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What Qualifies a Coin for Key Date Status?

8 posts in this topic

Seems like a simple, straightforward question, doesn't it? Yet I have wrestled with the answer to this, on-and-off, for quite some time. A recent thread started by Michael has brought me back to this question, and I would like the considerable think-tank that is the culmination of our contributors to help me with it.


We've been hearing about key dates quite a bit lately, with many people bellowing the call to buy up key dates and the Greysheet even writing up blurbs stating that key dates are hot. Others suggest to sell key dates as they believe the peak is here, or near, and that there is no where to go but down.


But, what are the true key dates?


It is apparent that key date status is likely linked to original mintage, survivorship and series popularity. Taking it a bit further, there is grade rarity to consider, where one coin may slide back and forth between common and key date status. Additionally, do unintentional design varieties, or even errors, make the cut as key dates? To clear something up, I consider an unintentional design variety to be a coin minted with some change that wasn't anticipated to be a design change by the Mint, but that are clearly not errors. Coins that fall into this category would be overdates made by using an obsolete obverse die.


Also, does every series have to have a key date? There was a thread on the PCGS boards where someone recently mentioned that the 1949-S Roosevelt dime was the key date in that series. In truth, I had a chuckle out of that statement as I don't believe any Roosevelt dime is a key date, but is that really just my preference showing?


My opinion is that errors (1937-D three-legged nickel) should not enter the realm of the key date, nor should unintentional design varieties (1918/7-S SLQ). So, what makes one coin a key date while another isn't?


Here, as an example, are a pair of 19th century half dollars. One is a Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (DBHE) while the other is a Seated Liberty (SL). The DBHE is an 1801 and has an original mintage of 30,289 while the SL is an 1879 and has an original mintage of 5,900. 754398-I1879P64.jpg Immediately, we can see that the mintage of the SL is only 20% that of the DBHE yet the SL is not considered a key date, while the DBHE is. In fact, the SL bids for less than the majority of its type in its grade, while the DBHE is inexplicably caught in a Greysheet price freeze, but the bourse values the coin at multiples of Greysheet and multiple of its more common series brethren. 754512-I180130.jpg


Why should one of these coins be a key date in its series while the other just a curiosity? I have some ideas, but don't want to flood everyone out with them. Also, these two coins are not the only coins that could be used for this illustration, I just happen to own them and have fairly decent scans of each, and so they will be used to try to form a paradigm.


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Key dates are probably only regular issues which were made in small numbers or which survive in small numbers. Yes, there are some key dates which are key dates only in higher grade. But any such coin must have substantial value to warrant the term key date and by extention, this means there must be substantial demand. An 1872 2c is a key date despite the low demand because it has substantial value and a 1983-P quarter is not a key date despite its rarity in high grade simply because there is so little demand.


Some of the rarest dimes of the 20th century are among the Roosevelts but they are all clads and all special issues. Notably are the No-S proofs and the NMM issue. Many of the regular issue clads are also quite scarce in high grade.

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This is a great question. I wrote and article (The Key to Collecting: Key dates essential to complete collection) that appeared in Dec. 13 2004 CW on the topic. It's fairly eye opening to consider what may be "key" for any series, but overall, I have to conclude that it's a matter of popularity and demand. If a series is popular and demand exceeds the number of pieces available in the grades that people like, then the coin takes on "key" status. This can reach mystical proportions, such as the 1909-S VDB cent, the 1914-D cent, the 1916-D Winged Lib dime, and others. None of these are rare. Popularity of the series, however, makes them highly sought, and demand makes them unavailable in grades that people like. The general sense of unavailability couple with true demand (backed by $ and cents) drives up price. Ultimately, price makes keys stand out.


Even the 1916 SLQ, which does not have great survivability of original pieces (circ or unc) is far more common than the 1879 half that you show. But I'd venture to say that you did not pay 50 grand for your coin, which is what a similar 1916 SLQ would bring.


Keys are relative to series. There are more than 10 Saints that'll cost you 10 grand if you want one in XF or better. But a key in the Jefferson nickel series (without the strike attribution) will run you about 50 bucks (1939-D). The other "key" in that series, the 1950-D, will cost you all of $20-$0 for a very nice unc specimen (no FS). That's what the reference to the Roosie dime was that you mentioned.


If you look at American coinage in general, "keys" take on a different form. Demand still plays a role. There are way more 1804 dollars than 1866 no motto dollars available, but the former receive the higher bids every time. And there are countless less-dramatic (or questionable) examples that one could consider. But it always comes around to (1) popularity, (2) perceived rarity, (3) demand backed by $, and (4) grade (preservation) availability.



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I guess I also feel that it is relative to the series and the collector. It may start with coins that most can find if they are dilligent. As an example, for modern collectors, these may be many of the 1949 issues in high grades (MS66, with full what-ever and above grades). These may be on the easier acquisition end of the key dates spectrum, but are still a little pricey. On the other extreme, are some key dates that are widely known, expensive and rare (i.e. some of the "CC" coinage of the 1870's), $3-Dollar gold and the like.


I feel that this may be a somewhat a collector specific question. It may be based on that person's particular perceptions, budget and interests. I have just as much fun trying to find higher grade, full steps war nickels as I do key MS gold coins.

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Great topic for discussion...


In my mind, key dates are those that are:


1. In series that are highly collected and collectible

2. In series in which most dates are readily obtainable

3. Relatively scarce and expensive in ANY grade (compared to the generic)

4. Few in number relative to the series (ie. in a series of ten coins, you cannot have five key dates)

5. May or may not be varieties or popular errors

6. Often defined by Red Book, Whitman/Dansco albums, numismatic books, Greysheet, TPG's, etc.


If you take coronet $5's as a series, it is hard to come up with a list of key dates as there are so many coins that are rare and so many different levels of rarity. Plus, there are vanishingly few collectors who go after the entire series. However, if you break out the Dahlonega $5's, a popular series to collect, the key dates stand out immediately (42-D LD and 61-D).


Roosevelt dimes? There are no key dates. All are easily obtainable, thoguh some may be conditionally rare.


Buffalo nickels? It gets tougher. 13-S Type II and 26-S come to mind. I would include the 18/17-D and 37-D 3 legs because there are slots for these in my Whitman album. I would not include the 14/13 because there is no slot in the album.


$3's? It is very tough. The most expensive coin (54-D) is not the most scarce. There are proof only years, and there are several years in which the mintage is under 1000, but the coins are more common than years in which the mintage is considerably higher. With the exception of 1854, 1874, and 1878, all of the other issues are relatively scarce when compared to other popular series. It gets very confusing and hard to determine which are the keys.

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the key dates in the three series are the 1865 1864 1863 1862


moreso the 1864 and even way moreso the 1865


the 1870 is totally undervlaued and i guess the sexy lessthaN one thousand minted dates of the 1880;s are sexy


but for example i would guesstimate that not more than 175 1864 three dollar gold exist in all grades combined


if threre was one tenth the demand for this date as say the 1877 it would be worth 100 times its value it currently is


for me i do not like key date coins 16-d dimes 1877 cents 56 flyers 09svdb cents as they are only popular coins witrhnin their series


i rither have a great deeply mirrored colored two cent piece form the civil war ear not only undervalued but a stand alone coin for type for color and for civil war era and also even as a daftre in the datre set


historical too


but the market does not appreciate as such


but this always changes kostly because of the beauty and a great vaLue opportunity coin




great thread tomb


and i am saure you and i could give many houndreds of exampples of what we call key dates


[#@$%!!!] a sexy proof seated dollar in cameo none the less from 1860 is to me a key date with only 460 minted and a stand alone type coin and big beautiful and also a sexy historical civil war date


give me these above coins and leave the rest of the so called key dates


cloud9.gifgreat thread and opiniobs expressed tomb cloud9.gif

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Hi Tom,

To me the bottom line for a coin to qualify as a key date is : Any particular coin in a given series that is valued much higher in a very low grade than a comparable coin of the same series in a much higher grade. This forumula pretty much covers the "key date" spectrum. wink.gif

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