1792 cent patterns star at Heritage’s Platinum Night auction with six-figure prices

How much did the Silver Center cent and Birch cent bring in the sale?
By , Coin World
Published : 08/12/16
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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.

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