It’s not unusual to see coins used as prizes in children’s cereals; they can often be acquired cheaply, or in the case of custom “coins” (tokens, in reality), produced at low cost.
Some of the most popular cereal “coins” were the dinosaur tokens from Post cereals. These coin-like tokens were made of aluminium, and featured dramatic designs of popular dinosaur species, including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus Rex.
To celebrate the 1988 Olympic Games, Sugar Crisp cereal released several different world coins, in cardboard holders displaying information about the country of origin for each coin. These coins are somewhat unique, in that they are real coins, and the company placed them in decent holders, preserving the value. None is worth more than a few dollars, but they would be a good start for any child’s coin collection.
But the real gem of cereal coins was only discovered in 2005. In 2000, Cheerios offered boxes of cereal with one of the new Sacajawea dollars, fresh from the Mint. It was not until five years later that numismatists realized that these dollars had a slightly different obverse from the Sacajawea dollars released to the public. After the initial run of coins, the marks on the tail feathers of the eagle were removed to lighten the appearance of the eagle’s tail.
No one is sure how many coins were struck with the darker tail reverse, but only 5,500 boxes of Cheerios held the coins, making them one of the rarest modern coins to acquire. NGC stated, “This is unquestionably one of the most intriguing new finds in the annals of modern coinage. The fact that they are just now being recognized, five years after their release, is surprising to many experts.” The coins only came to light in the first place due to a curious numismatist, Tom DeLorey. DeLorey had examined test strikings of the coin in late 1999, noting in particular the detail on the eagle’s tail feathers.
When he saw the coins released for circulation in early 2000, his eye was immediately drawn to the difference in the new coins. He began to check other coins, and realized that all those in circulation had the new reverse design. Tom believed that the coins that Cheerios had acquired for their prizes might be the earlier design, since the company would have had to have the coins on hand in late 1999 in order to get them boxed and distributed in time.
It was a great theory, but was it true? It was difficult to check: Cheerio dollars had been distributed in holders that obscured the reverse of the coin. These coins were selling for about $150, and opening the holder would destroy the value of the coin, if it turned out to be the same as the coins in circulation. Finally, a solution presented itself: find a Cheerio dollar that had been put into a clear plastic holder by a third-party grading service. Collector Pat Braddick had just such a coin; he teamed up with Tom and NGC to determine that his coin was, in fact, the early pattern Sacagawea dollar. These Cheerio dollars are now highly collectible and extremely rare; most were taken out of their holders, spent as currency, or otherwise lost.
You never know when a numismatic mystery will come to light, or when a small low-value prize will turn into a fortune!