Indian head cents were struck by the US Mint for over half a century, from 1859 - 1909, and are some of the most popular old collectible coins of the USA. Each Indian head cent has value and is now more than 100 years old. This series of small cents has a fair overlap of years of production with the tiny one dollar gold coins, which were struck from 1849 through 1889; the Indian cent was the smallest denomination coin throughout the years of its production, while the one dollar gold was the smallest denomination gold coin and physically smallest of all US coins struck by the US Mint throughout history.
Designed by James Longacre, Indian head cents were struck at the US Mint in Philadelphia for the duration of the series, and at the branch mint in San Francisco only in the final two years of the series. Those two dates, the 1908-S and even more so the 1909-S, are rare dates in the series and have rare coin values that are worth much more than most of the other dates in this very classic and popular series.
Like many other series of US coins, the first year of issue of Indian head cents is a one year type struck only in 1859. During that year some slight changes were made, and then due to the civil war, the metal composition was also changed slightly, resulting in the second type struck from 1860 - 1864 being called the "copper-nickel" ("CN") type.
Designer James Longacre inserted his "L" initial on some of the dies used in 1864, resulting in a sub-type for that year that has come to be called "L on ribbon" (it's on the obverse, on the ribbon). The "1864 L" is a rare date with a higher value than most other coins in the series, especially in higher grades and Mint State Uncirculated 60 and above.
1872 is also considered by many to be a rare date with a high value in this series, but the absolute toughest date with the highest value in the entire series is the 1877, which due to its low mintage and the tough economic times of that year, resulted in most examples becoming heavily circulated, with very few preserved in mint state uncirculated.
That rarity applies to the proof issues also, as the 1877 proof Indian head cents are also exceedingly rare and valuable. Barely more than 500 were struck in total.
Anyone who wants to buy high value proof Indian head cents grading in the 60 and better range may be able to do that for less cost than proof coins from other series struck in the same years. As was true in the latter half of the 1800s through the final year of the series in 1909, proof coins were struck and sold upon request and demand. In years of economic hardship, including 1877 (and to a lesser extent 1872 and 1893), fewer proofs were struck because fewer people visited the US Mint and fewer of the people who did visit the mint bought proof coins as collectibles and/or keepsakes.
With the one cent being the lowest denomination US coin since 1858, it was the least costly for visitors to the US Mint to purchase proof one cent coins compared to more costly higher face value denominations, and that is why the mintage of proof Indian head cents is much higher than the proof coin mintages of the other, larger denominations in each year. Each higher denomination proof coin in the period 1859 - 1916 generally has a lower mintage than the denomination below it. Even so, all proofs in the entire Indian head cent series have a high intrinsic value, as the highest proof mintage in the series is still less than 10,000 pieces.
Some people say that you should only buy "professionally graded" coins, such as in holders graded by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (NGC), and the American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS, which is now a private company with no connection to the Association), and many lesser-known names. Many say to avoid the other companies, but then again the old saying says "buy the coin, not the holder."
While the advice of getting the best quality coins you can still always or almost always applies to rare coins, when it comes to copper coins, that advice may be a bit different. Copper coins are the hardest to preserve, and are most at risk of degradation from moisture and atmospheric conditions. (Numismatic Conservation Services, LLC is the top company for recovery of coins that have begun to degrade or are at risk of degrading due to improper storage.)
So getting bright red, full mint luster cents (the most valuable) would likely be beautiful, but would only be advisable if you can store and preserve them carefully in a tightly sealed manner. This also in fact applies to more recently produced Lincoln wheat cents and to maybe a slightly lesser degree, even Lincoln Memorial cents.
Instead it may be more advisable and less risky in terms of preservation, to get brown uncirculated cents, and even brown proof cents, that sell for a discount to completely red and also a discount to in-between red and brown luster ("RB") Indian head cents.
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