Die deterioration (die wear) is a normal consequence of die use. As a
die strikes hundreds of thousands of planchets at jackhammer speed,
the metal on the die face is slowly rearranged. Letters and numbers
often widen and grow distorted while the edges of the design become
indistinct. The formerly smooth field becomes rougher and may develop
radial flow lines, concentric flow lines, or an orange-peel texture.
Unusually severe examples of die wear are uncommon and generally
reflect a failure to remove a die in a timely fashion. Jefferson
5-cent coins from the year 1983 are notorious for the number of
heavily worn dies left in service. The current America the Beautiful
quarter dollars series is also known for poor-quality strikes caused
by heavy die wear (see photos above).
No matter the severity of die wear, it’s still usually possible to
make out most or all of the original design details. This is not the
case with a 2016-P Harpers Ferry quarter dollar recently received in
change by Kevin Brauer. As soon as he saw it, Brauer knew that he had
something unusual and quickly listed it on eBay, where I purchased it.
The coin features a sharply-struck obverse design and an almost
unrecognizable reverse design. All fine details (brickwork, windows,
branches, and more) have been lost from the main building, side
buildings and trees. They all look like they’ve melted and pooled in a
common recess. This thorough merging of design features is not seen in
any form of die wear I’ve previously encountered. The smooth, glossy
texture shared by the central design and the nearly illegible legend
below it (JOHN BROWN’S FORT) is also quite novel. It stands in
contrast to the field, which shows a more typical orange-peel texture
with concentric flow lines.
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Also illegible are the encircling incuse elements that lie just
inside the design rim — HARPERS FERRY, WEST VIRGINIA, E PLURIBUS UNUM,
Despite its grotesquely distorted appearance, the central design
shows no loss of relief. In fact, it looks like the relief might be
greater than in a normal example, although this might be a visual
illusion. The coin does not rock when placed on a flat surface, so
it’s clear that the central design is no higher than the design rim.
Unchanged or increased relief runs counter to the pattern seen in
other American the Beautiful quarter dollars struck by worn dies.
These typically show lowered relief caused by a retreat of the die’s
field. The most severely affected coins show “design-devouring die
wear,” where the letters and numbers thin out and disappear amidst a
swollen field (Collectors’ Clearinghouse, Feb. 22, 2016).
Given the coin’s grotesque and unfamiliar appearance, Brauer can
certainly be forgiven for having mistaken this error for a coin struck
through a late-stage die cap. A second example that popped on eBay was
similarly misdiagnosed. I fully expect this error to be confused with
other error types that result in mushy designs, such as a grease
strike or a strike through a clad layer (Collectors’ Clearinghouse,
Feb. 16, 2015). It might also be mistaken for a “dryer coin” — a coin
whose design has been pummeled into mush by tumbling endlessly inside
the fins of an industrial dryer.
A number of questions spring to mind when contemplating this specimen.
(1) Is this a normal pattern of die deterioration simply taken to
its logical extreme? The smooth surface texture of the distorted
raised elements and the merging of design details suggests not.
(2) Did the reverse die deteriorate slowly or quickly? The other
Harpers Ferry error I spotted on eBay shows a slightly less distorted
reverse design, indicating that the distortion was progressive. Still,
the absence of other examples may indicate that the problem developed
(3) Was the obverse die changed out, with the distorted reverse die
inexplicably left in service? Or were both dies installed at the same
time, with only the reverse die deteriorating? At this point, I have
no way to tell.
If this proves not to be a conventional case of die deterioration
taken to its maximum limit, then it should be classified as a die
deformation error. Perhaps “detail-erasing die wear” would be a
suitable moniker. Poor quality steel, the wrong grade of steel, or
improper die preparation (annealing, tempering, quenching) could be
responsible for the distortion.