The saw-maker’s patterns
For more than a century, odd looking, extra heavy 1795 cents
confounded collectors. Everyone knew they were not of the same quality as the
1795 cents produced by the Philadelphia Mint, but no one knew where they came
In the 1860s coin dealer Ebenezer Locke Mason Jr. referred
to them as Jefferson cents, presumable because the image of Miss Liberty on the
front bore a vague resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. He liked the scarce and odd
coins so much he even made and sold electrotypes of them – a kind of
The mystery was not solved until 1952 when researcher Walter
Breen connected several 18th century dots to posit that Philadelphia
saw maker John Harper produced the pieces in an attempt to wrest coinage of the
nation’s coins from the U.S. Mint.
The coins, Breen wrote in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, “are obviously
not productions of the federal Mint, but which are too heavy to have been a
practical exercise in counterfeiting.”
In 1795, Congress held hearings of the possibility of
replacing the inefficient and expensive government mint with a private one.
Harper, who provided equipment to the Mint and who had been involved with the
private minting of state coinage, testified in February that he could do the
job and produced his own coins to show the congressmen.
At the hearing, several congressmen bought examples of the
coin from Harper, giving them a semi-official status.
Mint Director Elias Boudinot, concerned about the possible
nefarious use of the dies, confiscated them and reimbursed Harper the $100
value of the dies.
Writing on the PCGS CoinFacts site, Ron Guth notes, “Harper
intended to mimic the designs on 1795 Liberty Cap Cents, but his skill was as a
machinist, not as a die-cutter. Thus, his attempts at replicating the designs,
though admirable, were clearly different and off the mark.”
Today, about 30 Jefferson head cents are known, all well
circulated. The finest grades just Very Fine. One sold for $184,000 in 2012.
Next: A genuine counterfeit