Monday, June 28, 2010

Coin Monday: 1922 -- Into the Downtime

June 28, 2010
Written by John Dale

Downtime is just a dream for me right now; the cataloging staff spent the weekend working on the upcoming Boston ANA Auction, and it looks like two more working weekends are on the way. As appealing as the thought of downtime might be, though, there’s always the potential for too much of a good thing. In 1922, the U.S. Mint saw plenty of downtime, and as a result, only a few types of coins were struck that year.

In the wake of World War I, the United States went through a recession that lasted about half a year. The start of 1920 saw another economic downturn that lasted for 18months. During the downturn, the Mint struck a variety of denominations, but with less commerce came less demand for the instruments of commerce, coins among them.

Only one denomination was struck at all three of the active mints: the silver dollar. The 1922 silver dollars bore the then-novel Peace design; though first struck in 1921, the Peace dollars were not released for distribution until 1922. The Boston auction will have examples from Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.

While double eagles effectively did not circulate in the U.S. by 1922, there was still demand for them in international trade, demand that was increasing as Europe recovered. The gold coins were struck on the two coasts: Philadelphia (represented in the upcoming July Summer FUN Auction) and San Francisco (in Boston). Most of today’s survivors were shipped overseas and spent upwards of 50 years in Europe; they were later repatriated in the 1970s and beyond, after restrictions on American citizens’ private ownership of gold were relaxed.

Across most of the U.S. there was little demand for small change, so no nickels, dimes, quarters, or halves were made. There was unexpected demand for one-cent coins, though, and the Denver Mint pushed through a batch of slightly more than 7 million pieces. While it was Denver alone that struck cents in 1922, certain pieces show no mintmark due to production errors, and these have become more famous than their regular 1922-D counterparts.

Beyond the regular U.S. coinage, the Philadelphia Mint also worked on a handful of other small-scale projects. For the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant, the famous Civil War general and later president, the Mint made commemorative coins in two denominations, a half dollar and a gold dollar. Philadelphia also kept up its trade in making coins for foreign countries. In 1922, it struck pieces for circulation in Colombia; Costa Rica; French Indochina (which covered modern-day Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and a small part of China); Nicaragua; and Venezuela.

It would be nice to contemplate downtime some more, but the Boston catalog calls. Back to it!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Coin Monday: The Business of the 1882 Double Eagle

June 21, 2010
Written by John Dale

One of the most important coins in the upcoming July Summer FUN U.S. Coin auction is an 1882 double eagle graded AU53 by PCGS. The issue has a mintage of just 571 business strikes, the lowest for any regular-issue double eagle with the James B. Longacre-designed reverse. (The Paquet reverse is another story, as there are just two Philadelphia 1861 Paquet coins. Heritage has sold one of them.)

Beyond the obvious rarity-by-mintage, there is another twist to just how elusive the 1882 double eagle business strikes are: the Smithsonian Institution doesn’t have one. The reason the Smithsonian lacks an example actually ties in to why the coins are so rare overall.

Now, it certainly seems like the Smithsonian, more specifically the National Numismatic Collection in the National Museum of American History, has one of everything, including a number of unique items. (If you dream of owning a Class II 1804 dollar or an 1849 pattern double eagle, well, dreams are all you’ll ever have.)

The NNC began with the United States Mint’s official cabinet, built up through its transfer to the Smithsonian in 1923, and it was later built up through private donations and transfers; the most famous of these, the gold coin cabinet of Josiah K. Lilly, Jr., arrived in 1973.

(Deeply personal aside: a love of coins is not the only connection I have to Mr. Lilly. Along with his father and brother, he established the Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic foundation that focuses on my home state of Indiana. Thanks to its Community Scholarship Program, I was able to attend my college of choice. I am eternally grateful.)

The Mint and Lilly collections shared an important trait: neither of them collected both proofs and business strikes when proofs were available. The two were seen as part of the same issue, with proofs preferable to the “ordinary” coins. Thus, the NNC has two proof 1882 double eagles (mintage 59 specimens) but no business strike examples.

Collector perspectives today are generally different, however, and proofs and business strikes are treated as two distinct issues. This is highlighted in the great Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, which used the NNC for images and research. (Unsolicited book recommendation: it’s one of the few that never leaves my cataloging desk.) On the entry for the 1882 business strikes, the caption that usually lists the condition of the best NNC specimen says instead, “No specimen in Smithsonian Institution.”

The 1882 business strike double eagle is an important enough coin on its own, but the idea of owning a coin that the Smithsonian doesn’t have is quite the bonus. Happy bidding!

-John Dale Beety

Monday, June 14, 2010

Coin Monday: Flips and Trips

June 14, 2010
Written by John Dale

Error coin enthusiasts are one of the great traditions of U.S. numismatics, if a relatively recent phenomenon compared to, say, collectors of large cents. The two specialties are not completely separate, but intersect on occasion; after all, if 21st century Mint technology wasn’t enough to keep this proof Ohio Statehood quarter from looking like a saucer, what are the chances that things would be error-free in the late 18th century?

A pair of dramatic errors in the July 2010 Summer FUN Auction tell the tale. Error-free? Not even close.

Both of these errors are large cents dated 1796. The first, graded VG10 by NGC, shows the last two digits of the date three times, indicating three distinct strikes (at least!), and the date only appears on the obverse once. The other two appearances are on the back, or reverse, with one of them on the interior of the coin, not at the rim. The progression must have gone as follows: the first strike was off-center, the second strike centered, the coin flipped over, and finally a third strike on-target. The result is a terribly wrong yet oh-so-right coin, somewhere between an attractive curiosity and a beautiful trainwreck.

The second one, given an NGC Details grade of VF with a “Scratches” caveat, has an even more outrageous appearance. It too is a flip-over triple strike, though it isn’t listed as such. Evidence of the “missing strike” is visible on Liberty’s cap on the main (final) strike, in the form of the letters ST which don’t match where the word STATES would be on the presumed “other” strike; hence, there must have been a third impression of the dies.

While both coins have something clearly “off” about them on close inspection, this second example makes it obvious from the start with the left side of a wreath stretching down over the tip of Liberty’s bust on the obverse. The reverse, too, shows the error in all its flip-over glory as the top and right sides of a Liberty impression wrap themselves around the main wreath.

One place where the error and large cent specialties diverge is attitude. While errors give us valuable information about the minting process, much of their appeal comes from their inherent “freak factor” and their status as the Mint’s pratfalls. (An old-school way to refer to errors is “FIDOs,” or “Freaks, Imperfections, Defects, and Oddities.”) To a large cent collector, however, even an outrageous error like one of these two is not treated as a freak, but as an artifact to be treasured. In its early struggle-filled years, the Mint made many errors both on and off the coinage floor, but it persevered in the end. Because of that, collectors have more than 200 years of U.S. coinage history, a source of information and wonder—and yes, the occasional laugh.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Coin Monday: Cents of Steel

June 7, 2010
Written by John Dale

While the Man of Steel dates to 1938, America’s “cents of steel” date to 1943—the vast majority of them, anyway. Comic book superheroes, Superman included, were influenced by World War II, and so too was America’s coinage. The steel cents of 1943, such as this 1943-D/D variety cent in the upcoming July Summer FUN Auction, came about this way, with bronze (and its scarce component copper) taken out and more plentiful steel substituted.

The switch didn’t work out so well; circulated steel cents became dull quickly and were easily confused with dimes. In 1944, the coinage metal for cents reverted to a copper-based alloy, not strictly bronze but similar.

The two transition periods, copper to steel and then the reverse, created two distinct classes of off-metal errors. The first type, the 1943-dated cent made out of bronze instead of steel, has been covered on this blog before. The flip side of the 1943 bronze cent is the steel cent struck in 1944, after the steel planchets should have been retired; hence “the vast majority” above, since there are a relative handful of error coins that serve as exceptions.

The 1944-dated steel cents show up only occasionally at Heritage, though Heritage will be auctioning a pair of them in back-to-back auctions. Lot 170 in the just-completed June Long Beach Auction was a 1944-D steel cent graded AU55 by NGC.

Bidders who missed out on that coin will get a second chance in July, when another 1944-D steel cent, this one graded AU53 by PCGS, will be a standout of Summer FUN. Incredibly, both coins are pedigreed to The Brenda John Collection, a fact which gave me a rare case of collector envy when I heard it. Just imagine me shaking my head and muttering to myself, “Two 1944-D steel cents? You have to be joking…”

The two coins are plenty serious, though, just as serious as the collectors who bid on the first and will chase after the second. If the 1944-D steel cent is a bit too much for your budget, the auction also has a number of 1943-D steel cents to go around, including this Superb Gem.

Happy bidding!