If one word could be used to describe today’s minting technology, it’s consistent. The process of producing coins has become highly automated, remarkably error-proof and extremely reliable. This, however, was not always the case. In the 18th and 19th centuries, coin manufacturing involved a number of manual processes. The net result was that sets of dies would often display minute differences, such as the position of the date and the location of design features. These variations are sometimes minute and require a loupe to see, while others are plainly obvious to the naked eye. The one thing these die varieties have in common: they have been studied, collected and highly valued by numismatists.
Early coins are rich in die varieties, as they were largely made by hand. Among coins dated 1793-1840, it’s not unusual for dozens of different varieties to exist for just one date and denomination. For instance, there are 47 different known varieties of the 1827 half dollar alone! The vast majority of these varieties involve the location of dates and stars, as these were hand-punched. Some of the best-known (and most popular) varieties are overdates, i.e. prior-dated dies that were overpunched with the current date. An example is the 1827/3 quarter, where a 7 was stamped over the 3 in the date.
As time went on, the preparation of dies became increasingly automated. While the positioning of stars and dates became more consistent, it was still possible to differentiate between various die varieties. In the 1878-1921 Morgan Dollar series, dies can be distinguished by observing die cracks, scratches and other defects. A variety of 1888-O silver dollar, for instance, displays a major die scratch across Liberty’s face, thus giving rise to its nickname of the “Scarface” variety.
Die varieties may be subtle and difficult to see, but they can nonetheless make a huge impact on value. There is a fervent and active collector base for die varieties, as evidenced by the tremendous prices they can fetch. It’s not unusual for rare varieties to command 100%, 1,000% or even 10,000% premiums over more common varieties. Thanks to the proliferation of specialized reference books that list every known variety, advanced collectors often try to form variety sets after they’ve tackled more basic year sets.
These value differences may seem extreme, but numismatists are always looking for new and challenging ways of collecting. Assembling a variety-specific collection is a highly advanced and specialized endeavor, but it’s a popular pursuit nonetheless. Some die varieties may seem esoteric and obscure, but their high market values prove that they have a captive audience.