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The Missouri Half Cent Collection Part 1: Tettenhorst 1796 ‘No Pole’ Liberty Cap

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #199

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ………..

For decades, the collector known as “Tettenhorst,” who lives in the State of Missouri, has been one of the most accomplished and dedicated collectors of half cents. Tettenhorst’s Missouri Half Cent Collection will be auctioned by the Goldberg firm in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2014, a few days before the Winter Long Beach Expo. As far as I know, this is the only totally complete set of half cents that has ever been assembled, including coins of all die pairings employed by the U.S. Mint to strike half cents from 1793 to 1857. In terms of the half cents that most enthusiasts for this series would regard as necessary for a ‘complete enough’ set, the rarest is the 1796 ‘No Pole’ and the Tettenhorst piece is the second finest known.

miss_cab_halfcentsTettenhorst, a name which is not similar to this collector’s real name, is related in some way to Eric P. Newman, a real name. Newman assembled one of the most famous collections of all time, of coins and paper money, which I have been discussing in a series of articles. (Click to read part 1 or part 8.) The proceeds of the sales of some of the half cents in the Tettenhorst-Missouri Collection will go to the EPPNES, a private foundation that Eric Newman founded long ago.

U.S. Half Cents were minted from 1793 to 1857, though no half cents are dated 1798, 1799, 1801, 1812 to 1824, 1827, 1830, and 1837 to 1839. Some dates are presumed to be ‘Proof-only,’ meaning no business strikes were made or none survive. Tettenhorst collected both business strikes and Proofs.

Liberty Cap Half Cents were around fifteen sixteenths (15/16) of an inch in diameter, a little wider than current five cent nickels. All 1796 half cents are rare, ‘No Pole’ and ‘With Pole.’

People assembling sets of half cents usually seek two forms of 1796 half cents ‘as if’ each is a distinct ‘date’ or subtype. Half cents of the 1790s feature a ‘Liberty Cap’ design on the obverse. On those dated 1793, Miss Liberty faces to the left. On half cents dating from 1794 to 1797, Miss Liberty faces to the right. On all half cents of the 1790s, there is a ‘Liberty Cap on a pole’ design element, except for some dated 1795 and 1796, on which there is no pole.

I. Why would there be a pole?

A liberty cap supported by a pole is symbolic of the political concept of liberty. “In the western provinces of the [ancient] Roman Empire,” according to the Wikipedia, the Phrygian Cap “came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty, perhaps through a confusion with the pileus, the felt cap of [freed] slaves of ancient Rome. Accordingly, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap; in artistic representations, it signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty.”

nj_pole2On TheLibertyPole.org site, it is stated that “a liberty pole was often erected in town squares in the years before and during the American Revolution [including in] Newport RI, Concord MA, Savannah GA, New York City [and] Caughnawaga NY.” The liberty pole with the Phrygian Liberty Cap is part of the designs of the State flags and seals of New York and New Jersey, respectively.

A Phrygian cap on a pole appears on the French Libertas Americana Medal of 1782, the most famous and important of all medals relating to the the history of the U.S. A few years later, the ‘Liberty Cap’ became symbolic of the French Revolution.

According to a legend, the leader of a force that invaded the Roman Empire before 200 BC put a Phrygian Cap on a pole after a decisive victory to emphasize that all slaves that had supported his military campaign would become free. By the 1700s, such a ‘Liberty Cap,’ with or without a pole, came to symbolize the concept that individuals have or should have rights that are independent of monarchies and are not subject to erasure by governing institutions.

revere_poleBy 1773, a leading political newspaper in the Boston area, “The Massachusetts Spy,” featured a seated female figure holding a pole with a ‘Liberty Cap.’ This newspaper and journal of opinion was founded in 1770 by Isaiah Thomas, who was very influential. Thomas was opposed to British rule of Massachusetts and other colonies. Paul Revere may have designed or executed a ‘metal cut’ for this particular ‘Liberty Cap on a pole’ symbol.

A later piece of political art on the masthead of this same newspaper, in the early 1780s,featured an Indian Princess along with a ‘Liberty Cap’ and pole. This later piece has also been attributed to Paul Revere. I have not yet researched the connection, if any, between Revere and such ‘Liberty Cap’ symbols. It is definite, though, that Revere did provide ‘metal cuts’ of artwork for “The Massachusetts Spy.”

1850_pr68_25c_obvIt is also certain that many of those who were enthusiastic about fighting in or otherwise supporting the American Revolution would have been familiar with this newspaper. Undoubtedly, a large number of  revolutionaries and other colonists saw this cap on a pole design element, along with a female figure, as a primary symbol of liberty and of freedom from the British.

A ‘Liberty Cap’ on a pole appears on coins, medals and coats of arms, of several Latin American societies that became independent in the 19th century, most of which had previously been under the rule of Spain. Argentina and Bolivia are prime examples.

All Liberty Seated U.S. silver coins depict a ‘Liberty Cap’ on a pole as part of each respective obverse (front) design. Liberty Seated Dimes were minted from 1837 to 1891. Other denominations of Liberty Seated coins had shorter lifespans, though quarters and halves were each issued for almost as long a period. The fact that a ‘Liberty Cap’ on a pole is depicted on all Liberty Seated coins suggests that U.S. Treasury Department officials and other government officials regarded such symbolism as being especially significant.

It is relevant that Liberty Cap Large Cents, which date from 1793 to 1796, are similar in design to half cents of 1794 to 1797. In sum, the ‘Liberty Cap on a liberty pole’ was an important symbol in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is likely that it was planned for a ‘Liberty Cap on a liberty pole’ to appear on all Liberty Cap Half Cents. Even so, some 1795 and a few 1796 half cents were each struck without a pole. Perhaps the engraver forgot to add a pole to the respective dies. It seems clear that the 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cents were struck from an obverse (die) that never included a pole.

II. Rarity of 1796 Half Cents

Jim McGuigan maintains that there are between twenty-five and thirty 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cents. “There are over a hundred 1796 ‘With Pole’ Half Cents,” Jim figures, “maybe one hundred and twenty-five.”

1796_pole_hcMcGuigan has specialized in half cents, for decades, and he personally collects them. Jim owns the second ranked PCGS registry set of half cents, which was the “all-time finest” in the PCGS registry before the Tettenhorst-Missouri set was recently registered.

McGuigan himself owns a 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent, which he acquired “from Tettenhorst in 1982 after he bought the one in this sale. I got his duplicate.” The McGuigan 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent is PCGS certified ‘MS-62-Brown.’ McGuigan recollects that it was PCGS “graded in the early 1990s or late 1980s.”

With or without a pole, the surviving numbers of 1796 half cents are very small. As more than twelve thousand people collect half cents, 1796 half cents tend to be expensive.

While a 1795 ‘With Pole’ Half Cent in Good-04 grade, without significant problems, could probably be found for less than $550, a 1796 ‘With Pole’ Half Cent in Good-04 grade might cost as much as $20,000. A 1795 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent in Good-04 grade would probably retail for less than $600. A 1796 ‘No Pole’ in true Good-04 grade would be likely to sell for more than $40,000, maybe much more!

The second highest auction result for a half cent of any sort, of which I am aware, is not for a 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent. A 1796 ‘With Pole’ Half Cent sold for $402,500 in the Stack’s-Bowers ANA Convention, Rarities Night event of Aug. 9, 2012. It is PCGS certified ‘MS-64-Brown’ and has a sticker of approval from the CAC. It has just a few light marks. It is not a candidate for a higher grade mostly because of a past liquid cleaning that adversely affected some areas. Most grading experts would agree with the 64 grade.

The Tettenhorst-Missouri 1796 ‘With Pole’ is PCGS certified ‘MS-65+ Red & Brown.’ This 1796 ‘With Pole’ has a substantial amount of definitely natural, true original ‘Mint Red’ color. I examined a number of the coins in the Tettenhorst-Missouri collection at the ANA Convention in August.

The Tettenhorst-Missouri 1796 ‘No Pole’ is much rarer and much more famous than the Tettenhorst-Missouri 1796 ‘With Pole.’ Every half cent collector who can afford a decent ‘With Pole’ can buy one within a year or two. Finding a decent 1796 ‘No Pole’ is a whole different matter. A large number of the survivors are non-gradable, or grade less than Good-04.

The horizontal raised line on the obverse (front) is not a problem. There was a slight fracture in the die, which was used to impart the obverse design into each prepared blank circular piece of metal (planchet).  On each coin, the reverse (back) design was imparted with the use of a reverse (tail) die. A fracture in a die often resulted in raised metal on the coins struck after the fracture occurred.

III. The Tettenhorst-Missouri 1796 ‘No Pole’

1796_nopole_hcThis Tettenhorst Collection coin is PCGS certified ‘MS-65-Brown’ and it has a sticker of approval from the CAC. I am not expressing my own opinion here regarding its grade. This coin seems to have almost zero contact marks and scratches, under five-times magnification. For an 18th century copper coin, it is very attractive, the reverse more so than the obverse. To see any 18th century half cent at a grade level at or near 65, even a common date, is a treat; to see such a representative of the rarest ‘date+subtype’ is wonderful.

IV. The Eliasberg ‘No Pole’

The most famous half cent, of any date or variety, is the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent. Louis Eliasberg, Sr. formed the all-time greatest collection of classic U.S. coins.The Eliasberg Collection was the most complete of any such collection ever assembled and it contained a large number of coins that are the finest known representatives of their respective dates or even of entire design types.

Eliasberg’s patterns, pioneer gold coins, U.S. copper coins, half dimes, dimes and some other items were auctioned by Bowers & Merena in May 1996 in New York. When I then saw this coin, I had not spent much time examining uncirculated (‘mint state’) pre-1800 half cents. In hindsight, I did not fully appreciate how high the Eliasberg ‘No Pole’ scores in the category of originality. The considerable original ‘mint red’ color and much original luster, in combination with the fact that there was no evidence of it ever having been cleaned or dipped, are just amazing. It does have a few scratches.’ The PCGS certified it as ‘MS-67-RB’ shortly after the sale.

When the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ sold for $506,000 in May 1996, this was a record for any kind of copper coin. In a sense, this record was broken in Jan. 2008 during a Stack’s Pre-FUN auction. An 1838 silver dollar ‘pattern’ struck in copper then realized $529,000. Only two 1838 Gobrecht Dollars struck in copper are known, and that one is PCGS certified ‘Proof-63 Red & Brown.’

On Feb. 15, 2008, Walter Husak’s, PCGS graded “AU-55” 1793 Liberty Cap Large Cent was auctioned for $632,500, as was his 1794 ‘Starred Reverse’ Large Cent. Later in 2008, a 1792 copper dime pattern (“disme”) and a Naftzger Collection 1796 large cent each sold for $690,000. Two different large cents have since broken the million dollar barrier, a 1795 Reeded Edge (which I regard as a pattern) and an Eliasberg Collection 1793 Chain Cent. (Clickable links are in blue.)

As far as I know, the fourth highest auction price for a half cent was the $345,000 paid for another 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent. I attended the sale of that piece.

V. Norweb-Rouse ‘No Pole’

On Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008, the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg auctioned a nearly-complete collection of U.S. half cents, which was assembled by Ray Rouse. Other than the Tettenhorst-Missouri Collection, it is the most complete set of half cents that I have ever seen. The star of Rouse’s collection was his 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent, which was earlier in the Norweb Family Collection.

As I reported at the time, the Norweb-Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent went to a telephone bidder, for $345,000. The Norweb-Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent was not certified. It was catalogued in 2008 as grading “Fine-15.” ’

Though it grades only Fine-15 or VF-20, the Rouse piece may be the fifth finest known because most of the other circulated 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cents have serious technical problems. The Norweb-Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ has not suffered from dippings, noticeable corrosion, deep scratches, or harsh cleanings. Plus, it looks much better in actuality than it does in the catalogue images. The Rouse coin is very likely to be the fifth finest known.

VI. 3rd and 4th Finest Known 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cents

The third and fourth finest known 1796 ‘No Pole Half Cents are the already mentioned McGuigan piece and the John Whitney coin, which Stack’s auctioned on May 4, 1999. While the McGuigan 1796 ‘No Pole’ was PCGS graded ‘62‘ more than twenty years ago, the Whitney 1796 ‘No Pole’ was not certified before it was auctioned in 1999 and, according to rumors, the buyer then never submitted it to the PCGS or the NGC.

My grade for the Whitney piece was well below 62.  I saw the Whitney piece in 1999 and I saw the McGuigan coin in 2004. At the moment, I cannot find any notes about the McGuigan coin. I hope that I wrote down some remarks after I examined the McGuigan 1796 ‘No Pole.’

In 1999, the Whitney 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent brought $287,500. At the time, this was an astonishing price. It was the third or fourth highest price overall in the sale of Whitney’s formidable set of more than ninety 1796 dated U.S. coins. He had three, excellent 1796 half dollars, including the finest known Lelan Rogers coin. There were two choice ‘mint state’ 1796/5 Half Eagles, plus multiples of 1796 Quarter Eagles and Eagles.

The $287,500 result was, at the time, the second highest auction price for a half cent. On Jan. 26, 2014, the sale of the Tettenhorst 1796 ‘No Pole’ should set a new auction record for a 1796 ‘No Pole’ and will sell for far more than the $506,000 amount that the Eliasberg piece realized in 1996. An interesting question, however, is whether this coin will realize the highest price of all the half cents in the Tettenhorst Collection? I will discuss an important and stunning 1794 cent in the second part.

©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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  1. At the Boston EAC circa 1990-91 a group of three Gem Unc – each with approx 50% original red on flawless planchets – 1796 with pole half cents surfaced from England. You could take your pick at $75,000 (the price quoted by handler Stu Levine)and they were all equal in quality. I held them in my hand. They had not been slabbed and were all markedly superior to the Brown Unc which also originated in England that recently auctioned for well over $300K to a Tampa FL coin dealer. For some strange reason, a fair number of 1796 early US coppers have come from England.

  2. The statement that there are “more than twelve thousand” collectors of half cents must be a typo. Even the most common half cent is too scarce for 12,000 collectors to own one. I think he refers to the full membership of Early American Coppers, which is about one-tenth of that number. I don’t think anyone really knows how many half cent collectors there are, but I would estimate that less than 200 people collect them beyond as type coins.


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