US Coins

1792 cent patterns star at Heritage's Platinum Night

The 1792 U.S. pattern coinage comprises pieces that are among the most historic and desirable coins issued under authority of the United States Mint, and all of them are rare. They represent might-have-been issues that could have entered circulation in 1793 or 1794 had decisions made by officials been a little different.

Of particular interest are the 1792 pattern cents, struck in three distinct design types and in several compositions that included a fascinating though failed effort at striking a cent with intrinsic value that was also of a convenient size for commerce.

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Heritage Auctions’ Aug. 10 session in its Platinum Night sale held in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Anaheim, Calif., offered a single example of each of the two basic types — what collectors today call a Silver Center cent and a Birch cent. Both pieces brought six-figure prices.

1792 Silver Center cent

The 1792 Silver Center cent pattern is like no other U.S. coin. The planchet is made of copper, with a silver plug inserted into a central hole. The experiment, had it been successful, would have given the coin an intrinsic value of 1 cent in a size convenient for circulation. Surviving Silver Center cents measure between 22.4 and 22.9 millimeters in diameter with an average weight of a bit more than 70 grains (about 4.548 grams). In contrast, the first U.S. cents struck by the U.S. Mint to circulate are 28.5 millimeters in diameter and weigh approximately 5.44 grams.

As Heritage notes in the lot description, “Most numismatists believe it was the first coin actually produced inside the walls of the first U.S. Mint, although a few other patterns were struck earlier, before the Mint was actually ready for coinage operations.” 

As the first pattern, it is cataloged as Judd 1 and Pollock 1 in the two standard references to pattern and other experimental pieces.

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Heritage describes the Silver Center cent’s place in American numismatics, saying, “Its historic importance can scarcely be overstated and examples have been prized by collectors since the earliest days of the hobby.”

Today, 14 examples are known, including a unique piece missing the center plug that was apparently struck that way. 

Another nine pieces struck from the same dies are known, made either of billon (an alloy of copper with a tiny amount of silver, these pieces sometimes called Fusible Alloy cents) or nearly pure copper. While Mint records indicate that billon pieces were struck as an alternative to the more labor-intensive Silver Center cents, metallurgical testing on several of the surviving examples has revealed that they were made of pure or nearly pure copper with no silver. These pieces are cataloged as Judd 2 and Pollock 2.

Who conceived of the Silver Center cent nearly 225 years ago? Heritage’s lot description cites information in a new book still being written by numismatists Len Augsburger, Joel Orosz, and Pete Smith, 1792 Birth of a Nation’s Coinage. 

According to Heritage, the numismatists’ research “indicates the concept for the unique dual metallic composition of this piece may have originated with famous patriot and essayist Thomas Paine. Paine was living in London when he sent Jefferson a September 28, 1790-dated letter outlining his ideas for a national mint and coinage. Despite the obvious advantages of copper as a metal for coinage (inexpensive and easy to work with), Paine believed that ‘to give the cents the intrinsic value they ought to have by weight, they will be too heavy and bulky for the use they are intended for.’ ”

According the trio, Paine suggested three concepts for the cent: “1st. Making silver and copper in fusion; 2d. Plating the copper with silver; 3d. Plugging the copper with silver. But against all of these, there are very capital objections.”

Ultimately, after striking patterns that fit two of Paine’s proposals, the Mint abandoned both approaches. Manually inserting a silver plug into a holed copper planchet was labor intensive and striking them was difficult, and achieving a billon composition of the correct alloy may have been beyond the Mint’s technological capabilities at the time.

Heritage describes the design: “Liberty faces right with hair flowing behind. The obverse periphery reads LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY, with 1792 just below the bust. The reverse has a wreath tied with a ribbon at the bottom; ONE CENT is within. Around the rim is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA with the fraction 1/100 below. Struck in copper with a silver plug in the center with a reeded edge. Medallic alignment.”

According to the lot description, “The coin offered here is a fairly recent discovery, found in a pub in the 1960s. The first owner of record was named Nigel Willmott and it has one previous auction appearance in a Glendining’s sale in 1997, where it brought 28,750 British pounds. It passed through a number of well-known American numismatists and coin dealers, including Kenneth Goldman, Stuart Levine, and Anthony Terranova, before finding a home with prominent collector Martin Oghigian. This piece has been in Oghigian’s estate since his death in 1998.”

The firm described the coin: “This coin is well-centered on the reverse and slightly off-center to the south on the obverse, with only the top third of the dentils showing on the obverse. Actual wear is relatively light and the pleasing olive-brown surfaces show only scattered, minor abrasions, the worst being a small dig above the forehead in the obverse field. The design elements were strongly impressed on the obverse, while the reverse is sharp on the peripheries and soft in the center. The silver plug is bright and stands out in dramatic contrast to the copper planchet. Altogether, a most attractive specimen of this classic American rarity.”

It is graded Specimen 35 by Professional Coin Grading Service in its Secure holder and bears a green sticker from Certified Acceptance Corp. 

The example in the Aug. 10 auction realized $352,500.

1792 Birch cent

One of the great mysteries about the 1792 pattern coins is the identity of the designer of what is called the 1792 Birch cent. Two distinct designs bear this label, with the varieties cataloged as Judd 3, 4, and 5 bearing the name BIRCH on the truncation of Liberty’s neck, the traditional place for the engraver’s signature. But what Birch?

Heritage’s lot description notes that several candidates have been proposed but all are doubtful as the designer for various reasons. 

“A longstanding speculation, and a natural guess, has been the miniature painter and enamellist William Russell Birch (1755-1834),” the catalog states, adding, “Birch was a socially connected painter in Philadelphia especially known for portrait enamels of Washington based on the iconic Gilbert Stuart painting. 

“Unfortunately, Birch did not emigrate from Britain to the United States until October 1794,” casting doubt on his connection to the design, according to the lot description.

Furthermore, Birch’s auto­biography makes no mention of any work for the Philadelphia Mint.

His known artist output also argues against his being the “Birch” who engraved the coin. Per Heritage, “But the more convincing case against Birch is found in his overall portfolio. Birch simply was not involved in the plastic arts. He painted, executed enamels, published collections of print engravings, and eventually settled into the occupation of landscape architect.”

Another candidate is Thomas Birch, son of William Birch. The son “was an accomplished marine painter, but placing him in Philadelphia, as a 13-year-old engraving the Birch cent dies, stretches the known facts beyond a credible level.”

R. W. Julian noted a “Bob Birch” in the expense records of the Mint’s chief coiner, Henry Voigt, for 1793, according to Heritage. However, this Birch seems to be have been a horse groom or stableman (horses powered some equipment at the first Philadelphia Mint).

Researchers have also identified a B. Birch, a Bob Birch, and a Robert “Bob” Birch as a possible candidate or candidates, but as with the other individuals, there is little to no credible contemporary evidence that someone of that name was employed by the Mint as an engraver.

No matter who engraved the dies, the designs are different from those on the Silver Center cent, though the concepts of Liberty and a wreath are found on both patterns.

On the obverse, the date 1792 rests below a bust of Liberty with flowing locks of hair, while around is the inscription LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY. The reverse shows a wreath encompassing ONE CENT with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the fraction 1/100 below the bottom of the wreath.

The example in the auction is cataloged as Judd 5 and Pollock 6, and is represented by just two examples, of which this piece is the finer. 

“The present sale constitutes only the eighth opportunity in history to acquire an example of the variety at public auction and only the fifth chance to procure the present coin, which is considerably the finer of the two. This piece was long held by Donald G. Partrick, whose collection of 1792 patterns included an array of ultra-low population specimens. His collection will stand as one of unparalleled quality in the annals of American numismatics,” according to the lot description.

The coin in the auction is graded Mint State 61 brown by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. “Pleasing brown color highlights this well-detailed example of the Judd-5 Birch cent,” the catalog says, adding, “There is a touch of softness in Liberty’s curls and some strike weakness on the lettering to the right of Liberty. The protected areas of the obverse, among the letters and Liberty’s hair, contrast nicely with the lighter fields. The obverse right field exhibits what appears to be, at first glance, a patchwork of light scratches. However, upon further examination, much of this disturbance is likely the result of a defective planchet. The planchet is centered and reveals sharp dentilation. The edge lettering reads TO BE ESTEEMED BE USEFUL *, with the crucial single star distinguishing this from the more common Judd-4 Birch cent with the two star edge. Die alignment is 180 degrees (coin turn). The reverse is virtually perfect for the grade, with the slightly uneven engraving of ONE CENT adding to the charm of this exceptionally desirable specimen of the early Mint.”

The coin realized $517,000, a bit less than the $564,000 it realized in Heritage’s Donald Groves Partrick Collection auction at the January 2015 Florida United Numismatists convention. 

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