Two of Four Known Strawberry Leaf Large Cents Sell in the FUN Auction of the Mervis Collection
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #209
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……..
On Jan. 10, 2014, at the FUN Convention in Orlando, Heritage auctioned one of the most complete collections of large cents that has ever been assembled, which was owned by Adam Mervis. U.S. large cents were minted from 1793 to 1857. There were more than nine hundred large cents in the Mervis Collection. In terms of rarity and fame, the two greatest coins in the collection were his two “Strawberry Leaf” Large Cents, a major variety of 1793 Wreath Cents. There are just four known ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ and one of the two in this collection is of a unique die pairing, the words on the reverse (back) are spaced differently.
One is PCGS graded “Good-04” and the ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ that is of a unique variety is PCGS graded “Fair-02.” For their grades, these are both surprisingly attractive coins and I was extremely excited when I first examined them in Jan. 2009. ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ are legends in the coin collecting community and have been avidly discussed since pictures of one of the Mervis two appeared in the first published photographic plate of coins in 1869!
I. What are these?
‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ are Wreath Cents. The U.S. Mint became operational in 1793 and only copper coins were struck that year, half cents and large cents. I recently devoted a three part series to the all-time most complete sets of half cents, which was also auctioned in January, though by the Goldbergs in California.
In 1793, Chain Cents, Wreath Cents and Liberty Cap Cents were minted. Liberty Cap Cents continued to be minted until 1796, though Liberty Cap Cents with a beaded border were struck only in 1793. Chain Cents and Wreath Cents are clearly one-year type coins. All Wreath Cents are dated 1793 and feature a sprig with leaves above the date.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a sprig is a “small twig or stem that has leaves or flowers on it.” The name ‘Strawberry Leaf’ is misleading for two reasons. First, there are multiple leaves in the design of each Wreath Cent, not one ‘leaf.’ Second, there is not evidence that the leaves on ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ are supposed to be strawberry leaves.
The ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ is mentioned without the use of the word strawberry in the April 1869 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics, a publication of the American Numismatic Society, which then had a slightly different name. An article on 1793 cents by Sylvester Crosby is illustrated with a photographic plate of various 1793 coins that was produced by Joseph Levick.
This ‘plate’ is the most famous published page of pictures in the history of coin collecting. It is the first such photographic plate and it spurred enthusiasm for collecting. Moreover, it greatly helped educate people about the details of early U.S. coins. Further, many of the coins pictured were (and still are) extremely popular with collectors. Indeed, 1793 was the first year of operation of the U.S. Mint and large cents have always been one of the most popular of collecting specialties.
“Its distinguishing feature is in the leaves under [Miss Liberty,] which are three trefoils or clover leaves,” Crosby said in 1869, “and the underneath the one at the right is a blossom.” This statement by Crosby was echoed by Ed Frossard, in an epic work on large cents and half cents that was published in 1879 [on p. 9]. Crosby and Frossard believed that the leaves on these are not related to strawberries. In 1897, Crosby suggested that these may be depictions of cotton leaves.
Whether are not the leaves relate to strawberries, large cents of this variety will continue to be referred to as ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents.’ Importantly, this is not a variety that requires magnification to identify. A primary point is that the sprig on all other Wreath Cents is noticeably distinct from the sprig on the variety that is now known as the ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’!
II. Importance of the ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’
The Strawberry Leaf Cent of 1793 is a readily apparent variety that tends to be listed in guides as if it is a separate date. Some large cent experts figure that it is needed for a date-set (which requires fewer coins than a die variety set) of early large cents. Only three varieties of Wreath Cents are listed, as if they are distinct dates, in the PCGS price guide and separately in the Numismedia.com price guide: Vine and Bars Edge, Lettered Edge, and Strawberry Leaf. These exact same three major varieties are the only Wreath Cents listed in the leading introductory book on U.S. coins.
Curiously, during this first year, three design types of cents were minted: Chain Cents, Wreath Cents and Liberty Cap Cents. ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ are Wreath Cents. All Wreath Cents feature a head of Miss Liberty with flowing hair is on the obverse (front of the coin) and a distinct wreath is on the reverse (back of the coin: tail). In general, 1793 Wreath Cents are not particularly rare. More than three thousand exist, of all varieties. Strawberry Leaf 1793 Wreath Cents, however, are apparently different from typical 1793 Wreath Cents.
The appeal of ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ extends way beyond the group of collectors who seek to complete sets of die varieties of large cents or of early large cents. Indeed, ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ are often considered to be subtypes, not just die varieties.
Throughout the history of coin collecting in the U.S., ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ have been famous and highly demanded. The finest known ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ was formerly owned by Lorin Parmelee, who formed one of the all-time greatest collections of classic U.S. coins. He did not focus upon die varieties. Parmelee sought major rarities in gold and silver as well and and he owned many of them.
As there are only four ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ known, and just three of these are owned by collectors, it is not surprising that large cent enthusiasts have tended, over the last century, to be willing to pay more than collectors of other series in order to obtain these. Floyd Starr previously owned the two that were in the Naftzger, Holmes and Mervis Collections. Starr is best remembered for his extremely comprehensive collection of large cents, which Stack’s auctioned in 1984. Starr had, however, a major collection of silver and gold coins in addition to his landmark set of large cents. The 1792 half disme that Starr once owned sold for $1,410,000 in the Jan. 2013 FUN Platinum Night event.
I am not here discussing the ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ in the ANS museum, as it is not available and has not been offered in a very long time. On three of the four known ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents,’ including the ANS coin, the words of the denomination, “ONE CENT,” are placed high within the wreath on the reverse (back). These three are of the die pairing that is known as “NC-3.” The currently classified ‘non-collectible’ (NC) varieties of early large cents were, in the past, judged to be so rare that there was no point in requiring them for the completion of a set of die varieties of early large cents.
In contrast, the Sheldon ‘S’ varieties are collected by many people. There are 295 ‘S’ die varieties, dating from 1793 to 1814, plus some edge varieties that are indicated with letters. (For example, S-11A has an edge that is different from that of S-11B.) The Mervis Collection contained all 295 ‘S’ varieties and eight or so related edge varieties, more than twenty ‘non-collectible’ (NC) varieties, notable die states and important errors. One reason that it is hard to complete sets of early large cents is that many rarities are in museums.
The ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ in the ANS museum, the finest known PCGS graded VG-10 ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ and the PCGS graded ‘Good-04’ Starr-Naftzger-Holmes-Mervis coin are all of variety NC-3, with ‘ONE CENT’ placed high in the wreath. There is only one NC-2 ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ known, with ‘ONE CENT’ low or centered, depending upon how the design elements are interpreted.
In my view, it makes sense to refer the NC-3 pieces as ‘ONE CENT high’ as was done in the Goldbergs catalogue of Dan Holmes’ Early Dates. To make the difference clear, the term ‘low’ is better than the term ‘centered’ in regard to the unique (NC-2) Fair-02 grade ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent.’
The low and high concepts as applied to the placement of the denomination in the wreath can be easily memorized and are, to some extent, self-explanatory. The terms ‘NC-2’ and ‘NC-3’ require a reference guide to decode and are mysterious. As an aside, I note that I am disappointed that no one adopted the easy and logical terms that I coined last year to identify Higley Coppers, which can be easily used to identify major varieties of Higley Coppers without the need to consult any reference guide.
III. The finest known Strawberry Leaf Cent
The finest known ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ resided in the Staples family for more than six decades, after Roscoe Staples, a collector, was killed in World War II. This cent was NGC graded ‘Fine-12’ in 2004 and it was PCGS graded ‘Very Good-10’ near the end of January 2009.
Specialists in die varieties of early American copper (EAC) coins tend to grade this coin as ‘VG-07’ or ‘VG-08.’ There is a concensus, however, that it is the finest known. I refer to it as the Parmelee-Staples ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent.’ This specific coin has been famous since before the auction of Parmelee’s collection in 1890!
To illustrate the variety that almost everyone now refers to as the ‘Strawberry Leaf,’ Frossard includes a picture of this specific coin in the monograph that he published in 1879. In my digital copy of this work, the pictures are a little fuzzy. I am here relying upon the interpretations of the published pictures by others, including John Krajelvich who catalogued this finest known ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ for ANR in 2004.
In Nov. 2004, ANR auctioned this coin for $414,000, which was then considered a vast amount. Indeed, this $414,000 result was then an auction record for a large cent. The record that was broken was also set in an ANR auction, just a few months earlier.
In July 2004, the Eliasberg-Jung, PCGS graded “MS-65” 1793 Chain Cent sold for $391,000. That same Eliasberg-Jung Chain Cent was auctioned by Heritage in Jan. 2012 for $1.38 million, as I then reported, a result that is the current auction record for a copper numismatic item of any kind. In Jan. 2009, Stack’s-ANR auctioned this finest known ‘Strawberry Leaf’ cent for $862,500, another record for its time.
This finest known ‘Strawberry Leaf’ Cent has significant details that would correspond to a grade higher than Fine-12. It is ‘net graded’ due to corrosion in the fields. It is still an appealing coin, with mellow light brown design elements and medium to dark brown fields. There are some pleasing shades of russet toning, too.
IV. Starr-Naftzger-Holmes-Mervis, ‘ONE CENT’ High
This Holmes-Mervis, Strawberry Leaf, ‘ONE CENT high’ is net graded by the PCGS as Good-04 and Bob Grellman had earlier assigned this same grade to it. In the catalogue of the Holmes ‘Early Date’ sale by the Goldbergs in Sept. 2009, Grellman notes that this ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ has the details of a Fine-12 grade coin. Bob emphasizes that it is “covered with moderate corrosion,” especially “on the obverse”. Grellman mentions other imperfections, including rim bumps and scratches. Despite its imperfections, which are not unusual for a 1793 cent, this is an exciting coin to view.
Its color is very similar to that of the finest known Strawberry Leaf Cent. Light tan-brown design elements contrast well with medium to deep brown fields, plus there are some russet shades. Admittedly, the amount of corrosion in this coin is a little bothersome. It is difficult to appreciate the leaves and view the numerals.
There is no doubt, though, that this is a genuine ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent.’
This coin sold for $218,500 in Sept. 2009. Greg Hannigan bought this and the other Starr-Naftzger-Holmes ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent.’ Mervis purchased both of them from Hannigan in March 2011.
On Jan. 10, 2014, this coin sold for $381,875, which Denis Loring regards as a “very strong” price. Hannigan notes that “it did well.”
V. Fair-02+ ‘ONE CENT Low’
Although the sole surviving ‘ONE CENT low’ (NC-2) ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ has been regarded as unique for more than 140 years, this is not the only characteristic about it that I like. Several experts grade it as “Fair-02,” though Grellman adds a ‘plus.’ In my view, a “Fair-02+” grade is more than fair. Indeed, this coin merits a plus, a star and other accolades. For a Fair-02 grade coin, it is terrific. Although Grellman notes some “porosity,” I find this to be extremely minor. All three ‘ONE CENT high’ (NC-3) ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ have far more serious surface problems than does this ‘ONE CENT low’ coin.
This unique ‘ONE CENT low’ (NC-2) ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ is characterized by wear that is smooth, even, normal and honest. Some of the imperfections in the rims were caused at the U.S. Mint. One very noticeable rim bump would probably be consistent with a grade of AG-03 or higher and is thus not a cause for concern in regards to this coin. Moreover, this coin has just a few contact marks. There are many fairly graded Fine-12 grade large cents that have more contact marks than does this coin. Also, its color is natural and very appealing.
Overall, this coin is excellent for a well circulated, pre-1800 large cent. Even if the two Naftzger-Starr-Holmes-Mervis, ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ were of the same variety, I would rather have this one.
This same coin appears in the first photographic plate of U.S. coins, which I already mentioned. This ‘Levick plate’ was published in April 1869! Crosby then referred to this specific coin as being “unique”! Now, 140 years later, it remains the only coin known of its die pairing.
In 2009, this coin brought $264,500, a price that I then concluded was weak. In the same auction, the Naftzger-Holmes, PCGS graded VG-10 1795 Reeded Edge Cent sold for $1,265,000, the first large cent to be auctioned for more than one million dollars! In order to comprehend the specialness of that coin, it has to be picked up and examined with a magnifying glass. That 1795 is another Dan Holmes coin that was in the Adam Mervis Collection.
On Jan. 10, 2014, it brought $646,250. This current result, Denis Loring states, “realistically reflects what the coin is worth, and the Holmes price was an aberration, a product of the moment.”
On Jan. 10, 2014, the unique ‘ONE CENT low’ (NC-2) ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’sold for $352,500, much more than the $264,500 result in Sept. 2009, though less than the $381,875 result for the “Good-04”‘ONE CENT high’ ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’! I maintain that the Fair-02 coin should be worth substantially more than the “Good-04” Starr-Naftzger-Holmes-Mervis coin.
In a technical sense, this ‘ONE CENT low’ (NC-2) ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent’ has far superior surface quality than the other three. From a logical perspective, I find the $352,500 result to be very reasonable. I have thought much about these. Indeed, I have been very curious about ‘Strawberry Leaf Cents’ since I was a kid.
©2014 Greg Reynolds