Value of Old American Coins

By Johnny Kampis
The U.S. Mint, coins, the 1790s
coins image by Pali A from

The United States has a rich and varied history, and the story of the country is reflected in its coinage. Featuring Lady Liberty, Native Americans, eagles, former presidents and other symbols, coins struck by the U.S. Mint represent a cross-section of the nation's history. Some American coins can be worth thousands if not tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on a variety of factors such as mintage, condition and collector interest.


Many early American coins were struck in small quantities. The first large cent, for example, featured a mintage of only about 36,000 in 1793. Even copies in poor condition can fetch several thousand dollars. Only 23,000 copies of the first half dollar were minted in 1794, leading to high values for this coin too.


Coins tend to grade between "about good" (AG-3), which is actually a very poor grade for a coin and applies when it has so much wear the features are barely distinguishable and "choice uncirculated" (MS-63), which is reserved for coins that look like they just came from the Mint. The higher the grade the more valuable the coin.


The metals contained within the coin can add value to the issue. Gold was the primary metal used for American coins with values greater than one dollar, and as a result these coins are quite valuable for their composition alone. Dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollar coins minted before 1965 are comprised of mostly silver, increasing their value.


The U.S. Mint makes the occasional mistake and these error coins often fetch premium prices. Most mistakes involve the numbers in years struck over other numbers to correct an early batch of coins struck with an incorrect date. Sometimes mistakes result from improperly prepared dies. A famous example is the 1955 Lincoln cent, in which the date is struck twice, slightly offset. An example in MS-63 condition can fetch several thousand dollars.


Numismatists prize some coins for their beauty.The Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin is considered by many to be the most beautiful U.S. coin ever minted. The design features a robed Liberty on the front and a flying eagle on the reverse. These coins can fetch more than $1,000 in average grades such as very fine (VF-20). Other coins popular in part for their attractiveness include the walking Liberty half dollar, buffalo nickel and Peace dollar.


About the Author

A veteran of the newspaper industry, Johnny Kampis has worked as a freelance writer since 2005. His articles have appeared in various publications including "The New York Times," "Atlanta-Journal Constitution" and the "San Francisco Chronicle." He currently serves as an editor of poker-based "Rounder" magazine and writer for the Alabama football publication "Crimson" magazine.