1916-D Mercury Dime Purchase at a 1978 Flea Market Turned Out to Be
As some of you may know, I've been a purposeful
coin collector since I was 8 years old. Like so many kids back in the
1960's, I rifled through pocket change and piggy banks (while no doubt
annoying my relatives and neighbors) hoping to fill empty slots in my
Lincoln Cent album. I did find quite a few, but none of the scarce
dates in the series.
About the time I was old enough to drive, I
landed a job in a grocery
store and started setting aside a few dollars monthly with the goal to
someday buy a truly rare key date coin. The 1909-S VDB cent was
paramount in my dreams.
Sometime in 1978, when I was 19 years old, I realized the time had come
for me to do it. Oops, that sounds a bit open ended and nefarious, so
let me clarify... the "it" I was referring to was to buy a special,
rare date coin; I finally had sufficient funding to go for it.
Of course, I initially leaned toward the aforementioned 1909-S VDB. My
life would be complete with that hole in my album filled, I reasoned.
But then I got to reminiscing about the Mercury Dimes my Grandma gave
me during our Sunday morning drives when I was very small. I described
those precious memories in a blog entry here.
I recalled it was Grandma who first taught me about the elusive 1916-D
Mercury Dime, once I got old enough to understand the concept of
rarity. Maybe this should be my first really big coin purchase. I'm
fairly sure Grandma had never held a 1916-D Merc before, though she had
spent many years searching for an example. Seemed like a wise selection
numismatically, with a heaping of emotional appeal. The absolute
perfect choice. Wouldn't Grandma be delighted?
While the addition of a 1916-D Mercury Dime was based on sound logic,
what happened next was not.
Bear in mind this was 1978. Grading was inconsistent and all over the
map. The American
Numismatic Association (ANA) was promoting a 70 point grading
scale, but it was little heeded. What's more, third party
grading/authentication companies had not yet been born, thus
encouraging overgraded coins and fakes/alterations to saturate the coin
I admit, I was young and foolish. That defines most 19-year-olds, then
and now, so that's not a news bulletin, but maybe that explains how I
ended up at a sleazy flea market looking for a bargain. Oblivious to
the heavy stench of cigarette smoke and skin mags everywhere, I
remained undeterred in my mission. Today, I understand I was asking for
trouble: buying a commonly altered rare coin date in this environment
was akin to treating an Ebola patient without protective gear. (This is
a PG-rated analogy, but there are more adept comparisons to describe
this scenario that are not so family-friendly.)
There was but one merchant who had a 1916-D
dime. She had only a few
coins alongside a truckload of old pots and shopworn trinkets, yet the
kingpin of the Mercury Dime series was amongst them. It was labeled as
AG condtion (About Good) with a selling price of $125. My heart started
racing. Eureka, I
Putting on my best serious countenance, I meekly attempted to negotiate
price. "Take it or leave it, sonny" grunted the crabby old woman, as
she exhaled a massive puff of smoke in my face. As best I can recall,
she resembled the woman above (Courtesy of Photobucket). Realizing what it
feel like to be a skinned cat, I plunked down the requisite $125 cash.
My hands were shaking. With my new purchase in tow, I crawled out of
that snake pit somewhat dazed and embarrased.
Driving home, I had mixed emotions, mostly negative. Did I do the right
thing in spending that much money for a dime? Why didn't I tell the
rude vendor to stick it and walk away? Should my purchase be kept a
dirty little secret? As I questioned my actions, never did it cross my
mind that possibly I got stuck with a worthless doctored coin.
I decided to share the news of my purchase with Grandma, intentionally
omitting the sordid details of the retail outlet from whence it came.
When it registered that she was in the presence of a 1916-D Mercury
Dime, she bellowed loudly "Ay yi yi!" as was her wont (as her
grandchildren will attest to). Thankfully, she didn't ask where I
bought it. I'm not sure if Grandma was happy and too stunned to say
much, or if she disapproved. All the more reason to cast a pall over
Now that the heretofore most eventful day of my coin collecting career
had come to
an end, the special dime was safely hidden away. The years flew by, and
along the way we lost Grandma in 1990, and Grandpa the year before. I
imagine Grandma is up to her armpits in rare coins now, assuming they
have money up there.
As a coin collector, I continued to learn and mature. Being a numbers
freak, I meticulously recorded selling prices for specific dates and
compared them from year to year. By the mid 1990's, I gleefully noticed
the AG 1916-D had risen in value to $225. By 2005, it was retailing at
$475, and climbing fast.
On a down note, I also became much more aware of
how many so called
1916-D dimes were actually the product of fraudsters. A widespread
deception was to add a "D" mint mark to the common Philadelphia Mint
1916 issue. Thanks, NGC, for the photo at left. It was
it was a heavily worn 1916-S, being
misrepresented as a coveted 1916-D.
All the coin experts recommended
the best way to avoid being victimized was to "buy the book before the
coin" and purchase only through reputable sources. Since I violated
these common sense tenets, I came to grow uneasy about the flea market
coin and eventually convinced myself it was probably a fake. The odds
seemed against me.
for collectors and dealers, Professional
Coin Grading Service
(PCGS) came along in 1986 and elevated the coin hobby to a higher
level. They helped stabilize coin grading, and their subsequent
"population reports" revealed new data to properly evaluate scarcity.
For a fee, your coin would be professionally
examined, and if
authentic, assigned a point grade on the 70 point ANA grading spectrum.
Problem coins, such as fakes, alterations, or cleaned coins, were
returned with no grade.
The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)
opened shop in 1987, providing the same service. These two companies
are still around today, and are held in the highest regard by
Now back to my story. For a long time, I continued to fret over the
coin. Yes, I tried to ascertain for myself its authenticity, but could
never conclude with 100% confidence that it was real. Sometime around
2005, I think it was, I finally got sick of feeling this way, so I sent
it to NGC for
authentication and grading. It was time to put the uncertainty to rest,
once and for all.
A few weeks later, the coin came back. I hesitated to open the package.
I was so sure I'd find a body bag inside (this is a slang term for a
problem coin returned without a grade. The coin is housed in a soft
plastic flip, hence the body bag connotation). For decades, I (sort of)
relished the thought of owning a rare 1916-D Mercury Dime. Now,
everything was about to go up in smoke. I prayed Grandma wasn't
witnessing this shameful moment from above. Maybe she was preoccupied
at a quilting party with some other angels, I hoped.
By now, you are probably thinking the coin was not a real 1916-D dime,
just as I was. Guess what? To my pleasant surprise, it was
authenticated as genuine, grading at AG-3. Hooray! Instead of
unleashing a string of expletives directed at the crabby flea market
merchant (likely deceased by now) and her gullible customer, I breathed
a sigh of relief, for I was reaffirmed as the proud owner of a rare,
highly desired United States coin. Also, now that the coin was
"slabbed" by NGC, I would have an easier path if I decided to sell at
some point. Clearly, a WIN-WIN for me.
Over the next few years, I observed with gusto
as prices continued to
soar for the 1916-D. By 2009, AG-3 examples were selling for around
$650. Not that I purchased the coin strictly with investment in mind,
but at that point in time, this computed to a compounded annual return
rate of 5.46% over a period of 31 years. Not bragging, just sayin'.
So here we are in 2015. Mercury dime key dates have come a bit off
their all-time highs from six years ago. Nowadays, the retail price of
an AG-3 1916-D Mercury Dime is around $550. This should not deter
anyone contemplating the purchase of this remarkably significant coin.
To the contrary, these lower prices are an opportunity to buy at a
discount. We can be certain this little lady will gain steam once more
as traditional demand realigns with a small fixed supply.
For your convenience, I've provided a link to
I've coded the
link to isolate 1916-D Mercury Dimes graded by PCGS or NCG. Get the
best condition you can afford. [disclosure: if you click the link and
buy something at eBay, I get a small commission, Yay!!!].
Be sure to buy only from someone who has a great
feedback rating. There
are a few
shady operators on eBay, some of whom may sell counterfeit slabs and
ripoffs, but most of them do not hang around for long. We have a Coin Buying Advice chapter with more tips to avoid
Whatever you do, please DO NOT go to a seedy flea market looking for
this or any other rare coin, as I did back in 1978. I deserved to get
burned for being so stupid, but escaped harm. You may not be so lucky.