Sept. 1, 2019
A paean to toned copper
Fans of copper/bronze coins will recognize the familiar PCGS/NGC shorthand grade designations for Red, Red and Brown, and Brown, applied most frequently to Mint State and proof large (and half) cents, Indian cents, and Lincoln cents to date. But what do they really mean?
Surprisingly little, it turns out—unless you are working on a Registry Set, or watching your numismatic budget. A certified coin designated RD can range from the fieriest red to a mellow sunset-orange—and don’t forget those lovely canary- and saffron-yellows that sometimes appear on proof Indian cents. What is certain, though, is that certified Red copper is almost always going to cost far more than its date counterparts certified as Brown or Red and Brown.
Take the iconic Lincoln cent (our namesake coin), the 1909-S VDB. In Gem Mint State (MS65) Brown, Red and Brown, and Red, respectively, the current PCGS Price Guide shows retail prices of $2,850; $3,000; and $4,500. So a Red example of this key date will theoretically cost you nearly 60% more than a Brown example.
In MS66, the PCGS prices from Brown to Red double, from $4,500 to $9,000. And from MS67BN to MS67RD (if you can find them), the price more than triples, from $21,000 in MS67BN to $67,500 in MS67RD.
A single 1926-S cent graded MS65RD (population 2) goes for $115,000 according to PCGS.
Such prices effectively preclude all but the most affluent collectors from completing a high-ranking Registry Set of Wheat Reverse Lincolns, those struck from 1909 through 1958.
Or do they?
Take a gander at the Set Composition for the classic 1909–1958 PCGS Registry Set, the “Red Wheaties” set as I call it: The grade of each Red cent gets a RD Bonus of 2 to 5 added, which is then multiplied by a Weight number (the harder, the higher). So a Red 1909-S VDB in MS65 gets 65 +2 = 67 multiplied by a 7 Weight factor, or 469 total for that coin. (A Red and Brown coin gets a 1-point Bonus.) A 1926-S in MS65RD gets a 5-point Bonus and an 8-point Weight, so 65 + 5 = 70 times 8 gives 560 to add to your Grade Point total. Remember, this is a coin that cost you, at minimum, in the high five figures, likely at least $90,000.
But do not despair.
Now look at the “Toned Wheaties” Set Composition. So-called Brown cents get a uniform 3-point Bonus, Red and Brown coins get nothing, and Red coins get—a 3-point deduction! This puts completion of a high-grade Lincoln Wheat Reverse PCGS Registry Set back within the realm of collectors who are persistent but not filthy rich. And what does the “Brown” designation encompass?
Here the news gets even better. Glorious blueberry colors, deep purples, emerald- and jade-greens, hazel-gray and black cherry, as well as many others, fall within the ever-so-blah “Brown” appellation. Take a look at this cent, one of our favorites: a 1924-D Lincoln cent, MS65BN PCGS. This is a very tough cent to find with decent color and strike. Beyond the gorgeous luster and the sharp strike, stunning cobalt-blue and rose hues dominate both sides. We sold it to a longtime repeat customer whose sole focus, at present, is toned Wheaties. It sold for far more—twice—than the absurdly low PCGS price. Does that coin look Brown to you? Of course not.
Is a 1926-S cent in MS65RD worth 30 times as much as the 1924-D above? That’s for you to decide; it’s your money. But you might want to marvel at this beautiful set put together by another numismatist friend of ours (unfortunately now deceased, may his memory be a blessing), the Abe’s Coloring Book #1 Toned Wheat Cents Registry Set (now a Retired set as of October 2019).
As the saying goes, “Chacun á son goût”; to each his own taste. But if you want coins with a wider variety of colors than Red cents, at far more-affordable prices and the possibility to complete a set, perhaps a toned Registry Set of Indian or Lincoln cents—or, what the heck, large cents—should be your next numismatic adventure.