When Rare Coins Were in Circulation

New York Subway Hoard

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The New York Subway Hoard. COURTESY LITTLETON COIN CO

Have you ever found a rare coin in circulation? You won’t discover a 1792 Half Disme at the grocery store these days, but you might locate a 1969-S or 1972 Doubled Die Obverse Lincoln cent if you carefully examine your pocket change. In tough economic times, some people empty long-stashed coins from their piggy banks, so you might encounter a pre-1965 90% silver dime or quarter in circulation.

Once in Circulation

There was a time when rare coins could be found in circulation. Knowledgeable collectors happily picked them up for face value. One of the most exciting examples is the New York Subway Hoard, a decades-long coin hunt by a subway fare collector. This hunt led to the discovery of 241 specimens of 1916-D Mercury dimes, 19 examples of 1916 Standing Liberty quarters and 29 Buffalo nickel 1918/17-D overdates.

Between the 1940s to early 1960s, Morris Moscow, an employee of the New York Transit Authority, was able to assemble from circulation 45 complete sets of Barber dimes, not including any example of the legendary 1894-S. The collection boasted 24 complete sets of Barber half dollars; 20 examples of 1913-S Barber quarters; eight specimens of the 1901-S quarter; and 1942/41 overdate Mercury dimes in a quantity of 166.

What Happened to the Coins?

Moscow was pulling them from circulation on behalf of his brother-in-law George Shaw of Brooklyn, a collector and part-time coin dealer. While some of the coins were apparently sold individually over the years, most of the hoard was purchased by Littleton Coin Co. of Littleton, New Hampshire in the 1990s.

Littleton’s chief coin buyer, Jim Reardon, called it “apparently the largest group of 1916-D and 1942/41 Mercury dimes to hit the market in one transaction.”

Coin Drops

When the 1997 American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention was held in New York City, Littleton’s President, David M. Sundman, donated a 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent from the Subway Hoard to be used in a “coin drop” stunt to promote the show. The Treasurer of the United States at the time, Mary Ellen Withrow, included the coin with common pocket change to purchase a pretzel from a Times Square street vendor. Steve Bobbitt, then ANA Public Relations Director, and I organized the coin drop, happily working with Sundman and Withrow. It is one of my fond hobby memories.

Littleton was also involved in the purchase of what is believed to be the largest known hoard of U.S. collector coins, a record 1.746 million items that were stored for decades in canvas bags and 55-gallon metal drums hidden behind the walls of a Midwest house. Described as “The Midwest MegaHoard,” the 7.6-ton purchase included 950,000 circulated early small cents, 308,000 Liberty Head nickels and 488,000 Buffalo nickels.

When the acquisition of the hoard was announced in 1998, Sundman revealed that the collector had spent 25 years accumulating the hoard and the floorboards of his house were sagging under the weight of all those coins.

I’m happy to find even a Lincoln Wheat cent on the sidewalk.

This article about circulating rare coins previously appeared in COINage magazine. To subscribe click here. Column by Donn Pearlman. 

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