Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #343
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……
For less than $500 per coin, an extensive and impressive collection of early U.S. copper coins could be assembled ‘by date.’ Although Matron Head large cents could be collected for less than $100 each, and more than a few can be purchased for less than $50, the theme here relates to Matron Head cents that are priced between $200 and $500.
Last December, there was a discussion about completing a set of Classic Head large cents (1808-14) for less than US$500 per coin, and, in April 2016, another was about Draped Bust half cents (1800-08). The most recent installment in this series was on June 16, Classic Head half cents (1809-35). It is easier to collect Matron Head large cents (1816-35) than half cents or Classic Head large cents.
Large quantities circulated in the 19th century and thousands of Matron Head large cents are around now. At times during the 1850s, U.S. Mint officials were concerned that the cost of producing each large cent might rise above one cent. Nonetheless, there was not then much of a motive to melt them.
Even if copper was free in large quantities, it would still have cost money to manufacture copper coins. There were significant labor and capital costs.
Flying Eagle cents, which are much smaller than large cents, appeared in 1856 and were distributed widely in 1857. People who had previously thought of large cents as solely practical items became emotionally drawn to them. Thousands of U.S. citizens were saddened when they learned that large cents were being phased out and were unlikely to ever again be produced by the Philadelphia Mint. Indeed, the last U.S. large cents were minted in 1857.
Although it is true that coin collecting as a hobby was rapidly gaining in popularity during the 1850s, thousands of non-collectors saved large cents for nostalgic reasons. During the late 1850s, members of the general public often asked tellers and managers at their respective banks for large cents. Over the following decades, the number of people seriously collecting large cents increased.
So, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, thousands of surviving, gradable large cents were not melted because money changers and antiques dealers, along with some bankers and pawn shop proprietors, knew that collectors were willing to pay more than the copper value and more than the face value of large cents. Because of quantities saved in the past, Matron Head large cents are relatively inexpensive and easy to collect in the present.
Matron Head large cents were introduced in 1816. For information about famous cent types minted from 1793 to 1814, I hope that people will refer to my articles on the amazing Garrett-Pogue 1793 Chain Cent, the 1793 cents of Denis Loring, and the Jackman-Jung 1794 Apple Cheek. In January 2013, I covered the Stack’s-Bowers auction of the Cardinal Collection of large cents.
While Classic Head large cents (1808-14) may be collected ‘by date’ without spending as much as $500 on any one coin, it would not be sensible to collect earlier series ‘by date’ with such a per coin limit. For a type set, a Liberty Cap large cent (1794-96) and a Draped Bust large cent (1796-1807) may be purchased for less than $500 each.
Large cents dated before 1815 are called ‘early dates.’ Those struck from 1816 to 1839 are ‘middle dates,’ and the Braided Hair cents struck from 1839 to 1857 are ‘late dates.’ There are two design types of middle dates, Matron Head (1816-36) and Gobrecht (1835-39).
Some major references incorrectly refer to Gobrecht cents as Matron Head cents or as “Matron Head Modified.” The design of 1835 to 1839 and the Matron Head design are two distinct design types, the works of different artisans.
“Almost nothing is known concerning the change of design in 1816.” R. W. Julian contends “that this was done by John Reich at the request of Mint Director Robert Patterson though others think that Chief Engraver Robert Scot was responsible.” Bob contributed to this discussion in response to my inquiries.
Although Bob Julian is the leading researcher of 19th-century documents relating to the U.S. Mint, there are reasons to believe that Robert Scot was the designer of Matron Head cents. In my view, the artistry of Matron Head cents is very much distinct from that of Reich designed Capped Bust dimes, Capped Bust quarters (1815-28), Reich half dollars (1807-36) and Bust Left gold coins. Although there are also disagreements regarding the identity of the designer of the ‘middle date’ cents of the type of 1835 to 1839, I hypothesize that these are the work of Gobrecht and other researchers agree.
“Chief Engraver William Kneass had a debilitating stroke in late August 1835 and may have prepared the new head of Liberty before that time,” Robert Julian notes. Bob maintains, though, that “it was more likely that the work was done by Christian Gobrecht, newly hired as the Second Engraver at the beginning of September 1835.”
There are a few reasons for confusion regarding this matter. For decades, Gobrecht cents (1835-39) were accidentally mis-categorized as being of the same type as Matron Head cents (1816-35). They were often just referred to as “Head of 1836” and “Head of 1838” cents without being properly designated as a separate design type.
It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that leading researchers including R. W. Julian emphasized that it is very likely that Christian Gobrecht designed additional regular issue U.S. coins, not just Liberty Seated types. Over the years, I have strongly attempted to persuade coin collectors and researchers that so called “Reeded Edge” half dollars (1836-39) should truly be named Gobrecht half dollars.
There are many differences between Reich half dollars (1807-36) and Gobrecht half dollars (1836-39). Edge devices are not the most important difference.
Gobrecht cents will be the topic of a future installment in this series. The present topic is Matron Head cents, which are easy and fun to collect. This is a series that is suitable for beginners as well as advanced collectors. Some of the all-time-greatest Matron Head cents are in the Pogue Collection and may be auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers next year.
The 1823 and the 1823/2 overdate are the only very scarce dates. Die varieties are a different matter.
A readily noticeable overdate may, via tradition, attain the status of a distinct ‘date.’ Collectors who assemble sets of Matron Head large cents ‘by date’ seek to acquire both an 1823 and an 1823/2.
While the 1823 is rarer overall, both the 1823/2 and the 1823 are notable condition rarities in grades above VF-35. In contrast, representatives of most other dates in the series in EF-40 to MS-60 grades may be purchased for less than $500 each, some for less than $200 in EF-40 grade.
PCGS & NGC
For large cents valued above $250, I recommend buying coins that have been graded by PCGS or NGC. This is not because I agree with all or even a preponderance of the grades assigned by PCGS or NGC. The main reason is that buying PCGS or NGC certified coins involves less risk than the alternatives. When buying anything, there is always some risk.
Even in cases where graders at PCGS or NGC make mistakes or assign grades that are disputed by leading experts, classic U.S. coins in PCGS or NGC holders are typically more valuable than the same coins would be if not certified. There are a large number of coin buyers who demand coins in PCGS and/or NGC holders.
In the realm of classic U.S. coins, PCGS- or NGC-certified coins are widely accepted and actively traded. For better or worse, uncertified classic U.S. coins that are priced higher than $250 tend to be subject to additional scrutiny and/or regarded suspiciously.
The certified grades of coins mentioned here are not being endorsed and specific coins are not being recommended in this discussion. Collectors are encouraged to consult experts, and to be cautious about trusting sellers of any expensive collectibles.
‘Date by Date’ Listing
In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-53 1816 for $399.50. On March 23, 2014, the firm called GreatCollections sold a NGC-graded AU-55 1817 for $338.55. That 1817 has 13 stars on the obverse (front of the coin).
The 1817 with 15 stars is scarcer. Both varieties are not needed for a set ‘by date.’ Even so, a Very Fine grade 1817 with 15 stars on the obverse could be obtained for less than $500. In May, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded VF-30 coin for $399.50.
It is easy to buy an AU-55 grade 1818 for less than $500. There are 1819 ‘Large Date’ and ‘Small Date’ cents. The ‘date’ in this context refers to the numerals of the year. Some experts regard the 1819 ‘Large Date’ as an overdate, though the presence of underlying digits is not clear.
In September 2013, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded AU-53 1819 ‘Large Date’ (“1819/8”) for $366.57, and a different NGC-graded AU-53 ‘Large Date’ in March 2015 for $385. In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-53 1819 ‘Small Date,’ with a sticker of approval from CAC, for $411.25.
Regarding 1820 cents, the difference between 1820 ‘Large Date’ and ‘Small Date’ varieties is minor. Only one 1820 cent is needed for a set of Matron Head large cents.
In January 2015, the Goldbergs auctioned an uncertified 1820 for $329. It was graded as “AU-55” by Chris McCawley or Bob Grellman. That 1820 cent had previously been in the famous collections of John Wright and Dan Holmes.
The 1821 is a scarce date. In August 2010, Stack’s auctioned a PCGS-graded Fine-12 1821 for $201.25. A Very Fine grade 1821 could certainly be found for less than $500.
The 1822 is not as scarce as the 1821. The 1822 is, nevertheless, a ‘better date.’ On June 26, GreatCollections sold a NGC-graded AU-53 1822 for $358.59.
As already mentioned, the 1823/2 and the 1823 are the keys to the series of Matron Head large cents. I estimate that there are less than 1600 1823/2 cents in existence, in all states of preservation.
In August 2015, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded Fine-12 1823/2 for $352.50. In June 2015, GreatCollections sold a different 1823/2 with the same certification for $363. A PCGS-graded Fine-15 1823/2 sold in July 2015 for $364.10.
In 2009, I estimated that there are likely to be fewer than 500 1823 ‘normal date’ cents around, in all grades. McCawley found my estimate to be sensible. Chris emphasized, though, that “less than 10%” of the surviving 1823 cents grade “Fine-12 or better”!
To acquire an 1823 for less than $500, it might be necessary to choose one of the other 90% of survivors, one of those that grades below Fine-12. In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VG-10 1823, from the “Joseph Freedberg Collection”, for $258.50.
The 1824/2 is a semi-key. In January 2014, the Goldbergs auctioned an 1824/2, from the “Pierre Fricke Collection”. The Fricke 1824/2 may be found to be non-gradable if submitted to PCGS or NGC. McCawley or Grellman figure that it has the “sharpness” of a “VF-35” grade and an overall grade of “VF-20,” after rough surfaces and other issues are factored into a grading calculation. The Fricke 1824/2 went for $247.
The 1824 is not one of the more common dates, though is much less scarce than the 1824/2. A VF-30 to EF-40 grade 1824 could be purchased for less than $500. This is true of the 1825 as well.
The 1826 is a better date, though not a semi-key. An EF-45 to AU-53 grade 1826 could be found for less than $500, without much difficulty.
If it exists, the “1826/5” overdate is not a major variety. Some experts doubt that there is an 1826/5 overdate. It may fairly be ignored by collectors assembling sets ‘by date.’
Certified AU-53 or -50 grade 1827, 1828 and 1830 cents may all be purchased for under $500 each. An EF-40 to AU-50 grade 1828 ‘Small Date’ certainly could be, too.
As the two major varieties of 1829 cents are distinguished by the relative sizes of the letters on the reverses, most large cent collectors are satisfied with one or the other. A set ‘by date’ need not include two 1829 large cents.
In November 2015 in Baltimore, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded EF-40 ‘Large Letters’ 1829 for $282. In February 2016, Heritage sold a NGC-graded EF-45 ‘Large Letters’ 1829 for $305.50.
Matron Head large cents dating from 1831 to 1835 are relatively common. AU-53 to -55 representatives of all these dates could be acquired for less than $500. On November 15, 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-53 1831 with a CAC sticker for $374.
There are multiple varieties of 1834 cents listed in major guides, as the sizes of the obverse stars, reverse (back) letters and numeral eights vary. For a complete set ‘by date,’ just two 1834 cents are needed, a ‘Large 8’ and a ‘Small 8.’ The multiple combinations of different sizes of eights, of stars and of letters amount to die varieties, not distinct ‘dates.’
Of the 1834 ‘Large 8’ die varieties, the one with small stars and medium letters is a sound choice for a set ‘by date.’ In June 2015, Heritage sold a NGC-graded AU-50 coin for $253.63.
An AU grade ‘Small 8’ 1834 could be acquired for less than $500 without much waiting. In March 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-55 coin for $446.50 and a different PCGS-graded AU-55 Small 8’ 1834 in March 2016 for $376. In the same event in March 2016, a PCGS-graded AU-53 ‘Small 8’ cent realized $329.
There are also 1835 ‘Small 8’ and ‘Large 8’ Matron Head cents. The difference in the dates is readily apparent.
On November 1, 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1835 ‘Large 8’ cent for $451. In March 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded AU-58 1835 ‘Small 8’ cent for $446.50.
Overall, a set of PCGS- or NGC-graded, Matron Head cents may be assembled ‘by date’ for less than $500 per coin. For most dates, coins that grade from EF-45 to AU-55 may be acquired within a couple of years, at most. Collectors often find that it is exciting and interesting to truly complete a set of a design type of coins from the first half of the 19th century.
©2016 Greg Reynolds
Recent Articles in This Series on Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each:
Classic Head Half Cents | Draped Bust Half Cents | Classic Head Large Cents | Gem Early Lincoln Cents | Indian Head Half Eagles | Two Cent Pieces | Three Cent Nickels | Indian Head Quarter Eagles | Copper-Nickel Indian Cents | Standing Liberty Quarters | Walking Liberty Half Dollars
Matron Head Large Cents Currently Available on eBay