Monday, March 9, 2009

Coin Monday: A cataloger’s cliffhanger concluded or The charm of an 1876-CC 20 cent piece

March 9, 2009
Posted by John

Previously: I marveled at the 1870-CC double eagle that a fellow cataloger, George, had shown me. After I enjoyed looking at that coin, he indicated that he had another. What could top an 1870-CC double eagle?

He laid it onto my desk. I looked closely.

“Yeah,” I managed after a few seconds. “That’s a better date.”

It was another 20 – not dollars, but cents: an 1876-CC twenty cent piece, graded MS64, easily the rarest issue for its short-lived denomination and one of the most famous Carson City coins of all time. It is the centerpiece for our upcoming Baltimore, MD U.S. Coin Auction at the end of this month.

Officially, 10,000 examples were struck, certainly a figure that commands respect, but there are lower mintages to be found elsewhere, and it is now known that there are a handful of coins struck at Carson City that are distinctly more rare than the 1876-CC 20 cent piece is today. Yet it is not merely a rarity; it is a venerable rarity, having been recognized as such since 1893, when collector Augustus Heaton, now known as “the father of mintmark collecting,” for his pamphlet Mint Marks, A Treatise, wrote in said pamphlet that the issue was “excessively rare.” More than a century’s worth of collectors have pursued just a handful of survivors. Identifying how many there are is a speculative exercise at best, though estimates of 15 to 18 pieces have gained wide, if not universal acceptance.

Then again, in theory, there shouldn’t be any 1876-CC 20 cent coins to speak of. Carson City Mint Superintendent James Crawford received an order from Mint Director Henry Linderman in Philadelphia, ordering the melting of all 1876-CC 20 cent pieces that were on-hand, which amounted to nearly the entire mintage. A handful of examples slipped through the cracks, however, accounting for the few specimens available. (It’s worth noting that a majority of known examples are Mint State, indicating that they never entered circulation.)

It is likely that a few of today’s survivors were to serve as assay pieces, coins sent from Carson City to Philadelphia to check for weight and fineness of the silver used, but not actually tested (and thus destroyed). It is also probable that Carson City Mint personnel saved a few coins as keepsakes. While numismatists are unlikely ever to learn exactly where, when, and how the few survivors were saved from the melting pot, speculation makes up much of the fun in collecting!

When I picked up the coin, my eyes first went to the word LIBERTY, on a ribbon draped across the shield on the obverse. On the coin, the letters are doubled, the result of a mistake in the die-making process. The doubling is dramatic enough to see without magnification, though I soon added a loupe to check the area more closely.

George gave me almost a minute with the 1876-CC twenty cent piece.

“All right, John,” he said. “I need it back.”

I handed the coin back to George with more than a hint of jealousy. “Enjoy cataloging it.”

“Oh, I will.”

George gathered up the two coins and headed to the next office. I returned to cataloging the Seated half dollar, pausing only once while typing to delete a reference to Carson City. Perhaps I still had Nevada on my mind…