Uncovering the Enduring Allure and Value of the 1889 Indian Head Penny

The Indian Head cent is a true icon of American numismatics, captivating collectors with its bold design, rich history, and undeniable charm since its debut in 1859. Among the issues that comprise this beloved series, the 1889 stands out as an ideal representative due to its ample mintage, accessible price point for circulated examples, and potential for significant appreciation in high grades. Let‘s delve into the fascinating origins, key attributes, and collecting guidelines surrounding this timeless copper classic.

Birth of a Legend: James B. Longacre‘s All-American Design

In the mid-19th century, United States Mint Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre sought to create a new one-cent coin that would embody the spirit of a young nation on the rise. He chose to depict Liberty as a Native American princess, adorned with a feathered headdress and surrounded by a wreath of agricultural products. This memorable motif was inspired by his belief that indigenous cultures were deeply entwined with the American identity and experience.

As Longacre eloquently expressed in an 1858 letter to Mint Director James Ross Snowden:

"From the copper shores of Lake Superior to the silver mountains of Potosi from the Ojibwa to the Araucanian, the feathered tiara is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic. Nor is there anything in its decorative character repulsive to the association of Liberty… It is more appropriate than the Phrygian cap, the emblem rather of the emancipated slave than of the independent freeman, of those who are able to say ‘we were never in bondage to any man.‘ I regard then this emblem of America as a proper and well defined portion of our national inheritance; and having now the opportunity of consecrating it as a memorial of Liberty, ‘our Liberty‘, American Liberty; why not use it? One more graceful can scarcely be devised."

This groundbreaking design graced American pockets and purses for half a century, from 1859 through 1909. Its enduring popularity helped propel coin collecting into the mainstream starting in the 1930s, when low-cost boards and folders made it possible for ordinary citizens to assemble complete date and mintmark sets on a modest budget.

Abundant Yet Elusive: Mintage and Survival Rates of the 1889

In 1889, the Philadelphia Mint produced a generous total of 48,866,025 Indian Head cents for circulation, along with 3,336 proofs reserved for collectors. This sizeable output places the 1889 among the most common dates of the series. However, as any seasoned numismatist knows, mintage alone doesn‘t tell the whole story when it comes to rarity and desirability.

To put the 1889 mintage into perspective, here is a chart showing the top ten highest annual production figures for circulation strike Indian Head cents:

Year Mintage
1907 108,138,616
1908 100,495,312
1906 96,022,256
1905 80,719,163
1904 61,326,849
1903 85,704,552
1902 87,376,720
1901 79,609,880
1900 66,832,764
1889 48,866,025

As you can see, 1889 ranks tenth place, with a mintage less than half of the peak years in the early 20th century. Nevertheless, it is far more plentiful than many of the coveted key dates from the 1860s and 1870s like the 1877 (852,500 minted), 1871 (3,929,500 minted), and 1869 (6,420,000 minted). This relative abundance keeps prices for circulated 1889 pennies quite reasonable, usually between $2 and $30 based on condition.

However, the situation changes dramatically when you consider gem uncirculated examples. Despite its lofty production total, the 1889 is surprisingly scarce in the higher mint state tiers. Professional grading services like PCGS and NGC have certified just 175 pieces in MS-65 Red and a mere 40 in MS-66 Red or better. These condition rarities represent the crème de la crème of surviving specimens, and their values reflect this elite status. According to the PCGS price guide, an 1889 graded MS-65 Red is worth around $2,500, while an MS-66 Red commands an impressive $13,500!

What accounts for this discrepancy between mintage and high grade rarity? As with all early copper coinage, the delicate surfaces of Indian Head cents are highly susceptible to wear, damage, and environmental exposure over time. Improper storage, cleaning, or handling can easily impair a coin‘s luster, color, and overall eye appeal, even if no actual wear is present. For an 1889 cent to survive 130+ years in pristine mint state condition, it must have been deliberately set aside shortly after striking and carefully preserved ever since – an exceptional feat given that these coins were made for daily commercial use, not numismatic purposes.

Strike, Color, Luster: Attributes of a Compelling Indian Cent

When evaluating the quality and market value of an 1889 Indian Head penny, experienced collectors and graders look at four primary criteria: wear, strike, luster, and color.

Wear is assessed on a 70-point scale, with "1" representing a coin that is barely identifiable and "70" being a hypothetical perfect specimen. Grades below 60 are considered circulated and will show varying degrees of flatness and loss of detail on the high points of the design. A Fine-12 example will have a clear outline of Liberty‘s portrait, but her feathers and hair will be heavily worn, and the wreath will be indistinct. An AU-50 piece may show traces of minimal rubbing on the high points but retain most of its original detail.

Coins graded 60 through 70 are mint state and have no visible wear, even under 5x magnification. Instead of surface wear, these pieces are judged on the quality of their strike, luster, and color. A well struck specimen will showcase sharp details in Liberty‘s hair, headdress, and the surrounding wreath. Particularly notable are the diamonds at the lower end of the ribbon and the tips of the highest leaves.

Luster refers to the natural "glow" or cartwheel effect imparted by the minting process. The most prized 1889 pennies exhibit full, unbroken luster that dances brilliantly across the surfaces as the coin is tilted beneath a light. Luster should be even and satiny in texture, without any dullness, haziness, or obvious distractions.

Color is also critical for copper coinage like Indian cents. The ideal hue for a mint state example is a rich, warm orange-red reminiscent of a shiny new penny. This "full red" designation signifies that the coin has retained virtually all of its original mint color, without fading or tarnishing to brown. Subtle variations like "red-brown" and "brown" are also collectible but generally less valuable than full red specimens.

Here is a simplified grading rubric summarizing the key characteristics for each tier:

Grade Description Value Range
AG-G Heavily worn, key details barely visible $2-5
VG-F Moderate to significant wear, clear date and legends $5-15
VF-XF Light wear, most details sharp, traces of luster $15-40
AU Minimal wear on high points only, nearly full luster $40-100
MS-60 to MS-62 No wear, average luster and color for the type $100-300
MS-63 to MS-64 No wear, above average luster and color, minor marks $300-1,000
MS-65 No wear, full original luster and color, minimal marks $2,000-3,000
MS-66+ No wear, exceptional luster, color, and eye appeal $10,000+

Of course, these values are only approximate and individual coins may fall outside these ranges based on factors like eye appeal, toning, provenance, and market conditions. It‘s always wise to view a coin in hand or consult multiple price guides before making a significant purchase. Reputable third party certification is also a must for high grade examples to ensure impartiality and consistency.

Errors and Varieties: The Cherry on Top

While the baseline 1889 Indian cent is appealing in its own right, some collectors choose to pursue even greater numismatic challenges in the form of errors and die varieties. These unusual specimens showcase the imperfect realities of the minting process and can command substantial premiums due to their scarcity and visual intrigue.

One notable example is the 1889/9 repunched date variety, caused by a misaligned date punch that was corrected by punching the digits a second time. This popular naked-eye RPD is estimated to occur on just 2-3% of the total mintage. Depending on the clarity of the secondary digit and the coin‘s condition, an 1889/9 may be worth 2-3 times a normal example.

Other 1889-specific varieties include the "Extra Outlines I & E" of UNITED with a repunched final A, and a bold repunched 88 in the date. While less dramatic than the 1889/9, these anomalies still attract a loyal following among variety enthusiasts.

Error coins can offer even greater potential for profit and prestige. A remarkable 1889 Indian cent with an off-center broadstrike (10%) sold for nearly $3,000 in a 2015 Heritage auction. Another extreme example with a 75% curved clip fetched over $8,000 in 2010. Such pieces are technically mint mistakes, but their undeniable rarity and wacky appearance make them prize additions to an advanced collection.

Identifying a possible error or variety requires careful study under magnification, consultation with specialist references, and often submission to experts for validation. It‘s an exciting but challenging niche within the broader world of Indian cent collecting.

Building a Legacy: Collect Smart, Collect Well

Whether you‘re drawn to the 1889 Indian Head penny for its classic design, historical significance, or investment potential, the most rewarding approach is to collect with patience, knowledge, and personal passion. Educate yourself on the series through books like Rick Snow‘s "Flying Eagle & Indian Cent Attribution Guide" or Q. David Bowers‘ "A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents". Develop a network of trusted dealers and fellow collectors through coin clubs, shows, and online forums.

Above all else, buy the best quality you can afford and never compromise on eye appeal. A single high grade gem will likely outperform a large quantity of subpar coins in the long run, both financially and emotionally. The 1889 may not be the rarest date in the series, but a pristine, visually captivating example is sure to be a cherished centerpiece in any cabinet.

If you‘re assembling a complete set of circulation strike Indian cents (1859-1909), the 1889 is an important and accessible denomination to include. Its ample mintage, distinctive 9 over 9 variety, and gem scarcity combine to make it a microcosm of the series as a whole. If you‘re building a high grade set, an 1889 in MS-64 Red or MS-65 Red is an impressive and attainable goal that won‘t break the bank like an 1877 or 1909-S would. In a way, the 1889 is the quintessential type coin to represent its decade and design type.

As you step into the rich legacy and endless possibilities of Indian cent collecting, remember that the journey is often more fulfilling than the destination. Take time to appreciate the artistry, history, and personal stories inherent in each coin you acquire. Share your knowledge and enthusiasm with others, and don‘t be afraid to ask questions or seek advice along the way. With dedication and discernment, you too can curate a collection that will inspire and endure for generations to come – just like the timeless 1889 Indian Head penny itself.

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