The flying eagle cent is an outlier in American numismatic history. Minted only from 1856 to 1858, these small coins feature a unique design of an eagle in flight on the obverse and a wreath with the text “ONE CENT” on the reverse. The reason for its short life at the mint was due to its similarity in size and design to the large cent (the braided hair cent), leading to confusion and inconvenience for both merchants and consumers.
This coin is easily one of the most valuable in American numismatics, with even low-grade specimens selling for thousands of dollars. The 1856 flying eagle cent is especially coveted, as it was the first year of production and only 634 were minted. In fact, any flying eagle cent in good condition or better is considered a rare find.
Despite its short run, the flying eagle cent still holds significance in American history, being a part of the transition from bulky large cents to smaller, more convenient coins. Its rarity and unique design make it a prized possession for any numismatist.
In this article, you are going to learn everything you need to know about this coveted coin. You’ll learn about its history, value, and tips on how to spot a genuine flying eagle cent. So, strap in and get ready for a deep dive into the world of the flying eagle cent.
The History of the Flying Eagle Cent
Talking about the history of something that only lasted for three years may seem like a short story, but there’s actually a lot to unpack.
In 1849, James B. Longacre was appointed chief engraver of the United States Mint. He immediately set out to redesign American coinage, starting with the large cent (or the braided hair cent). His new design, featuring a flying eagle on the obverse and a wreath on the reverse, was first produced as a pattern coin, meaning it was never intended for circulation, in 1856.
This new design proved to be popular with the public but caused frustration for merchants due to its similarity in size and design to the large cent. Merchants would often have to perform the time-consuming task of counting out 100 large cents, or they would accidentally give out the wrong coin.
In response to these issues, Congress authorized the minting of the flying eagle cent for circulation in 1857. The small size and distinctive design made it easier for both merchants and consumers to handle and distinguish from other coins.
Despite its initial success, the flying eagle cent only lasted until 1858. In that same year, Longacre introduced his new Indian Head cent design, causing the flying eagle to be discontinued. That was the end of the flying eagle cent, but its legacy lives on in the collectible market.
The Value of the Flying Eagle Cent
As mentioned before, even low-grade flying eagle cents often sell for thousands of dollars. This is due to its rarity and popularity among numismatists. For example, here’s an AG3 (About Good) 1857 flying eagle cent that sold for $1,495 at auction. For the uninitiated, AG3 is one of the lowest grades a coin can receive, which normally indicates very low value. And yet, this flying eagle cent still sold for nearly $1,500.
But how can you determine the value of a flying eagle cent? The main factors are its condition and rarity.
- Grade: The grade of a coin is determined by its condition, with higher grades indicating less wear and damage. The most coveted flying eagle cents are those in mint state or uncirculated condition, meaning they were never circulated and still have their original luster.
- Rarity: The rarer the date and variety (for example, there are several varieties of the 1857 flying eagle cent), the higher the value. The rarest and most valuable flying eagle cent is the 1856, with its mintage of 634. The reason for such low numbers is that it was only produced as a pattern coin and was never intended for circulation.
- Minting errors: As with any coin, minting errors can greatly increase the value of a flying eagle cent. One example is the 1857 flying eagle cent with inverted wings, where the design on the obverse (the flying eagle) is printed upside down. This error was only discovered in 2008 and only 10 are known to exist, making it incredibly valuable.
- The coin’s looks: Even within the same grade and rarity, some flying eagle cents may appear visually better than others. This can also affect their value to collectors. For example, an 1857 flying eagle cent may have less wear but have noticeable scratches or discoloration, causing it to be worth slightly less than one without those flaws.
Here is a useful video showing off some flying eagle cents, and that explains the value and grading process:
Flying eagle cents were not well-preserved due to their short time in circulation and the fact that they were made out of relatively soft metal (copper-nickel). As a result, it’s very rare to find one in mint condition (referred to as MS60 or higher).
Speaking of conditions, let’s delve a little deeper into the topic of grading.
Grading a Flying Eagle Cent
Grading coins is as much of an art as it is a science, and it often requires experience and practice to accurately grade a coin. That being said, there are some guidelines that you can use to determine the grade of your flying eagle cent, or to at least ballpark estimate its condition.
Hold the coin under a light and examine it for any major scratches or damage that would indicate wear. Next, check to see if there are visible details in the design, such as the feathers on the flying eagle or the leaves in the wreath on the reverse. If the design is mostly worn down and smooth, it’s likely in a lower grade. However, if there are still clear details present, it’s probably in a higher grade.
Next, pick up a magnifying glass (a loupe or magnifying tool specifically designed for coins is best) and examine the coin more closely. Look for any small marks or scratches that may not have been visible to the naked eye.
Finally, compare your flying eagle cent to a grading guide or professionally graded coins to get an idea of its grade. Grades go from 1 (very poor condition) to 70 (perfect, uncirculated condition), following the Shelton grading scale.
Here are the main grades:
- Poor to Fair (P or FR): major wear and damage, little to no details remaining, just enough to identify the coin.
- About Good (AG): significant wear, some details may be visible.
- Good (G): heavy wear, but most major details are still visible.
- Very Good (VG): moderate wear, with most minor details visible.
- Fine (F): minimal wear, all major and most minor details visible.
- Extra Fine (XF or EF): only slight wear, all details fully visible and well-defined.
- About Uncirculated (AU): no wear, but may have some contact marks from other coins or mishandling.
- Mint State (MS): no wear and no contact marks. May have some small imperfections from minting.
Generally, the biggest gap in value is between circulated and uncirculated coins. That’s because circulated coins (in lower grades) are much more common, while uncirculated coins (in higher grades) are rarer and more desirable to collectors.
Other factors to consider include discoloration (a brownish tint often indicates a lower grade), luster (shiny coins are usually higher grade), and strike (sharp details indicate a higher grade).
Keep in mind that grading is subjective, and there may be some discrepancies between different graders or even the same grader at different times. The final grade given to your flying eagle cent may also depend on the purpose for which it’s being graded – for example, if it’s being graded for insurance purposes, the grade may lean towards the conservative side.
But why does all this really matter? A higher-grade flying eagle cent will fetch a higher price from collectors due to its rarity and better overall appearance. So, if you plan on selling your flying eagle cent or adding it to your collection, it’s worth getting it professionally graded.
Warning: Since these coins are so rare and valuable, dishonest people may try to pass off a counterfeit as the real deal. Always buy from a reputable dealer and consider getting a professional opinion on the authenticity of your flying eagle cent.
Let’s see how you can spot a fake.
Spotting a Genuine Flying Eagle Cent
As with any collectible, it’s important to be able to spot a counterfeit or altered flying eagle cent. Here are some tips on what to look for:
- Examine the design. A fake coin may have blurry or incorrectly placed details.
- Check for any unusual discoloration or unrealistic luster – a genuine flying eagle cent should have an even, natural color and shine.
- Compare it to a known authentic flying eagle cent in terms of weight and size – if it’s significantly different, it may be a fake.
- Consult with a professional or use equipment like a microscope to examine the texture, alignment, and other minute details that may indicate a counterfeit.
Once you’re sure you’ve got a genuine flying eagle cent, take proper care of it to maintain its condition and value. Store it in a protective holder or coin album, away from moisture and extreme temperatures.
Flying Eagle Cent Value Chart: Buying a Flying Eagle Cent
As mentioned before, it’s important to buy from a reputable dealer to ensure that you’re getting a genuine flying eagle cent. You can also consider attending coin shows or auctions to add one to your collection.
But despite its rarity, if you are lucky, you can still snag one for a relatively affordable price. Some auctions saw these coins go for as little as $40. It’s still a hefty price for a cent, but considering its rarity and collectible value, it’s definitely worth the investment.
Here is a table to let you better understand the approximate value of a flying eagle cent, depending on its grade.
|Coin Year & Mint||Average Circulated (Poor to Fine)||Very Fine, Extremely Fine & About uncirculated||Uncirculated & Select Uncirculated MS-60 to MS-63||Choice & Gem Uncirculated MS-64 to MS-66||Superb & Perfect Uncirculated MS-67 to MS-70|
|1856||Between $1,495 and $10,350. Most VG10 and F12 hover around $7,000-$9,000 (1, 2, and 3)||Anywhere from $3,190 to $15,661. For reference, here’s a $6,969 EF45 coin, here’s a $12,000 AU50 one, and here’s a $3,850 one||Auctions start at around $5,500 and get up to $31,200, with all sorts of prices in between. For example, here’s an MS63 coin that went for $7,187 and here’s an MS62 coin that went for $18,600||An MS64 flying eagle cent crazily went for $63, but it’s an outlier. Every other coin sold for at least $11,550, and prices easily climb up to 6 figures (1 and 2). The record sale was of $172,500||No recent sales|
|1856 PR||Prices start around $5,000.||Don’t expect to spend less than $5,750, with some reaching a price of over $10,000 (1 and 2). A few almost reached $20,000||The absolute lowest price you can expect here is $4,730. Many go for around $10,000-12,000 (1 and 2), and one almost got to $20,000||Ironically, the lowest priced 1856 PR coin belonged to this category. This PR64 coin sold for “only” $2,650. PR64+ and PR65 coins often go for around $30,000 (1 and 2). For PR66, $40,000 is the most typical price point (1, 2, and 3). A couple went for $70,000-$80,000 (1 and 2).||The record sale was of $240,000. It was also the only one in this category.|
|1857||Most go for around $13–$59. Some fetched a few hundred dollars (1, 2, and 3)||$29–$192. Many XF40 hover around $120 (1 and 2). AU50s start at around $130 and get up to $500 for AU58 coins. There’s also this sale for over $30,000||Prices start around $200 and get up to $2,000-$3000 (1, 2, and 3).||One MS64 coin sold for $4, but it’s an exception. Prices start at $400 and reach up to $15,000-$30,000 (1, 2, 3, and 4)||No recent sales|
|1857 PR||Only one sale of $5,581||No recent sales||$1,650–$2,200-$10,000 (1, 2, and 3)||4 big price points: $5,750-$10,000 (1, 2, and 3)-$20,000 (1 and 2)-$35,000 (1 and 2). A couple broke the $40,000 price mark (1 and 2)||No recent sales|
|1858 (Small & Large letters)||$17–$74||Prices start at $34. Many XF40 coins go for around $120 (1 and 2). AUs start at $140 and go up to $500. 1858/7 MS versions fetch prices around $1,500 (1 and 2), with a record sale of $2,880||$184-$1,000 (1, 2 and 3). The record sale was $9,600 for a 1858/7 MS63 coin, followed by another 1858/7 MS63 coin that fetched a price of $9,000||An MS65 small letters coin sold for $7. More realistically, prices start around $550, with a big cluster around $1,000 (1, 2, and 3), and the next one at $2,500-$3,000 (1, 2, and 3)||Only one sale for a staggering $40,250|
|1858 PR (Small & Large letters)||Only one sale for $8,260||No recent sales||Prices start at $1,375 and go up to around $6,000-$7,000 (1, 2, and 3)||A PR64 large letter coins went for $18. A few went for around $2,500 (1 and 2). The next big price point is $6,000-$7,000 (1 and 2). Many PR64 and 65 coins cost around $10,000-$15,000 (1, 2, and 3). A few also went for $30,000-$40,000 (1, 2, 3, and 4)||$35,000–$40,000. The record sale was for a PR67 piece that went for $57,500|
Editor’s note: While proof coins technically can’t have a condition below MS, we considered PR scores below 60 as if they were their non-PR counterparts. We did this to make our data more complete. It’s why you see anomalies like in the 1857 and 1858 PR rows.
But how come some coins are worth so much more than others in the same grade? The main cause is minting errors.
Flying Eagle Cent Minting Errors
While it might sound counterintuitive, minting errors greatly increase the value of a flying eagle cent.
This is because such errors are rare, and thus highly desirable to collectors. Some examples include:
- Double dies — Incorrectly imprinted details that appear doubled.
- Off-center strikes — Part of the design not aligned with the rest of the coin.
- Obverse stuck through — Details from the obverse (front) of the coin imprinted onto the reverse (back).
- Cuds — Raised, distorted metal on the edge or surface of the coin.
Keep an eye out for these errors when you’re examining a flying eagle cent. Not everyone knows about or looks for them, so you may be able to snag a valuable gem.
FAQs about Flying Eagle Cents
How do I take care of my Flying Eagle cent?
Properly storing your flying eagle cent is important to maintain its value and condition. Keep it in a protective holder or coin album, away from moisture and extreme temperatures. It’s also a good idea to periodically check for signs of damage or wear.
How do I sell my Flying Eagle cent?
If you plan on selling your flying eagle cent, it’s best to first have it professionally graded and authenticated. This will increase its value and make it more attractive to potential buyers. You can also consider selling at a coin show or auction, or through a reputable dealer.
Why are Flying Eagle cents so valuable?
The flying eagle cent is valuable due to its rarity – only about 2 million were minted in the short time span of 1856 to 1858. In addition, its age and historical significance also contribute to its collectible value.
How do I grade my Flying Eagle cent?
To properly grade your flying eagle cent, it’s best to have it professionally evaluated by a numismatist. However, you can also use a grading guide and closely examine the coin for any flaws or wear. You will need a magnifying tool, like a loupe or microscope, for this. Factors such as luster, strike, and surface preservation all play a role in determining its grade.
The flying eagle cent may be small and made of lowly copper, but it’s worth a lot to collectors, thanks to its rarity. With only 3 years of minting, and the first of these years having a limited release, these coins are hard to come by.
But if you’re able to add one to your collection, make sure it’s genuine and properly taken care of to maintain its value. And keep an eye out for minting errors – they can greatly increase the worth of your flying eagle cent. Happy collecting!