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.