The Seated Liberty 20-cent coin was produced as a circulation strike for only two years, 1875 and 1876 (although production of Proof pieces continued in 1877 and 1878).
The size and design of the 20-cent coin confused the public because of the similarity to the quarter dollar, leading to the quick demise of the denomination.
The quarter dollar owes its existence to the Spanish dollar, or peso, worth 8 reales. The peso was used in commerce in the American Colonies and also for a time after the U.S. Mint began producing coins in the 1790s.
To this day, the 25-cent coin — a nondecimal denomination — is known as “two bits” because the peso was often cut into eight equal pieces, each called a “bit.”
It seems any coin similar in size to the quarter dollar is doomed. Consider the ill-fated Anthony dollar of 1979 to 1981 and 1999. Like the double dime, this small-diameter coin confused the public.
Many home hobbyists collect quarter dollars, especially since Congress has devised programs such as the 50 State Quarters, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories quarters, and America the Beautiful quarter dollars.
Perhaps that is why collectors might want to consider the short-lived but all-American 20-cent coin.
I own one 20-cent type coin. All issues are rare or scarce, even the more common 1875-S 20-cent coin, which had a mintage of 1,155,000, with an estimated 25,000 surviving to this day.
Other mintages and estimated survival rates for 20-cent circulation strikes are:
1875 (36,910; 4,500).
1875-CC (133,290; 6,500).
1876 (14,640; 3,000).
1876-CC (10,000; 19).
The 1876-CC Seated Liberty 20-cent coin is the key to the series, but it is doubtful that many home hobbyists can afford one. In 2009 an 1876-CC 20-cent coin graded Mint State 66 was sold for $460,000 by Heritage Auctions.
In terms of survival, it is right up there with the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin and the 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle.
Like the 1933 $20 double eagle, the entire run of 1876-CC 20-cent pieces was ordered melted by the government. (Surviving specimens of 1876-CC 20-cent coins are legal to own, however.)
As such, the 20-cent coin is both one of the greatest rarities and bargains of numismatics.
Consider that about 50,000 surviving examples of the coveted 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent survive, twice as many as the 1875-S 20-cent coin. The 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent costs about $850 in Very Good 12, as opposed to $150 for an 1875-S Seated Liberty 20-cent piece in the same grade.
Now that’s a steal!
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor at Iowa State University and also a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.