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The Very Valuable 1877 Indian Head Cent

Updated on January 2, 2019
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Tony Lawrence was born in 1948 and spent most of his career as a self-employed computer troubleshooter for Unix systems.

In the early 1980s, I briefly worked for Del Greco Coins in Quincy MA. I had met Mike Del Greco years earlier at a flea market where we were both selling coins. I had been impressed by both his knowledge and integrity; when I found myself in need of a job a few years later, I looked him up and he hired me.

One of my first experiences working the counter at his store involved an elderly woman who had brought in a few dozen Indian Head cents. Mike had run an ad offering to buy these and other coins; I don't remember what he was offering to pay, but let's say it was 35 cents each. That might have been the going price at the time, though my memory could be off.

When she dumped the coins on the counter and shoved the newspaper ad at me, I knew I had a problem. Mike was offering to buy average circulated coins, there were junk: corroded, clipped, some had been drilled for jewelry. I couldn't pay that price.

Courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries, used by permission.
Courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries, used by permission. | Source

Hoping to find something of slightly greater value, I began looking through the coins. I had not looked far when I came across an 1877. This coin had jingled in many a pocket and had been pushed across many a store counter. It wasn't in great condition, it was well worn, probably a strong AG (About Good, one step above Poor) but it made me breath a sigh of relief. I looked through the rest and found nothing else.

"I can't give you much for these", I said. The woman's eyes flashed and she started to speak. I interrupted her. "But I think I can give you $75.00 for this one - I just need to go ask my boss. May I take this to ask him?"

She nodded yes, looking very confused. A moment ago she thought she was about to be cheated out of $10.00 or so and now I was offering her $75.00 ? What had happened?

I took the coin back to Mike and told him the story. He laughed. "Give her a hundred. That's a great story." He smiled and I went back out to deliver even better news. Of course she accepted Mike's exceptional offer ($100.00 was really more than it was worth and the rest of the lot was effectively worthless) and went out grinning widely.

Why so much?

What makes the 1877 Indian Cent so valuable? The mintage was low at 852,500, but the 1909 San Francisco issue was only 309,000 and might have been worth less than $40.00 in similar condition. Why such a difference?

It was the issuance of the new Lincoln Cent in 1909 that had caused a large number of people to become interested in collecting Indian Cents. Issued since 1864, these were the coins many had seen their entire lives and now the design was changing. Many of the 1909 Indians were snapped right up from the banks, but the older 1877's were mostly still in circulation. That sparked even more interest as this was a rare coin you could actually find in your pocket change!

By the way, even in the 1950s you could still find Indian Cents in change now and then. It wasn't an every day occurrence, but I probably found a half dozen when I was a boy. No rare dates, but these were still exciting finds.

Why was the mintage so low? Part of it was because of an economic recession, but there is a far more complicated explanation that goes back to the first mintage in 1864. Unlike their predecessors, these coins were bronze, not copper, and were given a legal tender status of only ten cents. As people turned in change, the banks became loaded up with cents and were not able to return the coins to the Mint.

Legislation was passed in 1871 that allowed the banks to trade in coins and get back newly minted three cent pieces and nickels and then in 1874 they were allowed to turn them in for whatever they needed. People began digging deep as the recession set in, so by 1877 the mint found itself with millions of cents and not much demand. That is why less than a million were made that year. Ten million cents went out of Mint vaults in 1877, but only those 852,500 were newly minted.

Because of the rarity and the high collector interest, counterfeits are common. I have seen some crude attempts, but some of the modern efforts require real expertise to detect. Even quite worn, the 1877 sells today for $300.00 or so so counterfeits aren't necessarily high grade.

As so few of us can afford these rarities, replicas are available to fill holes in collections. These are stamped "COPY" on one side or the other and are produced under the provisions of the Hobby Protection Act of 1973.The Indian Head series contains other scarce dates and I have bought and sold several of them over the years.. A high grade piece like that shown in the photo above could sell for $8,000.00 today, but you won't find one of those spilled out on a coin dealers counter. I will remember that worn AG 1877 forever.


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