Littleton Coin Company

How you can tell a rare issue from a novelty coin

“Heads I win, tails you lose…” I can still hear it: Dad teasing us with that riddle when we were kids, as he’d flip a coin. But when it comes to a two-headed (or tailed) novelty coin – who really wins, and who loses?

If you have a two-headed coin, chances are VERY good that it’s a novelty coin (a piece that was likely once legal tender, but has been altered in some way) or magician’s piece. These coins are made by hollowing out the reverse side of one coin, leaving just the obverse design and rim. Then, a second coin of the same type is filed away (usually with a lathe) in thickness and circumference – just enough to snug it inside of the first coin. Voila – to the casual observer, you have a two-headed coin.

Two-headed nickel certified by PCGS - Littleton Coin Blog

The ONLY two-headed Jefferson nickel known to exist was struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 2000! Photos courtesy of mikebyers.com

A surefire way to know the difference

One way to be sure is with the “ring test.” Drop your two-headed coin onto a hard surface. A genuine coin will “ring” when it hits, while a hollowed-out novelty coin will simply land with a thud.

But as we know, there are exceptions to every rule. In this case, they’re very few and far between. The U.S. Mint has procedures in place to make sure that two-headed or -tailed coins are never created. This includes creating die shafts of different sizes and shapes, so that two obverse (or two reverse) dies can’t be paired up in the coin presses.

But… what if someone intentionally messes with the system? In 2016, the collecting community raised its eyebrows when the first known example of a two-headed Jefferson nickel came onto the scene. It was a genuine piece struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 2000, and was certified by PCGS in MS65 condition!

How did that even happen?

The mint has remained mum as to how it could have been made, but some have speculated that an employee intentionally struck the coin. One theory is that obverse dies were machined so that they could be used at the same time.

Other coins have surfaced, too – though they’re all “two-tailed” issues. But it’s a stretch to even say that there are “multiple” double-reverse issues. That’s because just three are known – two Washington quarters and a Roosevelt dime (all undated, of course).

So out of the billions of coins minted each year, only four same-sided regular-issue coins are known to exist. It’s safe to say that if you find one in your pocket change, you’re the proud owner of a “magician’s coin” that someone mistakenly put in to circulation. Regardless, it’s an excellent conversation piece for sure!

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