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Historically Important 1792 Cent Pattern Sells
by Greg Reynolds

On Thursday, Jan. 10, in Orlando, an extremely rare pattern cent was auctioned. It is historically important as a central component in the series of the events that brought about the first widely circulating, official coinage of the United States. The auction of this 1792 cent pattern for $603,750 set auction records in several categories, as will be discussed below.

Matthew Kleinsteuber, an analyst and buyer for NFC Coins, examines most American coins in almost all major auctions. Kleinsteuber declares that this 1792 pattern “is a priceless historical artifact that is worth whatever a serious collector of Americana can afford to pay.” It “relates to the beginnings of America’s coinage and the struggles of the early years of America as a new nation.”

This 1792 cent pattern is of the so-called ‘fusible alloy’ issue, though it might not be made of a ‘fusible alloy’ at all. The considered idea was to seamlessly combine (fuse) silver and copper into an alloy.

Before ‘fusible alloy’ patterns, there were minted silver-center cent patterns. A small drop of silver was placed in the center of an otherwise copper cent. The bullion value of the silver was three-fourths of one cent while the surrounding copper was worth one-fourth of a cent. Hence, each cent with a silver-center would be worth one cent, not by decree, but by metallic or bullion content.

Not much regarding the ‘fusible alloy’ 1792 pattern issue is known, and there is not much data regarding the precise metallic content of these pattern cents. It is plausible, and may have been implied by Thomas Jefferson, that some cents of this 1792 pattern design were minted in the silver-copper ‘fusible alloy’ and others were minted in nearly 100% copper.

As reliable data regarding the precise metallic compositions is not available, it is traditional, and easiest, to refer to all pattern cents of this issue as ‘fusible alloy’ cents even if some or all of these do not really consist of the proposed ‘fusible alloy’ of three parts copper to one part silver.

In his 1988 book, researcher Walter Breen reproduced a letter, or just the pertinent passage of a letter, that Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington on Dec. 18, 1792. I have largely extracted Jefferson’s letter here, with his exact words properly kept in quotation marks, and some of my own words added so that the key points are clear to the 21st century reader. This letter is reported by Breen to be (or have been) held in “Record Group 104, Treasury Section,” of the National Archives.

Thomas Jefferson stated that he sent President Washington two 1792 cent patterns which had “a silver plug worth 3/4 of a cent” embedded “into a copper worth 1/4 cent.” The Mint Director “is about to make a few by mixing the same [silver] plug by fusion with the same quantity of copper. He will then make of copper alone” patterns “of the same size” as those that include silver. And “lastly, he will make the real cent as ordered by Congress, 4 times as big.” Patterns of alternatives for the cent “may now be delivered to the Committee of Congress” that “now has the subject before” it.

Cents were first minted for circulation in 1793, and were then larger than quarters are now. Large cents dated from 1793 to 1857. Large cents were nearly 100% copper. (Due to imperfections in refining processes, there were traces of other metals that sometimes affected the appearances of early U.S. copper, silver and gold coins.)

Of ‘regular issue’ 1793 cents, there were three distinct design types, a surprising number in just one year. All 1792 pattern cents are markedly different from any of the three. While it is debatable as to whether 1792 half dimes were regular issues, it is certain that 1793 is the first year in which thousands of U.S. coins were produced for circulation. More than 100,000 large cents were minted in 1793, and more than 35,000 half cents. In 1794, three silver denominations were minted, half dimes, half dollars and silver dollars. In 1795, U.S. gold coinage formally began with $5 and $10 gold coins. Dimes, quarter dollars and Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) were not minted for circulation until 1796. Quarter dollar patterns of 1792 are much rarer than 1792 cent patterns. I feel fortunate to have examined one of two known 1792 quarter patterns in “white metal.”

1792 Pattern Cent - Madison Collection - Heritage 2008 Fun Sale“All 1792 patterns,” asserts David McCarthy, “are really exciting. They are almost magical.” While McCarthy is often regarded as a specialist in territorial gold, he is also an expert in early North American coins and patterns. McCarthy seems to be declaring that 1792 patterns are “almost magical” in that they played an incredible role in spawning a comprehensive U.S. coin production program. Many politicians, and many U.S. citizens, then thought that the costs of establishing a Mint and a coinage program outweighed the benefits.

The idea of a Federal (national) Mint was extremely controversial from the beginning, and the very young American nation had Revolutionary War debts to pay and other financial problems. As coins from the Spanish empire widely circulated in North America, many prominent Americans figured that it was wasteful and unnecessary for the U.S. government to issue coins.

If 1792 patterns did not impress influential people, would there have been any regular issues in the 1790s? Kleinsteuber maintains that “1792 patterns were crucial beginning steps in the production of U.S. coins. A 1792 cent is an important piece of history.”

This ‘Fusible Alloy’ 1792 cent was consigned to auction by the collector known as “Madison” though this collector is not related to Founding Father James Madison. This exact 1792 cent pattern was discovered in 2004. Descendants of one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Wolcott, brought it to the 2004 annual ANA Convention, which was then held in Pittsburgh in August. It was auctioned by the Goldbergs in Feb. 2005, at which time it brought $437,000.

Before this Goldbergs auction, it was graded “Very Fine-30″ by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). It is certainly of higher quality than a few of the others. My impression is that there are six to eight pieces of this ‘fusible alloy’ issue known, though some or all of them may be more than 95% copper and thus not the silver and copper ‘fusible alloy.’

The Madison collection also contained a 1792 half dime. The Madison collection predominated Heritage’s FUN Platinum Night event, which is held every year during the Florida United Numismatists (FUN) Convention. The Madison collection consisted of an incredible type set of U.S. coins and an amazing assortment of extremely rare items, with many pieces qualifying as both rarities and type coins broadly defined. Though a 1792 cent pattern is a complement to, not a component of, a U.S. type set, does a 1792 half dime fit into such a type set of coins?

A non-collector or a beginning collector could easily mistake 1972 cent patterns for U.S. coins. These are clearly proposals for coinage, ideas to be considered, or experiments, not coins. Half dimes of 1792 are a different topic.

During most of the last century, 1792 half dimes were generally thought to be patterns, not coins. A competing theory, which has attracted a growing number of adherents over the past several decades, is that 1792 half dimes are really the first regular issue of U.S. coins. Both the pattern and ‘regular issue’ positions have been supported by logical arguments.

The Madison 1792 half dime was, curiously, one of four 1792 half dimes that sold on Platinum Night. Yes, I know that dime is spelled “disme” in relation to 1792 issues. The word ‘disme’ is really just an early form of the word dime. It is confusing and counter-productive to now spell it and pronounce it as if it is a different word. While it is likely that, in the early 1790s, at least some Americans pronounced ‘disme’ in accordance with its origins in the French language, it is now logical to substitute the English word dime for disme.

For information regarding gem quality 1792 half dimes, please see my article on the highest graded 1792 half dime. The Madison 1792 half dime is conservatively graded “MS-63″ by the PCGS.

The Madison 1792 half dime has excellent natural toning. The obverse (front) is mostly steel gray, with generous patches of blue and a few areas of brownish-russet. The reverse (back) was mostly brownish-russet (along with russet-brown) with much blue on the design elements and about the border. These half dimes tend to be struck with smooth or weak areas on some of the highpoints of the design. Assuming that all the smoothness on some highpoints on this specific half dime is attributable to the strike, and not to friction, then all that keeps this coin from a MS-65 or higher grade is a small, light cluster of scratches in the left obverse field. The Madison 1792 half dime probably grades MS-64, though I would need to examine it again to form a firm opinion.

During Platinum Night, a PCGS graded VF-20 1792 half dime sold for $74,750, a PCGS VF-30 half dime went for $83,375, and one that is graded VF-30 by the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC) brought $92,000. For the PCGS graded 63 Madison coin, Kevin Lipton was the successful bidder, for $503,125.

For the Madison collection’s ‘fusible alloy’ 1792 cent, bidding started at more than $500,000!After a short contest, Laura Sperber of Legend Numismatics was the successful bidder.

Sperber was representing the pattern collector known as ‘Simpson,’ who now owns hundreds of U.S. patterns. The price of $603,750 is a record for a one-cent piece including both one-cent patterns and one-cent coins. Sperber reveals that “we would have gone higher” to acquire this 1792 cent, if necessary. She says that this piece “was a steal relative to many coins that are now selling for $500,000 to $1,000,000″!

If this 1792 cent pattern is more than 90% copper (which it might not be), the $603,750 price would be an auction record for a copper numismatic item. At least two superb gem quality 1793 large cents have sold privately for substantially more than $600,000. A copper coin auction record was established when the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent brought $506,000 in May 1996. It was later graded MS-67 (with a Red & Brown designation) by the PCGS.

As for large cents, in January 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, ANR auctioned a 1793 Chain Cent, PCGS graded “MS-65,” for $431,250. Steve Contursi, president of Rare Coin Wholesalers, was the buyer. Earlier, on Nov. 30, 2004, ANR auctioned a Strawberry Leaf 1793 Wreath Cent, NGC graded “Fine-12,” for $414,000. A New Jersey dealer acquired it for his personal collection.

The $603,750 price is almost certainly an auction record for a non-gold pattern. To the best of my recollection, the record for a gold pattern was set at the Jan. 2007 FUN Platinum Night event, when an 1879 ‘Quintuple Stella’ $20 gold pattern was auctioned for $862,500? Ultra High Relief 1907 $20 gold coins have been auctioned for amounts well above $1 million, but Ultra High Reliefs should not be categorized as patterns.

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