US Coins

Coin doctor alters rare 1792 Washington copper

Excitement turned to concern at Professional Coin Grading Service recently when the firm received what appeared to be a new example of a rare variety of early American coinage. The piece proved to be a known example that had been extensively altered by “coin doctors” sometime in 2013 or later.

What PCGS officials are calling a “drastically but deceptively altered 1792 Washington Eagle ‘cent’ ” submitted to PCGS “underscores the alarming skills of some so-called ‘coin doctors’ and why it is essential to have rare coins expertly and independently examined,” according to a May 9 press release from the company.

“Detective work by PCGS experts proved the recently submitted early American coin had been deceivingly repaired since it was offered in auctions between 1966 to 2013 to remove a hole, alter re-engraving and change the coin’s color to give it a radically new appearance,” according to the firm. PCGS Co-Founder David Hall described it in a news release as “one of the most deceptive and clever alterations I’ve ever seen. The quality of the work was so good, it’s scary!”

Holed in 2013 auctions

According to PCGS, the elusive 1792 Washington Eagle cent with a 13 star-reverse and lettered edge (Baker 21) was from the Ted Craige Collection and sold at auction by Stack’s Bowers first in January 2013 where it brought $3,055 and then again in August 2013 when it realized $9,988.

In the January 2013 auction, Stack’s Bowers Galleries catalogers described the piece: “A rare variety in any grade — even this holed example will see spirited bidding activity. Perhaps just a dozen or so specimens are known. ...”

“There was considerable excitement at PCGS when we received what appeared to be a new, previously unknown example of this significant Colonial rarity,” said PCGS President Don Willis in the May news release. 

“While the planchet was rather dark, the coin appeared to be undamaged and certainly worthy of a grade. It was only after some serious detective work that things began to look a bit strange. Some telltale marks began to match up, and despite looking superficially nothing like the holed piece, PCGS was able to conclude that the recently received coin was, indeed, none other than the Ted Craige specimen,” Willis revealed.

The coin traces its pedigree back to Mayflower’s Stern’s Sale in December 1966.

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PCGS contrasted the piece’s original appearance (which showed signs of an earlier alteration) before its post-2013 alteration and its current look: “At its last public auctions, it was a pleasing light brown specimen with Fine sharpness but was unfortunately holed at 12 o’clock on the obverse. There had also been a crude attempt to re-engrave the stripes on the shield on the reverse. Only about half a dozen examples are presently known, with at least half of these damaged in some way,” explained PCGS Content Editor Mike Sherman who wrote about the discovery of the deceptive alternations at the PCGS website.

“The quality of the alteration was nothing short of phenomenal. Not only had the surfaces been darkened to a very natural-appearing (though not particularly attractive) color, but also the re-engraving on the shield was gone and the hole had disappeared without a trace. Missing detail from where the hole had once been was flawlessly reconstructed. Even the stars at the top of the reverse seemed to once again be visible,” Sherman said.

“While PCGS is justifiably pleased with the sleuthing effort from the grading room, this coin serves as a powerful reminder that one cannot ever let down their guard and that some truly talented ‘doctors’ are out there and capable of some very deceptive work. Obviously, expert authentication of rarities is a must for all serious coin buyers,” stated Willis.

About the piece

The 1792-dated Washington, Eagle “cent” is one of numerous pieces depicting a portrait of Washington that were issued in honor of the nation’s first president during his last years and after his death in 1799. This particular piece is English in origin — Washington was held in high regard despite leading the nation in its bid for independence from Britain — and bears no denomination. With its portrait of Washington on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse, the 1793 piece is related to a series of 1791 Large Eagle and Small Eagle cents struck by dies engraved by John Gregory Hancock Jr., a teenaged engraver in England.

Baker 21 Washington copperDo coin doctors deserve the same scorn as is directed at counterfeiters?: A known example of a rare die variety was altered and resubmitted as new. Also in this issue, Wendell Wolka discusses how to collect inflation notes.

The U.S. government was discussing a federal coinage in 1791 and private minters were watching the debates, hopeful of winning a coinage contract to produce coins for the new nation once some decision had been made. According to Q. David Bowers’ Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins, W. and Alex. Walker of the English industrial city of Birmingham sponsored the 1791 Washington, Large Eagle and Washington, Small Eagle pieces, which bore the denomination ONE CENT on the reverse. 

Researchers believe that approximately 2,500 Large Eagle cents and 1,500 Small Eagle cents were shipped to a contact in Philadelphia, who then distributed the pieces to members of Congress.

The minters were presumably anticipating that the United States Congress, when it approved a federal coinage, would emulate the British practice of depicting the national leader on the coins (the president for the United States, the king or queen for Britain). While Congress did consider requiring the use of a portrait of the sitting president on federal coinage, Washington himself famously rejected the idea as a “stamp of royalty” and thus antithetical to American ideals. When Congress passed the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, one of the key provisions was the requirement that all of the copper, silver, and gold coins depict a representation of Liberty on the obverse.

Although British minters failed to win a coinage contract from the United States, that did not stop them from striking and selling private tokens, medals, and coins depicting Washington. The 1792 Washington, Eagle pieces were probably distributed in both Great Britain and the United States for collector sales. 

Visit PCGS online at or call it at 800-447-8848. 

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