One common theme of the many subjects we have discussed over the last several years has been deciding what to collect. This seemingly simple task can actually be difficult for many new collectors. Most are drawn to coins they might be familiar with from an earlier encounter with the hobby (for example, a lot of people collected Lincoln cents in Whitman folders when they were young). When later rediscovering the hobby of numismatics, they might try assembling a complete collection of high-grade Lincoln cents. Other collectors seek more challenging segments of the market to collect.
For most, deciding what to collect depends on several common factors most are familiar with:
- Historically interesting
- Attractive design
- Possible to complete
- Availability for purchase
The above are just a few of the criteria collectors may consider when exploring new series to collect. Not all series of United States coinage click ALL of the boxes mentioned, and sometimes compromises must be made to delve into a new series. The United States Twenty Cent pieces are one such short but complicated series.
The Twenty Cent piece minted from 1875 to 1878 is one of those well-intentioned coins for which the United States Mint will be perpetually regretful. The new denomination was intended to halt chronic short-changing in the Western states but was more likely an appeasement to Western silver miners who lost much of their business when the Mint eliminated some of the silver coins in the Coinage Act of 1873.
The Twenty Cent piece was basically dead on arrival. Critics derided the confusing similarity between the new coin and the quarter dollar. In a classic “history is destined to repeat itself” moment, the Mint made a similar mistake in 1979 by introducing the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar (also confused with the quarter dollar). As a result, the Twenty Cent piece was only minted for circulation in 1875 and the beginning of 1876; Proofs were minted from 1875 to 1878.
The short-lived series was designed by William Barber. The obverse features a rendition of the Seated Liberty design used on the dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars of the same year, but with “LIBERTY” in raised letters across the shield. The reverse features an eagle with its wings spread, holding arrows and an olive branch in its talons. However, the design is completely unlike the other silver coins of the year, with the exception of the Trade Dollar. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” surrounds the top of the reverse, with “TWENTY CENTS” below. Curiously, the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” was left off the reverse.
For those who might consider collecting this “oddball” denomination, the following is a brief guide to circulation strike issues, along with elusive Proofs issued for the series.
Circulation Strike Coinage
1875 Philadelphia Mint
- Mintage: 36,910
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 666
As seen from the ample mintage, the 1875 Twenty Cent can be found with relative ease in most grades. The average coin encountered is well struck and a few superb examples were saved, as is typical for the first year of a new series. The finest graded by NGC are five at the MS 67 level. The auction record for the date is $43,200 USD.
1875 Carson City Mint
- Mintage: 133,290
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 1,243
Despite a higher mintage than its Philadelphia counterpart, the 1875-CC is scarcer in many grades. The 1875-CC Twenty Cent is popular as the only affordable issue from the Carson City Mint for the series. It is often seen with the reverse being very weakly struck, and this can sometimes be confused with wear by novice collectors. NGC has graded a single example for the date at the MS 67 level. The coin last sold at auction in 2017 for $52,875. The coin is beautifully toned with a star designation.
1875 San Francisco Mint
- Mintage: 1,155,000
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 4,165
As can be seen from the staggering mintage for the series, the 1875-S is by far the most common date. Type collectors usually opt for this issue due to price and availability. The typical coin is well struck with great luster when seen in high grade. Finding an example worthy of purchase is usually just a function of price and eye appeal. The surfaces can, at times, be somewhat striated in appearance or in rare cases, Prooflike. NGC has graded just nine coins at the MS 67 level and only a single example as MS 68. The coin has not crossed the auction block in recent years.
NOTE: One interesting variety for the date features a misplaced date (the top of the 7 can be seen in the dentils) and a mintmark that is boldly re-punched.
1876 Philadelphia Mint
- Mintage: 14,640
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 510
The business strike examples for the series ended after only two years of production. Demand for the odd denomination was extremely anemic as can be seen from the greatly reduced mintage. This date is considered quite scarce and is popular with collectors. A few years ago, a small hoard of about 100 coins was distributed. The group was mostly low-grade and had been assembled by a collector drawn to the low mintage. Most seen are well struck and the date can be found in most grades below Gem quality. A few have been noted as Prooflike in the condition census. The finest coins graded by NGC are three at the MS 67 level, none of which have sold in over a decade.
1876 Carson City Mint
- Mintage: 10,000
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 7
The 1876-CC is considered one of the great rarities for United States coinage. The 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece is a STOPPER for nearly every collector who might consider assembling a complete set of Twenty Cent pieces. Because of its non-collectible status (less than 20 known), most collectors simply ignore this issue when collecting the series. The same can be said for anyone trying to collect Liberty Head nickels who know that the 1913 will forever be out of reach.
Early in 1876, approximately 10,000 1876-CC Twenty Cent pieces were struck and placed in the Mint’s vault, awaiting release into circulation. In the meantime, Mint officials in the East realized their mistake in creating the new denomination and ordered the destruction of all existing stocks of Twenty Cent pieces, including the 10,000 (or so) 1876-CCs. The melted silver was later turned into other coins, and it is interesting to consider that coins exist that were made from a reconstituted 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece.
Somehow, a few 1876-CC Twenty Cent pieces escaped the melting pot. Some may have been saved for the annual package of assay coins, originally destined for metallurgical testing back in Philadelphia. However, the number of survivors is greater than the number of coins normally set aside for the Assay Commission, indicating that Mint employees pulled additional examples from the melt.
Today, the roster of survivors includes anywhere from 18 to 20 coins, depending on who performs the survey. Most of the known examples are in Uncirculated condition, although at least one example is circulated. Could this piece have been pulled from circulation by some lucky collector, or was it carried as a pocket piece?
All 1876-CC Twenty Cent pieces show doubling of the word “LIBERTY” on the scroll across the shield on the coin’s obverse. This makes it easy to detect 1876 Philadelphia coins with fraudulently added mintmarks, none of which show similar doubling.
The finest examples graded by NGC of this famous rarity are four coins at the MS 65 level. The auction record for the issue is $870,000.
1875 Philadelphia Mint
- Mintage: 2,790
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 270
The Proof mintage for this series is unusually high, and based on survivorship, most were unsold by the Mint. One of the unusual traits for this issue is that many are more Prooflike in appearance than would be seen for true Proofs of the era. Some of these examples are almost interchangeable as for the designation. Examples are fairly easy to obtain in most grades, but finding one with great eye appeal will be the real challenge. As with most Proof Seated Liberty coinage, many are seen with deeply toned surfaces. The finest grade by NGC is five or six PF 67 Cameo examples, one of which sold for $26,400 in 2022.
1875 San Francisco Mint
- Mintage: Unknown
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 2
For years, the existence of Proof coins for this issue has been debated by experts. Both NGC and PCGS now recognize Specimens as true Proof issues. The known examples are notable for very broad wire rims and mirrored surfaces. The 1875-S Twenty Cent is one of the more desirable Branch Mint Proof coins for the Seated Liberty series. I have seen many examples over the years that were Prooflike but lacked other characteristics to qualify as true Proofs. The last Proof that was sold at auction brought $103,500 in 2004. None have sold in the last decade that I am aware of.
1876 Philadelphia Mint
- Mintage: 1,260
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 312
Struck near the end of this short-lived series, the 1876 Twenty Cent is relatively easy to find in most grades below Gem. Its mintage of over 1,200 coins is rather surprising in comparison to other Proof Seated coins of the era. Perhaps there was additional demand as the United States celebrated its Centennial anniversary. Most Proof 1876 Twenty Cents are deeply toned, and finding one with good eye appeal can be a task. The finest-graded examples by NGC have been three PF 68, including one that sold for $23,500 in 2016.
1877 Philadelphia Mint
- Mintage: 510
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 272
Despite its much lower mintage, the 1877 Proof Twenty Cents has about the same NGC population as the higher mintage 1875 and 1876 issues. The price for this issue soared a few years ago, as someone had accumulated a quantity of the date and made an effort to run the prices up. For a time, coins were selling for double the price from just a few years ago. Recently, examples have been selling at auction for closer to levels seen before the run-up. NGC has graded six examples as PF 67 or PF 67 Cameo, none of which have sold at auction in the last decade.
1878 Philadelphia Mint
- Mintage: 600
- Total numerically graded by NGC: 341
More 1878 Proof Twenty Cent coins have been graded than any of the other dates. In fact, NGC has graded over 50% of the mintage. This statistic makes one question the reported mintage numbers. For years, the 1877 and 1878 Twenty Cent pieces have traded for about the same price. The above-mentioned market manipulation of the 1877 issues has changed that in recent years. The 1878 is relatively easy to locate in most grades. Despite the Proof-only mintage, the 1877 and 1878 are both seen in circulated condition. This is probably a testament to the coins’ unpopularity when issued. Six coins have been graded as PF 67 or PF 67 Cameo. An NGC PF 67 sold for about $22,500 in 2017.