The Holy Grail Of Coin Collecting

1909_S_VDB

As famed coin expert, Ed Reiter, points out – Few men are so prominent that people routinely refer to them – and recognize them instantly – by their initials:  FDR… JFK… LBJ… MLK.

In the world of coin collecting, one set of initials is far more familiar – and readily recognizable – than all others. The initials are “VDB” and they stand for the name of Victor David Brenner, the artist who designed the Lincoln penny.

What makes these initials famous is the fact that they appear on the rarest of all the Lincolns. The holy grail of the numismatic realm: The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.

The very first Lincoln cents carried Brenner’s initials in large, conspicuous letters at the base of the reverse between the wheat ear stalks, following the precedent set by James B. Longacre, whose initials “JBL” (or simply “L”) graced a number of U.S. coin designs for much of the latter half of the 19th century. Outcry arose almost at once that this outsized “signature” was not only disproportionately large but also inappropriate simply as a matter of principle.

Under public pressure, the U.S. Mint removed the offending letters soon after the start of production – after a mere 484,000 pieces had been struck with the initials at the San Francisco Mint. The “S-VDB” has been a highly sought after rarity ever since.

In 2009, the hobby is observing the 100th anniversary of this venerable and perennially popular coin. And it’s interesting to note that while the coin has given lasting fame to Victor D. Brenner, his name, in turn, has enhanced the appeal of other numismatic collectibles, as well.

This was dramatized two decades ago when a group of Brenner medals, plaquettes and related materials came up for sale at a New York City auction conducted by Bowers and Merena Galleries. They attracted strong interest and drew impressive prices.

“Items designed by Brenner are quite popular with collectors,” said well-known numismatic cataloger and scholar Michael J. Hodder, then director of research for the Wolfeboro, N.H., company.

“A medal by Brenner,” he said, “will bring perhaps 30 percent more than a medal by someone else without a coinage connection – just because Brenner designed the Lincoln cent. If the piece has a Lincoln motif, the price goes up another 40 percent. And if his name appears prominently on the medal or plaquette, then you have a REALLY saleable piece.”

The Brenner material in that auction came from the collection of the late Glenn S. Smedley, a prominent numismatist who served for many years on the board of governors of the American Numismatic Association. Smedley greatly admired Brenner’s work, and over the years he not only formed an important collection of items designed by the artist, but also wrote extensively on the subject.

In a booklet entitled “The Works of Victor David Brenner,” Smedley pointed out that the man who designed the all-American Lincoln cent was not an American by birth.

Brenner was born of Jewish parents on June 12, 1871, in Shavli, Lithuania, a small town near the Baltic Sea. His father, a metal worker, was skilled at carving and engraving – and young Victor demonstrated similar gifts at an early age.

While still in his teens, he left for America, arriving almost penniless in New York City in 1890. But he soon found a job as an engraver, and during the years that followed he sharpened his talent by attending evening classes at Cooper Union. In 1898, he went to Paris, where he spent three years studying under such leading French medalists as Alexandre Charpentier and Louis Oscar Roty.

Brenner produced a number of impressive medals during the first decade of the 1900s, and his reputation was growing as the end of the decade approached – and with it the observance, in 1909, of the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

In the year or two preceding the observance, Brenner prepared appealing portraits of Lincoln for special centennial medals and plaquettes. Then, in the summer of 1908, fate brought him in contact with President Theodore Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt was posing for a Panama Canal service medal being designed by Brenner, and the artist suggested the notion of a coin honoring Lincoln. Roosevelt invited him to furnish proposed designs – and within a matter of months, the idea became a reality.

Brenner died on April 5, 1924 and is buried at Mount Judah Cemetery, Ridgewood, Queens County, New York.

As long as Lincoln cents are set aside and treasured, the initials “VDB” will always mean something special to coin collectors. This is especially true for the rarest of pennies: The 1909-S VDB.

Ed Reiter writes “Collector’s Corner” articles exclusively for Littleton Coin Company. Ed Reiter is senior editor of COINage and executive director of the Numismatic Literary Guild. Reiter wrote the weekly Numismatics column in the Sunday New York Times for nearly a decade, and is the author of a new book called The New York Times Guide to Coin Collecting. He also is former editor of Numismatic News.

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