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Large cents can become lifetime pursuit

gre0527a.jpgIf you start collecting large cents you will probably never stop. You can complete a collection by date, but with large cents there are so many interesting varieties that the collecting can really last a lifetime. Of course, with many dates and varieties, large cents make for an extremely interesting collection. Because they were produced 1793-1857, they become a great window into the early United States, telling us a great deal about the early U.S. Mint and even the early collecting in a fascinating era.

The large cent was a logical denomination from the start. It was included in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, although there would be some size changes over the years. At the time the large cent was authorized, officials were being generous and with some reason. The nation had been through a fiasco with Continental Currency, which had become virtually worthless in the hands of owners. To have people lose money on issues associated with the new government was not something that could continue. The suggestion that the coins might not be worth close to their face value in their metal composition could have been a disaster for public faith in the new government.

gre0527b.jpgMoreover, there were private tokens and foreign coins also in circulation in the United States. Even a low denomination like a cent could not be allowed to look second-rate. The cent would be reduced slightly in 1795 to 10.89 grams, but even then the large cent was a big coin and very close to its face value in copper.

The whole matter of coins and a Mint was new to everyone at the time and there were any number of unexpected problems. The first one had been that while authorizing a copper large cent and half cent, no one had remembered to authorize the purchase of copper from which to make the new coins. That required a special authorization on May 8, 1792, which allowed the purchase of up to 150 tons of copper for the new issues. Of course, authorizing the purchase was rather easy; finding the copper to buy would prove to be a continuing problem.

In 1793 officials had other problems as well. There was a requirement that Mint officials had to post a $10,0000 bond before producing silver or gold coins. That probably seemed like a good idea at the time ? to everyone but the officials, who refused to post the bond. That limited the Mint to just copper coin production for the first year while Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson tried to settle the bond issue.

gre0527c.jpgCoin production in 1793 started with a cent that is credited to Henry Voight. He used a flowing hair obverse and chain reverse, making the 1793 cent with a chain reverse the first coin produced at the official new United States Mint.

The mintage of the 1793 Flowing Hair cent with chain reverse was divided, the first 5,000-10,000 pieces having the text ?AMERI? on the reverse while the rest would have a full ?AMERICA? spelled out. With the importance and scarcity of any 1793 chain cent, many collectors are satisfied at acquiring an example in any grade. That said, those truly wanting one of the first coins of the United States would naturally attach a special premium to the ?AMERI? reverse. With demand so great, any 1793 chain cent is a special addition to a collection today. Price listings start at $7,750 for a G-4 while an MS-60 lists at $135,000. There are a few known mint state examples, but not many.

The demand for historic coins of the United States seems to be growing, as was seen when a 1794 dollar and a 1796 no stars quarter eagle each reached the $1 million mark at auction. In the case of an equally historic 1793 chain cent, obtaining any example is the first challenge. When you reach a grade like VF-20, you will find that the available supply thins out considerably. In mint state you are going to find few coins and many potential buyers. Grading services illustrate the problem as Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has seen just six examples in Mint State while Professional Coin Grading Service adds a dozen. That still leaves fewer than 20 mint state coins out of hundreds of 1793 chain cents examined by the two services. There might well be a few more, but even if there are the supply is not even close to satisfying the demand.

gre0527d.jpgThe chain reverse touched off a wave of criticism. While today the objection to the a chain appearing as a national symbol can be easily understood, especially at the conclusion of a very bloody conflict for independence, the fact is that the chains had been used throughout the conflict on Continental Currency and Fugio cents. The 13 links were supposed to be symbolic of unity. During the war everyone seemed content with that. Once the war was over, though, they seemed to see things a different way, even though the whole idea of the design traced directly to Benjamin Franklin.

Officials who had stood up to the king of England and the most powerful army on earth were less brave when it came to the angry mob in the United States. Quickly a decision was made that the reverse needed to be changed as it was easier to change than to explain.

gre0527e.jpgThe chain on the reverse was quickly replaced by a wreath. The Wreath cents did not offend anyone but did have varieties. There are a few known examples where the three-leaf sprig above the date was replaced with a ?strawberry variety,? which has a spray of trefoil leaves and a small blossom. There are only a few known examples of the ?strawberry variety,? all of which are well worn but very capable of commanding extremely high prices when offered.

The mintage of the 1793 wreath-reverse cent was 63,353, which translates today into a G-4 listing of $1,700 and MS-60 of $30,000. For those wanting any cent of 1793, the wreath reverse is the least expensive and most available option. It is still a very historic coin and one where demand is usually far in excess of the available supply. In mint state there are a few available although the vast majority are in lower circulated grades. NGC has seen 16 that it graded mint state out of a total of 80 while PCGS has graded 27 mint state out of more than 400 seen.

The supply problem is best described by Q. David Bowers in his A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Bowers suggests of the 1793 wreath reverse, ?Such coins are in continual demand, and there has never been a time in which the market for them has been slow.?

The next change would be the obverse. It too had taken heat from the art critics of the day. Joseph Wright, who tragically died at a young age of yellow fever, contributed a Liberty Cap design that was produced in 1793 as well. With the bond issue still not settled, the Mint had time for continuing design changes for the cent. The 1793 Liberty Cap design was produced late in the year and that saw a limited mintage of just 11,056. The novelty was also gone so it was not saved, making it a $5,000 coin in G-4 today. In fact, the 1793 Liberty Cap cent is not even priced above AU-50 where it currently lists for $40,000. The grading services report only two mint state examples, both seen at PCGS.

gre0527f.jpgFortunately for type collectors, the Liberty Cap design would continue through 1796. It should be noted, however, that the size was reduced slightly in 1795, making that potentially another type. All along there would be varieties. Taking the most basic approach, a type example lists at $350 in G-4 and $4,750 in MS-60 with the most available date being the 1795.

In 1796 the cent?s design would change again. This time it was a Robert Scot Draped Bust design based on a Gilbert Stuart drawing. The Draped Bust cent design is a fascinating type. While available at $50 in G-4 and $2,250 in MS-60, it also includes some extremely tough coins with interesting stories. It is worth noting that copper was a problem throughout this series. Planchets are not always of the best quality, and getting a coin with good color and surfaces is probably worth some small premium.

If you happen to be offered a mint state 1796 or 1797, there is a good chance the coin could be traced to the Nichols find. This was a group of mint state cents dispersed in the 1860s by a David Nichols. The coins were traced back to Benjamin Goodhue, an elected official who is thought to have obtained them at the Mint in 1797. The size of the hoard was put at 1,000 pieces. While there are probably not 1,000 mint state examples of the two dates combined today, assorted factors would have potentially reduced the total. What we do know is that much of the available supply in mint state seems to trace directly to the hoard.

In other cases we can only wish there was a hoard. That is certainly so for the 1799, which had a mintage of just 42,540 pieces produced on rough, dark planchets from Coltman Brothers. It was a bad combination of low mintage, low saving and sometimes poor quality, and that has made the 1799 a key date. Any 1799 is special and that has been recognized in sale offerings over the years. The 1867 sale of the Joseph Mickley collection had a very fine, which realized $32 after being called ?the rarest of American cents.? An 1897 article in The Numismatist called the 1799 ?the rarest of the copper issues of the United States Mint.?

Over the years there have been assorted attempts to explain why the 1799 is so tough, but none have really added a reason that we can verify beyond the facts of low mintage and low saving. The result is a $3,500 listing in G-4 today, which is below the chain reverse 1793. The 1799 is definitely the tougher of the two. The grading services show PCGS having graded 21 examples of the 1799 with the best being two that reached AU-50 while NGC has seen 19 with none better than VF-20, probably helping to explain why the 1799 is priced in no grade higher than AU-50 where it currently lists for $185,000.

Much of what applies to the 1799 is also accurate for the 1804, but to a lesser degree. The 1804 had a mintage of 96,500 and of that total a couple are known in mint state. That said, the numbers are still very small with the 1804 at $1,400 in G-4 and $25,000 in AU-50, which is the highest grade where it has a price.

The 1804 was discovered quickly and that played into the hands of Joseph Mickley, who was an early large cent enthusiast and also an enterprising fellow. He would purchase old dies as scrap and then create small numbers of restrikes. The process, however, was flawed as he could not obtain matching obverse and reverse years. That resulted in an 1804 restrike with an 1820 reverse. Even not matched correctly, the restrike is popular and lists at $400 in G-4 and $1,500 in MS-60.

There were assorted varieties for almost any year as well. The 1801 featured a rather unusual combination that involved three errors on one coin. Considering you are getting three in one, it is reasonable today at $225 in G-4 although it gets much tougher in higher grades as an AU-50 is listed at $8,750. The parade of errors and varieties is long, but they make collecting these large cents a great deal of fun.

The cent design was changed in 1808 to John Reich?s Classic Head, which would last until 1816. This type is more available at about $45 in G-4 and $2,800 in MS-60. Strike quality can vary and so can other factors, as is seen in the case of the 1814 where the planchets were dark and porous. There are examples in mint state, but not as many as you might think with the PCGS total of all dates combined being about 100.

The tougher dates of the Classic Head type are the 1809, which lists for $250 in G-4, and the 1811/10, which is $130 in G-4. In fact, recent price increases have been seen in an assortment of dates of the type, suggesting that supplies are not keeping up with demand. That is no surprise as these dates and other later dates were in many cases worn heavily and later melted when the change to small size cents took place in 1857.

The Classic Head was replaced in 1816 by the Coronet Head design, which would last through 1835 before being modified and continuing on through 1839. The mintages of the type were often greater than a million, making them readily available at about $25 in G-4 while an available MS-60 is at roughly $300. The mint state supply has also been helped by the Randall hoard.

The Randall hoard is well known to large cent specialists although the stories and details are not always clear and accurate. Allegedly discovered under a railroad platform in Georgia in 1868, the Randall hoard was probably a small keg of large cents that was simply buried. That is the description from John Swan Randall, for whom the hoard is named, in a letter reprinted in the Q. David Bowers book American Coin Treasures and Hoards.

Precisely where the hoard was found is a little suspect, and so are the coins in the hoard as a variety of dates have been claimed to have been in the hoard. In fact, some could have been in the hoard, but only a couple pieces. The dates that were heavily represented are actually fairly easy to trace thanks in part to the grading services. The 1816, for example, has been seen 192 times in mint state at NGC and PCGS combined, while the 1817 has 195 mint state appearances. The 1818 is at 584, the 1819 at 161 and the 1820 at 658. Those totals are all far higher than normal. It becomes logical to conclude that these dates were the prime dates found in the Randall hoard.

There are a few better dates from the period, such as the 1823 which is currently $90 in G-4 while the 1823/22 is at $80 in the same grade. The 1823 sparked another restrike, Joseph Mickley being the likely suspect, and the restrike in this case is actually worth more in some grades than the original. The 1823 restrike lists at $600 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $2,000. Typically it had an 1823 obverse but an 1813 reverse.

In 1840 the design was changed to Christian Gobrecht?s Braided Hair design. By that time mintages were averaging close to three million, making the type readily available at about $20 in G-4 and $200 in MS-60.

There are relatively few better dates of the Braided Hair design. The 1857 is an exception. It was produced for just a short period of time in 1857 before the release of the new Flying Eagle cent in late May. That resulted in a mintage of just 333,456, putting a G-4 at $150 with an MS-60 around $600. In theory the 1857 is the last large cent although there was an unexplained striking of experimental examples in 1868.

Large cents have had a fascinating history. The presence of hoards has helped to make much of that history more possible to study. The Butternut hoard held something over 4,000 large cents pulled from circulation at some time back in the 1800s. The dates allowed us to test mintage totals.
We know mintage totals during virtually the entire time large cents were produced were not always accurate. Here was a chance to see where there might be questions based on actual coins found in circulation. Some dates were more common than would be expected while others such as the 1805, 1808, 1809, 1817 and 1823 were not found in the numbers expected. That might mean mintage totals were in error, or it might be simply that the hoard numbers were not particularly representative for some reason. It?s the sort of thing that can be constantly studied and debated in the case of large cents.

Whether your interest is in regular dates or in a more specialized collection, the large cent is a truly fascinating coin. That is why generations of dedicated collectors have started with large cents and in some cases never really branched off to anything else. A large cent collection can really be a lifetime of fun.

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