US Rare Coins: 1792 Dime and Silver Center Copper Cent Patterns
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #220
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds……
Perhaps the most famous of all patterns is the ‘Silver Center Copper Cent’ of 1792. It is certainly the most famous non-gold pattern. The 1792 dime patterns, then each referred to as a “disme,” are famous and desirable, too. U.S. cents were not struck until 1793 and dimes not until 1796. Eric Newman’s 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent pattern and his 1792 ‘disme’ in copper are ‘in the news’ as these will be auctioned by Heritage on Friday, May 16 in New York, along with many other pre-1793 American items from Newman’s collection. Herein, the history, rarity and importance of these two pattern issues are discussed.
Newman’s 1792 copper ‘disme’ was recently graded “AU-55” by the NGC. The PCGS and the NGC are the two main certification services. Most of the rarities that emerged from the Eric Newman Collection had been ‘off the market’ for more than fifty years!
Newman’s 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent is apparently one of the better survivors. I have not yet examined it. It is NGC graded “MS-63+” and, even if most experts graded it as MS-62, it would still be one of the five finest of twelve to fourteen known.
In the second session on May 16, many famous rarities will be offered. I am planning a separate discussion of Newman’s incredible group of Higley Coppers. It is relevant to the current topics that Newman also has a 1783 ‘100 Unit’ pattern in silver, which is sometimes called a ‘bit.’ This ‘100 Unit’ denomination is explained in my discussion last year of the Garrett-Perschke Quint.
The ‘100 unit’ concept is a precursor to the introduction of a silver dime. Before the word “dime” was coined, not long after 1792, the awkward word “disme,” a not fully authentic French word, was used by some involved with the formation of the U.S. Mint and dime was occasionally spelled “disme” for a few decades. After 1800, though, the reasons for and pronunciation of “disme” were largely forgotten.
The origin and meaning of the word “disme,” which probably was pronounced as ‘deem,’ is addressed in my two part series on 1792 half disme patterns. There is not a 1792 Half Disme in this upcoming auction.
A main reason why the Nova Constellatio patterns of 1783 and the various patterns of 1792 are extremely important is that they are based upon decimal systems. The monetary systems of the major European powers were non-decimal. Indeed, Europeans then tended not to multiple or divide by powers of ten, in regards to calculations involving money. In the 1700s, the notion of a decimal-monetary system was not often considered and many people probably thought of such a system as being weird.
I. 1792 Dime Patterns
Each 1792 “disme” in copper, a pattern dime, was struck in copper to illustrate a proposed design. Copper was (and still is) much less costly than silver. Patterns of silver or gold denominations were often struck in copper to distribute for free to chosen people, especially including those who had the potential to influence coinage policies. Copper patterns of silver or gold denominations gained attention for proposals or other ideas regarding coinage.
Years before dimes were first struck in 1796, U.S. ten cent coins were planned to be primarily silver. Indeed, dimes were originally specified to be 89.24% silver and later, for more than a century, to be 90% silver and 10% copper. The last business strike silver dimes are dated 1964.
According to Saul Teichman, there are three 1792 ‘disme’ patterns in silver, “about” twenty in copper with a reeded edge, and three in copper with a plain edge. My guess, though, is that there exist just sixteen with a reeded edge.
Most 1792 ‘disme’ patterns have wear and/or serious problems. In Feb. 2005, the Goldbergs auctioned a plain edge piece that had been defaced, for $55,200. On Aug. 3, 2012, Heritage auctioned the Queller piece, which is NGC graded “VF-30,” for $305,500. Earlier, this Queller 1792 ‘disme’ pattern sold for $253,000 in Jan. 2009.
Generally, only a small number of 1792 ‘dismes,’ dime patterns, have been offered over the last thirty years. All the ones that I discuss here were struck in copper. I believe that only one of the three silver pieces is of high quality and it may not have traded in more than fifty years.
Heritage offered the Garrett-Ellsworth 1792 ‘disme,’ with a reeded edge, in 1999. It was then PCGS certified as ‘Specimen-65.’
The Price-Greensboro 1792 ‘disme’ was auctioned by Heritage on July 31, 2008, for $690,000, and auctioned again in Oct. 2012 for $587,500. It was NGC certified as “Proof-62.” ‘In my view, it is not a Proof,’ a point that I made clear on CoinWeek.com long before this piece was PCGS certified as “MS-62.”
ANR auctioned an NGC graded ‘EF-40’ 1792 copper “disme” for $102,925 in 2004. That pattern was earlier in the Allen Lovejoy Collection and is a very pleasing piece, with few imperfections. In 2006, ANR auctioned a PCGS graded “VF-25“ 1792 ‘disme’ in copper for $87,400.
In the Stack’s-Bowers Rarities Night of Aug. 18, 2011, the PCGS graded “AU-55” Norweb piece sold for $362,250. The Norweb piece is very appealing, a really neat item. I spent several minutes examining it. I wonder if the Newman piece equals the Norweb piece?
II. Importance of 1792 patterns
In April 1792, an act of the U.S. Congress authorized a U.S. Mint. In total, a substantial number of 1792 patterns survive, though some varieties are prohibitively rare. Patterns of 1792 are highly cherished by pattern collectors, by collectors of early U.S. coins, and by collectors of related pre-1793 American items. Some collectors of colonial coins seek them, too.
Those involved in planning for U.S. coinage considered a variety of coin designs, mostly with artistic themes relating to ‘Liberty,’ and they tested equipment in 1792. Broadly defined, surviving patterns of 1792 include proposals for cents, half dimes, dimes and quarters, and related items. Privately made, “1792” half dollar patterns survive as well.
U.S. large cents “were first struck in late February 1793,” according to researcher R. W. Julian, who has spent decades examining primary source materials. These were planned to be about 100% copper. The proposal for a copper one cent coin with a silver center is novel and intriguing, though it was never adopted. It was not easy to persuade respective majorities in both houses of congress to support any U.S. coinage at a U.S. Mint.
In the 1780s and 1790s, the United States was a very young nation and, curiously, the concept of a national U.S. Mint was very controversial. Many citizens and many leading politicians figured that the costs of having a Mint outweighed the benefits of having one. Others had a distaste for a national government and favored leaving almost governmental responsibilities to the individual State or very local governments.
The usage of a decimal monetary system by the U.S. was radical and odd at the time. The relevant monetary denominations in the British system were largely (though not entirely) based upon multiples of three or twelve.
The British, though were then widely regarded as ‘the enemy’! Many U.S. citizens figured that it would be efficient and comfortable for the U.S. monetary system to be consistent with that of the Spanish Empire. Indeed, more than a few U.S. citizens assumed that there was not a need for striking coins in the U.S, as available coins of the Spanish Empire were sufficient for commerce in the U.S.
In 1792, people living in the United States were very much accustomed to the coinage of the Spanish Empire, which then included Mexico, almost all of Central America, and most of South America. Plus, coins of the Spanish Empire were widely used in international trade and constituted an astonishing percentage of the whole world’s supply of coins.
The units in Spanish coinage was based upon multiples of eight. The basis for the U.S. silver dollar was the Spanish Eight Reales silver coin. “Dollars” were referred to as “Units, each to be of the value of a Spanish [Eight Reales] dollar, as the same is now current,” according to the law in 1792 that detailed a system of U.S. coinage and authorized the construction of a U.S. Mint.
The main, large gold coin of the Spanish Empire was denominated as eight escudos, which amounted to 128 reales. In another words, a one escudo gold coin equaled sixteen reales, two Eight Reales Spanish ‘Silver Dollars.’ In matters regarding money, the Spanish, the people living in Spanish colonies, and many U.S. citizens, tended to think in terms of multiples of eight. According to researcher Julian, even as late as the 1830s, “more than half of the circulating silver coins in the United States were Spanish.”
I theorize that one of the main objectives of the patterns of 1792 was to announce to influential people that the decimal system was becoming central to U.S. coinage. Undoubtedly, many U.S. citizens found it difficult, or impossible, to stop thinking of monetary amounts in multiple of eight or of three, and to start thinking of coins and prices in decimal terms.
Until very late in the 20th century, NYSE ‘quotes’ in the U.S. were still listed with fractions of a dollar in eighths. Indeed, when I was a kid, I was puzzled that a ‘stock,’ on the New York Stock Exchange, might often sell for a price like twenty-six and seven-eighths dollars per share. I did not then understand the use of eighths in regards to money. I wondered why stock traders confused matters by pricing stocks ‘in eighths.’ Seeing stock ‘quotes’ printed with eighths of a dollar contributed to my interest in coins.
III. History of the Silver Center Copper Cent
In 1791, Alexander Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury and he submitted a coinage plan to the U.S. Congress. Most of Hamilton’s proposals, however, were not actualized. Thomas Jefferson was more instrumental in the development of the system of coinage in the United States. Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris, who were unrelated, played important roles in the beginnings of U.S. coinage.
For a while, Hamilton’s plans regarding the cent and the half cent denominations were incorporated into law. Indeed, in a law passed in 1792, ‘The Mint Act,’ following Hamilton’s plan, it was specified that each cent was to weight to weigh 264 grains, which is equivalent to 0.55 Troy Ounce, 0.603 standard ounce, or 17.107 grams. If this law, which established a U.S. Mint, had been implemented, without later amendments, each copper cent would have been considerably larger than a half dollar, and more than sixty-three percent of the weight of a silver dollar. Pennies would have been very big coins.
It seems that Hamilton was focused upon the market value of copper as a metal and was planning for each cent to contain one cent worth of copper or nearly that much. As R. W. Julian emphasizes, having each cent contain so much copper would “deter counterfeiting.” Criminals would have had little or nothing to gain by making fake cents of the size that Hamilton envisioned, as they would have had to obtain so much copper just to make one cent coins.
Those involved in the planning of the U.S. Mint realized that huge, Hamilton size, cents and half cents would be awkward and might not be widely accepted by the general public. Undoubtedly, most merchants would not have been enthusiastic about them.
In his doctoral dissertation, which was finished in 1916, Neil Carothers asserts that “it should have been obvious that a copper cent two-thirds as large as the silver dollar was” not sensible. Carothers states that patterns of huge cents were discarded before “patterns of ‘the billon coins of France’ to which Hamilton had referred” were made. (Carothers, Fractional Money, 1916, p. 65 of the 1930 edition).
Billon refers to alloys that contain both silver and copper (or bronze), though are mostly copper. Carothers’ statements regarding billon patterns are not entirely accurate. The Silver Center Copper Cent patterns of 1792 are not made of billon. Of the same artistic design, both Silver Center Copper Cent patterns and billon cent patterns were made.
The billon pieces are those referred to as consisting of a “fusible alloy,” a blend of silver and copper that is not fully detectable through observation. In 2008, I discussed ‘fusible alloy’ patterns, after Heritage auctioned a 1792 cent pattern that is probably billon.
Some researchers confuse the concepts of bimetallic and billon, which are very different. 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 central part, the Library of Congress $10 piece. The 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent patterns are bimetallic, not billon.
Both the billon-‘fusible alloy’ cent patterns and Silver Center Copper Cent patterns were proposals in line with the spirit of the law, rather than being consistent with the details of the wording of the law, which did require huge cents, as envisioned by Hamilton. A silver center or a billon alloy could have been a way to produce one cent coins in the 1790s that were smaller than quarters are now and then contained one cent, or just a little less, of metal.
Thomas Jefferson stated that the silver plug in each Silver Center Copper 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 and the whole pattern contained roughly one cent worth of metal, or just a little less than one cent worth of metal.
In my report on the offering of the Morris piece in 2012, I cited David Watson’s book on the History of American Coinage, which was published in 1899 and was highly regarded by scholars for decades. Watson reveals (on p. 65) that Thomas Jefferson sent two Silver Center Copper Cent patterns to President George Washington in December 1792. Moreover, Jefferson informed Washington that David Rittenhouse, the director of the U.S. Mint, would arrange for minting of billon cent patterns and for copper-only cent patterns of the same size as the Silver Center Copper Cent patterns, and “lastly, he will make the [specified] cent, as ordered by Congress, [which would be] four times as big” as 1792 Silver Center Copper cent patterns, Watson informs.
Neil Carothers found that the U.S. Congress rejected both billon and Silver Center Copper Cent concepts. In contrast, R. W. Julian found that the “silver-center and billon cents were not discussed by Congress.” Julian adds that the “billon and silver-cent pieces were mentioned in the press but went nowhere because of practical considerations.”
In Jan. 1793, the coinage act of 1792 was amended to authorize copper coins that weighed much less than those that Hamilton had envisioned. There was then no longer a reason to consider including silver in one cent coins. Within weeks, Chain Cents were struck.
IV. Rarity & Rankings
Twelve or thirteen 1792 Silver Center Copper cent patterns are known. An additional piece was apparently intended to be a Silver Center Copper cent pattern, yet a silver center was never incorporated into it. There is an empty space where a silver center could have been. A supposed Silver Center Copper Cent pattern that has no silver center is very different, in my view.
It seems that the finest known 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent patterns are the Garrett family piece, which is PCGS graded “MS-67,” and the Norweb family piece, which is PCGS graded “MS-64.” I have seen the Norweb piece and I have heard much about the Garrett piece from John Albanese and Saul Teichman. It is not clear as to which piece should be third in the condition ranking.
Although the Morris piece is PCGS graded “MS-61,” some experts tend to grade this piece as AU-58. In my view, a “61“ grade is fair enough, given the criteria that is currently employed by most expert graders. Many rare U.S. coins that have some wear are assigned a grade of “MS-61.” This is an excellent coin.
The NGC’s grade of “61+” for the Bushnell-Earle piece is a different matter. Experts suggest that piece grades “MS-60” at best. It is dull and has substantial technical issues.
The Bushnell-Earle “61+” grade piece sold for $822,500 when Heritage auctioned it in April 2013. Almost precisely one year earlier, the Morris “61” grade piece was auctioned by Heritage for $1.15 million and that result was not strong. It was purchased by a trio of dealers who sold it for a profit, not long after that auction.
In 2011, the certified “64” grade Norweb piece sold privately for a price between $2 million and $3 million. The PCGS CoinFacts site states that the “67” grade Garrett piece “reportedly sold for $5 million in January 2012.” Another source indicates that this is true.
The auction sale of the Bushnell-Earle piece for only $822,500 is circumstantial evidence that my view that the coin grades MS-60 at best is accurate. There is almost no way that a 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent that truly grades “MS-61,” or higher, would have sold for less than $950,000 in an auction in recent years. A wholesale price for a true MS-61 grade pattern of this type would be more than $1 million.
So, it is almost certain that the Newman piece is of higher quality than the Bushnell piece and it may very well be of higher quality than the Morris piece. An intriguing question concerns the numerical grade that would be assigned to the Weinberg piece by the NGC or the PCGS, if it was submitted in 2014. Alan Weinberg purchased it at an auction in New York in 1983. It has never been graded by the PCGS or the NGC.
I have never seen the Weinberg piece and I have yet to examine the Newman piece. I have seen high resolution images of the Weinberg piece, which are impressive. Given the fact that most of the others are said to grade from Very Fine-25 to MS-60 at best, there is a good chance that the Newman piece is the third or fourth finest known, though I am not now drawing conclusions about it.
©2014 Greg Reynolds