A 2016 quarter that shows unprecedented die wear

Collectors’ Clearinghouse: The die distortion’s cause is uncertain
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 02/14/17
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Die deterioration (die wear) is a normal consequence of die use. As a die strikes hundreds of thousands of planchets at jackhammer speed, the metal on the die face is slowly rearranged. Letters and numbers often widen and grow distorted while the edges of the design become indistinct. The formerly smooth field becomes rougher and may develop radial flow lines, concentric flow lines, or an orange-peel texture.

Unusually severe examples of die wear are uncommon and generally reflect a failure to remove a die in a timely fashion. Jefferson 5-cent coins from the year 1983 are notorious for the number of heavily worn dies left in service. The current America the Beautiful quarter dollars series is also known for poor-quality strikes caused by heavy die wear (see photos above).

No matter the severity of die wear, it’s still usually possible to make out most or all of the original design details. This is not the case with a 2016-P Harpers Ferry quarter dollar recently received in change by Kevin Brauer. As soon as he saw it, Brauer knew that he had something unusual and quickly listed it on eBay, where I purchased it. The coin features a sharply-struck obverse design and an almost unrecognizable reverse design. All fine details (brickwork, windows, branches, and more) have been lost from the main building, side buildings and trees. They all look like they’ve melted and pooled in a common recess. This thorough merging of design features is not seen in any form of die wear I’ve previously encountered. The smooth, glossy texture shared by the central design and the nearly illegible legend below it (JOHN BROWN’S FORT) is also quite novel. It stands in contrast to the field, which shows a more typical orange-peel texture with concentric flow lines.

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Also illegible are the encircling incuse elements that lie just inside the design rim — HARPERS FERRY, WEST VIRGINIA, E PLURIBUS UNUM, and 2016.

Despite its grotesquely distorted appearance, the central design shows no loss of relief. In fact, it looks like the relief might be greater than in a normal example, although this might be a visual illusion. The coin does not rock when placed on a flat surface, so it’s clear that the central design is no higher than the design rim.

Unchanged or increased relief runs counter to the pattern seen in other American the Beautiful quarter dollars struck by worn dies. These typically show lowered relief caused by a retreat of the die’s field. The most severely affected coins show “design-devouring die wear,” where the letters and numbers thin out and disappear amidst a swollen field (Collectors’ Clearinghouse, Feb. 22, 2016).

Given the coin’s grotesque and unfamiliar appearance, Brauer can certainly be forgiven for having mistaken this error for a coin struck through a late-stage die cap. A second example that popped on eBay was similarly misdiagnosed. I fully expect this error to be confused with other error types that result in mushy designs, such as a grease strike or a strike through a clad layer (Collectors’ Clearinghouse, Feb. 16, 2015). It might also be mistaken for a “dryer coin” — a coin whose design has been pummeled into mush by tumbling endlessly inside the fins of an industrial dryer.

A number of questions spring to mind when contemplating this specimen.

(1) Is this a normal pattern of die deterioration simply taken to its logical extreme? The smooth surface texture of the distorted raised elements and the merging of design details suggests not.

(2) Did the reverse die deteriorate slowly or quickly? The other Harpers Ferry error I spotted on eBay shows a slightly less distorted reverse design, indicating that the distortion was progressive. Still, the absence of other examples may indicate that the problem developed relatively quickly.

(3) Was the obverse die changed out, with the distorted reverse die inexplicably left in service? Or were both dies installed at the same time, with only the reverse die deteriorating? At this point, I have no way to tell.

If this proves not to be a conventional case of die deterioration taken to its maximum limit, then it should be classified as a die deformation error. Perhaps “detail-erasing die wear” would be a suitable moniker. Poor quality steel, the wrong grade of steel, or improper die preparation (annealing, tempering, quenching) could be responsible for the distortion.

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