How to know if a penny is valuable? Finding a rare penny in your loose change can be like winning the lottery. But with billions of Lincoln cents produced by the U.S. Mint every year, what makes certain pennies valuable?
If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: Valuable pennies often have mint errors, are of a rare date/mintmark combination, or are in pristine, uncirculated condition. Key dates to look for are 1909-S VDB, 1914-D, 1931-S, 1955 doubled die, and 1992 close AM.
In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn insider tips on identifying rare and collectible pennies worth money. We’ll cover everything from important dates, mintmarks, errors, conditions, and grading.
Know Your Key Rarity Dates
1909-S VDB Lincoln Wheat Cent
The 1909-S VDB Lincoln wheat penny is one of the most famous and valuable pennies for collectors. Minted in San Francisco with the designer’s initials (VDB stands for Victor David Brenner) on the reverse side, this coin had a very low mintage of just 484,000 coins.
Unlike earlier wheat cents minted in 1909 without the VDB initials, the 1909-S VDB version was not saved extensively when it was released into circulation. As a result, high-grade versions of this coin are tremendously scarce.
According to the Professional Coin Grading Service, there are only an estimated 500 examples still known to collectors.
Values for the 1909-S VDB penny vary tremendously based on condition. Certified and graded MS-66 RD pennies have sold for over $60,000 at auction. Even lower grades in very good condition can fetch $500 or more.
1931-S Lincoln Wheat Cent
Another famous key date rarity for Lincoln pennies, the 1931-S coin was struck solely at the San Francisco Mint with a tiny mintage of just 866,000 coins. During the Great Depression, few people were saving wheat pennies when banks failed and the economy looked dire.
Thanks to its minuscule original mintage and very limited number of high-grade survivors, the 1931-S wheat cent trades for substantial premiums over other semi-key date Lincoln cents from the same era. Uncirculated examples with full original mint red luster can sell for:
- MS-60: $400+
- MS-63: $2,000+
- MS-65 RD: $6,500+
Professional grading and authentication are recommended to verify authenticity and condition when acquiring one of these rare coins.
1955 Lincoln Wheat Cent Doubled Die Obverse
The most famous rarity in the Lincoln cent series other than the 1909-S VDB coin is the 1955 doubled die penny. This coin shows an extremely strong doubling of design elements on Lincoln’s portrait from a misaligned die at the Philadelphia Mint.
About 40,000 of these coins escaped the Mint before the error was corrected.
Being able to spot the obvious doubling on Lincoln’s head, the words “In God We Trust”, and the date in 1955 make this coin an exciting treasure hunt target. Finding one in pocket change would make your day!
The 1955 doubled-die wheat penny is beloved for its dramatic appearance and remains quite elusive even 60+ years after being struck. Value ranges according to the PCGS CoinFacts site are:
|MS-65 RD (Red)
With wheat pennies still readily found in circulation, be sure to check those dates closely. You never know when that 1955 doubled-die rarity could turn up!
Understand Mintmarks and Why They Matter
Philadelphia (No Mintmark)
The Philadelphia Mint produces coins with no mintmark. This is the main facility that mints coins for general circulation. While most Philadelphia coins are common, there are some valuable exceptions to look out for, like the 1943 copper penny and the 1955 doubled die penny.
Carefully examining Philadelphia coins for errors could reveal a rare treasure.
Denver (D Mintmark)
Coins from the Denver mint contain a small “D” mintmark. While most Denver cents are common, a small portion had errors resulting in valuable varieties. For example, the 1969-D doubled die penny with a prominent doubling of the date and lettering is worth over $1,000 in mint state.
Checking the mintmark for a coveted “D” is key to spotting these rarities.
San Francisco (S Mintmark)
The San Francisco mint uses an “S” mintmark and is known for producing lower mintage coins. While they mainly focused on proofs for collectors, many of their vintage circulation strikes are scarce compared to Philadelphia and Denver.
Key dates bearing the S mark include the 1931-S, valued upwards of $350 in mint state, and the 1955 doubled die obverse listed for nearly $30,000 in top grades on PCGS CoinFacts. An S-Mint Lincoln Wheat Ear cent collection can be very rewarding to build.
Look for Valuable Errors on Lincoln Cents
One type of error to look for on Lincoln cents is an off-center strike. This happens when the coin blank is not properly aligned when it is struck by the die. As a result, the design is dramatically off-center on the coin.
Off-center errors tend to be rare and can be worth a significant premium over face value if the error is dramatic enough. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service, off-center Lincoln cents with a minimum of 15% off-center can sell for upwards of $50.
Another desirable error is a double-die Lincoln cent. This occurs when the coin is struck multiple times by a die that has multiple images slightly offset from one another. Under magnification, you can see a strong doubling of design elements like the date, mottoes, and Lincoln’s profile.
These are caused by errors when hubs are manufactured rather than errors in the striking process. Double dies are scarce and popular with collectors. An extreme example is the 1955 Lincoln cent double die which can be valued over $1,000 for specimens in top condition.
Flaws in the metal blank planchets can also lead to valuable error coins. One such flaw is a broadstrike error, which happens when a coin is struck without the retaining collar to form the rim and edge that is normally part of a coin.
On a broadstruck cent, the design spreads across the wider, irregular planchet. Other flaws happen when the metal is cracked, clipped, bonded with foreign material, or indented during production – known as damaged planchet errors. These are unusual and appeal to specialists in error coin collecting.
Know How Condition Affects Value
About Circulated Grades
Circulated pennies show wear from being used in commerce. Professional coin graders assess the amount of wear and assign a numeric grade from 1 to 70, with 70 representing an untouched, mint-conditioned coin. As wear increases, grades decrease.
For circulated Lincoln pennies, important cutoff grades are XF-40, VF-20, F-12, and G-4. The higher the grade, the more valuable the coin.
Uncirculated pennies show no wear since they haven’t seen circulation. Key grades for uncirculated Lincoln cents are MS-60 through MS-70. An MS-70 is a perfect, flawless uncirculated coin. As microscopic imperfections increase, grades decline toward MS-60.
Two uncirculated pennies of the same date, one graded MS-65 and the other MS-70 can have a substantial difference in value. For example, an MS-65 1955 doubled die penny sells for around $600 while an MS-70 might fetch $50,000 or more.
Proof Coin Grading
Proof Lincoln cents are special early samples struck for collectors with mirrored surfaces and intricate design details. Proof coins are also graded on a numeric scale from PR-60 to PR-70. As with uncirculated coins, PR-70 indicates perfect proof.
A proof 1955 doubled die cent graded PR-65 brings around $29,000 while one graded PR-70 might sell for $200,000 or more.
Other Factors That Add Value
Toning on Older Coins
Toning refers to the natural process of a coin developing colorful hues over a long period. As pennies age, they can develop attractive rainbow-like patinas that make them more desirable to collectors.
Toning typically occurs on copper and silver coins that have interacted with elements in the environment like humidity, air pollutants, or trace chemicals from storage containers. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), beautifully toned coins can bring significant premiums at auction.
For example, they cite an 1885 Morgan silver dollar that sold for over $86,000 due to its vibrant reddish-purple, blue, and golden toning.
Special Label Holders
Putting rare pennies in quality plastic holders with special certification labels can increase their value to collectors. Reputable third-party grading services like PCGS and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) can authenticate coins and assign numeric grades indicating their condition.
Additionally, the companies offer special designations like “First Strike” for coins produced earliest in a run. PCGS cites an example of a 1992-D Lincoln Cent that sold for over $5,000 due to its high mint state grade and First Strike label.
Full Mint Sets
Some penny collectors seek complete sets of uncirculated coins direct from bank rolls or U.S. Mint sets. Full mint sets with original government packaging and certificates can sell for significant multiples above their face value.
For example, according to USA Coin Book, an average circulated 1958-D Lincoln wheat cent is worth 13 cents, while an uncirculated version from a Mint set can be valued at around $4. One contributing factor is scarcity, as the 1958-D mintage of 2.5 million for Mint sets was tiny relative to the over 1 billion coins produced for circulation.
How To Know If A Penny Is Valuable – Conclusion
While most pennies are only worth their face value of 1 cent, there are certain rare dates, errors, and condition factors that make Lincoln cents extremely valuable. Now that you know what to look for, keep an eye on your pocket change or coin jars for that elusive treasure penny.