The March 14 Collectors’ Clearinghouse column featured an unusual
1987 Indian 5-paise coin with an irregular outgrowth extending from
the right side of the Ashoka Lion (see photo). Its appearance seemed
incompatible with any known die defect, so I attributed it to a
hubbed-in encrustation. I speculated that some hardened grime clinging
to the field portion of the working hub left an impression in the
working die into which it was squeezed.
This scenario seemed reasonable when this die was the only one known
to be affected in this manner. Now two more 1987 5-paise coins have
turned up with the same sort of excrescence in the same general area.
One is an example I acquired, designated here as “die 2.” Another
example acquired by Jason Cuvelier is designated here as “die 3” (see
photos). It’s just too farfetched to think that three different dirty
hubs could have been used when fabricating these three working dies.
The defects display the same characteristics that led me to
initially reject the idea that they could represent interior die
breaks, die subsidence errors, die damage, or “blebs” (die erosion
pits). They are adorned with the same irregular tubercles, lack any
clear signs of breakage (such as a grainy texture or a sharp, jagged
step-down), show relief that approaches or matches the normal design,
express the same level and pattern of die wear as the surrounding
field and design, and merge smoothly with the adjacent lion. None of
the three examples shows any weakness or “pucker” opposite the excrescence.
Large, deep recesses (like interior die breaks) will often generate
a featureless depression on the opposite face. The absence of such a
pucker would indicate that the texture of each excrescence is a
faithful representation of the corresponding recess in the obverse die.
Recurring die defect
Nevertheless, the presence of three similar coins would strongly
indicate that we’re looking at a recurring die defect. For reasons
that are unclear, the die steel was weak in the area just to the right
of the Ashoka Lion. I toyed with the idea that this could be a very
strange form of die collapse — a die subsidence error. Perhaps the die
steel was collapsing into a spongy or low-density interior. While I
can’t entirely rule out this scenario, it seems to me that we’re
probably looking at interior die breaks.
Supporting this conjecture is the presence of smaller more
familiar-looking lumps along the right side and beneath the base of
the statue. These do look like conventional die chips. Photos of two
additional examples (not shown) — one dated 1987 and one dated 1989 —
also show die chips in and around the statue base. Another observation
supporting the die break theory is that die chips sometimes recur in
the same general area. For example, in Roosevelt dimes one frequently
finds die chips located beneath the bust of Roosevelt, between the
date and Mint mark.
Explaining the features
How then, can we explain the features that originally led me to
dismiss the die break diagnosis?
The unexpected characteristics described above can perhaps be
reconciled if we assume that the die breaks developed immediately
after hubbing or shortly after installation (most die breaks form
later in a press run). This rapid formation could have been a single
event or a rapidly-forming accretionary die break (a die break that
grows at its margins). Die wear subsequent to the breaks could have
smoothed out any signs of obvious fracture and facilitated a smooth
transition between die break and design. All three dies show
significant die wear, signifying a prolonged interval during which
sharp transitions, boundaries, and surfaces could have been smoothed.
This episode demonstrates the importance of sample size. It’s always
beneficial to have more than one example of a particular error,
especially when that error is unfamiliar.