Rarest Half Cent Brings $345,000: The Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’!
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
On Sunday, Sept. 14, the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg auctioned a nearly-complete collection of U.S. half cents, dating from 1793 to 1857, which was assembled by Ray Rouse. The star of the collection was a 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent. The price of $345,000 is the all-time, second highest auction price for a half cent.
The Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent went to a dealer who was bidding by telephone. He was probably representing a collector. The underbidder was a New York dealer. I had expected the Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ to bring around $250,000. This coin is the fifth or sixth finest 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent. Fewer than twenty are known to exist.
The sale of the Ray Rouse half cent collection was the opening event in the Goldbergs’ three-day auction extravaganza that included selections from the Ted Naftzger collection of large cents, a stellar run of ‘centuries-old’ British gold coins, and the second part of the extensive Ohringer collection of U.S. gold coins. All auction sessions were conducted at the Beverly Hills Crowne Plaza hotel. Many participants stayed in Southern California to attend the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo, which was held from Sept. 18 to the 20th. Prominent half cent collectors traveled from various parts of the United States to bid in this auction.
While $345,000 was the highest price for a half cent in the Rouse collection, the lowest price was $46 for a counter-stamped “WWL” 1851 half cent. Such counterstamps usually served as advertising by private firms. Additionally, two 1804 half cents, each with technical problems, brought less than $200 each. In the Rouse collection, there were more than twenty-five half cents that realized less than $500 each.
The grand total for all of Rouse’s half cents and related items was more than $1.28 million. Rouse started collecting half cents in 1978. He decided to sell his half cent collection because he “took it as far as it could go.” As hard as he tried, Rouse was not able to obtain the very small number of half cent varieties that are missing. Rouse continues to collect colonial coins. He acquired his 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent “privately in 2003 or 2003.”
Rich Uhrich exclaims that the Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent “has a super amount of eye appeal.” He adds that “it is no wonder that it went for that huge amount of money. Overall, it is basically a wonderful coin.”
Chris McCawley also believes that it is a particularly impressive coin. The Goldbergs auctioned the Rouse collection in association with McCawley and Bob Grellman, who catalogued the coins. McCawley is a leading dealer in early copper coins. At the auction, he represented more than a half-dozen collectors.
McCawley states that this “is the finest circulated example” of a 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent. “Even very unattractive 1796 No Pole half cents have brought close to six figures recently in private sales.”
Though the 1796 ‘No Pole’ is the most famous, there are many varieties of half cents. Both half cents and large cents were minted from 1793 to 1857. Large cents (pennies) of the 1790s are wider than quarters are now, and half cents are a little greater in diameter than five cent nickel coins are now. (Five cent nickels were first minted in 1866; Three Cent Nickels were first minted a year earlier.)
In the Rouse collection, there were 162 half cents, three related medals, one token, and a famous 19th century forgery (or “copy”) of a 1796 “With Pole’ half cent. Of course, this forgery (or ‘collectors copy’) is identified as such in the auction catalogue. It was created by Dr. Frank Edwards in New York prior to 1865. It sold for $11,500.
In 1796, half cents were minted both with and without poles in the obverse (front) design. All half cents dating from 1793 to 1797 feature a bust of Miss Liberty with flowing hair and a cap. On most issues, the cap is conceptually at the top of a pole. In 1795 and 1796, there are varieties for which there is a cap but ‘No Pole.’ The 1796 ‘With Pole’ is also a rarity. Indeed, there are probably fewer than one hundred of those in existence.
The 1796 ‘With Pole’ in the Rouse collection was formerly in the epic collection of John Pittman. This half cent was auctioned by the firm of David Akers in October 1997, at the Pittman I sale. At some point, it was graded Extremely Fine-40 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). It was later removed from its PCGS holder. At the time of the auction, none of Rouse’s half cents were encapsulated by the PCGS or the NGC. McCawley & Grellman graded the Pittman-Rouse 1796 ‘With Pole’ half cent as Very Fine-30. It sold for $40,250.
Coins are graded on a scale from one to seventy. There is not space here to discuss coin grading. The Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent is graded Fine-15 by McCawley & Grellman. Others have graded it as Very Fine-20, which would be fair.
It does have a rim nick and an edge bump. Rich Uhrich points out that “half cents from that era in Fine to Very Fine condition usually have a rim nick or two. A lot of them are corroded.” For 1796 Liberty Cap Cents, with or without poles, “this is one of the better circulated ones,” says Uhrich.
Uhrich was not a participant in the auction and he has no connection to the auction firm or to the consignor. Rich is a dealer and was a long-time half cent collector.
Uhrich collected half cents for more than twenty years. He started in the 1980s with “common dates” and “seriously” pursued half cents “from 1994 until 2007,” when he “finally completed that set. It took fourteen years to get [the] fourteen half cents” that Uhrich needed in 1994. Early in 2007, Rich “had a full date set including the Proofs.” He “sought Proofs that had circulated, for a challenge.”
At the 2007 ANA Convention, Uhrich sold his 1796 ‘No Pole’ for “less than $50,000.” Rich remarks that it has “Very Good [level] details” with a lot of problems.
“For many years,” Uhrich explains, “it used to be believed that there were nineteen” 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cents. “The nineteen included two that there were sold in the Cohen sale in 1992. It was proven that the two were not genuine.” Rich “now” believes “that there are seventeen. None have popped up in a long time.”
McCawley tentatively concludes that the Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ is the fifth finest known. McCawley declares that the coin known as the “Missouri” 1796 ‘No Pole’ and the Eliasberg piece are the two finest.
The third finest may be the Whitney piece. The John Whitney 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent was graded “MS-64” when it was auctioned by Stack’s in May 1999.
The auction record for a half cent was set in May 1996, when the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ realized $506,000. Until Jan. 2008, this was the auction record for a copper numismatic item of any kind. (Please see my related articles regarding such auction records, on the Husak 1793 Liberty Cap and on the Naftzger 1796 Liberty Cap cent.)
At the auction, McCawley and I discussed how much the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent would have brought IF it had been sold the same day as the Ray Rouse collection. Of course, this was just an event in our imaginations. McCawley stated that it would have brought “more than one million.” I believe that it would have realized around $1.25 million.
The Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ was certified, perhaps generously, as “MS-67 RB” (Red & Brown) by the PCGS, after the Eliasberg ‘96 auction. It is one of very few early half cents with any original Mint Red color. Though the cataloguer suggests that it may be a “Proof” or some kind of specimen striking, I maintain that it is just a business strike. Besides, the PCGS did not give it a prooflike designation.
I do not know whether the Missouri 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent has any original Mint Red. I have been told that the Whitney and McGuigan pieces do not, and I vaguely remember having seen them. The presence of substantial, original Mint Red color on either probably would have stuck in my mind.
The McGuigan 1796 ‘No Pole’ is PCGS certified “MS-62 BN” (BN = Brown color). It was on display at the 2004 ANA Convention in Pittsburgh. Uhrich remarks that he “thought that it was all there” as a MS-62 grade half cent.
Though it grades only 15 or 20, the Rouse piece may be the fifth finest known because most of the other circulated 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cents have serious technical problems. The Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ has not suffered from corrosion, dippings, deep scratches, or harsh cleanings. Plus, it looks much better in actuality than it does in the catalogue images.
The small abrasions on the surface are not very noticeable. Even under three-times magnification, hardly a contact mark is noticeable on the obverse (front) and only a few show on the reverse (back). This coin has never been artificially smoothed. It just has honest wear. The reverse exhibits a nice blend of brown and gray tones.
The obverse fields are mostly a nice greenish-brown. Miss Liberty has naturally toned a very attractive gray-tan color. The coin is not dark. In fact, it is relatively light for a naturally toned, circulated, early copper coin. The portrait of Miss Liberty is much lighter in color than the surrounding green-brown fields. The resulting contrast is unusually appealing.
On most well-circulated coins, numerous small contact marks and abrasions can be seen with five-times to twenty-times magnification. These are less pronounced on this coin than on most other Fine to Extremely Fine grade early copper coins. Besides, some of the rough areas may be attributable to the planchet (prepared blank). Often, the planchets were not perfectly smooth.
The horizontal raised line on the obverse is not a defect. It stems from a slight fracture in the die, which was used to impart the design into the prepared blank circular piece of metal (planchet).
If it were not for the rim/edge issues, this coin would grade at least Very Fine-30, in my view. It has considerable technical merits and is very attractive for a Very Fine grade, very early U.S. copper coin. The Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ half cent is a pleasing and famous rarity.
©2008 Greg Reynolds
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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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