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Bowers on Collecting: A tale of two Lincoln cents — the 1915 and the 1922 “Plain”

One of my favorite recollections concerning Lincoln cents of the first decade of production concerns a situation that happened around 1960. At a sale held by the New Netherlands Coin Company in New York City, a 1915 Lincoln cent, a coin which at the time was not more significant price-wise, or at least not much more, than cents of 1913 and 1914 (to mention just two examples) appeared in the auction. Apparently, there was confusion when the lot came up, and the coin sold for several times the current valuation.

I remember gasps and muted conversations in the audience. Everyone wondered what happened. Here was an ostensibly common inexpensive coin that two experienced collectors were enthusiastically competing for. Perhaps they knew some “secret” not disclosed to the rest of the audience. It later developed that both bidders believed that they were competing for a different lot. As the error was not discovered until later and was not announced at the sale, the new auction record was accepted by those who read about it, and before long the price of all 1915 Lincoln cents in Uncirculated grade had risen sharply! All of a sudden, 1915 became more expensive than 1913, 1914, and its other contemporaries.

A year or two later I purchased a number of rolls of early Philadelphia Mint Lincoln cents from an Endicott, New York estate. As might be expected, there were just as many 1915 cents in the group as there were 1910, 1911, and other issues. When I advertised the pieces I found that the 1915s sold much better, for everyone considered them to be rarities.

One of the most curious Lincoln cents of the 1920s is related to this situation: The so-called 1922 “plain” variety (The Guide Book lists it as “1922, No D.”). This piece is simply a defective 1922-D struck so weakly that the “D” mintmark is not visible. Indeed, some specimens show the obverse features and the reverse wheat stalks simply as outlines with few details. An Uncirculated coin may have not more detail than what one would expect on a Very Good grade piece that had been worn for many years! However, unlike most weakly struck coins (which sell at sharp discounts from regular prices), the 1922 “plain” sells for an immense increment, much more than a perfect 1922-D. Here is a peculiar situation. I am not an arbiter of what something should be worth, and what should be collected, and there is no question that the 1922 “plain” is at least interesting. However, whether it should be a landmark “rarity” worthy of selling for a very high price in comparison to a perfectly struck coin seems at least questionable to me. Nevertheless, the 1922 “plain” is a part of numismatic tradition.

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