Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent Pattern Brings $1.15 Million
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #104 – Updated on April 25, 2012
Among the most famous of all patterns is the ‘Silver Center Cent’ of 1792. The U.S. Mint did not begin striking coins until February or March 1793. Various patterns were struck in 1792 and these are all highly prized. A Silver Center, Copper Cent pattern sold for $1.15 million in Heritage’s CSNS Platinum Night event on April 19, in a town near Chicago.
As both a pattern and an experimental piece, which is unlike any regularly issued cent, each Silver Center Copper Cent pattern is particularly noteworthy. Indeed, the decision to produce these patterns stemmed directly from Alexander Hamilton’s path breaking coinage plan of 1791 and directly from controversial provisions in the legislation of 1792 that established the U.S. Mint.
A Silver Center Copper Cent pattern was not the only item that was auctioned that week in Illinois. The Platinum Night event contained a few hundred pieces and there were thousands of coins in the overall Heritage auction from April 18th to 22nd. More than a dozen pleasing coins in this auction are discussed in my column of April 25.
The Silver Center Copper Cent pattern that was sold is one of only thirteen or fourteen that have been traced. It is at least sixth, and possibly (though unlikely) third, in the condition rankings. It is graded ‘MS-61′ by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). From the information that I have gathered so far, my working hypothesis, which may be wrong, is that it is the fourth finest known.
Silver Center Copper Cent pieces are patterns, not coins. Each is also an experimental piece. In the case of the Silver Center Cent pattern, both the design and the bimetallic composition were rejected, though were seriously considered.
There were three different design types of large cents in 1793, all were regular issues, Chain, Wreath and Liberty Cap Cents. The design of the obverse (front) of Silver Center Copper Cent patterns, especially the wording in the outer fields, is substantially different from the designs of the regular issue large cents of 1793. In another words, the silver center, the 1792 date, and the diameter, are not the only characteristics that distinguish these from the regular issues of 1793. Silver Center Copper Cent patterns are much different from regular issue large cents.
I. History of the Silver Center Copper Cent
In order to understand the meaning of the Silver Center Cent patterns, it is necessary to consider Alexander Hamilton‘s proposals regarding coinage and the establishment of a U.S. Mint. On “January 21, 1791,” Hamilton “submitted his recommendations to Congress,” writes David Watson in his epic book, “History of American Coinage,” which was published in 1899. Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury and it was his responsibility to submit a detailed plan to Congress.
Hamilton should not be given all or even most of the credit for designing the initial system of coinage of the United States. Thomas Jefferson played more of a role. Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris, who were unrelated, substantially contributed.
On April 2, 1792, the Second U.S. Congress approved an act that required the establishment of a U.S. Mint. It also specified the types of coins to be produced. This law was amended during the course of the year 1792 and again afterwards. Some of the points in Hamilton’s plan, including notions earlier put forth by Jefferson, were incorporated into this law. Hamilton’s proposed weights for coins to be minted are directly relevant to Silver Center Copper Cent patterns.
Although the standard of measure for weight was then the ‘grain,’ few U.S. citizens in 2012 think of weights in grains. Most U.S. citizens think of weights in terms of ounces (and pounds). For the present discussion, I am converting the grains of the 1790s to standard ounces and to Troy Ounces. Gold and silver bullion are usually measured in Troy Ounces. In the U.S., the weights of most other small objects are measured in standard (international avoirdupois) ounces, or in grams.
Following Hamilton, the 1792 act required that each silver dollar weigh 416 grains in total, which is equal to 0.87 Troy Ounce, 0.95 standard ounce, and 26.96 grams, respectively. All conversions are approximations. Early silver dollars are about 89.24% silver. (Actually, there are inconsistencies in this 1792 law regarding the fineness of silver coins, but that is a topic for another article.) The specified total weight for a half dollar was exactly half that of a silver dollar, 208 grains, 0.433 Troy Ounce, 0.475 standard ounce, and 13.478 grams.
There was much debate regarding the fineness of silver coins. It seems that they turned out to be approximately 89.24% silver and thus more than ten percent copper. There were traces of other metals in all early coinage.
Hamilton’s proposal for copper coinage was, for the most part, included in the original law and/or in amendments passed in 1792. Each cent was to weigh 264 grains, which is equivalent to 0.55 Troy Ounce, 0.603 standard ounce, or 17.107 grams.
The copper cent was thus scheduled to be considerably larger than a half dollar, and more than sixty-three percent of the weight of a silver dollar. Although I have not researched copper prices of the early 1790s, presumably, Hamilton was figuring that each cent should contain around one cent worth of copper, as a metal. Why else would huge copper coins be mandated?
U.S. Treasury Department personnel realized that huge, Hamilton size, cents and half cents would be awkward and might not be accepted by the general public. Undoubtedly, most merchants would not have liked them.
“The law had adopted weights urged by Hamilton,” Neil Carothers notes in his doctoral dissertation in 1916, “although it should have been obvious that a copper cent two-thirds as large as the silver dollar was [impractical]. Voight, the first mint engraver, had made some [huge pattern] cents and half-cents, and they were so clearly unsatisfactory that he made patterns of ‘the billon coins of France’ to which Hamilton had referred” (Carothers, Fractional Money, 1916, 1930 edition, p. 65). Billon refers to alloys that contain both silver and copper (or bronze), though mostly copper.
“They were the “silver-center cents” so highly prized by modern collectors,” Carothers states, though this is only partially true. The billon coins were really another pattern issue of the same artistic design (Judd #2), those relating to the so called ‘fusible alloy.’ In 2008, I explained that issue when Heritage auctioned one for $603,750, an NGC graded Very Fine-30 piece.
The Silver Center Copper Cent patterns are bimetallic, not billon. A bimetallic coin contains two different metals (or alloys) that are not mixed, yet are bonded together. In 2000, the U.S. Mint at West Point struck a bimetallic commemorative, with a ring of gold around a platinum core, the Library of Congress $10 piece.
Clearly, both the billon ‘fusible alloy’ cent patterns and Silver Center Copper Cent patterns were proposals to comply with the spirit of the law in a way that would have been more practical than minting huge, Hamilton size, cents and half cents. Evidently, as Thomas Jefferson stated, the silver plug in each Silver Center Cent pattern contained about three-quarters of a cent worth of silver at the time. Presumably, the copper content was then worth about a quarter of a cent so that the whole coin contained roughly one cent worth of metal. The law of 1792 could be interpreted as to require cents and half cents to be both circulating standards and ‘bullion’ coins, containing their respective face value in metal.
David Watson stated that Thomas Jefferson sent two Silver Center Copper Cent patterns to President George Washington in December 1792 (Watson, 1899, p. 65). Furthermore, Jefferson told Washington that Mint Director Rittenhouse would soon make billon cent patterns and copper only cent patterns of the same size, and “lastly, he will make the [specified] cent, as ordered by Congress, [which would be] four times as big.” Watson’s book has been widely respected for more than a century.
In Dec. 1792 or Jan. 1793, “Congress considered two specimens,” Carothers reports. In the 1790s, patterns were referred to as “specimens.” These “two” must have been the billon ‘fusible alloy’ (Judd #2) and Silver Center Copper Cent pattern (Judd #1) issues. Carothers further reports that the relevant Congressional Committee rejected these patterns and instead the “Congress chose to reduce the weight of the copper pieces” in an “amendment” to the Coinage Act of 1792 that was “passed in January, 1793.”
In regards to Hamilton’s proposal and the law establishing a U.S. Mint, as it stood in 1792, the main point here is that a huge cent was not politically viable and that an alternative had to be found. A much smaller cent, with a silver center, could have been a solution. It could have met Hamilton’s requirement, at least in theory, that each cent must contain one cent worth of metal and each such Silver Center Copper Cent would have been of a size that most U.S. citizens of the 1790s would accept.
Before production began in Feb. or March 1793, the law was changed in regards to copper coins. The U.S. Mint never did produce cents that each weigh more than a half an ounce!
In sum, Silver Center Copper Cent patterns came about as proposals for one cent coins, each with one cent of intrinsic value, of a size with which most people would be comfortable. There was a strong logical purpose and a pressing reason for these patterns. Plus, members of the Second U.S. Congress really did examine them in 1792.
II. Recent Transactions
As both the Heritage catalogue and the USpatterns.com website contain detailed rosters, with much indisputably true overlap, it would not make sense to start a new listing here of Silver Center Copper Cent patterns. Apparently, the finest known is the Garrett piece. It was auctioned by Bowers & Ruddy in March 1981 for $95,000, a tremendous sum for a pattern in 1981. According to the PCGS CoinFacts site, it “reportedly sold for $5 million in January 2012.” Another source suggests that this is true.
The Garrett piece is PCGS graded MS-67 and it has been approved by the CAC. The Garrett Family assembled one of the most valuable and fascinating collections of American numismatic items, including coins, patterns, tokens and other related things.
Curiously, the PCGS CoinFacts site also includes a report that the Morris Silver Center Copper cent pattern, the one that Heritage will auction on Thursday, was “sold for $1.4 million in January 2012.” Any report of such a sale, however, “is simply incorrect. The present owner has owned this coin for quite a few years and paid much, much less than $1.4 million,” reveals Jim Halperin, co-chairman of Heritage Auctions.
My impression is that it was the NGC graded MS-61 Bushnell-Earle piece that traded in January, not the PCGS graded MS-61 Morris piece. The owner of the Bushnell-Earle piece may have upgraded by acquiring the finest known Garrett piece.
It is widely believed that the second finest known is the Norweb Family piece, though I am not certain that the Norweb piece is of higher quality than the Weinberg piece, which I have never seen. The Norweb piece is PCGS graded MS-64.
In 2011, an Illinois dealer sold it to a collector for a reported price of “$2.8 million.” It was auctioned in 2002 by Stack’s for $414,000.
The Weinberg piece is said to be “AU” in the USPatterns.com roster and is listed as “Mint State” in the Heritage list. It was last auctioned in 1983. Recently, I have had the opportunity to examine a fairly decent pair of images of it. It appears to be ‘Mint State,’ to have strong technical characteristics, and to have relatively high quality surfaces. It does not make sense, though, to draw firm conclusions solely from images.
Though I have never seen the NGC graded MS-61 Bushnell-Earle piece, one expert suggests that it may grade AU-58 or so. From my sources, my tentative impression is that the PCGS graded MS-61 Morris piece is of higher quality than the Bushnell-Earle piece.
There is also the matter of the Silver Center Cent Pattern that is missing a silver center. It surfaced in 1993 and was offered by Stack’s in March 1995. At some point, it was PCGS certified ‘Specimen-63 Red & Brown’ (SP63RB).
Is this Silver Center Cent without a silver center a different issue, a pattern error, or something else? Should it be regarded as the second to fourth finest known Silver Center Copper cent pattern, even though it does not have a silver center? Has anyone ever tested it to determine if it was struck in a copper and silver alloy (billon)? If so, it may then be one of the billon ‘fusible alloy’ patterns, not a failed Silver Center Copper Cent pattern. In my view, it is something else, not a Silver Center Copper Cent pattern, though I am not sure what.
III. The Quality of the Morris Piece
This PCGS graded MS-61 Silver Center Copper Cent pattern is called the Morris piece because it seems to have been in the collection of Charles Morris when the Chapman brothers auctioned it in 1905. I like this piece.
Despite its imperfections, it is a pleasure to view. The design of the issue and the overall ‘look’ of this specific piece are pleasing and interesting.
I am not suggesting that it should have received a higher grade. It has plenty of contact marks, including gashes and fairly deep pricks. Even so, the overall color and texture of this coin is pleasant. Without a magnifying glass, most of the imperfections are hardly noticeable. Though the outer devices and borders are not sharply struck, the head is well struck.
The silver center itself meshed well with the copper and the detail in the design is more continuous where the silver meets the copper than I expected. Though it is not evident in the online images, the silver shape has toned blue with a nice touch of orange-russet. The toning on the silver is definitely natural. The faded red color of the coin is much more original, in relative terms, than I expected, as well. It has nice color indeed, better than is found on the vast majority of large cents from the 1790s that grade from AU-58 to MS-65.
Admittedly, the contact marks are a serious concern. A somewhat long and very wide, light gash above ’92′ is noticeable. Various scratches, gashes and small hits on or about Liberty’s forehead are noticeable as well, with just three times magnification. A few contact marks in the hair are harder to see.
From a technical standpoint, a deep prick in the field above the chest is somewhat serious, almost as bad as the prick near EN in SCIENCE. These two pricks certainly keep this coin from consideration for a higher grade.
There are many 1793 Chain Cents with much worse problems that have received numerical grades from the PCGS or the NGC, as well as some 1793 Liberty Cap Cents and 1793 half cents. It would be inconsistent and unfair to deny this piece a numerical grade.
Most of the contact marks are consistent with a 61 or even a 62 grade, especially considering that this coin’s surface quality is impressive for a (mostly) copper piece from the 1790s. Technical issues, including contact marks and scratches, are different from surface quality, which relates more to originality, toning, and the texture of the fields. The surface quality of this piece is impressive. Also, the reverse (back) is of much higher quality than the obverse (front), mostly because it has much fewer contact marks.
I emphasize that a magnifying glass would be needed for most collectors, even experienced collectors of early copper, to be bothered by most of the contact marks. These are more apparent in the catalogue. Indeed, this pattern looks better in actuality than it appears in enlarged images. No one expects an early copper piece that is certified as grading MS-61 to be pristine. This is an attractive pattern.
In sum, it is probably the fourth finest of thirteen known Silver Center Copper Cent patterns. These have been highly demanded by collectors for more than 125 years. Furthermore, Silver Center Copper Cent patterns are tangible links to Alexander Hamilton’s proposals, the legislation regarding the establishment of the first U.S. Mint, and writings by Thomas Jefferson. In addition, these are noteworthy as bimetallic patterns that were seriously considered. Moreover, Silver Center Copper Cent patterns, along with their supposedly billon counterparts, feature a noteworthy design that was never adopted. “LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE & INDUST[RY]” is an interesting motto that never appeared on a regular issue U.S. coin, and relates to the viewpoints of many of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Silver Center Copper Cent patterns are exciting pieces of Americana.
©2012 Greg Reynolds