By Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
The bar cent has a remarkably simple design: A USA monogram on the obverse and 13 bars on the reverse. In fact, they could easily be dismissed as tokens, but this simple design holds quite a bit of history – and value.
The early United States was at a loss for small coinage. Great Britain wasn’t minting many coins of small denominations, and there simply weren’t enough to go around. Multiple private minters stepped up to produce their own coinage, including George Wyon of a mint in Birmingham.
Wyon was born in Germany and moved to England at 17, briefly returning to Germany to be married. He was a distinguished engraver of seals and medals, and eventually became the Chief Engraver of His Majesty’s Seals, a position similar to that of Chief Engraver in the United States today.
Seeing the need for small coinage, Wyon created the bar cent. He based his design on that of buttons on Continental Army uniforms, minted them privately in Birmingham, and sent them to New York to be used in commerce. The coins have no date, but it’s known that they were fairly new in circulation in late 1785.
The New Jersey Gazette made note of these coins on November 12, 1785:
“A new and curious kind of coppers have lately made their appearance in New York, the novelty and bright gloss of which keeps them in circulation. These coppers are in fact similar to Continental buttons without eyes; on the one side are thirteen stripes and on the other U.S.A., as was usual on the soldiers’ buttons. If Congress does not take the establishment of a Mint into consideration … it is probable that the next coin which may come into circulation …will be the soldiers old pewter buttons for they are nearly as variable as the coppers above described and hardly so plenty.”
There were distinct differences in the obverse of the bar cent and the Continental Army buttons; on the coins, the “S” is drastically larger than the other letters. On the buttons, all were the same height.
Regardless, referring to these coins as “cents” is most likely incorrect. They weigh significantly less than standard copper cents of the time and were very similar to half cents that began eight years later. They’re usually found on fairly narrow planchets and some of the denticles are missing. There are a few known on larger planchets, but it’s believed that these were presentation pieces or souvenirs. In addition, one is known to be struck over a 1780 Indian 1/2 anna issued during the Bengal presidency that is believed to be legitimate.
Other issues came out of the Birmingham Mint in this time period as well, including the Nova Constellatio coppers. Most of their copper coins were heavier and featured edge lettering, which the bar cents did not.
It’s not known how many pieces were originally struck, but only about 200 bar cents are believed to survive, and over 100 of them have been certified by third-party grading services. Authentic pieces are valuable in all grades, going for over $3,000 USD at auction even in G04. Among certified pieces, the most common grades are XF-AU.
Three are tied for the highest grade at MS66 from PCGS. The highest at NGC are two in MS65, one of which holds the highest auction record; it sold in 2015 from Heritage Auctions for $70,500. None of the MS66 pieces have appeared at auction, so only time will tell how much they will bring.
There are many well-known counterfeits of bar cents, particularly from the mid-1800s. John Adams Bolen was a medallist and diesinker originally from New York. In addition to his original medals, he also produced copies of multiple colonial pieces, including the bar cent.
Conveniently, he also kept meticulous records, so it’s known that he struck precisely 65 copper replicas in 1862. [See example on the right] He advertised these clearly as replicas, never attempting to deceive the public. However, he did later come to regret his decision to make them, stating:
“I have been informed that they have been worn or rubbed and made to look old, then sold as genuine. I spent a great deal of time on them; on one I worked from a genuine coin, on the others from very fine electrotypes. They are all quite scarce now. They were not a financial success to me.”
At some point, he sold the dies to William Elliott Woodward of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who proceeded to strike 12 replicas in silver. These are not exact matches to Bolen’s issues, so it’s believed that Woodward slightly altered the dies. Later, at an unknown date, the dies were sold to someone with the last name Lovett, in New York. Replicas were also made from these dies in nickel, brass, and tin, but it’s unsure who created them.
Woodward was originally a pharmacist by trade, but he ran semi-annual coin auctions. Some of his catalogues call his character into question when paired with knowledge of these dies. In 1863 and 1864 alone he sold multiple bar cents, listing five different types altogether.
Some he listed as original, plain and simple. Some he attributed to Bolen, although he did state in an 1863 catalogue that “the die and most of the impressions having been destroyed, these pieces are now rarer than the originals.” However, we know that the dies went to Lovett after Woodward, so it’s unlikely that they had been destroyed by 1863. He lists some electrotypes as well.
The last two types, however, raise the most eyebrows.
Twice in these two years, he lists an “impression from the Bolen dies, in silver, very rare, only twelve struck.” It’s believed that he was the one who struck these coins, so it can only be assumed that he created a small number in hopes to create a new “rarity”.
Finally, he lists, “Bar Cent, U. S. A., original, unlike the usual type, in this the S. goes over the A., fine and very much rarer than the last.” The S on top of the A is a trademark of the Bolen dies, and all genuine issues have the A on top. Since he listed other pieces as Bolen’s replicas, one has to assume that he was aware of this distinction.
Counterfeit vs. Genuine
There are multiple diagnostics to tell original issues apart from most counterfeits, though authentication is almost always a must. Genuine pieces have the A on top of the S. The other most distinct feature missing from most counterfeits, Bolen dies included, is a small thorn-like protrusion from one of the reverse bars.
Although the reverse technically has no top or bottom, the bar with the thorn is generally considered second from the top, in which case the thorn is on the far right side of the bar. It extends downward and to the right, and is very small.
Less noticeable is a faint die crack near the center of the coins that can appear to join two of the bars. This is significantly harder to see, particularly on well-worn examples. However, even if a coin has all of the diagnostics to be authentic, it should still be authenticated. While Bolen’s replicas missed these details, many electrotypes will fit all the criteria.
There are many replicas aside from Bolen’s dies and well-made electrotypes. Cast counterfeits are plentiful but easily identified by a seam around the edge of the coin and a rough, pitted surface.
While cast counterfeits and electrotypes are virtually worthless, the Bolen counterfeits do still sell for a premium. Both NGC and PCGS will grade and attribute them. An uncertified XF40 example sold at Heritage Auctions in 2001 for $920, and a PCGS MS63 example holds the auction record, bringing $7,050 in 2017.
The moral of the story? If you have a bar cent that doesn’t appear to be a cast replica, it’s probably worth having graded – even if some details are a little off.