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Coin missing for 55 years in auction

 Heritage catalogers make the case that this is a long missing Birch cent.

Heritage catalogers make the case that this is a long missing Birch cent.

A Birch cent of 1792 that had fallen off the numismatic radar for 55 years will star in a Platinum Night presentation in the Heritage Auctions' American Numismatic Convention sale in August.

It is attributed by the cataloger as a 1792 Birch Cent once owned by Lorin G. Parmelee that was sold at auction in 1890.

“This elusive Birch Cent has finally been found and is heading to auction,” said James Halperin, co-founder of Heritage Auctions.

“The Parmelee provenance is very exciting,” Halperin said. “We’re delighted this specimen will be offered during ANA – a special event suitable for a special coin,” Halperin said.

The full details are explained at length by the cataloger. Below it appears in its entirely courtesy of Heritage:

1792 Birch Cent, XF Details
Probably Judd-5, R.8
Ex: Parmelee-Brand-Judd

1792 Birch Cent, Judd-5 (?), Pollock-6 (?), R.8 --Denticles Repaired, Edge Filed -- PCGS Genuine. XF Details, PCGS Secure.

262.2 grains, 32 mm, die alignment 330 degrees. The 1792 patterns are among the most historically interesting issues in the U.S. series, as they laid the foundation for the U.S. monetary system with coins that were both useful and attractive. Although they have been justly admired and diligently studied since the earliest days of the hobby, many questions about the origin and later history of these iconic pieces remain unanswered. Perhaps no other issue so well-embodies the aesthetic beauty and enigmatic nature of these immensely important coins as the 1792 Birch cent.

Design. An intricately detailed bust of Liberty faces right on the obverse of this elegant pattern. The name BIRCH is seen on the truncation of the neck. Around the margin are: LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY. The date 1792 is just below the bust. The reverse has a wreath surrounding an inscribed circle with ONE CENT within. Around the periphery: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; the fraction 1/100 is at the bottom beneath the knot in the wreath. Struck in copper. The edge of this piece has been filed smooth, but we believe it was originally lettered TO BE ESTEEMED BE USEFUL *.

Physical Description

Unlike their celebrated Silver Center cent cousins, relatively few examples of the 1792 Birch cent have survived in high grade. This piece is certainly one of the more attractive survivors, despite its noted flaws. Respected Colonial specialist John Kraljevich examined this coin before encapsulation and offered this appraisal:

“Fascinating! Yes, the edge is heavily and obviously filed – and many of the extreme peripheral elements (dentils, tops of letters) are carefully re-engraved. This piece was clearly mounted IN something, but it’s otherwise absolutely gorgeous.”

The design elements of this impressive specimen were strongly impressed and the high relief bust shows just the slightest trace of wear on the high points of the hair and ear. The pleasing mahogany brown surfaces are remarkably smooth, with absolutely no trace of porosity and only a few scattered, minor contact marks. On close inspection, a precise network of thin scribe lines is evident on the obverse, but their presence is largely masked by the patina. Although we cannot determine the purpose of these lines, we believe they were inscribed on the planchet before the coin was struck, and not completely effaced during striking. The Mint State Norweb Judd-5 Birch cent has a similar network of crosshatched scratches on its obverse that were not struck out. The overall presentation is most appealing, as the flaws of this spectacular specimen are confined to inconspicuous peripheral locations, while the obvious strong points are centrally located and immediately visible.

Knowns and Unknowns

There are three varieties of the 1792 Birch cent known to collectors today (four if the Judd-6, 1792 G*W. Pt. cent, which was struck from the same dies before they were reworked, is considered). The different varieties, Judd-3, 4, and 5, are distinguished by their edge treatment. Judd-3 has a plain edge, while the Judd-4 edge reads TO BE ESTEEMED* BE USEFUL*, and the Judd-5 edge displays the similar motto, with a single star, TO BE ESTEEMED BE USEFUL*. The motto was not a well-known sentiment in the 1790s, but it may have been adapted from an earlier quote by Jonathan Swift, writing under his alias, Isaac Bickerstaff.

The Mint Act of April 1792 authorized a cent containing 264 grains of pure copper. Three surviving examples of the 1792 Birch cent, including the present coin, were apparently struck to that standard, while all other specimens are much lighter. Len Augsburger, who notes the two known examples of the Judd-5 pattern both approximately conform to the 264-grain standard, suggests a plausible explanation for the remarkable weight variance. He postulates that the Judd-5 coins were struck first, probably in John Harper’s cellar, before the Philadelphia Mint was ready for coinage operations, when the 264-grain standard was still in effect. Congress later authorized a reduced weight standard for the cent, as the original Birch cent was really too large and heavy for practical use. Augsburger theorizes the lighter weight Birch cents were struck during this later time frame, primarily to demonstrate the design for congressmen and other VIPs, without regard for the changing weight standard. This theory is not conclusive, as the experimental nature of the coins may be enough to explain the weight variance by itself. Still, we find this scenario convincing. Based on the 262-grain weight of the present coin, we tentatively classify it as a third example of the Judd-5 Birch cent, with its edge lettering filed off (PCGS certified this specimen as Judd-Unknown). It may be that the scribe lines on the Norweb and present coin served some purpose in orienting the peripheral elements of the design around the central devices.

Interestingly, the die alignment of Birch cents vary widely from one example to another. Some are oriented with a coin turn, some with a medal turn, and some in between. The present coin has the reverse rotated at approximately 330 degrees.

The identity of “Birch” is another mystery associated with this early pattern issue. Several contemporary artists and engravers, including William Russell Birch, Thomas Birch, and Robert Birch, have been nominated as the designer of this early pattern by various authorities over the years. All three men were active in related fields in the Philadelphia area during the approximate time period when Birch cents were struck. However, William Russell Birch did not move to Philadelphia until 1794, Thomas Birch was only 13 years old in 1792, and Robert Birch is mentioned in the Mint accounts, but only in connection with the care of horses and other unrelated activities. In short, no conclusive evidence of the designer’s identity has come to light. Like the origin of the motto, the time period for the striking of the coins, and their intended weight and orientation, the identity of “Birch” remains in doubt.

The Present Coin

Recently discovered in England, the coin offered here came with no prior provenance. As John Kraljevich suggests, it was probably used in jewelry at an early date. After extensive investigation, we believe this piece must be the long-lost “Judd-3” Birch cent that previously belonged to Dr. Judd. Last seen in 1962, that piece was reported to be a plain edge Judd-3, with a well-established pedigree from Dr. Judd back to Virgil Brand, DeWitt Smith, and Lorin G. Parmelee. However, the “Judd-3” attribution of that coin has been challenged by some recently discovered annotations in a catalog of the Parmelee Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 6/1890) on the Newman Numismatic Portal (thanks to Saul Teichman for alerting us to this lot description). The coin was featured in lot 8 of the catalog and the text of the description reads:

“1792 Another, same but with plain edge: strong, sharp, and a finer impression than the last; very rare.”

The lot was purchased for $75 by “Clay”, an alias for prominent coin dealer H.P. Smith, who was a partner in the New York Coin & Stamp firm. An annotation to the lower right of the description reads:

“Smiths 165. Cannot be said to be a plain edge as it is filed down.”

Combining the two sentences, we have a strong, sharp impression of the 1792 Birch cent with an uncertain edge treatment, because of the filing, a perfect description of the present coin. No other Birch cent is known to have a filed edge, establishing a strong link between the missing Parmelee-Judd piece and this recently discovered specimen.

 Was this note from 1890 written referring to the Birch cent in the upcoming Heritage sale?

Was this note from 1890 written referring to the Birch cent in the upcoming Heritage sale?

Of course, our interpretation of this evidence is open to question. The image of the Judd Birch cent in Abe Kosoff’s Illustrated History of United States Coins, the only previously published image of that piece, does not seem to match the present coin. It is a low quality, halftone image that shows many similarities to the Judd-3 Laird Park Birch cent. Kosoff often used stock photos in his auction catalogs and we believe this is another instance of that practice. The best evidence indicates this coin is the Judd specimen, but if a better candidate for that long-missing example ever turns up, we will adjust our thinking.

In any case, this coin is a handsome specimen of the 1792 Birch cent, the first American cent, with great historic interest.

Roster of Judd-5 1792 Birch Cents

1. MS61 Brown NGC. 262.2 grains. San Francisco Collector (Stack’s, 5/1946), lot 742; Theodore Grand (Stack’s, 12/1947), lot 16, realized $800; Hollinbeck Stamp and Coin Company private sale (1956); Norweb Collection (Bowers & Merena, 11/1988), lot 3395, realized $59,400; Donald Groves Partrick Collection / FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2015), lot 5505, realized $564,000; ANA Signature Heritage, 8/2016), lot 3952, realized $517,000; Robert L. Rodriguez.

2. XF Details – Denticles Repaired, Edge Filed – PCGS Secure. 262.2 grains. Possibly William H. Smith; 83rd Sale (John W. Haseltine, 1/1885), lot 1058; Lorin G. Parmelee Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 6/1890), lot 8; H.P. Smith (bidding as “Clay”); DeWitt Smith; Virgil Brand (Journal #46505); Dr. Judd; Illustrated History of United States Coins (Abe Kosoff, 1962), lot 10; recently rediscovered in England; the present coin.

3. Fair 2 NGC. 240.6 grains. Hollinbeck-Kagin (10/1958), lot 1392; Loye Lauder (William Doyle Galleries, 12/1983), lot 235, realized $3,200; Stack’s private treaty transaction (1983); Fritz Weber; Denis Loring; Stack’s; Lemus Collection / Queller Family Part Two (Heritage Signature, 1/2009), lot 1501, realized $86,250; Denis W. Loring and Donna Levin. This coin exhibits about half of the obverse lettering and is worn smooth on the reverse.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

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