Every coin tells a story. But few more than America’s eight most notorious coins…
Right now the U.S. collectible coin market is an absolute minefield. It is the most competitive coin collecting market in the world. In fact, every one of the top ten most valuable coins of all time is from the U.S.
Some of these coins date back to the 1800’s and all of them are extremely famous. Let me tell you why…
Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)
The Indian Head Penny is famous for celebrating Native Americans, but it actually doesn’t show a Native American.
According to legend, designer James B. Longacre used a portrait of his 12 year old daughter, Sarah, wearing a headdress. It is, however, more likely that the portrait was based on a classical Greco-Roman statue Venus Accroupie (Crouching Venus).
Either way, the ‘Indian’ is not a Native American! The obverse features the head of Lady Liberty wearing a headdress, while the reverse depicts a wreath as well as the words ‘One Cent’ and a shield in the middle at the top of the coin.
Morgan Silver Dollar (1878-1921)
For the new silver dollar, designer George T. Morgan decided to portray Liberty as a goddess, inspired by Philadelphian school teacher, Anna Williams who had a fair complexion, Grecian nose and golden hair. Morgan eventually persuaded Anna Williams to sit as the model for Liberty for the obverse of the Morgan Silver Dollar.
In 1878 artists’ models were considered immoral, therefore, Morgan publicly stated that the model was a statue in a Philadelphia museum. Word soon leaked out, however, and it is rumoured that Williams was fired from her teaching job!
‘No Cents’ Liberty Head Nickel (1883)
When the new Liberty Head Nickel was issued in 1883, the denomination was nowhere to be seen, instead a large ‘V’ (Roman ‘5’) was on the reverse.
The coins were the size of the $5 gold coin in circulation at the time which created an opportunity for unscrupulous crooks who came up with a cunning plan to pass them off as $5 by gold plating the new nickels and cutting reeds into the edge by hand. The U.S Mint soon became aware and within a few weeks the design was changed to include the word ‘Cents’ under the ‘V’. The ‘No Cents’ coins are also known as ‘Racketeer’ Nickels.
Lincoln Penny (1909)
Designer Victor David Brenner added his ‘VDB’ initials to the new Lincoln Penny design in 1909 which was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
While the public generally loved the Lincoln cent when it was first released, they didn’t like the prominence of Brenner’s initials. The U.S. Mint quickly removed the initials as it appeared as though Brenner was either boasting or advertising. This was the first cent to feature Abraham Lincoln’s motto ‘In God we trust’ on the obverse.
Morgan Dollar (1921)
When notorious outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were shot and killed by police in 1934, a 1921 Silver Morgan Dollar was recovered from the jacket of Clyde Barrow among other possessions. The outlaw lovers were believed to have committed 13 robberies among other felonies between 1932 and 1934.
The hunt for the duo captured the nation’s imagination during the Great Depression and their fame was heightened by their practice of leaving glamourous photos of themselves at crime scenes.
Even more so now, the 1921 coin is forever associated with Bonnie and Clyde.
Roosevelt Dime (1946)
In 1945 plans were quickly laid for the introduction of a new coin to honour Roosevelt after his passing. The task was assigned to John Ray Sinnock and coinage began in 1946. Controversy soon arose because sculptor Selma Burke claimed that Sinnock had stolen her design without giving her credit, however Sinnock strongly denied this.
In addition, conspiracy theorists claimed that Sinnock’s initials ‘JS’ (at the base of Roosevelt’s neck) actually referred to Russian leader Joseph Stalin because of Roosevelt’s supposed ‘communist’ learnings.
Franklin Half Dollar (1948)
The Franklin Half Dollar was designed by John R. Sinnock and his ‘JS’ initials were again seen by conspiracy theorists as a tribute to Joseph Stalin.
In addition, the crack on the Liberty Bell was controversial, some people saw it as a statement that Liberty in the United States was under threat (despite the fact that the image exactly reflects the bell’s appearance).
Finally, what appears to be a small ‘o’ and large ‘F’ on the reverse (‘oF’ in the United States of America) was rumoured to be a mistake and that the Mint would recall all 1948 coins to correct the ‘error’.
Anthony Dollar (1979)
The Anthony Dollar was revolutionary – the first circulating coin to feature a historical woman. Susan B. Anthony was an author and protest speaker among other titles but best known as President of the National American Suffrage Association. The coin was also the first small-sized Dollar that was issued for wide circulation.
However, it quickly became notorious – and almost universally rejected – because it was the same colour and about the same size as a quarter. Therefore, it was often mistaken for a Quarter, and the public refused to use it! (Interestingly, it is now a sought-after collector’s item.)
You can own all eight of these coins in ‘The Infamous, Notorious and Scandalous U.S. Coin Set’.
The coinage of the United States tell some truly fascinating stories about America’s heritage. To hold a US coin in the palm of your hand can feel as though you are literally holding a piece of history.
I have always been intrigued by American coins, but there are so many that it is a difficult decision knowing which ones you should own.
But, after some research, I have discovered what I believe to be some of the most interesting coins from the past 120 years of US numismatic history.
While they aren’t necessarily the best coins out there, they are certainly the ones with the most intriguing stories behind them…
1. Columbian Half Dollar (1892-1893)
The 1892 Columbian Half Dollar was the first ever commemorative coin issued in the United States. It was intended to raise money to fund the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893 – each half dollar was sold with a 50 cent surcharge which went towards the project. The design pays tribute to the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492.
2. Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916-1947)
Struck from 1916 until 1947, the Walking Liberty Half Dollar is sometimes referred to as the most beautiful circulating American coin. Its design, by Adolph A. Weinman, owes more to sculpture than functionality, and was critically acclaimed upon its issue. In respect of its status, the design has been reprised as the obverse of the current ‘Eagle’ series of Silver Bullion coins, making it one of the most recognisable designs in American numismatic history.
3. Peace Dollar (1921-1935)
The Peace Dollar was proposed as a lasting commemoration after the tragedies of World War I. It was also the last ever Silver US coin struck for circulation. Featuring an eagle clutching an olive branch above the word ‘peace’ on the reverse, the coin was not without controversy. Word escaped that the design was to include a broken sword next to the eagle, but this was seen as a symbol of defeat. Public outcry stopped the design, but the dies had already been finished. Remarkably, amendments were carried out so skilfully that for 85 years it remained a secret that the sword had ever been engraved onto the coin.
4. Kennedy Half Dollar (1964-Present)
One of the most poignant American coins, this Half Dollar was commissioned just months after Kennedy’s assassination, and was in circulation by 1964 – a remarkable feat of planning and design. Your version is one of the very first coins struck, and contains 90% silver content. The combination of the emotional resonance of the coin with the silver content led to extensive hoarding and from 1965 the silver was reduced and eliminated entirely in 1971.
5. Eisenhower Dollar (1971-74 & 1977-78)
This coin was proposed in 1969 as a commemoration of two major events that occurred that year. The first was the passing of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the second was the success of the Apollo II mission landing on the moon. The coin was eventually released in 1971 and features an interpretation of the Apollo II insignia on the reverse and Eisenhower’s effigy on the obverse. There is speculation that the production of this coin was encouraged by lobbying from the Gambling industry, who wanted a large dollar coin in circulation for use in their casinos.
6. Standing Liberty Quarter (1916-1930)
The Standing Liberty Silver Quarter was first minted in late 1916 and instantly became America’s most scandalous coin. The designer was famed sculptor Hermon A MacNeil, and he used Broadway actress Irene MacDowell as the model for Lady Liberty. However, Liberty was shown with an exposed breast – and the Society for the Suppression of Vice was very vocal about the coin being immoral and obscene. There was such an uproar that the U.S. Mint was forced to change the design in 1917 to cover Liberty’s breast with a chain-mail shirt.
A rare 1794 Silver Dollar, thought to be among the first silver dollars ever struck by The US Mint, has set a new world-record by becoming the first ever coin to be sold for over $10 million.
The ‘Flowing Head’ was auctioned at Stack’s Bowers Galleries in New York earlier this year in front of a packed crowd of collectors, investors and dealers. Chairman David Bowers said the fact it was one of the first of its kind ever struck combined with its quality and scarcity helped to push up the price among bidders.
A new world record
The coin was eventually sold to Legend Numismatics for a record $10,016,875 –
the highest price ever paid for any coin – smashing the current record of $7,590,020 paid for a 1933 Double Eagle in 2002. A spokesman for the US-based company which specialises in rare coins said afterwards it had been prepared to bid even higher for such a rare piece of American numismatic history.
One of the finest of its kind
The record-breaking coin, one of the finest known, was part of the Cardinal Collection which includes some of the oldest and rarest American coins. It features a profile of Liberty facing right with stars around the edge representing US states, a design only used in 1794 and briefly in 1795.
Although the 1794 Silver Dollar was the highlight of the auction, the total amount made from the sale of rare coins topped almost $27m.
A selection of America’s most famous and iconic coins is available here.