Why is the 1909 penny rare? The 1909 penny holds a special place in the hearts of coin collectors and historians alike. This iconic coin marks the debut of the Lincoln cent design, replacing the unpopular Indian Head cent after nearly 50 years of production.
But perhaps the biggest draw of the 1909 penny lies in two particular mintings from that year – the 1909-S VDB and 1909-S.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The 1909 penny is considered rare and valuable mainly due to two specific versions – the 1909-S VDB (with the designer’s initials on the reverse) and the 1909-S (the San Francisco mint version).
Only 484,000 1909-S VDB cents were made before the designer’s initials were removed from the reverse. The 1909-S had a relatively small mintage as well at just over 1 million coins.
In this guide, we’ll explore why these two 1909 Lincoln penny types command such premiums over other date and mint mark combinations from the first year of Lincoln cent production.
We’ll look at mintage figures, designer background, key date status, and valuation for both the 1909-S VDB and 1909-S cents.
Background on the Debut of the Lincoln Cent
Replacing the Indian Head Cent After 50 Years
The Lincoln cent made its debut in 1909, replacing the Indian Head cent that had been in circulation for nearly 50 years. The new cent featuring Abraham Lincoln marked the 100th anniversary of his birth.
President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in ushering in this design change to honor one of the most revered presidents in U.S. history.
Making Cents of the 1909 Transitional Sets
Unique transitional cents were minted in 1909 featuring different designs on the obverse and reverse sides. Some of the rarest and most valuable Lincoln cents are from the 1909 VDB and 1909-S VDB sets, which feature the designer’s initials (V.D. Brenner) on the reverse below the central wheat stalks design.
Fewer than 500,000 1909-S VDB cents were issued at the San Francisco Mint before Brenner’s initials were removed from the coin design.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Victor David Brenner – Coin Design Pioneers
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was tasked with redesigning the $20 Double Eagle gold coin to have higher relief. This inspired Roosevelt to launch the Lincoln Cent makeover. Victor David Brenner’s iconic bust design for Lincoln on the coin’s obverse is regarded as one of the best profiles of Abraham Lincoln and compliments Saint-Gaudens’s earlier redesign.
Brenner’s wheat stalks motif on the reverse was one of the first changes to the cent design since it was introduced in 1793.
The Fabled 1909-S VDB Lincoln Wheat Cent
Controversy Over the Designer’s Initials
The 1909-S VDB penny caused quite a stir when it was first minted. The initials “VDB” stamped on the reverse side stand for designer Victor David Brenner, who created the Lincoln Cent to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1909.
However, putting the designer’s name on circulating coinage broke precedent, and some felt it inappropriate. The public also incorrectly thought “VDB” stood for the United States Mint engraver George T. Morgan, further fueling confusion.
The controversy grew so heated that the U.S. Mint removed Brenner’s initials in mid-1909. But a small batch of pennies had already been produced at the San Francisco mint with the designer’s name. These rare 1909-S VDB cents are now highly coveted by collectors and numismatists, with prices ranging from $500 to over $1 million depending on grade.
Razor-Thin 1909-S VDB Mintage
Part of what gives the 1909-S VDB penny its legendary status is the tiny original mintage. While over 72 million 1909 VDB cents were struck in Philadelphia, the San Francisco mint only produced 484,000 coins with Brenner’s initials before they were modified.
Of those, it’s estimated that only around 100 to 200 pieces survive in collectible condition.
Making matters more difficult for collectors, 1909-S VDB pennies had a high face value and heavy use in circulation. The fact that any exist at all borders on miraculous given their over century-long lifespan coupled with Americans’ notorious habit of spending instead of saving early 20th-century coinage.
Grading and Value Considerations for Collectors
For numismatists pursuing the elusive 1909-S VDB cent, grading condition is paramount in determining fair market value. Only specimens certified Mint State Red or Red Brown by grading services like PCGS or NGC tend to reach the dizzying six and seven-figure level.
Those displaying evidence of wear are still desirable but understandably sell for much less.
Some other factors weighing into an individual piece’s desirability include visual appeal, strike sharpness, and surface preservation. Flawless specimens with strong, uniform features and minimal marking or spotting return the highest valuations.
As with all collectibles, the finer its state of preservation, the more sought-after the coin becomes to hobbyists and museums.
The Low Mintage 1909-S Lincoln Cent
The San Francisco Mint and Early 20th Century Coin Production
The San Francisco Mint opened in 1854 to serve the coinage needs of the western United States during the Gold Rush era. In the early 20th century, the “S Mint” was still not yet up to the production capacity of the Philadelphia and Denver Mints.
This lower capacity meant smaller mintages for many San Francisco coins like the 1909-S Lincoln cent.
The 1909-S was produced in much lower numbers than Philadelphia Lincoln cents. While over 72 million 1909 Philadelphia cents were struck, the San Francisco facility minted just 1,825,000 examples. This small production run makes the 1909-S a key date coin that is scarce even in well-worn condition.
Just Over 1 Million Coins Struck at the San Francisco Facility
The 1909-S Lincoln cent had an original mintage of 1,825,000 coins. However, the actual number of surviving pieces is likely much smaller for this early 20th-century San Francisco issue. It has been estimated that just over 1 million examples exist today in all grades.
High-grade examples are extraordinarily scarce. PCGS CoinFacts estimates the surviving populations in top mint state grades as follows:
- MS67: 1-3 known
- MS66: 22 known
- MS65: 150 known
The tiny group of 67-graded coins makes this one of the absolute rarest Lincoln cents. Even specimens grading MS64 can command strong premiums due to high demand from series collectors.
Finding Choice Uncirculated Examples of the Key Date 1909-S
While lower-grade examples can still be located with some searching, finding choice uncirculated 1909-S Lincoln cents is a significant challenge. This scarcity puts tremendous pressure on prices for gems whenever they appear at auctions or major coin shows.
In January 2021, Heritage Auctions sold an MS66 example certified by PCGS for a staggering $180,000. One of the finest known specimens, this coin was originally purchased from the estate of coin dealer Ed Lee in 2012 for $126,500.
The rising value of superb 1909-S cents shows why patient Lincoln cent collectors focus on procuring the very best examples they can when opportunity allows. Filled with rich mint red luster and essentially flawless surfaces, these coins offer both exceptional eye appeal and nearly unparalleled rarity.
Other Scarce 1909 Lincoln Wheat Cents
The 1909-S Over Horizontal S Variety
The 1909-S Over Horizontal S penny is one of the rarest and most valuable Lincoln cents in the world. Only 484,000 of these coins were minted in San Francisco, with a small number showing a dramatic double mintmark variety.
In some examples, the bottom of the S mintmark is visible protruding from the primary S.
This remarkable variety was caused by a mint worker installing a second mintmark punch over a previously placed mintmark. The scarce coins are highly prized by collectors, with prices ranging from $850 in AG-3 grade up to $350,000 for well-preserved MS-66 coins.
The Mysterious 1909 Penny Without a VDB Initial Mark
In 1909, the US Mint began placing Victor David Brenner’s initials (VDB) on the reverse of Lincoln cents under Abraham Lincoln’s shoulder. However, a small number of 1909 cents were mysteriously produced without Brenner’s initials.
Only about 475,000 examples of these “1909 No VDB” cents were made before the Mint started adding the designer’s initials in late 1909. The reasons for the missing VDB marks remain uncertain, with speculation ranging from political controversy over showing a living person’s initials to simple modifications by the Mint.
This fleeting variety is scarce and popular with collectors today. No VDB Lincoln pennies can sell for upwards of $850 in circulated grades, potentially reaching five-figure prices if found in pristine uncirculated condition.
Caring For and Valuing Your 1909 Lincoln Cents
Storage and Handling Best Practices
As one of the oldest Lincoln pennies, the 1909 coins require careful storage and handling to preserve their condition. Collectors recommend storing them in archival-quality coin folders or albums, away from direct light which can cause discoloration.
Since the bronze composition is sensitive to humidity and air pollution, hermetically sealed hard plastic holders certified by NGC or PCGS offer the most protection.
When handling the coins, refrain from touching the surfaces. Residue from skin oils and dirt can detract from the coin’s eye appeal. Instead, pick up the coin by its edges or wear cotton gloves. Cleaning should also be avoided as this can scratch the surfaces.
Grading Services for Authentication and Conservation
Due to counterfeits and altered copies, collectors advise submitting any 1909 pennies purchased raw (not pre-certified) to NGC or PCGS for authentication and grading. Their experts will encase the coin in a sonically sealed holder with a grade from Poor 1 to Mint State 68.
This professional assessment confirms authenticity and provides an enduring record of the coin’s quality.
For lower-grade coins exhibiting environmental damage or impairments, NGC and PCGS offer conservation services. Their state-of-the-art techniques can stabilize and restore coins that would otherwise continue deteriorating.
However, cleaning, polishing, or repairs by anyone other than these services diminish value.
Current Market Values Across the Major Grading Scales
|Fair Market Value
|About Good 3
|Very Good 8
|Very Fine 20
|Extremely Fine 40
|About Uncirculated 50
|Mint State 63
|Mint State 65
|Mint State 68
As detailed in the table, 1909 Lincoln cents range tremendously in value depending on condition. Well-preserved specimens certified MS 63 and higher trade for substantial premiums. However, even lower-grade circulated pieces remain desirable for their rarity and historical significance.
Why Is The 1909 Penny Rare – Conclusion
More than a century after they were struck, the 1909-S VDB and 1909-S Lincoln cents continue to command incredible premiums, even in lower grades. While these coins may seem impossibly rare to everyday Americans, patient and knowledgeable collectors can still obtain coveted examples of these iconic key dates.
We hope this guide gave you some insight into the backstory and valuation of the rare and highly desirable 1909 VDB and 1909-S Lincoln pennies. Whether you’re a longtime collector or just inherited a 1909 cent from a relative, be sure to safeguard it properly so future generations can enjoy this tangible link to the debut of one of America’s most classic coin designs.