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A Condition Census Example of the Famed 1799 Large Cent

By Greg Cohen, Professional Numismatist & Consignment Director, U.S. & World Coins

Author: Greg Cohen / Friday, March 06, 2015 / Categories: United States Coin of the Week

Few series of coins have as devoted a following as early large cents. From the earliest days of American numismatics, this series has attracted serious students, who value not just the monetary value of the coin, but the also the historical context and the cast of characters that make up the provenances of their specimens. Issued from 1793 to 1857, large cents play a large role in the canon of American numismatic literature, with specialized references published as early as the 1860s. American coin collecting became a popular pursuit in the 1850s, around the time that large copper cents were being replaced by the smaller sized copper-nickel Flying Eagle cents in 1857. Many collections were started by trying to see how many examples of different dates could be obtained from circulation. By collecting in this manner, early numismatists began discover how rare certain coins might be. Indeed, cents of 1793, 1799 and 1815 (no cents produced with that date) proved to be the most difficult to find.

While the mint reported a mintage of 904,585 cents struck in 1799 (per Walter Breen), a good many of these must have been struck from earlier dated dies. Indeed the Guide Book includes the mintage of the 1799 cents with the 1798 cents. A number of these were struck on poorly prepared planchets that made the coins dark even at first striking, and the demands of commerce swallowed up these newly minted cents. According to numismatic lore, by the time the famed “father of American coin collecting” Joseph Mickley tried in vain to find an example of the year of his birth (1799) in circulation, most of these had already been dispersed into commerce throughout the rapidly expanding United States.

Since large cents did not contain precious metal, very few of them were exported when their metallic content rose to be worth more than the face value, and thus they remained in circulation for many, many years. As a result, most known 1799 large cents are heavily circulated. Worse, many found their way into the ground or other moist environment, which caused the coins to corrode or suffer some other environmental damage. A problem free coin, regardless of numeric grade, is a rarity that is highly sought after by countless numismatists.

Lot 6009 in the Stack’s Bowers March 2015 Baltimore auction is a pleasing PCGS certified, CAC verified, VF-30 1799 large cent. The surfaces show scattered marks from use in early 19th century commerce, and some carbon spotting from the poorly prepared planchets is noted, primarily on the obverse. Some weakness in strike, also common to the issue, is seen on the central portions of the reverse, but overall the definition is wonderful.

When Walter Breen compiled his condition census in his Encyclopedia (published in 2000 by Bowers & Merena Galleries}, he listed coins graded From AU-50 to VF-25 as the condition census. The highest graded, called AU-50 in the Census, is now certified as MS-61 by PCGS, and is the finest known. From there the PCGS Population drops, and places this piece within the finest dozen graded by that firm. The population at VF-30 is six, with only five examples grading higher. In January 2013, we were pleased to sell the Cardinal Collection VF-35 example for $99,875.