The 20-Cent Flop That Costs $400,00

1876-CC_20c_ha_04_2009

The time: the 1870s.  The place: Virginia City, Nevada.  Some 100 saloons dotted the town.  Most of these were “bit” houses, where silver miners working on the Comstock Lode could purchase drinks and cigars for 12 ½ cents.

But in the post-civil war years, there was a shortage of coins in circulation.  Miners paying for their drinks with a quarter (two bits) were likely to get only a dime (a “short bit”) back.

Allegedly to remedy this situation, a group of mining magnates — backed by Nevada Sen. John Percival Jones — persuaded the U.S. government to begin minting a 20-cent silver coin. The 20-cent piece began production in 1875 and was an instant bomb.  Like the Susan B. Anthony dollar a century later, it was difficult to distinguish from a quarter.

Ironically, the coins proved especially unpopular in Nevada.  The Carson City mint – which produced just 10,000 in 1876 — was still doling out coins from 1875 when orders came in to melt the entire remaining inventory.  Only a small number from 1876 were to be spared and shipped back to the Assay office in Washington for record keeping.

Today, these 20-cent coins have a melt value of just $2.83.  But experts generally agreed that fewer than two-dozen 1876-CC (for Carson City) 20-cent coins still exist. So if you want one, you’d better start saving some serious coin of your own.  A mint condition 1876-CC sells for over $400,000 – assuming, that is, that you can find one.

Not too shabby for a flop.