There is probably no more important pattern than the 1856 Flying Eagle cent. Yet, while it is technically a pattern and not a coin, it is treated by one and all like a coin and most importantly, priced like a coin.
The story of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is an interesting one. It’s really the story of changing from a large cent to a smaller size. That smaller diameter is still in use today, although it is a very different composition. Back in the 1850s, the idea of simply changing the size of the cent was not a matter to be taken lightly, especially if the value of the metal in the coin would not be close to its face value. That had been the problem: making smaller size cents was easy, but making them worth close to one cent in their metallic composition was hard. The 1856 Flying Eagle cent was something of a compromise.
It was when the plan went to Congress that the fun began. Perhaps figuring a pattern was worth 1,000 words, a number, perhaps in the 700 range, of examples of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent were taken along to show the members of Congress. The show and tell apparently went well, because on Feb. 21, 1857, a law was passed abolishing the old large cent, replacing it with the Flying Eagle cent.
The date is important because then and only then could a Flying Eagle cent actually be a coin. Prior to that, the large cent was still the only official cent of the United States.
The 1856 Flying Eagle cent became a hit with the people of the time and with hoarders who would come later. Accepted as a coin even if it was dated before the coin was ever authorized, the 1856 was accumulated in very large numbers by some over the years.
The R.B. Leeds collection was sold by Henry Chapman in 1906 and at that time the collection had a fairly remarkable total of 109 1856 Flying Eagle cents. It would appear that George W. Rice of Detroit, Mich., was the champion. His group ultimately totaled 756 of the 1856, while John Andrew Beck of Pittsburgh, who probably acquired some of the Beck hoard, ended up with 531 pieces.
The hoards are somewhat remarkable when you realize that the 1856 lists today for $6,250, and that’s just in G-4. The Prf-65 is at $28,500, while an MS-60 is at $16,500 with an MS-65 at $65,000. It does not take a calculator to come to the very real conclusion that these hoards were substantial and also extremely valuable, even back at the time they were assembled.
The fact is, there are supplies of the 1856 since many of its estimated 1,500-3,500 mintage ended up in the hands of the collectors of the day and were saved. The importance of the 1856 as the pattern for the small cent, however, keeps the demand at very high levels. The track record of ever-increasing prices is unbroken, making the 1856 a special addition to any collection.