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Strawberry Leaf 1793 Cent Sells for $862,500
An Auction Record for a Copper Coin
by Greg Reynolds

On Monday, Jan. 5, 2009, the finest of four known Strawberry Leaf cents was auctioned in Orlando by Stack’s. In 1793, half cents and large cents became the first mass-produced coins of the U.S. Mint. Large cents (pennies) of the 1790s are a little larger than quarters are now, and half cents are greater in diameter than five cent nickel coins are now.

The Strawberry Leaf Cent of 1793 is a readily apparent variety that tends to be listed in guides as if it is a separate date, and is thus needed for a date-set (as opposed to a variety set) of early large cents. Curiously, during this first year, three design types of cents were minted: Chain Cents, Wreath Cents and Liberty Cap Cents. 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 obviously different from typical 1793 Wreath Cents.

The main difference is that there is a leaf between the year 1793 and the head of Miss Liberty. Researchers have suggested that this leaf may not truly be of the likeness of a leaf from a Strawberry plant. Regardless of the true nature of the leaf, 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 more than three hundred different die varieties of early large cents, which were minted from 1793 to 1814. A die is a metal cylinder with design elements engraved and/or punched into one end. To produce coins, an obverse (front) die and a reverse (tail) die are employed in a mechanical press to impart designs on prepared, blank, round pieces of metal. In the early years of the U.S. Mint, there were often considerable differences among dies. Sometimes, these differences are dramatic. Now, pairs of dies for the same date and type are almost identical.
Different dies, or different pairs of dies, result in different die varieties of a coin issue of the same design type and year. Strawberry Leaf Cents, however, are not just additional die varieties.

Matt Kleinsteuber remarks that the Strawberry Leaf Cent is “a well established, known major variety. It is not like an obscure Sheldon die variety; you can see the leaf easily.” Kleinsteuber is an analyst, grader and trader with [2] NFC coins. Further, he is an instructor at ANA seminars. Matt emphasizes that the Strawberry Leaf “has a totally different design,” while die varieties are often just subtly different. The Strawberry Leaf Cent, Matt states, “is like the the Starred Reverse Cent in that it is a famous coin of its own. It warrants a line by itself in major price guides.”

This same Strawberry Leaf Cent was auctioned by ANR in Nov. 2004, at which time it realized $414,000, which is less than half of its Jan. 2009 price. It had been missing from the coin collecting community for more than a half-century. According to the ANR cataloguers, it was previously owned by Roscoe Staples, a Maine collector who was killed in 1943 while fighting in the second World War. His family owned the coin until 2004, and probably did not comprehend its importance.

The Staples Strawberry Leaf was in 2004, and still is, graded Fine-12 by the NGC. It is, indisputably, the finest of four known.

Coincidentally, two of the other three Strawberry Leaf Cents were present at the 2009 FUN Convention in Orlando. [3] The Goldbergs will be auctioning the Dan Holmes collection of early large cents in September. The Holmes collection was at the [4] McCawley & Grellman table on the FUN bourse floor. Holmes has two Strawberry Leaf Cents, which are of subtly different varieties. The fourth is in the collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in New York.

Almost all of Holmes’ large cents were recently graded by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). One Holmes Strawberry Leaf (Variety Sheldon-NC-3) is PCGS graded Good-04 and the other (NC-2) is graded Fair-02. The respective leaf is clear on both coins. In fact, both of the Holmes coins are not bad looking for coins with such low grades. The both have technical problems, though many early copper coins have technical problems and such problems are incorporated into the respective numerical grades. The Holmes Strawberry Leaf Cents are really neat.

Kleinsteuber particularly likes the Staples family Strawberry Leaf Cent that just sold. “It is very nice for the grade.” In my view, it has a curiously pleasing contrast of mellow brown fields (blank areas) and slightly lighter brown design elements, which are the head, wreath, numerals, letters and the leaf. Besides some rim imperfections, there are no especially significant contact marks or scratches. All three of these Strawberry Leaf Cents have a distinct texture that cannot be easily explained. All three were probably minted from the same batch of copper blanks.

The $862,500 price is an auction record for a copper numismatic item, and thus is not just an auction record for a copper coin. 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 traditional categories.

From May 1996 until January 2008, the auction record for a copper numismatic item stood at $506,000. This is the price realized when the Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent was auctioned by Bowers & Merena in New York. A short time later in 1996, it was certified ‘MS-67 RB’ [Red & Brown color] by the PCGS.

The $506,000 auction record for a copper numismatic item was broken a little more than one year ago, in the Jan. 2008 Stack’s Pre-FUN auction. An 1838 silver dollar ‘pattern’ struck in copper brought $529,000. Only two 1838 Gobrecht dollars struck in copper are known, and this one is PCGS certified ‘Proof-63 RB.’

Just three days later, on Jan. 10, 2008, Heritage auctioned a 1792 Cent Pattern for $603,750. [5] As I discussed in my article about it, the precise composition of this piece is not known and it may not be a copper numismatic item.

Both the auction record for a large cent and the auction record for a copper numismatic item of any kind were broken and then tied during the evening of Feb. 15, 2008, at the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo. A Heritage auction session and a separate catalogue were devoted to the epic Walter Husak collection of early large cents. (For an introduction to the Husak collection,[6] click here to see my pre-auction article.)

Two of Husak’s large cents sold for $632,500 each. One is Husak’s 1794 Liberty Cap Cent of the famous variety with the Starred Reverse. The second is Husak’s finest [7] 1793 Liberty Cap Cent, about which I wrote an article. I estimate that there exist more than sixty-five 1794 Starred Reverse Cents and around three hundred 1793 Liberty Cap Cents. It is often maintained, though, that the 1793 Liberty Cap is a one-year design type, and is therefore demanded by many ‘type coin’ collectors, not just large cent collectors.

This $632,500 record did not last very long. At the Summer 2008 ANA Convention, Heritage auctioned the Ed Price 1792 dime pattern, which was struck in copper, for $690,000. Although I wrote a pre-auction article on the Ed Price collection of 1796-1807 dimes and Quarter Eagles, I did not discuss this piece. This result shocked me. It is not one of the rarer patterns of 1792.

While a 1792 dime pattern is not a coin, it is certainly a numismatic item. This $690,000 price was thus a new auction record for a copper numismatic item.

The same $690,000 price was realized on Sept. 14, 2008, when the Goldbergs auctioned a[8] 1796 large cent, about which I wrote an article. It was a new auction record for a copper coin. This 1796 Liberty Cap Cent was formerly owned by the late Ted Naftzger, who assembled the all-time best collection of large cents. Naftzger’s ‘middle date’ large cents will be auctioned by the Goldbergs in February.

This Naftzger 1796 large cent is graded MS-66 by the PCGS, along with a designation (“RB”) that it exhibits considerable (though not complete) original ‘Mint Red’ color. The obverse (front) is spellbinding.

The die variety of this 1796 cent is not very rare. Moreover, there exist more than fifteen hundred 1796 Liberty Cap cents, of all varieties. It is the quality, not the rarity, of this particular coin that is responsible for it realizing an extraordinary price.

This auction record did not last for even four months. Before the Jan. 5, 2009, Stacks auction, Matt Kleinsteuber estimated that the finest known Strawberry Leaf would realize between $700,000 and $750,000. My thinking was along the same lines. I was a little surprised by the $862,500 price. Coin markets in general have weakened considerably since September. This is a grand sum, especially for a well circulated coin that is of interest primarily to large cent enthusiasts.

Before the middle of 2004, the only large cents that were clearly worth more than $250,000 each were type coins, the four or five finest known Chain Cents, three or more truly Superb Wreath Cents, and two to four of the highest quality 1793 Liberty Cap Cents. Most of the demand for these comes from ‘type coin’ collectors, not specialists in large cents. When Walter Husak’s collection was sold in Feb. 2008, Husak informed me that no one coin cost him as much as $100,000.

Kleinsteuber remarks that the $862,500 result is “a breath of fresh air” that “bodes well for markets for true rarities.” Matt suggests that a collector who needs such a coin to complete a set “cannot really overpay” as a Strawberry Leaf Cent is so extremely rare, important, and famous.

I conclude that, starting more than one year ago, there has been tremendous demand for large cents. Many of the buyers are building sets, and others are just intrigued by the denomination.

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