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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1793 Cent Sets $1.38 Million Auction Record for Copper Coin

News & Analysis on scarce coins,  markets, and the  coin collecting community #89

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds for CoinWeek
In the Heritage auction at the FUN Convention in Orlando, two different coins each sold for $1.38 million each. On Wed., Jan. 4, a 1793 Chain Cent was the first, and, on Thurs. Jan. 5, an 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) was the second. This price for the Chain Cent is an auction record for a copper coin of any kind.

This price for an 1829 Half Eagle is an auction record for a U.S. $5 gold coin. A Quarter Eagle ($2½ gold coin), at least two Eagles ($10 coins) and at least six Double Eagles ($20 coins) have all individually been auctioned for more than $1.38 million each in the past.

In Wednesday’s column, I will discuss this 1829 Half Eagle and also the auction result for the Duckor 1920-S Double Eagle, which is very much newsworthy. Next week, I cover other coins in the Heritage FUN auction extravaganza. The topic here is the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung 1793 Chain Cent.

I. What are Chain Cents?

In 1793, three different design types of cents were produced, Chain Cents, Wreath Cents, and Liberty Cap Cents. Large cents are slightly larger than current quarters. The first small cents, which are about the same size as pennies now, were not minted until 1856.

Chain Cents were only minted for a few months and there are multiple varieties of Chain Cents. These are among the most famous and the most popular of all U.S. coins. As I said in my recent column on Denis Loring’s 1793 Cents, about fifteen hundred Chain Cents survive, including those that would fail to be numerically graded if submitted to the PCGS or the NGC.

The Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent is in the third group (S-4) of Chain Cents. There is a period after ‘AMERICA’ and also a period after 1793. In this same Platinum Night session, Denis Loring’s Chain Cent of the same (with periods) variety sold as well. The Loring S-4 Chain Cent is PCGS graded “AU-53” and it sold for $161,000.

All Chain Cents do not cost a fortune. In Dec. 2009, Heritage auctioned a Chain Cent that is PCGS graded “Poor-01” for $1725, and, in Jan. 2010, Heritage sold a PCGS graded “Fair-02” Chain Cent for $2185. Chain Cents that are not gradable, which I usually would not recommend, sometimes sell for less than $1,000.

II. Pedigree

The Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent was previously part of the Louis Eliasberg Collection, which is the greatest collection of U.S. coins ever formed. It was also formerly in the collections on the following list. I have placed the year in which each previous collection, respectively, was auctioned in parentheses: Thomas Cleneay (1890), John Mills (1904), George Earle (1912), and Oliver Jung (2004). It was also in B. Max Mehl’s mail bid sale of the William Atwater Collection in 1946. The Cleneay, Atwater, and Earle Collections are all among the 20 finest collections of classic U.S. coins of all time.

In 2004, I covered the sale of Oliver Jung’s type set for Numismatic News newspaper. Jung’s collection is certainly one of the five finest, classic type sets to ever be publicly auctioned. Indisputably, this Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent is a very famous coin.

A collector-dealer, who currently lives in the South, purchased this Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent in 2004. He prefers that his name not be mentioned. On Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, he remembered that he sold the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent for “$490,000” in “2008 or 2009” to an individual who he says was the consignor of this coin to the current auction. I know very little about the buyer on Jan. 4, 2012.

III. The Quality of this Chain Cent

This 1793 Chain Cent is PCGS graded “MS-65,” which indicates that it is a gem-quality coin, in the view of PCGS graders. Further, it has a sticker of approval from the CAC. My inquiries suggest that most expert graders are accepting of the 65 grade. It was also PCGS graded MS-65 when it was last auctioned, in 2004.

My tentative impression is that it was encapsulated by the PCGS at some point after May 1996 though before 1999. I wish I had kept my old PCGS population reports.

Specialists in die varieties of early copper coins do not grade it as MS-65, because, in their view, an MS-65 grade coin must exhibit a substantial amount of original mint red color. This coin is designated as being ‘brown’ by experts at the PCGS even though it is mostly a red-tan color because its ‘red’ is not original. Unlike a club of specialists in the varieties of early copper coins (the EAC), the PCGS and the NGC separate a designation of color (Brown, Red & Brown, or [mostly] full Red) from the factors that are employed to compute each copper coin’s grade.

There are very few gem-quality Chain Cents of any die variety. In regards to the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung 1793 Chain Cent, my guess is that it would have brought the same result if, imaginatively, it was a different variety of Chain Cent. A fortunate aspect of this (with periods) variety, however, is that the head of Miss Liberty tends to be more attractive than the respective heads on the Chain Cents of the other two groups, which are often known as ‘AMERI.’ (S-1 variety) and ‘AMERICA’ spelled out with no periods (S-2 and S-3 die pairings).

On the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain, Miss Liberty’s hair and face are exceptionally sharp and have toned a neat shade of tinted brown. The color of Miss Liberty’s head contrasts well with the red-tan fields, which are characterized by thin brown streaks. Its color, however, is not the most impressive aspect of the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent.

Indeed, I was not impressed by the color. The wonderful characteristics of this coin are its sharply detailed strike, its lack of contact marks, and the fact that it was struck on a planchet (prepared blank) that had minimal imperfections. Many large cent planchets (prepared blank circular pieces of metal) had problems, which affect the eye appeal and/or technical integrity of the coins that were struck on these blanks. The planchet on which this coin was struck had only minor imperfections that are not bothersome, in my view.

“Its got a planchet flaw around 7:00,” Greg Hannigan remarks. “Some collectors are bothered by such a thing. I like the surfaces and it is struck beautifully, ” Hannigan exclaims. He is a leading dealer of large cents. Walt Husak, a famous collector of large cents, declared that “it’s beautiful” overall.

The Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent is “amazing,” Matt Kleinsteuber declares. “It really glows and has no friction. I love that coin,” Matt reveals. Kleinsteuber is the lead trader and grader for NFC coins.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Eliasberg-Jung Chain Cent is the fact that it has no especially noteworthy contact marks. With a 20-times magnifying glass, I found many slight indentations. Without a magnifying glass, or even with a three-times magnifying glass, it is hard to find even one significant contact mark. It is common for certified ‘mint state’ large cents to have many contact marks. For grading, experts tend to use three times or five times magnifying devices.

IV. The Auction Result

I was startled by the $1.38 million result.

Similarly, Hannigan “was very surprised that it went for that much. [He] was figuring that it would sell for around $925,000.” Chris McCawley, another leading dealer of large cents, had predicted that it would sell for “$850,000 to $975,000. All the really great coins are bringing great prices,” Chris finds, though “off quality coins” are a different matter.

Before the auction, the PCGS price guide valued this coin at “$750,000” and the Numismedia.com guide valued “MS-65” grade Chain Cents, as type coins, at “$375,000” each. It is unlikely, though plausible, that leading bidders for this coin focused upon its variety. Most likely, they would have been willing to put forth the same respective bids for a Chain Cent of any variety that is of equal to or of higher quality than this one, though the ‘AMERICA’ varieties (S-2 and S-3) tend to have much less well-defined heads of Miss Liberty.

I asked Greg Hannigan and Chris McCawley to estimate the number of Chain Cents of all varieties that are (or would be if submitted) PCGS-graded 65 or higher, of all designations. Hannigan said “nine” and McCawley said “seven.” I wonder if there are more than nine. Though I have not yet had a chance to unearth all of my notes. I am almost certain that I have seen six that are PCGS graded 65 or higher, or would be if submitted. I am including this Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung coin among the six.

It is relevant that PCGS grading and EAC grading are far from identical. The difference is not in standards; the respective criteria are very different. Rosters of Chain Cents that are compiled with EAC criteria in mind usually do not reflect the grades that the PCGS would, in the present, assign to the same coins.

While this is a cool coin with an especially noteworthy lack of contact marks and a truly super-great pedigree, $1.38 million is a high price for it. I was expecting a price in the range of $900,000 to $1,050,000. This coin’s pedigree and the fact that another certified 65 or higher grade Chain Cent has not been recently auctioned contributed to the demand for this coin.

A Chain Cent of the rarer first variety, with the ‘AMERI.’ abbreviation, sold early in 2011 for $2 million in a private transaction. (Please click here to read about that deal in Nevada. As usual, clickable links are in blue.)

That “AMERI.” cent is designated as a special ‘Specimen’ striking by the PCGS. Though it has been a long time since I have seen this ‘SP-65 AMERI.’ cent, I tentatively assert that it is a much better coin, in a few ways, than is this Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent.

V. Auction Records for Copper Coins

The auction record for a copper coin or pattern has been broken several times since the sale of this exact same Eliasberg-Atwater Chain Cent in July 2004. For present purposes, I define a coin or pattern as being made of ‘copper’ if its composition is at least 90% copper. The differences between nearly pure copper, brass, and variations of bronze are really not relevant to this discussion.

In May 1996, the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent sold for more than $506,000 at the Eliasberg ’96 auction, which was conducted by the firm of Bowers & Merena in New York. Soon afterward, it was certified as ‘MS-67 RB’ by the PCGS. The ‘RB’ designation means that experts at the PCGS found that it exhibits a significant amount of original ‘Mint Red’ along with a naturally toned brown color.

This $506,000 record for a copper coin or pattern stood until the Jan. 2008, Stack’s Pre-FUN auction in Orlando. An 1838 silver dollar ‘pattern’ struck in copper brought $529,000. Only two 1838 Gobrecht dollars struck in copper are known, and this one is PCGS certified ‘Proof-63 RB.’ A few days later, Heritage sold a 1792 cent pattern for $603,750. That 1792 pattern, however, may not consist of 90% or more copper. It is often referred to as a ‘fusible alloy’ pattern and is said to consist of a combination of copper and silver.

On July 31, 2008, at the Heritage Platinum Night auction at the ANA Convention in Baltimore, a 1792 pattern dime that was struck in copper sold for $690,000. All such records were broken on Jan. 5, 2009, in Orlando.

Before mentioning the Strawberry Leaf Cent that sold in Jan. 2009, it may make sense to ignore the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent and the already mentioned copper patterns and focus on auction records for large cents. After all, this discussion is about a famous large cent. Besides, since Jan. 2009, successive auction records for large cents have also been auction records for copper numismatic items of any kind.

Auction records for large cents since May 1996 are as follows: (1) The Eliasberg 1793 Liberty Cap cent sold for $319,000 in 1996. It was later PCGS graded MS-64 and is currently in the “High Desert” PCGS Registry Set. It was on display at the Summer ANA Convention in August 2011.

(2) The presently discussed Eliasberg 1793 Chain Cent (with periods) was auctioned by ANR, as part of the Oliver Jung Collection, on July 23, 2004, for $391,000. (3) The finest known 1793 Strawberry Leaf cent was auctioned by ANR for $414,000 in Nov. 2004. It was then NGC graded Fine-12. The same collector-dealer purchased both the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain and the finest known Strawberry Leaf Cent, in 2004.

(4) Another PCGS graded MS-65 1793 Chain Cent was auctioned by ANR on Jan. 10, 2005, at a Pre-FUN sale in Fort Lauderdale. Steve Contursi was the buyer.

(5) A PCGS graded “AU-55” 1793 Liberty Cap cent and a PCGS certified 1794 Starred Reverse cent each sold for $632,500 at the Heritage auction of Walter Husak’s Collection on Feb. 15, 2008, in Long Beach, California. I was there.

(6) A PCGS certified ‘MS-66 RB’ 1796 cent was consigned by the estate or relatives of Ted Naftzger to a Goldbergs auction in September 2008. It sold for $690,000. I was also there. (Please click here to read my article about it.)

(7) The same finest known 1793 Strawberry Leaf cent that ANR sold in Nov. 2004 was auctioned by Stack’s, which had merged with ANR in 2006. In a pre-FUN Convention auction, in Orlando on Jan. 5, 2009, this Strawberry Leaf Cent sold for $862,500. This event was also the subject of an article.

(8) In September 2009, the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg auctioned the finest known 1795 Reeded Edge (S-79) Cent in Los Angeles for $1,265,000. Except for this issue, large cents have plain edges. Personally, I regard it as an experimental piece, rather than as a regular issue large cent. Greg Hannigan was the successful bidder, on behalf of a collector who has since completed a set of Sheldon numbered die varieties of large cents.

(9) On Jan. 4, 2012, a record that lasted for more than two years was shattered. If one of the Chain Cents that is superior to the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Cent is auctioned in the near future, this record may be broken again. Furthermore, there exist true superb gem Wreath Cents and I do not remember any of these being sold at auction during the last twenty years. Also, it would be very interesting if the Eliasberg-‘High Desert’ 1793 Liberty Cap Cent were to be offered at auction. It is has been in the ‘High Desert’ type set, which is top-ranked in the PCGS registry, for a long time.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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  1. Isn’t it boring having these same coins just circulate around, temporarily visiting the safes or drawers of wealthy collectors or shiftless billionaires at ever-increasing prices?

  2. Great article, Greg. Yes, the price realized was strong, but all these jaded dealers always forget how rare these coins, and how rare the opportunity to own them, is. If the collector who acquired this piece holds onto it for 15-25 years, I can assure you that the difference between the 1.38 million he/she paid versus the 950k everyone “thought” it would bring will be utterly meaningless.

    Many people including dealers, don’t understand the dynamics of this market right now. There are more people that want these trophies than there are coins to go around. It’s as simple as that.

    Opinions only go far, the market and the bidders are the ultimate decision makers. Furthermore, the new owner of this piece can decide how much it will be offered of in the future…there is little or no competing offers to sell!

  3. Sales of major rarities helps bring more attention to numismatics, which is good for all of us. This particular sale has been the focus of quite a lot of mainstream media discussion in the past few days.

  4. First of all, I’ve had the Atwater-Eliasberg-Jung S-4 raw in my fingertips and the serious and disfiguring flan flaw at 7 o’clock obv done by an errant planchet cutter is serious damage. along with the raised green corrosion spot at OF on the rev which has been “worked on”. The coin is damaged and its slab grade and CAC grn bean is absurd. The coin isn’t even round!

    PCGS/NGC records are unreliable on choice Chain cents as there are advanced early copper collectors like myself amd DGP who do not own a slabbed coin. I own a superb Unc red & brown lustrous Ameri S-1 chain that hasn’t seen the light of day since 1946.


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