Over the past five years of my searching, I knew that it had been very difficult finding high grade RB and BN color class Circulation Strike Wheatbacked Lincoln Cents. Since the BN color class is where color tends to show up the most strongly, clearly I was very interested in that BN color class – and these were particularly hard to find in high-grades and eye-appealing.
So as an ‘adventure into the statistical realm’, I thought I would total up the PCGS Certified Coin Population of the entire Circulation Strike Wheatbacked Era from 1909-1958 to help me get a handle on the relative scarcity of high grade BN Lincoln Cents. PCGS maintains these numbers as do other well known Third Party Graders, such as NGC, however for simplicity sake, I will focus just on the numbers compiled by PCGS.
Table 1. Total PCGS Populations of Wheatbacked Lincoln Cents (1909-1958) broken down by color class, for grades between MS64 and MS70. Interesting to note that for the popular MS66 grade — nearly all (98% or 150,812) PCGS-graded Lincolns are certified in the RD color class, a small sliver (2% or 2,641) are certified in the RB class, and the tiny remainder certified in the BN class is so minuscule (0.17% or 261) it doesn’t register as a whole percentage. (Statistics tabulated January 2018)
I broke down my statistical numbers, shown in Table 1, by grade (along the top) and by color class (along the side). One should note this Table covers over 330,000 (nearly a third of a million) PCGS-graded Lincoln Cents. The subset of grades I picked for my table ranged from MS64, which is considered to be a nice solid, reasonably problem-free uncirculated example … through MS66 and MS67, which are very high-end uncirculated examples with few flaws — up to the nose-bleed lofty grades of MS68 to MS70 (which ranges from near perfection to complete perfection) and of course are rare to an extreme.
It’s interesting what these statistics show. Clearly at the MS64 level, the BNs are definitely scarcer than the RBs or RDs – but still semi-ballpark. Still, even at this somewhat generic MS64 grade, there are 7 times fewer BNs than RDs. But, it’s jaw dropping how the BN populations fall off a cliff starting at the MS65 grade level — and continue to drop precipitously through the MS66 and MS67 grade levels.
The MS66 grade level (the third column of numbers in Table 1) is the most striking to my eye. In that popular high grade, there are over 150,000 MS67RD Lincolns … while there are only a scant 261 MS66BN Lincolns (as of January 2018) – an astounding 600 to 1 ratio! With only 261 known PCGS MS66BN Wheatbacked Lincolns, one could almost corner the market on MS66BN Lincolns if one wanted. Amazingly one collector (Jeff Kelble aka. CopperColor) almost did that in the early 2010’s. At one point, he owned over 50% of the known population of PCGS MS66BN Lincoln Cents – a truly amazing feat.
At the MS67 grade level, the discrepancy deepens even more, with nearly 17,000 PCGS MS67RD Lincolns in the known universe, while the population of PCGS MS67BN Lincolns is only 8. This is an incredible 2000 to 1 ratio! PCGS-graded MS67BN Wheatbacked Lincolns are rarer than some million dollar coins. Of course I am talking about a grade/color-class combination rarity here, which might be considered a bit esoteric by some numismatists.
An explanation for this discrepancy might have been offered by a very famous Lincoln Cent scholar, Mr. Q. David Bowers, who said in his expertly written A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents1 that for Matte Proof Lincolns (minted from 1909-1916): “Matte Proof Lincolns (1909-1916) described as full RD, with no toning at all, are in my opinion pieces that have been dipped, but certainly others may feel differently, and I respect that”. From this statement, it appears Mr. Bowers’ is putting forth the notion that there are few fully-natural red (RD) Matte Proof Lincolns — implying that many were dipped or treated to be made red, though clearly that’s just one man’s opinion.
Mr. Bowers’ statement led me to wonder if some of that same logic could be applied in a very limited way to older Circulation Strike Lincoln’s — and if that is true, perhaps the reason there are so many more 60 to 110 year old high grade RD Circulation Strike Lincoln cents than there are RB or BN Lincolns of that same age is because many high-grade Lincolns were carefully dipped or otherwise treated, over the years, to remove any toning that had developed so the coins could be sold at the higher RD prices, which for some date/mint combinations is 10x higher. This is a very controversial idea though as I’ve heard from a number of collectors that say it’s very difficult to impossible to dip or treat a copper coin to make it look like a natural RD. Still, it does give me pause. Copper will naturally darken over time and I would think that a 60 to 110 year old copper coin should probably have darkened or oxidized (toned) a least a small amount, from its age alone.
For these older coins, approaching 100 years, a true original mint-fresh red (RD) state just seems intuitively more unlikely. Without some sort of man in the loop treatment like this, it makes it hard to fathom or justify the 600 to 1 ratio of MS66RD to MS66BN Lincoln Cents (or the 2,000 to 1 ratio of MS67RD to MS67BN Lincoln Cents) in the wheat era (1909-1958).
This also makes me wonder if the Artificial Toning (AT) or Questionable Color (QC) designation might truthfully be applied (more than it already is) to many of the certified Red (RD) Lincolns in the marketplace (especially those older than 60 years). How many of those RD Lincoln might have been treated to appear more red and get the much higher guide price valuation? In any case, I am sure many may object with this theory, but I do think it is worth noting.
I personally find the BNs much more fun to look at with all their unique variations and character — and they are certainly rarer. The RDs always seemed mostly the same to me, common, and somewhat mundane at times – much more replaceable. If you go into any coin auction site and search for an MS66RD Lincoln you’ll get hundreds of hits, however you’d be hard pressed to find more than a couple of MS66BN Lincolns, if you are lucky.
Perhaps collectors of these, sometimes over-looked and under-loved high-grade BN rarities, should simply keep their mouths shut about this disparity and continue to benefit from the much lower prices of high-grade BN Lincolns in the marketplace.
One final observation on the data in Table 1, based on a rudimentary statistical analysis, I think that our first PCGS MS68RB Wheatbacked Lincoln Cent is overdue. (note that when i wrote this article, in December 2017, there were no MS68RB Wheatbacked Lincolns, but by August 2018, our first was certified, a 1909 VDB which later sold at auction for $23,000). It seems anomalous that there is a 0 in that grid box (as of Dec 2017) — just based on the somewhat well-behaved ratios, patterns, and distributions of the numbers across the table. It is my feeling that the population in that MS68RB grid box probably should be around 3 already – certainly at least 1. Perhaps soon that will happen. That being said, statistics are not always well-behaved.
Next, I wanted to break down and analyze a bit further the part of the 1909-1958 Wheatbacked Lincoln statistics for BN color class only, separated into 5 year categories. Chart 1 shows the relative populations of MS64 vs. MS65 vs. MS66 in the Brown (BN) Color Class. The color of the bars represents various grade levels: 64BN (blue bars), 65BN (green bars), and 66BN (red bars).
Chart 1. This figure depicts PCGS-graded Lincoln Cent populations of 64BN (blue bars), 65BN (green bars), and 66BN (red bars) in each noted interval of years. Note that the first two intervals (bars) are for 1909 as a stand alone year; the first bar is 1909 VDB only and the second bar is 1909 plain only. Beyond those first two bars, each bar represents a five-year segmentation of minted coins. The rarity of the 66BNs (red bars) is clearly obvious, typically under ten for each five-year interval.
It should be noted that the 1909 VDB and 1909 plain are both represented by 1 year bars — and I started my first 5 year bar with the 1910-1914 period. The taller relative bars for the 1909 VDB is clearly seen over the 1909 plain – showing how many more VDB’s were saved (kept pristine) over the 1909 plain (about 4 times more!).
Another interesting finding was that some of the most beautiful toning I found in Circulation Strike Lincoln Cents was from those minted in the period ranging from the mid 1930’s to the early 1940’s. I am not 100% sure why this is, but a theory is perhaps the depression of the 1930’s led many to find inexpensive pastimes – and perhaps collecting Lincoln cents became a more general American hobby. Also in that era an explosion of coinboards (made with sulfur laden paper, which can react with copper to cause toning colors to appear) led many to put their prized freshly minted Lincolns into those coin display holders where they sat undisturbed for many years. Over time, this could have led to spectacular toning on some fortunate pristine Lincoln Cents of that era. Later, with the start of World War Two (WW2) in December 1941, and then with the start of the baby boom in 1946, perhaps the masses of America became distracted with other more pressing things and fewer pristine Lincolns were collected (saved).
It appears, from my rudimentary experience that most of the great toning on coins minted in the ten years after World War Two ended (dated from 1946 to 1955) was from “roll toning” – that is, undisturbed bank rolls where the sulfur-laden roll paper led to interesting toning patterns developing over decades. I believe that since this is a rarer event than other types of toning, it lead to the difficulty in finding toners in this 1946-1955 era. I personally call the 1947-1949 years “murderers row” because finding eye appealing toners in that era is so difficult.
Finally, the well-known “Mint Set Toning” (from the sulfur laden cardboard mint set holders) in the 1956 to 1958 years, rule the day in that late Wheatbacked era. Lincoln Cents dated 1957-D are an especially rich source of colorful toning – and one can clearly see a spike in BN and RB populations for that date/mint combination. It’s unclear to me why 1957-D is such a gold mine for beautiful toning but it’s clearly seen in the marketplace.
It’s also interesting that I found the D (Denver) mint seemed to produce more monstrously toned examples than the other two mints. The P (Philadelphia) mint seems to be the rarest of the 3 mints for eye-appealing color. In spite of that, the most beautiful rainbow-toned Circulation Strike Lincoln I have ever seen is a neon green 1945-P which was owned by Jeff Kelble (CopperColor) through 2017 and currently owned by Daryl Haynor – so it’s hard to make generalizations.
I sometimes wonder if Denver’s mile high elevation (5,200 feet a.s.l.), perhaps impacted something related to how a coin produced in that thinner air and lower pressure, was struck and/or toned over time. However, this is pure conjecture.