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Grandma's Mercury Dimes

One vivid memory of my very early childhood back in the 1960's was of driving to church on Sunday mornings with my family. Since my grandparents lived close to us, Dad would always swing by and pick them up, and we'd all carpool together. It was the job of "Little Danny" (as I was affectionately nicknamed back then) to sit in the backseat, wedged snugly between Grandpa and Grandma.

As if some sort of ritual, every Sunday Grandma would fish though her purse to find goodies for me and my older brother. Grandma almost always carried Wrigley's chewing gum, though once in a while we had to settle for a cherry-flavored cough drop. For a bonus treat, Grandma gave each grandson a coin to go in the piggybank. There were a few instances when I received a dime featuring a lady who sported a wild-looking hairdo, or at least that's how it appeared to a 4-year-old. On one occasion, Grandma explained to me the coin was called a Mercury dime. She was a coin collector of sorts, and I credit her with encouraging my first interest in coins. Even though it didn't mean much to me at the time, this was my first lesson on Mercury dimes.

With the passage of years, I gathered more knowledge on Mercury dimes. For example, I learned the face on the obverse really wasn't that of Mercury, the male Roman messenger god, as the public has largely believed ever since the dime was first released in 1916. Instead, the coin's designer, A.A. Weinman, intended to portray a rendition of Lady Liberty crowned by a winged cap, to symbolize liberty of thought. However, the "Mercury dime" moniker stuck, and is still by far the most common reference for this beautiful ten cent coin. The correct name, Winged Liberty Head dime, is used much less frequently. Oh well, at least I can congratulate myself, for even as a small child, I was able to recognize the person on the dime as a woman, not a man!

Another important fact about Mercury dimes worth mentioning is that back when Grandma was coin collecting, not much attention was focused on the degree of separation and roundness seen in the horizontal bands holding together the bundle of rods on the reverse side. Full Split Bands (abbreviated "FSB") resulted from striking by fresh dies, and have proven to be much rarer than blended, flattened bands. Generally speaking, if a Mercury dime displays fully separated and rounded bands, it can generate prices far above less distinctive specimens of the same date, mintmark, and grade. For the last 10-15 years, most Mercury dime value guides have carried an FSB category for mint state grades.

Recently, I decided to chart the value trends of Mercury dimes over a long period of time, for the purpose of identifying Mercs that have historically demonstrated the best gains. My theory is that coins that have shown the strongest price increases consistently in the past are the same coins most likely to accomplish the same in the years ahead. I don't advocate purchasing Mercury dimes or any other coins for the sake of measuring ROI, but speaking for myself, if I ever decide to add to my Mercury dime collection, I want to make selections designed to (A) please my numismatic taste buds, and (B) stimulate competitive bidding amongst future generations of collectors.

To quantify past performance and to evaluate Mercury dimes best positioned to experience strong future price advancements, I called upon a mathematical analysis I developed to reach similar objectives for other coin series.

First, I researched Mercury dime retail values for individual coins as they were reported in the year 1950, covering a wide range of conditions, and entered this data on a computer spreadsheet. Moving forward in time, values from the years 1980, 1995, and 2000 were similarly captured. Finally, estimated selling prices in 2005 were placed adjacent to matching data from those earlier years. Because grading terminology has evolved over the 55 year period, certain assumptions were made to progressively track price movements throughout the time spectrum (e.g. an "Uncirculated" value in 1950 is equivalent to the "MS-60" of today). The highest grade inserted into the analysis was MS-65, for which I was able to list relatively complete data starting in the 1995 data column. Because I deemed "FSB" data to be somewhat sporadic, I elected not to include it in this study for the sake of stability.

For each date and condition, compounded annual return rates were computed from 1950 to 2005. Return rate computations were likewise made from 1980 to 2005, 1995 to 2005, and 2000 to 2005. For each Mercury dime, the data was placed in tabular format. Next, I calculated a "composite" score for each date by averaging all the compounded return rates computed for that date. I then ranked all the "composite" scores. The Mercury dimes with the top five highest scores are:

It should surprise no one that the kingpin of the Mercury dime series is the 1916-D. Long considered one of the classic rarities of the 20th century and a favorite of collectors, we now have some statistical evidence to support this claim. Experienced Mercury dime collectors probably would expect to see the other dates making the "Top Five", though the 1945-S (Micro) will cause some head scratching. At the opposite end of performance, there is a logjam of dimes crowded into the 2.50-3.50 range. The value of these coins is dominated by their silver bullion content and merit only small numismatic premiums, with the exception of higher grade specimens.

Okay, let's say you're fascinated with the history and style of the Mercury dime. You''ve decided its time to add a few to your coin gallery, yet at the same time, you're afraid of spending money on something doomed to stagnate in value over time. Bottom line solution: purchase a member of the "Top Five" ranked above. Yes, they're a bit pricey, but instead of buying many of the less expensive Mercury dimes, save your cash and get a single example of a proven winner. You will be pleased with this strategy as the years roll buy. Buy the absolute best grade you can afford, and always, always obtain coins that are problem-free and CERTIFIED by a reputable grading service. Sadly, many fakes and alterations exist.

Thinking back again to those childhood days, I can't begin to remember what happened to most of the coins Grandma gave me on our Sunday morning drives. Somehow, over the decades, I've managed to keep preserved in a special place a tiny handful of Grandma's Mercury dimes. All common dates, there's not a 1916-D in the bunch, but their sentimental value to me is incalculable. These coins were a heartfelt gift from someone close to me who departed from this world long ago and they helped inspire in "Little Danny" a lifelong enchantment with a wonderful hobby.

You know, come to think of it, let me add one more bit of advice: while you're bagging a "Top Five" Mercury dime, you ought to stop by the Bargain Bin and pull out a few 1944-D's for your children and grandchildren. You just never know what you might get started.

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