Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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The saw-maker’s patterns
This PCGS VF-20 1795 Jefferson head cent sold for $111,625 in 2013. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions.
For more than a century, odd looking, extra heavy 1795 cents confounded collectors. Everyone knew they were not of the same quality as the 1795 cents produced by the Philadelphia Mint, but no one knew where they came from.
In the 1860s coin dealer Ebenezer Locke Mason Jr. referred to them as Jefferson cents, presumable because the image of Miss Liberty on the front bore a vague resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. He liked the scarce and odd coins so much he even made and sold electrotypes of them – a kind of counterfeit counterfeit.
The mystery was not solved until 1952 when researcher Walter Breen connected several 18th century dots to posit that Philadelphia saw maker John Harper produced the pieces in an attempt to wrest coinage of the nation’s coins from the U.S. Mint.
The coins, Breen wrote in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, “are obviously not productions of the federal Mint, but which are too heavy to have been a practical exercise in counterfeiting.”
In 1795, Congress held hearings of the possibility of replacing the inefficient and expensive government mint with a private one. Harper, who provided equipment to the Mint and who had been involved with the private minting of state coinage, testified in February that he could do the job and produced his own coins to show the congressmen.
At the hearing, several congressmen bought examples of the coin from Harper, giving them a semi-official status.
Mint Director Elias Boudinot, concerned about the possible nefarious use of the dies, confiscated them and reimbursed Harper the $100 value of the dies.
Writing on the PCGS CoinFacts site, Ron Guth notes, “Harper intended to mimic the designs on 1795 Liberty Cap Cents, but his skill was as a machinist, not as a die-cutter. Thus, his attempts at replicating the designs, though admirable, were clearly different and off the mark.”
Today, about 30 Jefferson head cents are known, all well circulated. The finest grades just Very Fine. One sold for $184,000 in 2012.
Next: A genuine counterfeit