• Gerry Tebben

    Five Facts

    Gerald Tebben goes behind the scenes and explores many offbeat trails in bringing to the forefront the long-lost information that makes coins so special in "Coin Lore."

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  • Antebellum enigma

    Probably the most interesting thing about late-date large cents is the catalog that describes them. Howard R. Newcomb’s 1944 United States Copper Cents 1816-1857 is hand-printed and meticulously illustrated with line drawings.

    One coin in the series, though, stands out as something very special – the 1848 small date cent. The coin, which is known by only 10 specimens, gets two pages in the Newcomb catalog, but no catalog number. R.S. Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins gives it a footnote: “The 1848 small date cent is a rare contemporary counterfeit.”

    Advanced collectors, though, are eager to pick up the coin on the rare occasion that one is offered at auction. A Mint-struck 1848 large cent in Very Good condition sells for about $25. The small date, though, fetches $4,000.

    Newcomb wrote the coins have a good ring when dropped but have inferior workmanship, especially in the leaves that make up the wreath on the reverse. “Personally,” he wrote, “I believe these pieces to be counterfeits of the time.”

    All of the pieces known show evidence of circulation, indicating they passed as cents during the decade before large cents were replaced in 1857 by the current-size small cents. Numismatic researcher Walter Breen traced the coin’s first appearance at auction back to a May 29, 1865, sale.

    Why was it produced? No one knows.

    Copper prices were rising at the time, and the Mint was actively searching for a less-expensive cent. It seems a losing proposition that anyone would really try to counterfeit large cents for circulation.

    Adding to the mystery is that most if not all of the coins were overstruck on existing large cents – one on a regular issue 1848 cent.