All-Time Most Complete Collection of Early Large Cents to be Auctioned: Incredible Accomplishment of Dan Holmes
By Greg Reynolds
From the 1790s to the mid 1850s, pennies were about the size that quarters are now. ‘Early Date’ large cents are those that were minted from 1793 to 1814. On Sunday, Sept. 6, the Goldbergs will auction Dan Holmes’ Early Dates at the Beverly Hills Crowne Plaza hotel. Chris McCawley & Bob Grellman are co-producing the auction. Grellman catalogued Holmes’ large cents. In addition to Holmes’ Early Dates and Naftzger’s ‘Late Date’ large cents, the Goldbergs will also auction a variety of other coins during a few days prior to the Long Beach (CA) Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo, which will be held from Sept. 10th to 12th.
The most famous coins in the Holmes collection are his 1795 Reeded Edge cent, his best 1793 Liberty Cap cent and his two Strawberry Leaf cents. The 1795 Reeded Edge cent and the 1793 Strawberry Leaf are readily apparent varieties that tend to be listed in guides as if they were separate dates. Most collectors consider these to be more important than a vast number of other die varieties, many of which are only subtly different from other large cents of the same respective type and date.
Strawberry Leaf Cents are Wreath Cents, as 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 two thousand exist, of all varieties. Strawberry Leaf 1793 Wreath Cents, however, are markedly different from typical 1793 Wreath Cents.
The main difference is the nature of the leaf between the year 1793 and the head of Miss Liberty. While this leaf may not truly be of the likeness of a leaf from a strawberry plant, this coin issue, by tradition, is referred to as the ‘Strawberry Leaf Cent,’ and this name is likely to be used for the foreseeable future.
There are four known Strawberry Leaf Cents and two of them are in the Holmes collection. Even more startling is the fact that the reverses (tails) of these two are different; note that ‘ONE CENT’ is higher on one than on the other. Holmes has a unique variety of a Strawberry Leaf cent.
The finest known Strawberry Leaf is the Roscoe Staples coin that was auctioned by Stack’s for $862,500 in January 2009. Although a few coins in the Holmes’ collection may realize more than $500,000 each, there are many that have minimum estimates ranging from $50 to $500. My guess is that quite a few will sell for less than $1000. (Please click here to see my article about the Jan. 2009 auction of the finest known Strawberry Leaf.)
From mid 2004 to very early 2009, the finest known Strawberry Leaf cent was NGC graded Fine-12; it has since been PCGS graded Very Good-10. Holmes’ Strawberry Leaf Cents do not quite reach that level of quality. One is PCGS graded Good-04, and the other, Fair-02.
Personally, I like the Strawberry Leaf cent that is PCGS graded Fair-02 more than the one that is PCGS graded Good-04, even though the latter is dramatically sharper in terms of the amount of surviving design detail. This is not because it is a unique die variety. The surface quality of the lower graded coin is vastly superior. Mostly, it has just honest even wear. The Holmes’ PCGS graded Good-04 Strawberry Leaf seems to have been downgraded from a Very Good or Fine level to Good-04 because of surface issues.
The fourth known Strawberry Leaf is in the collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in New York. Grellman recently viewed it and determined its net grade to be “Good-05.”
It will be exciting to find out how much the Holmes’ Strawberry Leaf cents bring. The price for each could be anywhere from $100,000 to $650,000. The value of Holmes’ PCGS graded AU-53 1793 Liberty Cap is also a mystery. I have seen only one 1793 Liberty Cap cent that is clearly of higher quality than this one.
The Liberty Cap cents of 1793 are considered by some experts to be a one year type. It seems that there are five or six types of ‘Early Date’ large cents, three of them were minted in 1793. Chain Cents and Wreath Cents were minted only in 1793. In late 1793, the Liberty Cap design was adopted, which was also employed in 1794, 1795 and 1796. As the 1793 Liberty Caps have beaded borders, while the Liberty Caps dated from 1794 to ’96 have dentils (raised toothlike devices at the borders), some guides, including the PCGS registry, define the 1793 Liberty Caps as a one-year type and the 1794-96 Liberty Caps as another separate type. Other guides assert that Liberty Cap cents from 1793 to 1796 are all of the same type. Walter Breen distinguishes between Wright’s Liberty Caps (1793-94), Scot’s Liberty Caps (1794 & 1796), and Gardner’s Liberty Caps (1794-96). These could be regarded as subtypes.
Draped Bust Large Cents were minted from 1796 to 1807, and Classic Head large cents were minted form 1808 to 1814. As there are many subtle varieties of Draped Bust and Classic Head cents, most of which are not very rare, there is not space here for a detailed discussion of them.
Middle Date (1816-39) and Late Date (1839-57) large cents are not being discussed here. The Goldbergs will auction Dan Holmes’ Middle Dates and Late Date cents in the future. (Please click here to see the first of my articles on Naftzger’s Middle Dates, which is the best such collection of all time.)
Though it is questionable as to whether 1793 Liberty Caps are a distinct one-year type, these are subject to intense demand by some type collectors. They are much rarer than the Liberty Cap cents that were minted from 1794 to 1796. I estimate that there are around three hundred 1793 Liberty Cap cents, in all grades. Of 1794 to ’96 Liberty Caps, there certainly exist more than fifteen hundred of each date, probably a lot more.
In 2008, I wrote an entire article that focused on Walter Husak’s PCGS graded AU-55 1793 Liberty Cap, which brought $632,500 in the Feb. 15, 2008 Heritage auction of Husak’s ‘Early Date’ large cents. The sale of Husak’s Early Date cents totaled more than $10½ million.
In my view, the Holmes PCGS graded AU-53 piece is of higher quality than the Husak PCGS graded AU-55 1793 Liberty Cap. It is true that the Husak piece has more detail, though I believe that Holmes piece was struck with less detail. Moreover, while both coins have notable imperfections, the surfaces of the “AU-53” Holmes’ 1793 Liberty Cap are of higher quality than those of the “AU-55” Husak 1793 Liberty Cap. It is relatively more original
The finest known 1793 Liberty Cap is probably the Eliasberg coin. It is my belief, though I am not completely certain, that it is the coin that is PCGS certified MS-64. At the moment, I cannot imagine any other surviving 1793 Liberty Caps being PCGS graded MS-64. The PCGS has also graded one as MS-62, which I have been told is probably the Garrett family piece. I have not seen it. The color images in the B&R catalogue, from long ago, are impressive. It seems like it might be the second or third finest known.
The Holmes “AU-53” 1793 Liberty Cap ranks highly. There are a few, however, in the EF-40 to AU-55 range that I have not seen. There is one that no leading expert has seen since the 1940s. Is anyone alive that clearly remembers it? I have been told that there exist one or two, really nice Extremely Fine grade 1793 Liberty Caps that have natural toning.
The most original 1793 Liberty Cap that I have ever seen is another of Husak’s 1793 Liberty Caps, one that is PCGS graded Very Fine-35. In Feb. 2008, that one brought $92,000, which is an astonishing price for a 1793 Liberty Cap in Very Fine grade. In my view, however, it was an excellent buy. It had minimal contact marks for a VF grade early large cent. Moreover, the toning and surface texture are exceptional. It is a great coin. It is of a rarer variety (S-12) than the higher grade 1793 Liberty Caps just mentioned.
The Holmes S-12 is also very pleasant. I am startled, though, that two noted early copper specialists consider it to be the equal of the Husak S-12, which I just mentioned. While its obverse is sharper than that of the Husak S-12, its strike and surface quality are not quite as impressive as the Husak S-12 1793 Liberty Cap. Even so, as it is so difficult to find 1793 Liberty Caps that grade Fine-15 or higher, this Very Fine grade Holmes S-12 is particularly appealing for a 1793 Liberty Cap and I would recommend it. Holmes has four other 1793 Liberty Cap cents. Indeed, Holmes has representatives of all six varieties of 1793 Liberty Cap cents.
As for Holmes’ PCGS graded AU-53 1793 Liberty Cap, if the successful bidder and the first underbidder for Husak’s $632,500 1793 Liberty Cap do not participate, it may bring less than that amount, which was a bit too high, anyway. Also of interest to type coin collectors are two 1793 Chain cents that are each PCGS certified ‘MS-63 Brown.’ (The ‘brown’ designation indicates that there is not significant original mint red color, which is very rarely seen on copper coins from the 1790s.) Plus, Holmes has a Chain Cent that is conservatively graded AU-58 by the PCGS. It is noted in the catalogue that it was formerly graded MS-62 by the NGC. I grade it as MS-61.
Many of the large cents in the Holmes collection, especially ‘mint state’ coins, have been authenticated, graded and encapsulated by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). A small number are in NGC holders. There are also several coins that have been removed from NGC or NCS holders, and the respective inserts are included with the coins in the auction.
Holmes has a few ‘Early Dates’ that are PCGS graded MS-65 or higher, yet these are not among the most interesting coins in the collection. I have seen better ‘Early Date’ gem quality type coins in other settings. Nevertheless, some of Holmes’ high quality coins are extremely appealing type coins and many will be of great interest to those who collect high quality large cents ‘by date’ or ‘by type.’ Also, the Holmes collection has been entered into the PCGS Set Registry, where sets of coins are competitively ranked. While his set will be primarily remembered for its completeness, it will certainly be remembered for its quality as well.
Most of the lower grade coins in the Holmes’ collection will be primarily of interest to specialists in early U.S. copper coins. Many representatives of very rare varieties grade less than Very Good. Quite a few grade Poor-01 or Fair-02. Indeed, It is not unusual for the finest (or only one) known of a variety to grade less than Very Good. Large cent variety specialists tend not to be extremely concerned about grades.
For large cents from 1793 to 1814, the Sheldon system is used to identify die varieties. Generally, 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 (planchets) that are thus transformed into coins. A pair of dies includes one for the obverse (front or head) and another for the reverse (back or tail). It was not unusual for several pairs of dies to be used in one year. By the 20th century, thousands of pairs of dies could be used for one coin issue in one year.
The Sheldon system distinguishes between collectible and non-collectible varieties. At the time that Sheldon himself was formulating his system, if there were just one to three representatives of a die pair known to exist, it was non-collectible and received a NC number rather than a typical Sheldon ‘S’ number. Since Sheldon wrote his book, a few of the NC numbered issues have proven to be relatively collectible as more than ten have been discovered.
Sheldon gave collectible varieties receive sequential numbers such that these can be identified without mention of the year. Sheldon-12, S-13, S-14, S-15, and S-16 all refer to 1793 Liberty Cap cents, as does 1793 NC-6. For the NC, a year is needed to identify the coin, for ‘S’ varieties, the year is included in the definition. A Sheldon-172 is one of many varieties of 1798 large cents.
Bob Grellman remarks that “Holmes has fifty-two of fifty-three NC varieties in addition to all 302 Sheldon varieties.” The 1793 NC-5 is the only variety missing from the Holmes collection of ‘Early Dates.’ It is a Wreath cent. The only known 1795 NC-5 is in the collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS). It has, however, been on display alongside the Holmes’ collection and has been residing with the Holmes’ collection since January. PCGS President Don Willis brought the 1793 NC-5 from the ANS vault in New York to the FUN Convention in Orlando, where it was graded and encapsulated by the PCGS.
Chris McCawley reveals that “there has some tension between early American copper collectors and the ANS, since the Sheldon controversy.” McCawley adds that he and other copper specialists have “worked hard to build a bridge to the ANS.” In return, “the ANS is making a real effort” to connect with early copper collectors. McCawley is thrilled that “the ANS loaned the 1793 NC-5 to Dan Holmes. They [at the ANS] went the extra mile. They have built a lot of good will have copper collectors,” McCawley concludes. This summer, McCawley and Bob Grellman examined many of the Sheldon varieties in the ANS museum.
There are 295 “collectible” Sheldon varieties, though it is questionable as to whether the Sheldon-79 is really collectible, as will be discussed below. Additionally, there are seven edge varieties; these are designated with letters rather than numbers. For example, the Sheldon-11 die variety is subdivided to reflect three different edges: 11a, 11b, and 11c. All three are 1793 Wreath cents minted from the same pair of dies. The S-11a has an edge with the ‘Vine and Bars’ ornamentation. The S-11b and S-11c varieties have different “lettered” edges. Holmes has all these edge varieties, as did Husak. In total, there are 302 “collectible” Sheldon varieties, including the seven edge varieties.
Grellman states that “seven of Holmes’ NC varieties are unique,” which means that only one is known to exist. One of the seven is the PCGS graded Fair-02 Strawberry Leaf, as the other three Strawberry Leaf cents have the letters ‘ONE CENT’ appearing significantly higher in the wreath and thus this one was struck from a different reverse die than those three.
Robbie Brown had forty eight different NC varieties. As far as I know, Robbie Brown’s second set is the only other collection that is in the same league as Holmes’ set in terms of completeness. Brown and Holmes are among thirteen collectors who have completed sets of “collectible” Sheldon varieties. (Brown did so twice.) My impression is that no one else ever amassed as many as thirty different NC varieties.
Ted Naftzger had the all-time finest collection of large cents. According to Grellman, who knew him well, “Naftzger had very few NCs; he did not really want them, as they do not come in high grades. He did not want low grade coins. Ted had the Strawberry Leaf and Jefferson Head cents because they are so special.”
Jefferson Head cents were struck only in 1795. They do not really resemble Thomas Jefferson. The head, though, looks different from the typical Liberty Cap design of the era. There is a considerable amount of mystery surrounding this issue.
The Sheldon-80 is the only collectible Jefferson Head variety. Holmes’ S-80 is PCGS graded Very Fine-20. Holmes has four ‘non-collectible’ (NC) Jefferson Head cents, which is certainly an unprecedented offering.
A public offering of the finest known Sheldon-79 has not occurred in my lifetime, until now. The Sheldon-79 issue should probably be classified as non-collectible. It is the 1795 Liberty Cap cent with a reeded edge. Silver and gold coins of later eras had reeded edges, though it is peculiar for a copper coin to have one.
With the equipment at the U.S. Mint before 1828, it was difficult to apply edge reeding. The shaving of the edges of coins by those seeking to ‘steal’ some metal was discouraged by edge lettering or ornamentation. For whatever reason, this one variety is the only large cent variety to have a reeded edge. It is listed, as if it is a separate date, in most major price guides and as a pattern (or experimental piece) in the Judd book. Moreover, even if the edges of S-79 large cents were not reeded, it would still be a distinct die variety. It thus is not just an edge variety. Its status, though, is not clear to me.
McCawley believes that there are just 5½ 1795 reeded edge (S-79) cents known. Of these, 1½ have not been seen in decades. The ½ is a brockage that lacks a reverse. It has not been seen by any copper experts that I know. Reports of two others are too suspicious to be worth mentioning.
In Nov. 2008, B&M auctioned a 1795 reeded edge (S-79) that is PCGS graded Good-04. It sold for $402,500. I saw it. It did not have any serious problems, though I would not regard it as a high end Good-04. It is, more or less, a decent coin. McCawley regards it as superior to the Brown-Robinson-Rucker coin that is sometimes said to grade higher than Good-04. According to McCawley, the Brown-Robinson-Rucker coin has “rougher surfaces” than the 1795 reeded edge that B&M auctioned in 2008. Likewise, McCawley wonders “if the ANS Sheldon-79 would be gradable by PCGS.” It has problems.
Grellman states that the ANS Sheldon-79 is “much sharper than the Dan Holmes coin, but it has been damaged. Its net grade is below” that of the Holmes S-79 1795 reeded edge cent.
There is another S-79 that supposedly grades ‘Good.’ McCawley and Grellman have not seen it. It was last publicly offered in 1977, by a minor auction company.
As the Naftzger-Holmes 1795 reeded edge (S-79) is PCGS graded Very Good-10 and generally graded VG-08 by large cent experts, it is clearly the finest known. It is better looking in actuality than it appears in the catalogue images. It is almost attractive and much more so than the one that B&M auctioned in 2008. While it has plenty of imperfections, these are minor for a Very Good condition large cent from the 1790s. I do not have an objection to the VG-10 grade. I like this coin.
The grade of the Naftzger-Holmes 1799 ‘Normal Date’ (S-189) cent is a little more controversial. The NGC has graded it as “MS-62.” Grellman reports, however, that it was PCGS graded MS-61 on Monday, Aug. 31. Two oft-cited copper experts grade it as “AU-50 choice,” though Grellman points out that they did so “before a layer of was removed” from the coin’s surface. McCawley and Grellman grade this Holmes 1799 (S-189) as “AU-55.”
I viewed the Holmes S-189 twice and I tentatively grade it as AU-58. There are contact marks and hairlines, from some light cleaning, on the high points. There is definitely noticeable friction. It is hard to tell if there is any real wear. Though I am not completely comfortable with all the color, this coin does not have any serious problems. The deep brown tones, along with touches of tan, are pleasant. It is the only 1799 cent, of any variety, to receive a mint state grade from the PCGS or the NGC. The 1799 is a key date in the series. Many people collect large cents ‘by date’ rather than by variety.
Other collectors go beyond die varieties and collect by ‘die state’! As a pair of dies is used to strike a large number of coins, fissures (or “breaks”) sometimes develop, or parts of the die ‘break off.’ Die cracks or breaks lead to raised lines or areas on coins. It is interesting to note the differences in the appearances of coins that were struck at different times over the life of a single pair of dies.
McCawley declares that, “not only does Dan have every privately owned variety, he has almost every significant die state” of ‘Early Date’ cents. “Die states are especially significant when they are very different in appearance, that is when you can tell with the naked eye that there is” a substantial difference, Chris explains. “The 1804 large cent is a good example. The late die state (LDS) has both an obverse die break and a large reverse die break, which is the most common of the three.” The Holmes 1804 (S-266) LDS is PCGS certified MS-63 Brown, and is the only 1804 cent to receive a mint state grade from the PCGS. McCawley & Grellman grade it as “AU-58.”
The Holmes 1804 (S-266) early die state (EDS) has neither an obverse die break nor a reverse die break. This Holmes coin is not certified, and is M&G graded “Fine-15 Plus.” The middle die state (MDS) 1804 cent has an obverse die break, but no reverse die break. The Holmes 1804 MDS is net graded Fine-15.
The Holmes collection has four die states of the 1798 S-158 variety, and these are much less expensive than 1804 cents, which are very scarce overall. The early to middle die state S-158 in the Holmes collection is estimated to bring $50 and “up.” It is M&G graded Almost Good-03. The late die state and “terminal” die state 1798 S-158 coins are estimated to realize $1000 or more. Of various dates in the Holmes collection, there are several curious die states that have minimum estimates of $50 to $200.
McCawley maintains that depictions of die states are “educational and informative. It is very important to understand the progression of the dies in order to authenticate [early U.S.] coins.” Forgeries are often representations of die states that did not exist in reality.
Learning about die varieties and die states helps collectors understand coins and contributes to pedigree research. My advice, though, to those who are new to early large cents is to first collect ‘by type,’ and, if enthralled by these, then collect ‘by date.’ I suggest collecting early silver and/or gold coins ‘by type’ in addition to copper coins, before collecting any one series by ‘die variety.’ Collecting pursuits, though, stem from the tastes, preferences and budgets of differing individuals. The collector who explores, reads, asks questions of experts, and maintains an open mind, will find the quests that are best suited for him or her.
©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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