Stack’s Bowers presents important early cents at Aug. 6 auction
- Published: Jul 11, 2020, 9 AM
While August’s American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money will not be held as planned, Stack’s Bowers Galleries announced a headline collection for its Aug. 6 auction originally part of its official ANA auction: The ESM Collection of United States Large Cents.
It is a virtually complete set of large cents by major variety, spanning all issues from 1793 through the end of the type in 1857. The auctioneer said, “Rarely has such an impressive offering of early, middle and late dates been offered in a single sale, and we expect considerable interest from students of early American copper.”
Large cents are classified by Sheldon number from Dr. William H. Sheldon’s book Penny Whimsy, and the large cent series starts with Sheldon 1, the 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain, AMERI. cent. The offered example of this early “Chain cent” is graded About Uncirculated 53 by Professional Coin Grading Service and it has the distinctive profile portrait of Liberty facing right on the obverse and the 15 links of the chain on the spare reverse.
The Sheldon 1 coin is the only die marriage that corresponds to the AMERI. variety (the engraver abbreviated what should have been AMERICA). “Red Book” variety of the 1793 Chain cent, making it of interest to both series specialists and more general collectors.
According to contemporary documents, the mintage for all types of 1793 Chain cents was 36,103, delivered in eight early March deliveries that year. The Sheldon 1 die marriage is believed to have struck around 7,000 of the 11,178 cents delivered on March 1, 1793, with the remainder of the delivery being the Sheldon 2 Chain cent variety (with AMERICA spelled out).
Stack’s Bowers calls these early Chain cents “numismatic Americana at their finest,” but the pieces seemed to have entered circulation without much notice. “Indeed, the number of people seriously interested in numismatics in the United States at that time could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and these gentlemen mainly concerned themselves with earlier and classic issues,” the catalog explains.
The offered Sheldon 1 example has a bolder strike than typically seen, and the cataloger observes, “Glossy steel-brown surfaces are satiny in texture with a smooth, hard and tight appearance,” before concluding, “Ever since numismatics became a widely popular hobby in 1857–1858, the ownership of a 1793 Chain cent has been a badge of distinction.”
1793 Wreath cents
The short-lived Chain cent was soon replaced by the more attractive Flowing Hair, Wreath design, with a new rendition of Liberty.
A Guide Book of United States Coins lists three major varieties of these 1793 Flowing Hair, Wreath cents: The Vine and Bars Edge, the Lettered Edge, and the prohibitively rare Strawberry Leaf. The ESM Collection includes wonderful examples of all three types.
As the Stack’s Bowers cataloger observes, “While Chain cents often attract the most interest for their position as the first made, there is not a collector alive who would assert that Chain cents are more beautiful than their Wreath reverse counterparts.”
Its 1793 Flowing Hair, Wreath, Vine and Bars Edge cent is graded Mint State 63 brown by PCGS and has a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker recognizing quality within the grade. The Sheldon 8 example has an edge ornamented with bars and a slender vine with leaves as on the Chain cents.
The die marriage is believed to have been part of the deliveries of 4,240 cents on April 19 and 8,000 coins on April 28.
The coin in the auction is the plate coin for the die variety in Walter Breen’s large cent encyclopedia and displays “warm olive-brown patina with tinges of lighter autumn-brown.”
The Philadelphia Mint in 1793 was quickly developing, and the Vine and Bars Edge type was soon replaced with a Lettered Edge type. “The reason the Mint abandoned the vine and bars edge device in favor of a lettered edge is unknown, especially since its expression ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR is yet another statement of the denomination, which is already given twice as part of the reverse design of the Wreath cent (ONE CENT and 1/100),” the cataloger explains.
A Sheldon 11c Flowing Hair, Wreath, Lettered Edge cent can be identified in that the left leaf in the sprig points straight up toward the letter E in LIBERTY. This leaf points to the left on all other 1793 Wreath cent obverses, and the variety likely included 6,500 to 7,000 of the 11,825 cents that the U.S. Mint delivered on July 6, 1793.
Stack’s Bowers notes, “Copper for this variety was supplied by Greenleaf & Watson, the planchets apt to show laminations or other natural flaws, as evident on the obverse of the present example,” but despite this slight roughness, the surfaces of the PCGS About Uncirculated 58 cent with a green CAC sticker display “beautiful glossy medium autumn-brown surfaces, obviously from natural fading of original mint color.”
Spirit of experimentation
In the spirit of experimentation comes the 1793 Flowing Hair, Wreath, Strawberry Leaf cent, cataloged as NC-3 by Sheldon, acknowledging that it was essentially noncollectible due to its rarity. Instead of the usual sprig with three leaves as seen on other Wreath cents, the variety has a spray of three three-lobed leaves and a cotton blossom in the field between the date and the base of the portrait. The obverse die was paired with two reverses, and researchers believe the NC-2 and NC-3 Strawberry Leaf varieties may have been included in the Mint’s delivery of 8,000 cents on April 28, 1793.
When the coin was offered in 2004, John Kraljevich wrote, “No variety captures the imagination of early American copper specialists so much as the 1793 Strawberry Leaf cent.” Research has shown that these issues are consistent with other large cents of the time, and that they are likely not contemporary counterfeits.
Kraljevich added, “Clearly the Mint was not placing a high premium on consistency of design. We are tempted to suggest that the Strawberry Leaf design was merely the result of a bit of artistic license by a Mint engraver, or it could have been the initial design for a type whose later evolution would include only olive leaves as obverse decoration.”
Each of the four known Strawberry Leaf cents is well-circulated, and this one, graded Very Good 10 by PCGS, is far and away the finest known. It was last offered in 2009 at Stack’s January Orlando auction where — then graded Fine 12 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. — it sold for $862,500. The obverse has been used to illustrate the Strawberry Leaf variety in every edition of the Guide Book since 1946.
The final of the three major design types of 1793 cents is the Liberty Cap cent, which most closely resembles the design used on later large cents.
A total of 11,056 1793 Liberty Cap cents were struck in July 1793 and the issue was delivered a month later. The cataloger praises the Sheldon-13 AU-53 cent, observing, “Marbled golden-brown and charcoal-copper patina is seen on both sides of this handsome and fully original piece. The surfaces are hard and tight with good gloss and faint traces of original luster.”
It was last offered at Heritage’s November 2014 Part IV auction of the Eric P. Newman collection where it was graded similarly by NGC and brought $129,250.
Newman had purchased it many decades earlier from the “Colonel” E.H.R. Green Estate for $500.
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