by Michael E. Marotta (ANA 162953)
(An earlier version of this work appeared in the Numismatist
for May 2002.)
Assembling a complete type set of dimes brings both quick rewards and lifelong challenges. The collector who builds a set with consistent eye-appeal will have a display worth admiring. The advanced collector has many opportunities to find varieties and errors that are objectively rare though carrying common price tags.
New collectors often fall into the easy choice of buying an affordable, though less desirable, coin now, rather than waiting for the right coin at a price they can meet later. Justification for this mistake is that they can "trade up" and exchange the lesser coin with some more cash for the better example. Experienced collectors and the dealers who work with them know that the margins between retail and wholesale work against this strategy. It is always better to accumulate cash while studying the numismatic evidence and the markets. If you study your dimes and save your dollars you can build an enviable display in just a few years.
If you start with the current issue Roosevelt dime, you can find examples certified Proof 70 - a perfect coin. Proof sets from 1992 to the present do contain 90% silver half dollars, quarters, and dimes. Most collectors agree that silver strikes up better than nickel, making silver coins especially attractive.
Such easy perfection comes with a hidden cost: it is impossible to complete a type set of dimes entirely in Proof-70. There is nothing wrong with having one perfect coin. However, the other dimes that go into a set must be of superior "eye appeal." Although a Proof-70 "Roosie" can be had for less than $20, a Mint State 60 uncirculated Draped Bust Dime from 1796 will cost at least $4,000 - if one is on the market at all. Even so, it is possible to find earlier dimes whose individual attractiveness is undeniable, regardless of the numerical grade, and so will fit into a type set of U.S. Dimes.
WINGED HEAD LIBERTY
The Mercury dime is properly called the "Winged Head Liberty" dime. Icons of Roman gods gave Mercury, the messenger of Olympus, a helmet with wings to go along with his winged sandals and winged staff. The Winged Head Liberty reminds us of Mercury. Of course, Mercury is a male and Miss Liberty is a female. The designer, Adolph A. Weinman based his coin on a bust he made of Elsie Kachel Stevens.
Mercury dimes were struck in astronomical quantities, 250 million in 1941 and 300 million in 1943. Even during the worst years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. Mint issued over 8 million in 1930 and over 6 million in 1931. As a result of these populations, high grade examples are affordable. You can find common coins from the 1940s in AU ("almost uncirculated") grade for a dollar or two. For $50 to $100, the collector faces a huge population of certified high Mint State examples. A 1941 Proof-65 will cost about $200, with Proofs from other years being more expensive.
The best Mercury dimes are graded "FSB" for "Full Split Bands." On the reverse, two ribbons (or "bands") run across the middle of the bundle of rods with an ax, called a "fasces." These bands are in the same position on the reverse as the highest part of Liberty's cheek and jaw on the obverse. Therefore, though usually separated to some degree, the bands are seldom separated fully and completely across their length. Coins with "Full Split Bands" command a premium price.
JUST A TRIM
The dimes, quarters, and half dollars designed by Charles Barber, and issued from 1892-1916 can be hard to like. The style is not exciting. The coins carried a lot of commerce in a day when a shave and haircut cost 25 cents and a common laborer earned 10 cents an hour. Daily trade and commerce wore these coins flat. Therefore, Barber coins in higher collector grades (Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated) are always in demand.
Barber dimes grading XF run in the $20 to $50 range for common years. It is technically possible, though practically difficult, to find a certified Mint State Barber dime for less than $100. Proof Barber dimes are available for under $500.
The original design was the work of Thomas Sully. Miss Liberty herself bears a strong resemblance to Blanche Sully, the painter's daughter, in a work executed in 1834. Sully completed another painting of a seated Liberty that served as the model for Christian Gobrecht's dies. A simple type set of Seated Liberty Dimes is a collection in itself. Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht's Seated Liberty coins enjoyed an unparalled run of 56 years 1837-1891. Many small changes in the basic design give us several important sub-types.The collector building a "complete" type set of dimes must make some choices.
The first two years of issue, 1837 and 1838, are one major variety. The obverse has a broad, open field with no legend or other devices, except Miss Liberty and the date. After 1838, an arc of 13 stars appears on the obverse. In 1838, the New Orleans Mint struck the old style, while the Philadelphia Mint issued the new. The dimes of 1838-1853 are considered a single major type of Seated Liberty. In addition, advanced collectors have identified additional folds of cloth from Miss Liberty's right arm for the coins struck after 1840. Also, the Shield at her left is vertical before 1840, and tilted afterward. Whether you need these for your dime type set is up to you.
The reverse of the Seated Liberty from 1837 to 1859 featured olive branches. Starting in 1860, the reverse carried "Newlin's Wreath of Cereals." The wreath combines corn, wheat, oak and maple according to Walter Breen; but cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, corn, wheat and oak according to Kamal M. Awash. A complete type set should have one of each variety, olive branches and cereal wreath.
During the years of Seated Liberty, the international prices of gold and silver changed often. At one time or another, each was undervalued or overvalued relative to the other in terms of money of account. The nation suffered periodic shortages and gluts of silver coins and the Mint tried to keep up. In 1853, the weight of the dime was reduced from 2.67 grams to 2.49 grams. To mark this change, the Mint added arrows to the date for the years 1853-1855. Arrows again bracketed the date in 1873 and 1874 when the weight of the dime increased to 2.50 grams. Whether your complete type set of dimes includes examples of these varieties is a choice you must make.
Another choice is whether to include an 1860-S. The Mints at Philadelphia and New Orleans began striking dimes with "Newlin's cereal wreath" in 1860. However, the San Francisco Mint struck the older reverses in 1860.
Coins graded Extremely Fine are known at the $20 level, however finding a truly problem-free Seated Liberty dime in this grade can be a challenge. Certified Mint State coins from these years can be found near $150. Proofs for the common dates 1875-1891 (no arrows) cost about $600.
Pursuing Capped Bust Dimes 1809-1837 requires the same kinds of choices that come with the Seated Liberty series. On the one hand, production levels for common years make Mint State examples affordable for the average collector who is willing to use a savings account while learning about the series: for $1000 you can have your pick and get money back. Coins certified Extremely Fine often trade for less than $200. The nature of the metal and the production methods combine to allow even a $20 coin graded Fine to have eye appeal, if you are willing to look at hundreds of specimens to find the one that is just right.
There are two major varieties of Capped Bust Dime. In 1828, the Mint made several changes to the design of these coins. Hardly noticeable, except to a numismatist, specialists in the series consider these changes significant.
THE FIRST DIMES
Numismatic legend says that the model for the Draped Bust coinage was Philadelphia socialite Ann Willing Bingham. Her husband, William Bingham, was more than extremely wealthy. The Washingtons and Jeffersons were in their social circle, rather than the other way around. Their daughter, Anne Louisa, married Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton. A known sketch of Ann Willing Bingham by Gilbert Stuart bears a clear resemblance to Miss Liberty on the Draped Bust coinage. However, leading numismatists have their doubts, because no journals, diaries, or memos support the theory. The Coin World Almanac places a question mark after the name Ann Willing Bingham as the model for Draped Bust coins.
Like the Seateds, the Draped Bust dimes 1796-1807 feature two different reverses. The "heraldic eagle" from 1798-1807 is a stylized symbol of the republic. The "small eagle" of 1796-1807 is a more natural image. In no sense are these coins "cheap" or "affordable." Only in grades near or below Very Fine do their prices drop below $1000. Even in Good, the Heraldic Eagles run about $200 and that will not open the bidding for a Small Eagle in Good.
SHOPPING THE VARIETY DIME STORE
The Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins by R. S. Yeoman and Ken Bressett) lists major varieties. Advanced collectors uncover other varieties. The styles of Mint marks, dates, and other details change from one die to the next giving us Large O, Small Date, and many more varieties today. Advanced collectors also find errors, the most common of which are doubled dies, repunched Mint marks, and overdates. The collector who seeks to complete a type set of dimes can enhance the array by paying close attention to the subtle details of every coin. A coin may be certified Mint State without any mention of its variety or any errors it may carry. "Raw" (unencapsulated or uncertified) coins are even more likely to be unattributed varieties and errors. A complete set of dimes in Extremely Fine or above is undeniably beautiful. If each one were itself a minor variety or an error, the set would have an added depth.
Reprinted with permission, Copyright Michael E. Marotta.