Remembering the “Perfect Error”
BY PAUL GREEN
About 15 years ago I was having one of my three yearly sessions with Rick Sundman, brother of Littleton Coin president Dave Sundman. He made the remark that he considered the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse Lincoln cent to be the “perfect error.” I learned long ago that when a member of the Sundman family makes a comment about any coin, it is worth considering. As I had regular meetings with Rick and the Littleton Coin Buyers at the three Long Beach shows each year, it gave me ample time to consider his observation and discuss his conclusions.
I have considered his remark over the years, as calling a coin “perfect” is not something to be taken lightly. Now, after much thought and a few more opinions, I believe that Rick was simply ahead of his time in making the observation. It really does appear that the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse Lincoln cent may just be the perfect error.
It has been more than 50 years since the error was discovered, touching off a national wave of checking rolls, bags and pocket change in the hopes of finding an example. That is just part of the equation that makes the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse Lincoln cent so important.
There are many elements to the idea of this coin being the perfect error. The first is that it was an error that came along at the right time, in the right denomination. There have been other good errors in the past century, such as the 1937-D three-legged Buffalo nickel and the 1942/41 Mercury dime, but both were a little too early. At the time of their discoveries, the communication in numismatic circles was not as great as it was in 1955. Although some learned immediately that there was a 1942/41 dime or a three-legged Buffalo, many weren’t aware until years later. In the case of the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse Lincoln cent, virtually the entire nation knew right away that there was an interesting and potentially valuable coin in circulation.
One of the burning questions in many minds at the time was whether or not a 1955 Doubled Die Obverse would be needed to complete a Lincoln cent collection. Historically, errors have not been required to complete a set, but the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse was so important to everyone that it became a legitimate question. Another plus for the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse was that it was a Lincoln cent. As those were the most heavily collected coins in the last half of the 1950s, this one was certain to attract a great deal of interest – and it certainly did. Had it been a Franklin half dollar error, however, there is no doubt that interest would not have been as intense or as widespread. The cent was the perfect denomination for a major error.
It was also vital that there was doubling at the date and IN GOD WE TRUST, making the error prominent. I have asked a number of dealers over the years, and their response has always been the same. If an error is going to be important, it has to be easily seen.
One of the most important factors for the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse was one Rick was very quick to point out. He suggested to me that the coin was “not too rare.” In creating a perfect error, that may initially seem like a strange observation, but in fact it is absolutely correct. It has been estimated that there might have been up to 20,000 examples of the fully doubled 1955 Lincoln cent. That number is not large, but had it been significantly lower people would have had little or no chance of finding one in circulation. That the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse could be found in circulation was critical to its popularity and its importance.
Had no one been able to find a 1955 Doubled Die Obverse in circulation, it would have quickly been forgotten. Instead, the search went on for years. In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Q. David Bowers explained that he and his partner at the time, James Ruddy, bought advertising space in New York and Massachusetts papers near where the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse first appeared. They offered to buy examples, and over a period of time managed to accumulate 800 pieces. Such a supply could easily be sold, but it illustrates that people were finding the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse – and that kept interest high.
The fact is that while it was not too rare, neither was the coin too common. In reality, 20,000 pieces (and that is a high estimate), is not a high figure for a popular coin. If a coin with that mintage is placed in circulation, in the midst of billions of other coins of the same denomination, it is going to be very hard to find even one example. At the time, that made the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse appear to be on a par in terms of scarcity with the famous 1909-S VDB.
The interest continued for years. Just as it would start to decline, there would be reports of another discovery – giving new hope to everyone who was searching for the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse. Keeping that hope alive proved to be a major factor in making that cent the dominant coin in the minds of many for a number of years. It was the one truly valuable coin they might realistically find in circulation.
In the years that have followed the initial burst of excitement, the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse has also benefited from later Doubled Die Lincoln cents. The 1972, 1983, 1984 and 1995 Doubled Die Lincoln cents were each compared to the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse at the time of their discovery.
No other Lincoln cent error – or an error of any other denomination for that matter – has really compared to the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse. It has grown in importance with each passing year, and so has its significant contribution to how we view errors. It must be remembered that prior to the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse, there was not much numismatic interest in errors. In fact, many times major errors would be in circulation for years – in a couple of cases for over a century – before being discovered. That has changed since 1955, as every generation of collectors since then has taken the time to seriously study new coins as they are released. Sometimes their study has paid off with other valuable errors and interesting varieties.
The simple fact that the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse had a major impact on the interest in errors, and on how collectors and dealers alike view new coins as they are released, is enough to suggest that it is one of the most important coins of the past century. But to have such an impact even with all the competition from so many other great coins, the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse may just be the “perfect error” – making it a perfect coin for any collection.