US Coins

Repairs restore details: Collectors' Clearinghouse

The fifth and sixth editions of the indispensable Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties include several 20th century coins struck by re-engraved working dies. Despite their distinct appearance, the vast majority are fairly recent discoveries.

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A re-engraved die is one that has been modified after hubbing or installation. Repair jobs were usually undertaken to restore lost details and enhance faint details. Loss of design clarity may result from:

(1)?Overpolishing of Proof dies, which can erase shallow recesses and soften borders.

(2)?Overzealous intentional die abrasion in circulation-strike dies, which can erase shallow die recesses and thin already-narrow design elements.

(3)?Die wear that leaves the design mushy and boundaries indistinct.

The obverse die that struck the illustrated Proof 1953 Jefferson 5-cent coin was subjected to excessive polishing (polishing produces the mirror-like fields). This action removed part of the ribbon that ties up the end of the queue on Jefferson’s wig. Polishing also left the back of the queue indistinct below the ribbon.

An engraver tried to restore the missing details by dragging the point of a fine engraving tool across the die face four times. Three strokes form a box-like frame that reconstitutes the outline of the bow. A fourth stroke restored the back of the queue below the ribbon.

The designer’s initials (“AW”) on the reverse die that struck the illustrated 1944-D Walking Liberty half dollar were originally lost due to intentional die abrasion. Abrasion is usually performed to remove clash marks and other forms of superficial damage. The initials are particularly vulnerable to abrasion because they are raised on the die face in order to produce the incuse version on the coin. In this instance, an engraver restored the missing initials with a series of taps from a chisel-like implement. Similarly abraded Walking Liberty half dollars simply lack the designer’s initials (“missing initials” variety).

Our final example is seen on the reverse face of a 1957-D Washington quarter dollar found by Cris Salamango. In this case a very worn die with mushy details was removed from the press and the eagle’s tail feathers were enhanced. A fine engraving tool was dragged across the surface of the die six times. Due to their inexact placement, it’s not clear whether these lines were an attempt to restore the edges of the feathers or to introduce a central shaft (rachis), a feature that is not part of the original design.

Many mysteries surround these and other 20th century re-engravings. The efforts are invariably crude. The restored design on the 1953 5-cent coin is hardly a match for the original ribbon and bow.

While recognizable, the designer’s initials on the 1944-D Walking Liberty half dollar are raised outlines, rather than thin incuse letters. The incised lines on the 1957-D Washington quarter dollar not only don’t follow the original feather outlines, but they extend well into the arrow bundle clutched in the eagle’s talons.

Why would collectors seeking perfection at a microscopic scale accept such crude workmanship? Why would Mint personnel choose to correct problems that were largely invisible to most contemporary collectors and try to fix them with equally unnoticed scratches and dents? Why would any attempts be made to improve the look of coins used in daily commerce?

Throughout the 20th century, countless Proof and circulation-strike dies suffered from the same problems as the re-engraved dies, but the vast majority were never “repaired.” Equally curious is the tendency for repair jobs to cluster within narrow time periods and certain denominations. For example, there are a number of re-engraved Proof dies known among 1938 Jefferson 5-cent pieces and then nothing until the 1950s when we find a number of re-engraved Proof 1-, 5-, and 25-cent dies.

Heavily abraded circulation-strike dies are quite common, but only one was re-engraved. Likewise, worn dies are ubiquitous, but only one was cosmetically enhanced in old age. Why were repair efforts so sporadic, seemingly arbitrary, and inexplicably clustered?

One can, of course, come up with ad hoc explanations. Perhaps an overpolished Proof die that didn’t pass inspection was later retrieved and repaired to fulfill a production quota. Perhaps a worn-out or over-abraded die was repaired to compensate for a temporary shortage of working dies. And perhaps some cases represent the frustrated creative impulses of art school dropouts.

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