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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Gem Quality 1793 Chain Cent To be Auctioned

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #148 …..

On Thursday, Jan. 24, Stack’s-Bowers will auction a landmark set of large cents, along with an NGC graded MS-68 1792 half disme and a PCGS certified SP-66 1794 silver dollar, all consigned by the Cardinal Educational Foundation. Stack’s-Bowers will also auction a wide variety of other coins in New York during next week. The topic here is the Cardinal 1793 Chain Cent, which is PCGS graded MS-65 and has a sticker of approval from the CAC. It is one of the finest survivors of the first issue of cents in the United States.

I have always liked this coin. I remember being enthusiastic about it when I first saw it, eight years ago. On January 10, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, ANR auctioned it for $431,250. Steve Contursi was the buyer. At the time, this result was an auction record for a one-cent coin of any kind. Later in this discussion, I put forth a roster of subsequent records.

I. What are Chain Cents?

Until the mid 1850s, U.S. one cent coins were around the size of quarters, much larger than current pennies. As I explained in my recent two-part series on 1792 half dismes, U.S. coins were not struck until 1793. Only copper coins, half cents and large cents, were produced at the Philadelphia Mint in 1793.

In this one year, 1793, three different design types of cents were produced, Chain Cents, Wreath Cents and Liberty Cap Cents. (Clickable links are in blue.) Furthermore, there are three readily apparent subtypes of Chain Cents. On the first (S-1), the word ‘America’ is abbreviated “AMERI.” On most Chain Cents, including all those of the second subtype, the word “AMERICA” is spelled out.

Chain cents of the second subtype were struck from two pairs of dies, which are known as S-2 and S-3. The Cardinal piece is one of these, of the S-2 die variety. Dies are used in a coining press to impart designs on prepared blank pieces of metal.

On the third subtype (S-4), there are periods after the word “LIBERTY” and after the numerals of the year “1793.” The head of Miss Liberty is different on the third subtype as well.

Buyers of large cents that grade 64 or higher tend to seek just one Chain Cent and not be concerned as to its subtype. Even so, those of the last subtype, ‘with periods,’ tend to be more detailed.

Chain Cents were only minted for a few months. It was soon decided that the “Chain” design type would be terminated. Wreath Cents were produced for much of 1793 and these, in turn, were replaced by Liberty Cap Cents later in the year. It is extremely unusual for three design types of one denomination to be produced at the same mint in the same year.

Chain Cents are among the most famous and the most popular of all U.S. coins. As I said in a column on Denis Loring’s 1793 Cents, about fifteen hundred Chain Cents survive, including a significant number that would (or should) fail to be numerically graded if submitted to the PCGS or the NGC.

All Chain Cents do not cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 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 may, on occasion, trade for less than $1000 each. Chain Cents that failed to receive numerical grades usually have extremely serious problems.

Chain Cents that grade 64 and higher are often sought by people who are assembling type sets of classic U.S. coins, of copper U.S. coins, or of early U.S. coins. The Cardinal Educational Foundation’s set of large cents is unusual and spectacular. It contains many gem quality large cents, some of which I will cover in the near future.

II. Pedigree

This Cardinal Chain Cent has been in some famous collections in the past, including those of doctors Henry Beckwith and George French. Indeed, it was owned, at different times, by the two most famous large cent collectors of all time, William Sheldon and Ted Naftzger.

Andy Lustig recollects that Andy and “two partners took this coin in trade,” probably in “1989.” It was not then certified and Lustig had it certified. It did not then grade “MS-65,” though many coins that are now PCGS graded MS-65 or higher received lower grades from the PCGS in earlier eras.

Lustig and his partners “sold it for $155,000. Somehow, I ended up buying it back for $75,000 in the early 1990s. The coin bounced around during this period,” Andy remembers. “Gene Reale ended up with the coin. He may have sold it before his collection was auctioned,” Lustig wonders. Reale was a famous collector of copper coins.

A dealer in Massachusetts owned, or just had possession of, this Chain Cent in the early 2000s. I do not know who consigned it to the ANR auction of Jan. 10, 2005. Andy does not know either. The Cardinal Educational Foundation has owned it for years.

III. The Quality of the Cardinal Chain Cent

This 1793 Chain Cent has been PCGS graded “MS-65” at least since late 2004. It is a gem quality coin, in the view of PCGS graders. Experts at the CAC find that its grade to be in the middle of the 65 range, a ‘65B coin.’ Andy Lustig likewise states that its grade is in the “middle” of the 65 range, “solid 65.”

I spent several minutes viewing it in on Thursday, Jan. 17th. There is no doubt about the fact that the Cardinal Chain Cent is strictly uncirculated, in every sense of the term. There is no friction noticeable under five-times magnification. The fact that all Chain Cents struck from this pair of dies (the S-2 variety) have softness on the highpoints due to incomplete strikes has caused some people who viewed pictures of this coin, and never saw it in actuality, to mistake missing detail for wear. There is no wear. I am convinced that it is definitely uncirculated.

I tilted it at various angles under a lamp and found the luster to be complete. Luster, in this context, refers to the reflection of light by metal die flow lines on a coin. Not only is the luster complete, it is interesting. The metal flow lines on this coin are unusual and reflect light in an entertaining manner.

The color of this coin is very pleasing. There are natural blue and russet tints over a very consistent, steel-brown texture. This shade of brown is a normal color for a Chain Cent and it is much more appealing than the color exhibited by some other Chain Cents that have been PCGS or NGC certified as grading from “55” to “66”!

When tilted at particular angles under a light source, this coin is moderately brilliant, cool and very attractive. In all settings, it is attractive.

There are numerous small contact marks and a few medium gashes on both sides. The contact marks present are consistent with the assigned grade of MS-65. It is likely that most grading experts are in agreement with the assigned MS-65 grade, in terms of PCGS, NGC or CAC standards.

Personally, I find the Cardinal Chain Cent to be of significantly higher quality than the Eliasberg ‘with periods’ Chain Cent that Heritage auctioned on Jan. 4, 2012, for $1.38 million. While that coin is flashier, the Cardinal Chain Cent scores much higher in the category of originality. Most early large cents have been subjected to some kind of liquid cleaning at one time or another. In relative terms, the Cardinal Chain Cent is among the most original of all extant, AU-55 or higher grade Chain Cents.

IV. Condition Rankings

In the Stack’s-Bowers catalogue, much is made of the fact that only five different Chain Cents, of all subtypes, have been PCGS graded 65 or higher. While true, this fact is a little misleading. One or two coins that were PCGS graded less than 65 in the past might be graded 65 by experts at the PCGS if these coins were to be re-submitted to the PCGS in 2013. There is at least one not certified Chain Cent likewise that could plausibly be PCGS graded 65, if submitted.

I have seen all four of the Chain Cents that are PCGS graded 65 and the one that is PCGS graded 67. Among those five, I rank the Cardinal piece as the fourth finest. As I said already, I find to be of significantly higher quality than the Eliasberg ‘with periods’ (S-4) Chain Cent.

There is a good chance that the Cardinal piece is the finest known S-2 Chain Cent. Denis Loring states, however, that it is “tied with one other as finest known S-2,” a Chain Cent that Superior Galleries auctioned in 1997.

Loring also contends that the Eliasberg (S-4) ‘with periods’ Chain Cent and the (S-3) Chain Cent that Stack’s-Bowers auctioned in August 2012 are superior to the Cardinal Chain Cent. I vehemently disagree. The Cardinal Chain Cent is at least two grade increments above the Chain Cent that was offered in August, in my view.

Loring does repeatedly point out that the grading criteria employed by a club of copper specialists (EAC) are different from the criteria employed by the PCGS and the NGC. Denis adds that he has not seen some of the finest known Chain Cents “in quite a while.”

A Chain Cent of the “AMERI.” (S-1) variety sold in early 2011, as I reported, for more than $2 million. Shortly afterwards, the collector-buyer in 2011 turned down a bonafide offer of $2.5 million. Rumors suggest that he sold it, months later, for a much higher price. It is the Chain Cent that is PCGS certified ‘SP-65.’ It is widely believed that this is a special striking, not a business strike. Loring and I agree that this coin is superior to the Cardinal Chain Cent.

V. Auction Records for Copper Coins

The auction record for a copper coin or pattern has been broken several times over the last five years. Here, 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 a listing of such auction records.

During May 1996 in New York, the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent realized $506,000 at an auction by the firm of Bowers & Merena (New Hampshire). Not long afterwards, 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 naturally toned brown color.

This $506,000 record for a copper coin or pattern was broken in Jan. 2008, at a Stack’s Pre-FUN auction in Orlando. An 1838 Gobrecht silver dollar “pattern” struck in copper brought $529,000. It is one of only two such pieces known. During the Jan. 10, 2008 FUN Platinum Night event, Heritage sold a 1792 cent pattern for $603,750. It is or was not known, however, whether that patterns consists of 90% or more copper. It is often referred to as a ‘fusible alloy’ pattern, and is said to be a combination of copper and silver.

Whether the record for a copper item was $529,000 or $603,750, by the end of “FUN week” in Jan. 2008, the record did not last long. 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.

More than five months later, on July 31, 2008, during a Heritage Platinum Night event in Baltimore, a 1792 pattern dime that was struck in copper sold for $690,000. This $690,000 record for a copper coin or pattern was tied in Sept. 2008, in Los Angeles. A PCGS certified ‘MS-66 Red & Brown’ 1796 cent was consigned by the estate or relatives of Ted Naftzger to a Goldbergs auction in September 2008. (Please click here to read my article about it.)

On Jan. 5, 2009, in a Stack’s auction in Orlando before the start of a FUN Convention, the finest known 1793 Strawberry Leaf cent was auctioned for $862,500. This event was also the subject of an article.

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. In my view, it is an experimental piece, rather than a regular issue large cent. Greg Hannigan was the successful bidder. He acted on behalf of a collector who has since completed a set of Sheldon (S) numbered die varieties of large cents.

On Jan. 4, 2012, a record that lasted for more than two years was shattered. As I already said, the Eliasberg ‘with periods’ (S-4) Chain Cent realized $1.38 million, which is the current auction record for a copper numismatic item of any kind. Will this record be broken on Jan. 24, 2013?

©2013 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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