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Value Collecting in RB & BN Copper

By Victor Bozarth - December 8, 2021

One might say everybody knows that Red (or RD) is a better designation than RB, and RB is better than BN when it comes to copper coinage. However, for many of those collectors, both availability and budget sometime dictate a different strategy. Some copper coins don’t exist in full RD (or even RB) original color. If they do exist, they’re often affordable to only the most financially well heeled. In the real world most of us can collect only what we can afford, right? However, a tight budget doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sacrifice quality and eye appeal.

What to Avoid

There are two big issues you should avoid with copper coins: spots and discoloration. Spots, often carbon, spoil the eye appeal and may prove to be a risk, as they can grow over time. Discoloration or stains, including fingerprints, are also to be avoided. They, too, spoil the eye appeal. Stains and/or discoloration on a coin’s surfaces are often in the process of oxidizing and may be getting darker.

Is the color original? If it looks “off,” don’t buy it. Many copper coins are washed by their owners prior to grading to enhance the color or remove spots, stains, or fingerprints, which often leads to a no-grade result from PCGS for those who submit those pieces for encapsulation. PCGS graders are very conscious of the originality of the copper coins they grade. Of course, you should look for as strong a strike that you can locate, regardless of the issue or color you desire.

On a side note, don’t “buy the bargain” of a coin with spots or discoloration. A problem coin is rarely a bargain once it is time to sell.

What to Look For

What I look for in RB and BN copper are the quality of the luster, strike, surface preservation, and color. Does the coin have eye appeal? Are the surfaces clean of marks? Does the coin have a strong strike? Most important to me is the quality of the surface color. Once again, is the color original? Do you like it?

Luster is critical to the eye appeal of all coins, but especially with RB and BN copper the luster is what gives the coin “life.” Despite the color, RB and BN copper should have some lilt to the surfaces; dull and darkly oxidized (borderline Environmental Damage) pieces should be avoided.

Strike is crucial. Basically, the sharper the strike, the stronger the surface detail on the coin. Whether it’s the bust, hair, eagle, shield, and/or lettering detail, a strong strike enhances the eye appeal. When considering RB and BN copper, examine the strike carefully. Is there softness of detail on the devices or lettering? A weak strike might be disguised or hidden by dark or dull surfaces. If you have the luxury, try to compare both lower- and higher-grade coins of the similar date and/or type to determine the striking characteristics of the coin you’re pursuing. Online resources, such as PCGS CoinFacts, can make finding images of examples you can study easily. Most often, PCGS CoinFacts offers high-resolution images of copper coins in RD, RB, and BN examples of the same date, if they have been graded.

Marks, cuts, dings, slide marks, bag marks, chatter, etc. are terms used to describe marks that have disturbed the original surfaces of a coin. The metal has been displaced. Depending on the severity of the metal movement, the coin might not grade (or receive a “net” Details grade). Scratches, heavy slide marks, severe rim dings, gouges, or cuts all may result in a net grade. A coin in circulation is expected to have some wear and contact marks. For grading uncirculated coins, bag marks are a big factor. The grade a coin receives is heavily weighted by how the graders gauge the severity and number of bag marks on a given coin.

The color is the first thing most people notice about a coin. Is it bright, lustrous, and appealing? Does the coin want you to take a closer look? The trained numismatist can often distinguish a nice coin from several feet away. Who hasn’t seen a coin while walking past a showcase at a show and done a double take? You turned around and had to look closer. Eye appeal is the factor that makes you want to look closer at a coin. As a self-trained numismatist, I’ve learned to trust this double take. I turn around and ask to take a closer look. I trust my gut. You should too!

The value aspect is a variation on the quality versus quantity argument. When considering RB and BN copper, I don’t believe you are giving up quality (only full Red color) for quantity. With many Red coins trading at multiples of their siblings in RB and BN holders, an RB or BN coin often represents better long-term value. No, you don’t get the original RD color, but you’re not paying a big premium for that RD color either. Both RB and BN coins offer tremendous value. My argument is that you’re not compromising. You’re merely focusing on the nicest RB or BN coins you can find. The big prize comes with the additional coins you will be able to buy with the same budget!

For comparison purposes, I’ve done a random sampling of both type and dated copper coins in all copper colors: Red, Red Brown, and Brown. The current PCGS price is used for comparison purposes for each in the highest graded coins that trade for the date. Specific APRs for these PCGS coins are cited using trades from the last five years, when possible. Please note, some of the early type issues as well as the higher-grade key date coins trade infrequently. I’ve noted any pricing examples that fall out of the last five-year sample window with an asterisk.

There are some pertinent facts to consider when comparing these coins. First, the higher-graded type coins will have huge spreads between BN, RB, and RD numbers. The populations reflect the scarcity/rarity of full Red examples, but these numbers also offer opportunity to collectors in most price ranges, especially if you are willing to consider RB and BN coins! You should ask yourself two questions. First, what will your budget allow? Second, and of equal importance is, what’s available?

If a particular coin only trades every 10 to 15 years, are you willing to wait? Will you lose interest? Many collectors have a couple of areas of interest for this reason. Having a set that you are ultimately able to complete is a realistic goal. After all, you can always upgrade a particular coin later.

For the value comparisons, I’ve tried to choose a nice mix of examples. For type, I’ve chosen eight different type examples. For the dated Indian and Lincoln Cents, I used two different approaches and five to six examples for each. For the Indian Cents, I’ve chosen a date from each decade of production. For the Lincoln Cents I chose three key dates and three dates most consider common.

Value Comparisons

The type and date examples used for this article include:

Type: Half Cents: Draped Bust, Classic, and Braided Hair
Large Cents: Draped Bust, Classic, Coronet, and Braided Hair
Two Cents
Indian Cents: 1865BR, 1875, 1885, 1895, and 1905
Lincoln Cents: 1909VDB, 1909SVDB, 1910, 1914D, 1920, and 1955 DDO
*All these type coins represent challenging and rewarding date series also.

I listed these various types and dated examples of copper coins in all three colors in both MS63 and MS65 grades. The prices serve to illustrate the multiplier aspect to collecting RB and BN copper coins. Looking at the MS63 coins, you can buy at least two BN coins to one RD coin. In MS65 coins the disparity is even larger. Most of these MS65 examples are multiples (of the price for a BN or RB) for a Red example.

The astute value-minded collector should use all the tools available when building their collection. Pursuing both BN and RB coins will also increase your availability options also. Having the ability to buy more coins at more attractive price levels is hard to beat. You should give it a try!

Article provided by PCGS at
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