, Whitman Publishing began producing the Mega Red, a greatly expanded listing for each of the many issues, with less significant die varieties noted. The book comes in at a staggering 1500 pages!

Collecting Unattributed Coins Can be Very Rewarding

 

One of the most exciting parts of collecting coins by die variety is the chance to purchase a rare issue that has been unattributed. If you are willing to spend some time doing research on the series you collect, the possible rewards can be stupendous. Each numismatic press features stories of someone who has found an extremely rare variety, or even more exciting, a completely new and unknown variety. These often sell for six figures when they come to market.  


There is no written rule about which die varieties you should collect for the series that interest you. If you collect Lincoln cents, you will probably want to include the 1922 No D and the 1955 Double Die. Less important are the 1936 double die and the 1944 D/S, all of which are listed in the Redbook. Another clue on what to collect are those varieties included in the classic Whitman blue folders. Whitman wants collectors to feel a sense of accomplishment by completing these sets, including difficult-to-find varieties

Modern Die Varieties and the “Cheerios” Sacagawea Dollar

 

Collecting coins by variety extends to modern issues as well. One famous example is the 2000 P Sacagawea dollars with Boldly Detailed Tail Feathers. This so-called “Cheerios Dollar” was struck in limited numbers and included in boxes of Cheerios for a promotion in the year 2002. The coins sell for thousands of dollars. The references mentioned above can be a great guide for looking for coins such as this one and many more. There is nothing more exciting in the hobby than making a discovery. So make sure to buy a strong magnifying glass and enjoy the hunt!!  

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