One time-honored bit of advice in collecting is that one should avoid
“problem coins.” Generally, a problem coin is a coin that has an issue
— something happened to it after the coin left the Mint that the coin
market finds offensive.
Obvious problems include polishing, a hole, and evidence of mounting
from a prior life in jewelry, heavy scratches, intentional damage like
re-engraved details and the like. Less clear issues may involve
cleaning — there can be a fine difference between conservation and
improper cleaning. The line between contact marks, scratches and
graffiti is also open to opinion.
There can be times when a market opportunity forces someone to
accept a coin that has a problem (or two, or three).
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This summer at its American Numismatic Association auctions in
Anaheim, Calif., Stack’s Bowers Galleries offered a rare 1916 Winged
Liberty Head dime pattern. It was graded Proof, About Uncirculated
Details, Damage, by PCGS and sold for $14,100.
PCGS called it Proof because it was manufactured as such at the
Philadelphia Mint, though likely after it left the Mint’s doors it
either circulated for a bit or served as a pocket piece. During this
time it acquired some nasty, heavy scratches on the reverse. As the
description points out, “A collection of old, seemingly-nonsensical
pinscrapes populate the reverse fields, though the surfaces are
One can see how the pattern could circulate, in that its design is
similar to the adopted “Mercury” design. The positioning of the head,
date and letters is different on the pattern than on the final coin —
Liberty’s head almost appears to be leaning forward a bit — and there
are slight differences in the foliage on the reverse.
The pattern is part of a group of rare 1916 patterns testing subtle
variations on the three new designs issued that year (the same three
designs that were recently honored with 2016 gold coins from the U.S.
Mint marking their centennial). Among the patterns for the Winged
Liberty Head dime, Standing Liberty quarter dollar and Walking Liberty
half dollar, the dime patterns come up the most frequently, and many
examples show evidence of circulation.
With just two examples of this particular variation known, a
collector may not be able to be too choosy. Listed as Judd 1983 in the
most recent revision of Dr. J. Hewitt Judd’s classic United States
Pattern Coins, the subject coin presents an unusual exception, a
problem coin that may be the best, and only, example one can buy.