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Copper Is Golden: Collecting Classic US Large Cents

Copper Is Golden: Collecting Classic US Large Cents

By Jim Bisognani for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation ……


While the weather is always unpredictable in New England, the demand for collectible coins, especially early copper cents, has always been a constant source of excitement in the greater Boston area.

I recall as a youth going to a local show and observing a group of senior collectors (probably in their 30s) huddled around a table each one handling and talking about large pieces of copper–primarily large cents. I stepped a bit closer and heard them extolling the respective virtue of their true weathered patina. One of the bespectacled elders of the group exclaimed, “And such smooth milk chocolate surfaces.”

I can vividly recall when I first heard that term used. While exciting to my 12-year-old ears, it wasn’t a coin that the term conjured up but a glass of cold milk with a few spoonfuls of Hershey’s chocolate syrup stirred in.

I then weaseled my way in with the crowd and had a chance to view this coin. It was an 1805 Draped Bust Large Cent. The coin was a nice VF, medium brown, mildly glossy and did sort of resemble a piece of candy (perhaps a dark chocolate to my eyes). I grew to respect and truly love these Early Federal era US coins.

There probably isn’t another US coin series that is scrutinized so intently by prospective collectors as to the coloration and surface of their potential acquisition. This really goes for any grade from Good to Mint State. There are so many “natural variables” to the coin’s appearance due to differences in the purity of the copper used for the particular issue. My personal favorites are still the draped bust large cents of 1796-1807.

I suggest that if you are looking for a truly enjoyable collecting endeavor, try these large cents. While chock full of true rarities such as the 1799, 1804 and 1807/6, several of the Draped Bust coppers are available for under the rather affordable $300 price tag in Fine. While finding a nice looking Good coin for around $70 or so is a challenge, it can be done. Remember, the key is finding pleasing original coins. Smooth, glossy surfaces with uniform coloration is important to successfully building an attractive date set of common coins or, if you have the wherewithal, collecting the full series including all Sheldon varieties!

The entire series has performed very well in low to mid-circulated grades. I pulled some of my old data from my days at the Greysheet and found the following wholesale pricing of selected keys. For this application I then compared the values for the 1807 Small Fraction with “Comet” variety in Coin Dealer Newsletter’s (CDN) Quarterly from 10 years ago vs. today’s NGC US Coin Price Guide valuations.

Draped Bust Large Cents NGC Price Guide 1

Draped Bust Large Cents NGC Price Guide 2

If the fastidious collector had squirreled away the key coins a decade ago it would have set them back $30,825. Today that draped bust copper portfolio is valued at $94,450 – a 306% gain!

Conversely, the 1807 Small Fraction with “Comet” Draped Bust Cent in the listed grades from the chart in 2007 would have required an outlay of a more modest $2,075. Today their valuation, according to the NGC US Coin Price Guide is $10,015 or equal to a 483% increase!

Remember, all Draped Bust large cents are truly scarce when free of problems such as corrosion and other environmental effects. After a bit of time to research, I think that you will agree that all early federal copper cents are truly golden. Take your time and enjoy locating these copper cartwheels. I suggest you also track down a copy of Penny Whimsy by Dr. William Sheldon. Learn about the subject, it is truly fascinating. As always, take care and pride assembling your collection and you’ll be rewarded so much more than financially.

Well as heavy snow falls and gale force winds pound us here, the inevitable flickering lights, power surges and outages have begun so I am quickly saving this document and grabbing candles and few blankets!

Until next time, happy collecting!

* * *

Jim Bisognani
Jim Bisognani
Jim Bisognani has written extensively on US coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in Southern California and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.

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