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Greatest All-Time Collection of Middle Date (1816-39) Large Cents to Be Auctioned (Part 1)

by Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

In Part 1 of my series on the auction of the Naftzger Middle Dates, please find an overview of this collection, general remarks regarding die varieties, my probably not original view on defining types of Middle Date cents, and and a discussion of Naftzger’s cents from the year 1839. In Part 2, I talk about scarce dates and I list some of the high quality type coins in the Naftzger Middle Date collection. In Part 3, there is a broad interpretation of the results of the auction, and a discussion of the 1817 cent, with fifteen stars. In Part 4, there is an analysis of the prices realized of scarce dates from the 1820s. In Part 5, prices realized for Naftzger’s cents from the 1830s are discussed.

1839 Middle DatesOn Feb. 1, at the Beverly Hills Crowne Plaza Hotel, the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg will auction the late Ted Naftzger‘s collection of U.S. cents that date from 1816 to 1839. The specialty firm of McCawley & Grellman handled the cataloguing. It is indisputable that Naftzger had the all-time best collection of large cents. While most of his early cents (dating from 1793 to 1814) were sold privately in 1992, his collection of business strike ‘Middle Date’ cents (dating from 1816 to ’39) remained intact. It will be offered in its entirety in one auction session.

Almost all of the uncirculated ‘Middle Date’ cents in the Naftzger collection are certified, graded and encapsulated by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). Although the collection is nearly complete in terms of die varieties, it is the coins that are graded 65 or higher that will attract the most attention and will lead to the wildest bidding activity. There are, though, many Naftzger Middle Date cents that are the first or second finest known of their respective die varieites, and there will be intense bidding for some of these by ‘die variety’ specialists. Generally, though, date-collectors and type coin collectors are more concerned about quality than ‘die variety’ collectors.

The man reason why quality is paramount in relation to this offering is that, among ‘Middle Date’ large cents, there are no Great Rarities. No business strikes in this series are even extremely rare. (Proof Middle Date large cents are extremely rare. There are, though, just a few such Proofs in this offering and a very high percentage of large cent collectors buy business strikes only.)

One of the key ‘Middle Date’ cents is the 1839/6. It is astonishing that the Naftzger collection contains three high-grade 1839/6 Overdate cents. Overdates that are readily noticeable often have the status of separate dates. At, it is stated that this “overdate is questionable.” The fact that the numeral 9 appears markedly different is not questionable. In my view, whether it is an overdate (which is likely) or a recut date, it is clearly a distinct date that should, and usually does, attain the status of a separate “date” or is collected as such. An 1839/6 is likely to be demanded by those who collect Middle Date (or all) large cents ‘by date’! For every single person who collect large cents ‘by variety,’ there are more than one hundred who collect ‘by date.’

1839/6 N-1 R3+ PCGS graded AU58. The finest of Naftzger’s three 1839/6 cents is PCGS graded MS-65 with a designation that it is “Brown” rather than original Mint Red. It is unusual for an uncirculated pre-1840 large cent to exhibit significant original Mint Red color. Uncirculated coins are graded from 60 to 70, and copper coins receive Brown (‘BN’), Red & Brown (‘RB’), or [Essentially Full] Red (‘RD’) designations. A large cent with unnatural red color will often receive a BN designation. In my opinion, a large cent that is naturally brown should be worth more than one that is unnaturally red, if all other factors are roughly equivalent, though both may be designated as ‘BN.’

The first Naftzger 1839/6 is widely regarded as the finest known. Jim McGuigan, a recognized expert in early copper coins, suggests that this 1839/6 “might bring a lot more than the low estimate of $50,000.”

The second Naftzger 1839/6 is PCGS graded AU-58. McCawley & Grellman grade it as “AU-50.” It is certainly among the top six known, and could be second or third. The PCGS price guide values an Extremely Fine-40 grade 1839/6 at “$10,000,” and does not even list a price for any of the few existing higher grade pieces. Another leading Internet price guide does not value 1839/6 Cents above Very Fine-20 grade.

The Naftzger collection also contains the 1839/6 cent that was formerly in the epic Parmelee collection, one of the greatest coin collections of all time. It is graded Extremely Fine-45 by McCawley & Grellman (M&G), though it certainly has a level of detail that is associated with a higher grade. Puzzling, small contact marks are scattered about the coin, though these do not seem very bothersome in the catalogue pictures. I have never seen this coin.

In addition to the 1839/6 cents already mentioned, the Naftzger collection features numerous 1839 ‘Normal Date’ cents, some of which are of remarkably different varieties. One particular 1839 Normal Date, lot #440, features the “Head of 1838,” with a beaded hair cord. It is PCGS graded 65RB, and the catalogue pictures are enticing.

In my view, the ‘1835-39 Head’ is of a significantly different design than the Matron Head that was featured from 1816-39. Traditionally, however, these 1835 to 1839 cents have been regarded as just variations of the Matron Head large cent type. While there are notable varieties of the 1835-39 type or subtype, the overall look this Head is clearly different from the 1816-35 Matron Head.

1839 N-9 R2 PCGS graded MS65RB.Amazingly, the Naftzger collection has multiple 1839 ‘Silly Head’ cents that are PCGS graded 65 or 66. Two, of subtly different varieties, are graded 65RB, one of which, lot #461, may very well be the finest known ‘Silly Head.’ McCawley & Grellman grade it as “66” and Del Bland assigned an even higher grade to it. Two other Naftzger 1839 ‘Silly Head’ cents are PCGS graded 66-Brown.

The ‘Silly Head’ is a minor variation of 1835-39 Head, though it is far more noticeable than most die varieties, as is the 1839 ‘Booby Head.’ Silly Head and Booby Head cents are often collected as if they are separate dates. The Naftzger collection has several, high-grade 1839 ‘Booby Head’ cents.

All of the variations of the 1835-39 Head (Plain Hair Cord, Beaded Hair Cord, Silly Head, Booby Head) seem to me to stem from the same central design. The 1839 ‘Head of 1840’ cent, in contrast, is really of a design type that is obviously different from other 1839 large cents. It is the first issue of the the ‘Braided Hair’ type, 1839-57, which are the ‘Late Date’ large cents. Other than the three 1839 ‘Head of 1840’ cents in this auction, Naftzger’s ‘Late Date’ cents are scheduled to be auctioned by the Goldbergs in May.

One leading guide book, correctly in my opinion, refers to the Matron Head type as dating from 1816 to 1835, not to 1839 as many other guides do. This same book, however, considers all large cents dating from1835 to 1857 to be of the same type, which is wrong. The 1839 ‘Head of 1840 [to 1843]’ or “Petite Head” is much different from the 1835-39 Head and is extremely similar to the Braided Hair Liberty Head that was employed from 1843 to 1857. It makes the most sense to group the 1839-43 ‘Head of 1840’ cents and the 1843-57 cents as being varieties of the same Braided Hair design type. Indeed, most guides regard the Braided Hair type as dating from 1839 to 1857, yet these same guides often deem the Matron Head type as dating from1816 to 1839, rather than just to 1835.

1839 N-8 R1 PCGS graded MS66RB. As for the three 1839 ‘Head of 1840’ Braided Hair type large cents in this Feb. 1 auction, lots #456 to #458, these are phenomenal for this issue and are at the top of the condition rankings. These are PCGS graded 66RB, 66BN and 65RB, respectively. McCawley & Grellman grade them 66, 65 and 65. It is a little startling that Naftzger had all these three; wouldn’t one have been sufficient for the all-time finest large cent collection?

Although the 1839 ‘Head of 1840’ cents are separate dates, not just die varieties, there are many coins in this collection that are important solely because they are exceptional representatives of particular die varieties. The die varieties of ‘Middle Date’ large cents are identified by way of a system attributed to a long deceased, famous collector and author, Howard Newcomb, who also assembled an excellent collection of ‘Middle Date’ cents.

Many of Newcomb’s coins were later in the large cent collection of Floyd Starr, which was auctioned by Stack’s in 1984. Jim McGuigan identifies “the Floyd Starr and Robby Brown collections as having the best Middle Date sets that have been auctioned over the past thirty years.” McGuigan is referring to these as the best in terms of a combination of overall quality and completeness of die varieties.

Die varieties are not easy to explain. A die is almost cylindrical in shape. Design elements are hubbed, engraved and/or punched into one end. For Middle Date cents, punches were typically used.

An obverse (front) die and a reverse (tail) die are used in a mechanical press to impart designs on prepared, blank, round pieces of metal, which then become coins. In the early years of the U.S. Mint, there were frequently dramatic differences among dies. Over time, differences tended to become more subtle. By the 20th century, for each date and type, all obverse dies are usually nearly identical, as are all respective reverse dies that are used in a given year for each denomination. There are exceptions, particularly regarding significant U.S. Mint errors. Though there is some overlap, die varieties and Mint Errors are considered to be separate topics. It is very unusual and would be tedious, however, for collectors to focus on die varieties of 20th century coins.

In a large number of cases, Naftzger had one of the three finest known pieces of respective die varieties. Indeed, many of the Naftzger ‘Middle Date’ are certainly the finest known of their respective die varieties. Some of these are the finest known of their respective dates.

Unfortunately, I have only seen about a half dozen of the Naftzger ‘Middle Dates’. So, I am here relying upon PCGS grades and opinions put forth by widely recognized experts in large cents. While I have confidence in my sources, I am putting forth impressions and not drawing conclusions about specific coins. There is no perfect substitute, nor even a near-substitute, for actually viewing coins.

In Part 2, I will discuss Naftzger’s amazing 1823 Matron Head cents, which are possibly the most important coins in the collection. Other relatively scarce dates from the 1820s will receive attention, and justifiably so. The rarest die variety among the Naftzger Middle Dates will be mentioned. Finally, gem coins that will appeal to type coin collectors (and, of course, to date-collectors) must be pointed out, as many Naftzger pieces have and will find themselves in stellar type sets.

©2009 Greg Reynolds

About the Author

Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.

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