US Coins

Indian Head cents at Stack’s Bowers Baltimore auction

Several Indian Head cents that document the U.S. Mint’s experimentation with the cent’s composition are among the highlights at Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ auctions held alongside the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Summer Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center, May 23 to 26. 

A star of the May 23 Rarities Night sale is a Proof 1864 Indian Head cent with designer James B. Longacre’s initial prominently positioned on the lower ribbon between the last feather in the headdress and the adjacent hair curl. The 1864 L on Ribbon cent is prohibitively rare as a Proof piece, with an estimated 30 or so surviving today from an unknown mintage. 

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Surprisingly for such a low-mintage issue, three distinct die pairings were used. The offered example — graded Proof 65 brown by Professional Coin Grading Service, with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker — is classified as Snow PR2 by Rick Snow in his Flying Eagle & Indian Cent Attribution Guide. Snow and others believe Proof 1864 Indian Head cents struck from this die pair are restrikes produced at the Philadelphia Mint around 1871 to meet collector demand for this variety. 

The long, raised, diagonal die line on the obverse that runs through Liberty’s neck and just under the jaw, on all examples struck from this die pair, is evident, as is a bold strike and unusual blend of colors ranging from “vivid undertones of salmon pink, olive and cobalt blue iridescence to dominant steely-copper patina.” A different example, comparably graded by PCGS with a green CAC sticker, brought $54,343.75 at Heritage’s 2014 Florida United Numismatists auction. 

The Stack’s Bowers Rarities Night auction also includes another example of the 1864 Indian Head, L on Ribbon cent, this one graded Proof 64 red and brown by PCGS, struck from the same die pair. The cataloger writes, “Originally toned in warm antique copper patina, both sides retain plenty of original, vivid, champagne-pink color that readily upholds the RB designation from PCGS.” 

Indian Head cent production started in 1859 with a copper-nickel composition, and a new reverse design was introduced in 1860. In 1864, after striking 13.74 million copper-nickel cents, the Mint switched to an alloy of 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc, to combat privately issued merchants’ tokens that had become popular as a replacement coinage during the Civil War. 

Longacre’s design placed a Native American headdress on a familiar Neoclassical representation of Liberty, creating something both exotic and familiar. Native American imagery was widely used at the time for commercial purposes, such as the “Cigar Store Indian” that stood at the door of many shops, especially on the East Coast. 

A time of experimentation

The Philadelphia Mint was enthusiastic in producing patterns for cents between 1858 and 1864, experimenting with design and composition variations while also producing delicacies for collectors. Many of these patterns have gained favor with Indian Head cent specialists, like an 1864 pattern cent that is a copper-nickel striking from the Snow PR3 dies, which struck Proof 1864 L on Ribbon cents.

The pattern is listed as Judd 358 and Pollock 429 in the references to the pattern series. The piece in the auction is graded Proof 64 by PCGS. Because it is made of copper-nickel and not bronze, grading services do not list a color designation, but Stack’s Bowers observes, “Lovely tan-apricot surfaces exhibit modest semi-reflectivity in the fields; the finish is otherwise satin to softly frosted.”

Rick Snow postulates that these pieces, traditionally collected as pattern issues, may have been regular issues struck after the introduction of the L on Ribbon obverse hub, but before the Mint switched from copper-nickel to bronze planchets. Today around a dozen are known and perhaps more exist, masquerading as regular 1864 copper-nickel cents.

A Judd 304, Pollock 367 1863 Indian Head cent, struck in aluminum with the same design used to produce Indian cents in 1864 and graded Proof 64 by PCGS, is undoubtedly a pattern. These were struck later than 1863 for sale to collectors, and the reverse shares diagnostics with regular issue cents struck between 1868 and 1870, which coincides with a dramatic decrease in the price of aluminum that made it a feasible metal for coinage production.

The Philadelphia Mint produced copper-nickel, bronze, and oroide patterns from this die combination. The cataloger explains, “This was during Henry R. Linderman’s first term as Mint director, an era that saw the creation of many back-dated patterns, restrikes, novodels, off-metal strikings and other oddities that now rank among the rarest U.S. coins.” The offered pattern is one of just three known and the reflective surfaces are silvery white.

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