By Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
Flying eagle cents offer a unique opportunity to collectors. Many early coins, such as large cents, have been extensively studied and are commonly collected by die pairing and variety. Most of these populations have been well picked over, and the series contains so many different coins that getting started can be overwhelming.
And then there are flying eagles. With a production run of three years and only two for circulation, it won’t take you years to become familiar with all of the known varieties. They are well-studied with multiple references available, but it’s a much smaller niche than earlier series, meaning that cherrypicking is much easier. It’s still quite possible to find rare varieties for sale as though they were regular issues, simply because many collectors aren’t aware of them.
There are countless ways to quantify what should be considered a “complete” set of flying eagle cents. Four different levels of completeness are suggested here, but these are merely jumping-off points. If you feel a particular variety should or shouldn’t be included, just structure the set to your liking.
It should also be noted that the different levels here omit Proof and 1856 issues. These are prohibitively expensive in most cases and are discussed separately at the end.
All varieties included above the basic level can commonly be found unattributed (perhaps with the exception of the 1858/7). They’re not automatically attributed by grading companies, meaning that even graded coins could be a rare variety just waiting to be brought to light.
So how do you find them? Patience. If you know what you’re looking for, you already have a leg up on a lot of collectors, but you’ll have to look at a lot of coins to find the ones you’re looking for. Whether that means scrutinizing a thousand or more listings on eBay or going through every dealer’s inventory at a show, just have patience. And if you’re inclined toward the latter, bring a loupe.
A basic set of flying eagle cents is easy to put together because it only includes three widely-known coins: 1857, 1858 large letters, and 1858 small letters. Anyone who’s spent any time looking at flying eagle cents has seen these designations, and they’re automatically attributed by third-party grading services.
The difference is found on the “AM” of “AMERICA”. If the base of the two letters is touching, then it is the large letter variety. If they’re clearly separated, then it’s the small letter variety. For comparison, all 1857 cents have the same lettering as the 1858 large letter variety. Simple enough?
Now things get a little bit trickier.
What many sources fail to acknowledge are the different reverse types of 1858. There are three, all of which are paired with both obverses, resulting in six different coins from 1858 to collect. These commonly aren’t noted on slabs or in amateur auction listings, so you have to know what you’re looking at to pick them out.
The Type One reverse is also known as the “High Leaves” variety. On the reverse, there are two small leaves that stick up from the wreath near the word “CENT”. On Type One, these almost touch the bottom of “C” and “T”. This reverse is found on all 1857 issues, but only some from 1858.
Both Types Two and Three are known as “Low Leaves” because the leaves are further away from the bases of “C” and “T”. This can be tricky to pick out without a direct comparison, so using an 1857 to compare is a good idea.
On the Type Two reverse, the top and bottom serifs of the “E” in “ONE” almost touch. This is the same style found on 1857 issues, but if you don’t have one to use for comparison, the “E” in “CENT” always has smaller serifs. If the two Es look drastically different, then it’s probably a Type Two.
The Type Three reverse features an “open” E, more similar to that of “CENT”. The serifs are smaller and don’t come close to touching.
There is one well-known variety that would also be part of an intermediate set of flying eagle cents: the 1858 8/7. Aside from the large and small letter variations, this is the only other Red Book variety of the series. To the right of the final 8 in the date, the top right of a 7 is slightly visible.
Other diagnostics of this variety include a small mark in the field between the date and the eagle, which is the remnant of a misplaced 1. The tip of the eagle’s wing is either barely connected or entirely separated from the rest of the wing, depending on the die state. Finally, the end of the eagle’s tail has very weak details. This variety is immensely popular in comparison to others and commands a high premium.
All in all, an intermediate set of flying eagles would include the 1857, 1858 in six different obverse and reverse combinations, and the 1858/7.
If an eight-coin set isn’t enough for you, how about 15? This group includes all of the previous coins, but adds all known varieties that are not doubled dies or repunched dates. At this point, you should strongly consider buying a more thorough reference on the series. Rick Snow’s Flying Eagle & Indian Cent Attribution Guide is a highly detailed source that includes all of the varieties mentioned here, but other references are mentioned at the end of this article.
It’s believed that some of the dies produced in 1856 weren’t used until the following year, so they were stamped with 1857 and used to produce coins for circulation. These dies were slightly different than those produced in 1857, giving us the Obverse of 56 variety.
The obvious difference is the center of the “O” in “OF”. On most 1857 issues the inside edge is very rounded, but on this variety, it’s slightly squared. In addition, the center serifs of the “E” in “STATES” and “F” in “OF” are slightly larger, such that they almost touch the line above.
There are three interesting 1857 multi-denominational die clashes that are among the harder varieties to cherrypick. Flying eagle cents can be found clashed with the $20 obverse, quarter reverse, and half dollar obverse.
How these were created has puzzled collectors for decades and there are multiple theories. It has historically been thought that someone at the United States Mint struck multi-denominational mules with these dies, but none have ever surfaced. Many mint employees have been known to strike unauthorized pieces (1913 V nickels, anyone?), but the lack of surviving examples raises some eyebrows.
Another theory was suggested by Q. David Bowers following an article by Chris Pilliod that the clashes occurred more innocently. In changing out the dies on a press, the mint may have replaced one die, cycled the press through to seat it, then replaced the other die. The cycle could have resulted in a clash.
Regardless of how they were created, they’re intriguing pieces and easy to identify on examples in higher grades. Because of how flying eagle cent dies were loaded into the press, all of the clashes are of the same sides of each coin (i.e., an obverse has clashed onto an obverse) and are not rotated. As a result, the image is merely flipped left to right and it’s fairly easy to make out what the design of the clashing die was.
On the $20 Clashed Obverse, the profile of Lady Liberty’s face from the Liberty Head double eagle can be clearly seen near “AMERICA”. It begins at the rim above the “F” in “OF” and extends down into the eagle’s tail. Her mouth is positioned beside the “R”, and the line of her chin runs from the bottom of the “C” to the eagle’s tail.
There are smaller marks showing the bottom of Lady Liberty’s portrait running along the bottom of the date, the back of her head from the eagle’s beak to the rim, and her neck from the talons down to the rim.
The Quarter Clashed Reverse shows the silhouette of the eagle’s head in the field between “ONE” and the top of the wreath. Part of the wing can also be seen arching between the “E” in “ONE” to the corn husk in the wreath. If you’re familiar with the Seated Liberty quarter reverse, it’s very easy to make out the shape.
The Half Dollar Clashed Obverse is the hardest to relate to the clashing design. The clearest mark is a curved line from above the “M” in “AMERICA” through the center of the last “A” that then curves into the rim. This is from Lady Liberty’s arm. There are also less obvious marks in the field to the upper left of the eagle showing her arm and pole. This is the most easily obtainable of the three clashes.
Two other interesting varieties occurred in 1857, including the Multiple Digits in Eagle.
Somehow the date was accidentally punched into the head and chest of the eagle. The digits themselves are next to impossible to see on worn pieces, but fortunately, this die developed a large cud in the center of the obverse early in its life. The size and prominence vary depending on die state, but all examples of this variety will have that large cud on the eagle’s wing.
The final 1857 variety is the Repaired OF variety. It appears as though the lettering wore down on the die and the “OF” was then repaired. It’s clear that something is drastically wrong with the “F”, and these are usually easy to pick out. The denticles in the same area on the coin are also damaged.
The last addition to this set is the only new 1858 variety: Enhanced Letters. The lettering on the die wore down from use, and many of the letters were strengthened to increase its lifespan.
“UNITED S__T_S OF AMER___” has been strengthened. These appear bolder than the unenhanced letters but are still clear.
If you want an even more thorough set than the Advanced category provides for, then there’s really no alternative but to buy a full reference. In the latest edition of Snow’s attribution guide, there are approximately 41 more circulation strike varieties for these two years, all of which are doubled dies or repunched dates.
Many are quite similar and hard to see, so a strong magnifying tool is a must.
However you decide to structure your set, the key is to find the varieties that interest you and to enjoy the hunt. Most are hard to find already attributed, so the challenge of finding them really is the joy of this collection.
What About the Others?
Of course, 1856 includes varieties as well, as do the Proof issues. Both are significantly more expensive than the rest of the series and are out of reach for many collectors. However, if you have the budget to search for these varieties, there are a few interesting ones for which to look.
The order in which 1856 dies were used has been determined, so it’s possible to know which strikes were produced in 1856 and which were struck later. At least 634 examples were originally minted to give to politicians before small cents were officially authorized. Soon after, they made their way onto the market and collectors began to search for them. The mint capitalized on this by striking more pieces, resulting in an estimated total population of 2,000.
The first die combination used has a slightly rotated reverse as well as a repunched 5, making it easy to identify if you know what to look for. Nevertheless, it’s still commonly unattributed; one from the Norweb collection sold in 1987 and wasn’t noted by the auctioneer. When attributed, they do command a premium as first strikes.
Two other die pairs were used in 1856. The first of these also has a repunched 5 and High Leaves on the reverse. This was used most often in 1856 and probably accounts for about 20% of all 1856-dated issues.
The final die pair used in 1856 has a small dot at the base of the “U” on the obverse, making it almost appear pointed. The reverse also has a small dot right beside the upper left serif of the “N” in “CENT,” the center of the coin. Both of these dies were also used later as well, so one has to very careful in attributing this variety. Few are known, making it a very scarce variety.
Overall, flying eagle cents provide a unique opportunity for the newer collector to specialize in a series with a limited scope but plenty of interesting varieties to look out for. What’s more, the opportunity for cherrypicking makes this an even more attractive specialty. Maybe it’s time to go back and expand your three-coin set by a few more.
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The Flying Eagle & Indian Cent Attribution Guide by Richard E. Snow (3rd edition)
The Cherrypicker’s Guide to Rare Die Varieties by Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton (6th edition)
Enthusiasts Guide to Flying Eagle and Indian Cents by Q. David Bowers