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1796 Large Cent Brings $690,000: New Auction Record for a Copper Coin

By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

1796 S-84 Naftzger Large CentOn Sunday, Sept. 14, a 1796 Large Cent sold for $690,000 at an auction held at The Crowne Plaza Beverly Hills hotel. Before the mid 1850s, pennies were about the size of quarters.

This cent was consigned by the family of the late Ted Naftzger, who formed the all-time best collection of large cents. A selection from the Naftzger collection was a highlight of the auction extravaganza conducted by the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg, a few days prior to the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo. Naftzger’s ‘middle-date’ large cents will be auctioned at the same location in Feb. 2009.

The main reason why this auction result is astounding is that this coin is not rare. Moreover, the rarity of its variety, which is known as S-84, may not have played a substantial role in this Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap realizing $690,000. All large cents of a particular die variety were struck from the same pair of dies, which are cylinders employed in a mechanical press to impart designs on prepared blank discs that are thus transformed into coins.

It is true that, if fewer than a dozen of a particular large cent die variety are known, then the rarity of the variety could be responsible for each being worth a large sum. There probably exist, though, between two hundred and four hundred 1796 Liberty Cap cents (S-84) that were struck from this same pair of dies.

One characteristic, of this (S-84) variety of 1796 Liberty Caps, is that numerals ‘1′ and ‘7′ are higher than numerals ‘9′ and ‘6′. Another characteristic relates to the proximity of a leaf to the ‘F’ in “OF” on the reverse (back of the coin). While specialists are very serious about such matters, most collectors have little interest in die varieties. Details of varieties are outside the scope of the present discussion. Most coin buyers collect ‘by date’ or ‘by type.’

There are at least fifteen hundred 1796 Liberty Cap cents, of all varieties, in existence. So, these are scarce, but not rare.

Many early large cents are corroded, damaged, or have other serious problems. The key factor regarding the value of this Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap is its quality.

Coins are graded on a scale from zero to seventy, with the eleven point range from 60 to 70 being indicative of “Mint State” or Proof grades. It is not unusual for a coin that grades MS-66 to be worth several times the value of a coin, of the same type, date and variety, that grades MS-64. It is probably true that problem-free 1796 Liberty Cap cents, with original surfaces, that grade at least AU-50 are extremely rare

This 1796 large cent is graded MS-66 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), along with a designation (“RB”) that it exhibits considerable (though not complete) original ‘Mint Red’ color. There are hardly any contact marks. This coin has never been cleaned and has never been dipped.

If the obverse (front of the coin) could be graded by itself, it would probably qualify for a MS-67 grade. Indeed, the obverse is awestriking. The original mint red evolved into a crisp orange color that beams out amidst natural deep brown toning.

The cataloguers, Chris McCawley and Bob Grellman, remark that this coin exhibits a “choice lustrous steel brown with 20-25% of the original mint red remaining on both sides.” My interpretation is that at least 40% of this coin’s surfaces are original ‘Mint Red,’ and the brown shades on the obverse (front) are richer and darker than any ’steel brown’ color! A prominent tone on the reverse (back) could be fairly called ’steel brown.’

The Naftzger 1796 is more than very attractive. On the whole, the grade of this coin lies in the middle of the 66 range, in my view. It is very likely to be the finest known 1796 Liberty Cap cent of any variety. Large cent expert David McCarthy “completely agrees” with the 66 grade and he raved about this coin. As far as I know, no expert criticized, or even doubted, the PCGS grade of 66.

One prominent large cent specialist remarks, in a book, that another 1796 is tied with this coin for finest known honors. I would have to see the other one to believe that it is commensurable to this Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap.

There are several Liberty Cap large cents, dated 1794 or ‘95, that are in the same league as the Naftzger 1796. Liberty Cap cents were minted from 1793 to 1796. Some experts define the 1793 Liberty Caps as a design type that is distinct from the Liberty Cap cents that are dated from 1794 to 1796. The concept of 1793 Liberty Caps being a separate type is discussed in my article on the Husak 1793 Liberty Cap that sold for $632,500 on Feb. 15, 2008.

No matter how the Liberty Cap type is defined, this Naftzger 1796 (S-84) is one of the finest known of an entire design type. It is thus highly sought after by both large cent collectors and ‘type coin’ collectors.

For those who collect by ‘design type,’ the rarity of a particular date is a secondary matter or is not a consideration at all. A gem quality 1794 or 1795 Liberty Cap would serve as a representative of the design type and these gems have, in the near past, sold for much less than $690,000.

In Walter Husak’s collection, there was a gem quality 1794 Liberty Cap cent (of variety S-71) that is PCGS certified ‘MS-65 RB.’ It realized $253,000. Another 1794, an S-67 that is PCGS certified ‘MS-67 RB, sold for $488,750. While the auction prices for many of Husak’s coins were extremely high, sometimes shockingly so, the prices for these two were reasonable.

In February, I did not expect any large cent variety specialist to pay much more for either of these two Husak gems. I did expect type coin collectors to do so. It is clear that the Husak 1794 (S-67) that is certified 67 RB is of higher quality than the Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap (S-84) that is being discussed here. The grade of this Husak 1794 Liberty Cap (S-67) is a ‘high end’ 67 and it has a possible claim to a 68 grade. There are almost zero contact marks. This coin has satiny luster and even, balanced color. Some of the Mint Red areas really glow!

A few experts suggested that the Husak 1794 (S-71 variety) that is graded MS-65 RB should have been graded MS-66 RB. In my view, its grade is in the upper reaches of the 66 range or possibly in the low end of the 67 range. I saw it before it had ever been submitted to the PCGS, and I was later shocked that it PCGS graded it as just 65. Husak was also very surprised.

This Husak 1794 Liberty Cap (S-71) is fantastic. One expert, who is a former PCGS grader, suggested that PCGS would not assign a 66 grade to a cent that had markedly noticeable clash marks. I hope that this point is not true. If it is, it is not logical. The clash marks, which are mint caused, contribute to the cool, balanced, entertaining texture of the fields. This coin is more interesting as a result of the clash marks. Moreover, the absence of significant contact marks and scratches, plus the incredible, brilliant mint red color grab the viewer’s attention such that mint caused imperfections are overlooked. Besides, to the best of my recollection, all the noticeable imperfections of this coin are ‘mint caused.’ It has never been cleaned, dipped or scratched. Above all, consider that the surfaces of this Husak 1794 (S-71) are around 60% ‘Mint Red,’ some of which is a spectacular ‘burnt orange’ hue.

While I very much like the Naftzger 1796, it just did not grab me in the way that these two Husak 1794s did. Also, Husak had a 1796 Liberty Cap cent that is PCGS certified ‘MS-64 Brown.’ It did not especially impress me, though I do not clearly remember it now. This Husak 1796 Liberty Cap realized $115,000 in February. So, there was no doubt that the Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap would sell for more than twice as much.

On Sept. 14, bidding opened at around $135,000. Right away, several paddles were raised. There were still at least five bidders involved as the level surpassed $250,000. At some point, many seconds later, the contest became a duel between a telephone bidder and a dealer from Michigan who was sitting in the front row. The Michigan dealer eventually won. Sources suggest that he was bidding on behalf of a collector in the Southwest who has a refined taste for gem quality early U.S. coins.

Laura Sperber of Legend Numismatics was interested in buying this Naftzger 1796 cent “for stock.” She declares that buyers “can never go wrong with a true rare wonder coin.” Further, she is “unhappy” that she “couldn’t buy it.” When she saw the representatives of “major collectors” bidding, she then “knew” that the “had no shot and never put [her] hand up.”

In Sperber’s view, the Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap cent “sold for what it should have. The buyer got a great deal and will have the last laugh over time as this coin’s value goes beyond the moon”!

Kathleen Duncan, principal of Pinnacle Rarities, remarks that “it was all there” as a 66 grade early large cent. She exclaims that “it is a gorgeous coin.” Further, Duncan “did not expect its price to go over $400,000.” In general, she finds that “six figure coins seem to be selling extremely well. Everything else seems a little slow.”

Before the auction, I thought that this Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap would sell for between $300,000 and $450,000. The $690,000 price is not only a record auction price for a large cent, this realization ties the auction record for a copper numismatic item of any kind.

This record was recently broken when the Ed Price 1792 dime pattern also sold for $690,000 on July 31st during the Platinum Night Event of Heritage’s ANA Summer 2008 auction. (Please click here to see my article on the Ed Price collection.) The design of this 1792 pattern was never employed for regular coinage of U.S. dimes, which did not start until 1796.

A copper numismatic item must consist of at least 90% copper; and is a coin, a token, a pattern of a coin, a die trial of a coin, a medal, or a monetary instrument that does not fit into any of these categories. From May 1996 until January 2008, the auction record for a copper numismatic item stood at $506,000, which is the price realized for the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent that Bowers & Merena auctioned in New York. A short time later in 1996, it was certified ‘MS-67 RB’ by the PCGS.

An auction record for a large cent was set at this same May 1996 event when the Eliasberg 1793 Liberty Cap cent sold for $319,000. It is generally believed that this is the same 1793 Liberty Cap that the PCGS has graded MS-64, though I am not certain that it is the same coin.

In July 2004, the large cent record was broken when ANR auctioned the Oliver Jung 1793 Chain Cent. It is (or was) PCGS certified as MS-65 with a ‘Brown’ designation, which means that the coin does not exhibit significant original Mint Red color. That Chain cent realized $391,000. In Nov 2004, one of four known Strawberry Leaf 1793 large cents sold for $414,000. It is NGC graded Fine-12. The large cent record was broken again in Fort Lauderdale at a Jan. 2005 ANR auction. A different PCGS certified ‘MS-65 BN’ Chain Cent then sold for $431,250. Steve Contursi was the buyer.

The $506,000 record for a copper numismatic item was broken in Orlando, on Jan. 7, 2008, when Stack’s auctioned a silver dollar ‘pattern’ struck in copper for $529,000. Only two 1838 Gobrecht dollars in copper are known.

Just three days later, on Jan. 10, Heritage auctioned a 1792 ‘Fusible Alloy’ cent pattern for $603,750. As I explained in my article about it, the precise composition of this piece is not known and it may not be a copper numismatic item. The result probably remains an auction record for a non-gold pattern, if 1792 half dimes are considered to be coins.

Both the record for a large cent and the record for a copper numismatic item of any kind were broken and then tied during the evening of Feb. 15, at the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo. (For an introduction to the Husak collection, click here to see my preview article.) Husak’s 1794 Liberty Cap cent of the famous variety with the Starred Reverse sold for $632,500, as did Husak’s finest 1793 Liberty Cap cent, about which I wrote an article. I then estimated that there exist around three hundred 1793 Liberty Cap cents in all grades.

Regardless of whether 1793 Liberty Caps are considered to be distinct one-year types, 1793 Liberty Caps are much rarer than 1796 Liberty Caps. As more than 1500 and maybe more than 2500 are known, the Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap cent may be the only non-rare coin to sell at auction for more than a half million dollars?

There are a few Chain Cents and Wreath Cents that have sold privately for more than $500,000 each. At least two have sold for much more. Chain Cents and Wreath Cents are each one-year types.

A 1796 Liberty Cap cent is a member of a type that spans three or four years. There are thousands of Liberty Cap large cents, including several gems with original Mint Red color. It is fascinating that $690,000 was paid for this one. In general, early copper coins have been subject to intense demand in 2008. More people are collecting large cents and long-time buyers have increased their copper-collecting budgets.

©2008 Greg Reynolds

Related posts:

  1. Liberty Cap 1793 Large Cent Brings Record $632,500
  2. Strawberry Leaf 1793 Cent Sells for $862,500: An Auction Record for a Copper Coin
  3. Rarest Half Cent Brings $345,000: The Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’!
  4. Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1943-D copper cent, 1795 Reeded Edge cent, 1811/0 cent, and half cent errors
  5. Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1943-D copper cent, 1795 Reeded Edge cent, 1811/0 cent, and half cent errors
  6. PCGS Certifies World’s Most Valuable Large Cent
  7. Virtually Complete Early Large Cent Collection of Walter Husak to be Auctioned
  8. Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1794 Silver Dollar, 1795 Reeded Edge Large Cent, and selected coins in the Summer FUN Auction
  9. PCGS Certifies ANS’ Unique 1793 Wreath Large Cent
  10. 1796 Half Cent to be auctioned by Heritage at Long Beach

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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