The 1799 large cent is one of those coins that will always be tough and important.
There are other tough large cents, but the 1799 seems to have carved out its own special place in the minds of collectors as an important date. It has always been that way, as virtually from the start, collectors have puzzled over the 1799 large cent and sought to find an example in any grade.
The 1799 large cent was produced at a time when the U.S. Mint was having multiple problems. Many of them centered around the large cent ? or at least the copper needed to make it. There was no good supply of copper planchets in the U.S., so much of the copper supply came from England and relations between the two countries were frosty.
Even in the best of circumstances, shipping the needed copper across the Atlantic was slow, but when at any given moment there could be new trade restrictions or war, it made the arrival of that copper even more uncertain.
In 1799, it appears that the copper to make the 1799 large cent was from the American firm of Coltman Brothers. It would be nice to report that those planchets were top quality, but they were rough and dark, adding to the difficulty of finding a nice 1799 cent today.
The planchets were only a part of the problem, as the 1799 large cent had a mintage of just 42,540, with some of that total being a 1799/8.
There were few collectors at the time. There had been a few examples of the 1793 saved, but the novelty of saving the first cents of the U.S. had worn off. We see almost no examples of the Liberty Cap in Mint State and realistically, it is one of the few large cents that is potentially tougher than the 1799.
Over the years, there have been numerous ideas put forth as to why the 1799 is so tough. The most entertaining, if not the most accurate, was back in 1860, when Montroville W. Dickeson suggested in The American Numismatic Manual that the scarcity of the 1799 was because a large number were shipped to Africa where, ?being punched with holes, they were bartered away, probably to the chiefs.?
In the 1867 sale of the Joseph Mickley collection, the 1799 was described as, ?the rarest of American cents.? At that sale, the lightly circulated example that apparently did not go to Africa was sold for $32.
It would not be a stretch to suggest that early collectors knew of the 1799 and were convinced that it was one of the top American coins.
Today, the 1799 lists for $3,500 in G-4 and $35,000 in XF-40, which is about as nice as they are seen. At NGC, they have seen 18 regular 1799 cents and not one was better than VF, while the single 1799/8 they have graded was an F-12. The PCGS totals show 80 examples of the 1799, but there, too, they are all in circulated grades, as are the 18 examples of the 1799/8 they have graded.
There is no dispute that the 1799 is tough, but it is also a condition rarity. You do not find even an XF with any regularity.
There were not many collectors at the time, but almost every other date has at least a couple known examples in Mint State, so with enough money and enough patience, you can usually eventually acquire the coin you want.
That is not the case with the 1799. It is advised to buy whatever example is offered and trade up for a nice coin later, as you do not have the luxury of being selective with a 1799.