The 1792 pattern cents, Birch cent, half disme, disme, and quarter were the prototypes for what later became the cent, nickel, dime, and quarter that are still the staples of commerce today. These patterns were essential to the development of United States coinage. As Matthew Kleinsteuber, an analyst for NFC Coins, says, “1792 patterns were crucial beginning steps in the production of U.S. coins. A 1792 cent is an important piece of history.” The smaller cents from this year are all related, although their presentation differs.
The best-known of these coins is the silver center cent. Henry Voigt anticipated a smaller cent diameter by 64 years with his proposed silver center cent. The value of 11 pennyweights of copper was set as the value for a cent. Four different formats were proposed and executed for these experimental coins.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson outlined the variants in a letter to President Washington on December 18, 1792:
“Th. Jefferson has the honor to send the President two cents made on Voigt’s plan by putting a silver plug worth 3/4 of a cent into a copper worth 1/4 cent. Mr. Rittenhouse is about to make a few by mixing the same plug by fusion with the same quantity of copper. He will then make of copper alone of the same size, and lastly he will make the real cent as ordered by Congress, four times as big.”
From the outset it is apparent that the smaller cents were experimental in nature as seen by Jefferson’s reference to “the real cent … four times as big.”
The silver center cent required an annular planchet of copper with a plug of silver in the center. This was an ambitious project for Mint personnel who did not even have a building in which to work yet. The production of copper and mixed alloy small cents, mentioned in Jefferson’s letter, was proposed by David Rittenhouse. The problem with the mixed or “fusible” alloy cents and the pure copper cents was one of both real and perceived value. The United States during the 1790s sought to establish its currency on world markets as beyond reproach. Silver and gold coins were individually examined, and if the planchet was overweight, adjustment marks were made with a file to bring the planchet within tolerance. Likewise, some underweight 1795 dollars had plugs inserted in them, and at least one is known with both a plug and adjustment marks, underscoring the preciseness of weight required by early Mint personnel.
It was this necessity for preciseness of weight that doomed the fusible alloy cent and its pure copper counterpart. It might be all well and good for a scientist like David Rittenhouse to suggest combining 3/4 of a cent of silver with 1/4 of a cent of copper. Since he was the mint director he would know such a “fusible” coin would contain a full cent’s worth of value. However, to the average man on the street such a coin would be indiscernible from a pure copper coin. It would simply look like a small version of the larger copper coins that had been in circulation since Colonial days.
Remarkably few of the non-silver center cents have undergone elemental analysis. Of those that have been tested, only the Harmer Rooke coin, number 7 in the roster below, has been scientifically confirmed to contain a mixture of silver and copper in its composition. There is no reliable listing of how many specimens of each composition have survived. Both the fusible alloy and pure copper coins are listed as Judd-2 in the pattern reference, because of this uncertainty. Ideally they would have separate listings, as is the practice with other issues that have strikings in different compositions. To establish the composition of this particular coin, it was subjected to energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence testing by Peter Wright of Alternate Systems, LLC. The results indicate this coin includes 1%-1.3% silver content, but the margin for error with this test is 1.8%, so the results are inconclusive.
The best roster we have been able to assemble lists ten individual coins, but two of these are in institutional collections. As indicated in the write-up of the coin in Heritage’s 2008 FUN catalog, a new piece has been discovered recently (the Wolcott Family coin that was discovered in 2004), and two pieces have been discredited (the Lohr specimen is now believed to be a counterfeit, and the Appleton-MHS coin is believed lost). Unless the Lohr specimen is rehabilitated or the Appleton-MHS specimen resurfaces, there are only six examples of this issue in collector’s hands. The following is an expanded and modified version of our 2008 roster:
1. A specimen in the National Numismatic Collection, Smithsonian Institution, inventory number 1985.0441.1898, formerly in the Mint Cabinet. Pictured on page 19 of The History of the National Numismatic Collections by Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli. Probably the finest known. The Adams-Woodin plate coin and the plate coin for Judd’s 1st through 7th editions.
2. XF40 Uncertified. Lorin G. Parmelee, purchased for $110 prior to 1886; Parmelee Collection (New York Coin and Stamp, 6/1890), lot 6, realized $37 to Charles Steigerwalt; Vigil Brand; purchased by the Norwebs on January 11, 1936 via B. Max Mehl; Norweb Collection Part III (Bowers and Merena, 11/1988), lot 3393, realized $35,200. Probably second finest known.
3. VF30 PCGS. Wolcott Family, possibly preserved by the family since 1792, surfaced at the 2004 ANA Convention; Dennis Loring; Pre-Long Beach Auction (Ira and Larry Goldberg, 2/2005), lot 806, realized $437,000; Madison Collection (Heritage, 1/2008), lot 3462, realized $603,750, Legend Numismatics, Simpson Collection.
4. Very Fine Uncertified. George Seavey; Seavey Descriptive Catalog (William Strobridge, 6/1873), lot 841, not sold, as Lorin G. Parmelee purchased the collection intact; Lorin G. Parmelee; sold to Dr. Maris sometime before 1886, as related in correspondence between H.P. Newlin and T. Harrison Garrett dated June 30,1886; Dr. Edward Maris Collection (Harlan Page Smith, 6/1886), lot 146, realized $67.50; T. Harrison Garrett; Robert Garrett; John Work Garrett; Johns Hopkins University; Garrett Collection Part IV (Bowers and Ruddy,3/1981), lot 2348.
5. Fine 15 NGC. The present coin. Loye Lauder Collection (William Doyle Galleries, 12/1983), lot 234; Dana Linett, sold for $15,000 in 1983; David Henderson; Rare Coin Review number 53, October 1984, listed for $24,750; Benson Collection Part I (Ira and Larry Goldberg, 2/2001), lot 151, realized $57,500; Old West and Franklinton Collection (American Numismatic Rarities, 8/2006), lot 14, realized $218,500; Southern Collection; Simpson Collection; Laura Sperber; John Albanese; Al Pinkall/ Gold Rarities; the present consignor.
6. Good-VG Uncertified. Century Sale (Paramount, 4/1965), lot 50, realized $1,050; Rare Coin Review numbers 19 and 20, offered at $14,950; later offered by Douglas Robbins, Inc. at $37,500; Coin World ad on December 4, 1974; Washington, D.C. Sale (Pine Tree Auctions, 2/1975), lot 59; American Numismatic Association.
7. Good-VG Porous, Uncertified. Harmer-Rooke in November 1969; New Jersey private collection.
8. Good Uncertified. Major Lennox Lohr Collection; offered in the Empire Coin Company’s fixed price list in 1961 at $3,750; River Oaks and Krugjohann Collections (Bowers and Ruddy, 11/1976), lot 909; Public Auction Sale (Stack’s, 1/1987), lot 476; also possibly the coin in the Belknap/ Martin Collection (Thomas Elder, 10/1908), lot 617, per Stack’s. The authenticity of this coin has been challenged, as it was returned to Stack’s after the 1987 sale.
9. A specimen in the American Numismatic Society Collection, inventory number 1956.163.25. Ex: F.C.C. Boyd per Andrew Pollock.
10. Fewsmith Cabinet (Ebenezer Locke Mason, 10/1870), lot 1140, realized $41 to William Sumner Appleton, Massachusetts Historical Society via Appleton’s bequest in 1905, cataloged in that collection in the 1920s but not traced since. The Crosby plate coin, Plate X-22.
Heritage’s 2011 August Chicago Signature US Coin & Platinum Night Auction to be held August 11-14, they will offer this coin, graded Fine 15 by NGC as Lot # 27001
This coin possesses extraordinary historical significance, extreme rarity, and unparalleled collector interest. The opportunity to acquire such a piece is truly once in a lifetime.