1920 Wheat Penny: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide
The 1920 wheat penny is a fun collector’s coin which marks the first of many reverse designs on the Lincoln cent since its inception in 1909.
And that inception came in a swirl of intrigue after the sculptor initially commissioned to design the new cent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, died in 1907 before he could submit an approved design for the coin.
His previous designs meant for the cent piece were adapted for four gold coins, leaving the cent open to be rethought and reimagined.
In January 1909, the Mint tabbed design Victor D. Brenner to design a new penny with President Abraham Lincoln’s bust on the obverse – an homage to fall in line with the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.
Interestingly enough, Brenner’s appointment was likely thanks to another president.
President Theodore Roosevelt sat for Brenner in late 1908 so the sculptor could craft an image for a medal issued by the Panama Canal Commission.
The contents of the conversation between the two were never fully disclosed, but it does appear extremely likely that Roosevelt talked about the coin redesign plans with Brenner.
Whether he was gauging Brenner’s interest in the project or even conducting an informal interview of sorts is a matter of historical conjecture.
While the Lincoln cent remains in circulation to this day, the wheat heads which give the wheat penny its name were replaced with a design featuring the Lincoln Memorial on January 2, 1959.
This came as a complete shock to most when it was announced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagerty, just two weeks before.
The result of an internal competition between Mint engravers, the new design had not been leaked to the public prior to this.
It was a quick exit without fanfare for the wheat penny which had been in circulation for 50 years before its demise.
Mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco
- Overall: 405,655,000
- Philadephia: 310,165,000
- Denver: 49,280,000
- San Francisco: 46,220,000
Weight: 3.11 g
Diameter: 19.05 mm
Edge Type: Plain
Composition: 0.950 copper, 0.050 tin and zinc
Designer: Victor D. Brenner
Obverse Features: According to numismatic speculation, the portrait of Abraham Lincoln used by Brenner suggest that Brenner drew inspiration from a well-known Mathew Brady photograph of Lincoln with his son, Tad.
If so, Brenner reversed the profile of the photo but lost none of the gravitas and compassion which radiates from the source photograph.
Lincoln’s rigidity is belied by what appears to be a creeping smile, signifying both the strength of his leadership and the permeation of his humanity in equal dose.
His high cheekbones are a prominent eye-popping feature when viewing a near-mint version of the wheat penny at first glance, reflecting and deflecting light in lovely fashion.
The phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST” rainbows on the top rim of the obverse above Lincoln’s head, spaced out in a way that gives the phrasing clarity even on coins that are not in the best of condition.
The phrase “LIBERTY” runs horizontal from the center-left rim of the coin towards the back of Lincoln’s neck.
The coin’s date and mint mark are found on the bottom right of the obverse, in front of Lincoln’s chest.
Reverse Features: The wheat penny’s name is derived from the two wheat ears which fan around the central wording of the reverse, and their blocky, geometric nature makes them look similar to feathers at first glance.
Closer inspection, especially on coins in solid condition, shows simple yet effective definition and line work which turns these oddly-shaped things into wheat before your very eyes.
Spanning the top rim of the reverse in a rainbow of small lettering is the phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM.”
Directly underneath it in much bigger lettering is the phrase “ONE CENT” – centered edging towards the top of the coin while taking up a large chunk of the reverse’s face.
Below that is the phrase “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” on two lines in lettering that is sized at almost a direct average of the two preceding phrases.
Errors and Variations
While down from the preceding year’s mintage peak, there were still over 400 million wheat pennies produced in 1920 – leading to an impressive array of doubled-die, off-center, and die-gouged pieces which are coveted by collectors.
Such variations go for hundreds, even thousands of dollars on the market depending on the oddness and rarity of the particular error.
However, it’s a wheat penny from two years after this which steals the show for collectors and historians alike!
In 1922, the Denver Mint took over sole minting duties for the Lincoln cent for the only time in the coin’s history.
Those coins are printed with the normal “D” mint mark, except for some where the “D” was completely wiped off after the Mint tried to repair a die with abrasives.
These plain cents can be mistaken for non-mint marked Philadelphia coins at first glance, but look closely! They auction off for thousands of dollars to the right collector!
Grading and Condition Issues
While initial signs of wear on Lincoln’s bust are a solid marker of your 1920 wheat penny’s condition, it’s the heads of the wheat stalks on the reverse which provide the most clear tell of your coin’s potential grade.
If the lines of the wheat heads show no wear spots and loss of detail, you could easily have a coin in Very Fine (VF-20) condition or better.
The more wear and loss of clarity to the lines of the wheat heads, the worse shape your coin is in.
When dealing with Uncirculated versions of the 1920 Wheat Penny, it’s the coloration of the coin which makes all the difference.
A Choice Uncirculated (MS-65) will be almost fully red in color, with the coin becoming more brownish as the grade gets worse.
The redder your Uncirculated wheat penny is, the greener your bank account could be.
The value spike between a Very Fine and Extremely Fine circulated 1920 wheat penny is over four times, as the coin is nearly 100 years old and most coins circulated for that long show significant signs of wear.
Finding a near-mint Uncirculated or Choice Uncirculated coin isn’t out of the question, but they still will set you back $15-30 for a non-error.
Errors, as always, have extremely variance to their potential collector’s value.
Good (G-4): $0.20
Very Good (VG-8): $0.31
Fine (F-12): $0.36
Very Fine (VF-20): $0.52
Extremely Fine (EF-40): $2.36
About Uncirculated (AU-50): $4.19
Uncirculated (MS-60): $16.00
Choice Uncirculated (MS-63): $29.00