Rare penny can be worth some major bucks!!

Have you ever heard the saying “a penny for your thoughts”? As I thought about the topic for this current column, my first impulse was to write about an item related to the Fourth of July. Hmm…, I said to myself. Maybe I should write about the Statue of Liberty.

I researched the Statue, and the immortal 1889 poem of Emma Lazarus, but I soon dissed that idea. After all, even though there are several replica Statues of Liberties around the world, how many have actually been owned by a collector? Get the idea?  

Then I considered writing about Old Glory, but thought I might save that for a later time.  I finally decided to write about a good old American coin. But not just any old penny, nickel, dime, quarter, or even silver dollar. A coin that collectors often wait for months or even years to go to auction. The 1909-SVDB penny. The coin that many collectors consider “The Holy Grail” of a coin collection. How could a single penny achieve such a status? Why would someone spend thousands of dollars on a single penny?

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt felt it was time for a change of design with American coins.  The Indian Head cent had been in circulation since 1859. President Roosevelt first contacted Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the penny.  He had designed the 1907 Indian $10, and the Double Eagle. But Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, and Roosevelt needed someone else quickly for the new coin that would commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1809.  

Roosevelt selected the New Yorker sculptor and engraver Victor David Brenner. The San Francisco mint branch was where the new Lincoln pennies were first produced. However, during the production, the Secretary of the Treasury had them stopped.  Controversy soon shrouded the coin.

What caused the stoppage?  There had been a complaint that the three letters VDB, the letters of the designer Victor David Brenner, took up too much room on the reverse side of the coin. (The S stood for San Francisco.) The letters were simply too prominent, and that Brenner was getting free publicity. Most people thought that the coin was just fine, even though some people did not think that the wheat stalks looked genuine. Still other people, mainly Southerners, did not want Lincoln’s likeness on a coin. They could not forget the fact that the Civil War ended over forty years earlier.

The initials were soon removed. Collectors were soon to pick up on the idea that the coins that had the original initials would be worth something if they held on to them. And of course they were right. Collectors even a hundred years ago knew about supply and demand.

By the time the initials were removed there had been 484,000 pennies already printed. People living in San Francisco in 1909 had first crack at them.  Legend has it that one mail order entrepreneur John Zug had 25,000 of them. Legend has it that he also sold his treasure trove at close to their face value.

But coin collectors still yearn to have a 1909 S-VDB Lincoln penny. There are very few that ever come to auction. People who have such a Lincoln penny hold on to them.

However, the coin is on the “want list” of many a collector. There was even a story of a collector in 1958 who sorted through a million pennies. It took him a year to do so. He could not find any 1909 S-VDBs. It has been reported that in 2017 two original rolls of 1909-SVDB pennies were discovered. Of course, the prices of the existing ones fell.

Naturally, the condition of the coin plays a major role in determining its value. Using the jargon of numismatic dealers, ones who deal in coins, the 1909-SVDB coins can be brown, red brown, or red. And, these particular pennies can put at least a few thousand dollars in your pocket if they are graded a minimum of an MS64. Not too shabby.

We should all hope that the penny for our thoughts is a 1909-SVDB.  Think positive my friend.

Jeff Figler has authored more than 700 published articles about collecting. He is a certified professional appraiser and one of the world’s leading experts on collectibles. His latest book, “The Picker’s Pocket Guide to Baseball Memorabilia” has been #1 on Amazon. He can be reached at info@jefffigler.com.