US Coins

The tiny rings that still mystify the experts

The following is the Collectors’ Clearinghouse column from the Feb. 20, 2017, issue of Coin World:

Diminutive raised rings, semicircles, crescents, and spirals have bedeviled coin investigators for years. All reflect abnormalities in the die face and all have resisted explanation.

Most ring-shaped defects are tiny and centrally located, like the circle that surrounds the Lincoln statue on the reverse face of the illustrated 2004 Lincoln cent. At least four other similarly-marked 2004 cent reverse dies exist. The earliest ring I am aware of appears on the obverse of a 1988 cent. However, there is a 1965 cent with a somewhat larger obverse ring that lies far from the center of the coin, near the front corner of Lincoln’s coat.

Lincoln cent

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The most recent rings I’ve seen can be spotted on the reverse face of at least one 2015-P Jefferson 5-cent coin.

In some 2004 cents, the ring is broken and composed of two slightly overlapping crescents that face each other. Since the horns of the two crescents are slightly offset from each other, it probably means that each crescent is part of a separate ring.

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Rings are not always perfectly centered. Those found on the reverse face of 2014-P and 2015-P 5-cent coins generally lie slightly to the left of center. Their precise positioning also varies from die to die.

Rings are almost always isolated, but there are exceptions. Steve Young has discovered coins from at least three different 2014-P 5-cent dies with centrally located rings lurking in the doorway of Monticello. In at least one die, faint traces of outlying, closely-spaced concentric rings can be detected (see photo).

Jefferson 5-cent coin

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These outlying partial rings suggest a relationship to concentric lathe marks. The latter occur when the cone-shaped face of a blank working die is not adequately polished after machining. If they are not erased by subsequent hubbing, the lathe marks will be transferred to a coin in the form of a concentric series of closely-spaced rings (or a very tight spiral).

Concentric lathe marks are most commonly found among 1996-D cents, with Jason Cuvelier listing 18 dies. Cuvelier lists many other dies from a diversity of dates and denominations.

I find the connection between rings and lathe marks to be tenuous as best. I’ve already noted that some die rings take the form of facing, overlapping, offset crescents and others fail the expectation of perfect and consistent centering.

A possible connection between the tiny die rings and larger curvilinear die defects has also been bruited about. The curved die dents of the two “extra leaf” 2004-D Wisconsin quarter dollars and the “double ear” 2004-D Roosevelt dime emerged in the same year (though not the same facility) as several reverse cent die rings. This may simply be coincidental, as die rings and curved die dents appear in earlier and later years.

Other types of die defects further complicate the picture. On the Coin Community Forum, Richard Cooper posted images of a 2010 cent with an unmistakable spiral on its obverse face. The spacing between the lines seems too great for concentric lathe marks and the failure for the spiral to continue outward is also hard to reconcile with this diagnosis.

Cuvelier’s website lists other ring-like features that bear some resemblance to lathe marks, but that are excluded due to factors such as coarseness or deviations from perfect circularity. For example, he lists a 1982 cent that shows, on both faces, concentric, irregular, closely-spaced hexagonal rings (see photo). He speculates that the die might have been abraded by a rotating brush. But I don’t see how a rotating brush could generate polygonal scratches.

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