1793 Sheldon-4. Rarity-3+. Chain, AMERICA, Periods. MS-65 BN (PCGS).
Sometimes in the course of numismatic events, a coin "has it all," with little else to be desired. Such an instance is here, with this simply incredible 1793 Chain cent, one of the most famous and rare of American coin types, combining the certification in gem grade, plus the incomparable pedigree of the Eliasberg Collection. Just about every adjective that you might care to apply would be relevant—marvelous, wonderful, and so on. You can add your own descriptions.
It seems like only yesterday when the cataloguer viewed this coin as part of the Eliasberg Collection, there appearing as Lot 487, graded somewhat conservatively (it seems) as MS-64. The description verbatim was as follows:
"Strike: Superbly detailed with excellent definition of all designs, including the highest points of the hair. Well centered. The letters are bifurcated on the obverse, slightly so on the reverse, an artifact of striking due to planchet spreading. Obverse and reverse with high rims, as struck. Superb preservation without rim bruises or bumps.
"Surfaces: Lustrous brown surfaces with a tiny area of raised granularity at and to the right of F in OF. Struck on an incomplete planchet with very slight flattening of the edge at 7:00.
"Narrative: Possibly the finest known or, perhaps, the second finest of this variety. This is one of only seven or eight Mint State Chain cents in existence (of all varieties). As such it is one of the greatest of all early cents to cross the auction block in our generation. This specimen has been off the market for just a few days less than a half a century. The pedigree listing is most impressive, and is tantamount to a Who's Who in Numismatics."
Design: First motif of the copper cent series. The head of Miss Liberty faces left, delicate in her features, her lips pursed, her eye wide open, and her hair streaming to the left behind her head, finely detailed with individual strands visible. Above is the word LIBERTY, in this instance with a period following. Below is the date 1793, also with a period, characteristic of no other die of this year. The use of periods in general commerce (without regard to coin designs) was different in 1793 than it is today, and often a sign for a hotel would have a period, as if to arrest the viewer's thoughts (such as SANBORN HOUSE.). Whatever the reason, the periods did not appear elsewhere on coinage of the era. The reverse depicts a continuous chain of 15 links, representing one for each of the states, comprising the original 13 colonies plus Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792). Within is the denomination expressed as ONE/CENT plus, redundantly, 1/100. Around the border is the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Edge with vine and bars.
Designer: Henry Voigt is typically credited with this coinage, and perhaps for this measure he should be credited with the earlier offered 1793 half cent (see description). Voigt is believed to have engraved dies at the Mint circa December 1792 through June 1793, but precise times are not known. On January 28, 1793, he was appointed as the first chief coiner at the Mint, an office which he held until his death in February 1814. Voigt was a watchmaker by trade, and thus was thoroughly familiar with engraving on metal surfaces, working in small dimensions, and the like. Most unfortunately, Mint correspondence of the era, plus the annual Report of the Director of the Mint typically overlooked details of who engraved dies or furnished designs, simply because these were considered to be the tasks of workmen and artisans, and not necessarily relevant to the financial situation at the Mint. It would be interesting to learn more about Voigt, who was born in Pennsylvania but who prior to the Revolutionary War went to Germany and worked there as an apprentice at a mint. Perhaps if someone has detailed biographical information we will find space for it in a future issue of The Numismatic Sun.Comments: The story of the 1793 Chain cent is well known. A twice told tale, frequently recited commentary, attributes the short life of the obverse and reverse motifs to a contemporary newspaper article which stated that Miss Liberty appeared to be "in a fright," and, on the reverse the chain was an "ill omen for Liberty." Whatever the reasons, the motif was short lived. Several die combinations were used to produce 36,103 pieces. These slipped quietly into circulation, without a single example being reserved specifically by a numismatist. Indeed, no record has been found of any individual being interested in the numismatic productions of the Mint during the early years, and systematically saving pieces.
Chain cents did their duty in commerce, and as late as the 1850s a few were seen here and there in circulation, no doubt worn nearly smooth. Today several thousand pieces exist across the different varieties, mostly in well worn grades, and often with planchet defects, porous surfaces, or other problems.
Die Notes: Breen's die state II, with a thin crack through the bases of RTY of LIBERTY to the period that follows. Another two faint cracks extend from the rim at 7:30 toward the hair and downward toward the date. Breen notes that the engraver of this obverse die may have been different from that of the other Chain cent obverses, but the varied depictions of Liberty have as many stylistic commonalities as they do differences. This obverse most closely resembles the obverse of NC-1, known by only two specimens in widely varying grades.
Before 1890, this piece's provenance is essentially identical to the Sheldon-3 in our December sale, as both pieces lived in Cincinnati while a part of the Zanoni and Cleneay collections, parting ways in the Chapman brothers' landmark 1890 sale of the latter cabinet. In today's Condition Census of Sheldon-4, this piece is deemed third finest known of the variety, exceeded by "The Coin," a superb prooflike specimen that once resided in the Naftzger collection and is spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for numismatic royalty. The second finest known is the Parmelee-Pearl specimen, which also once resided in the Naftzger Collection and was the plate coin in the Noyes.
PCGS Population: 1; none finer within designation.
A storied provenance: From W. Elliot Woodward's 5th sale, October 1864, Lot 603; Joseph Zanoni to fellow Cincinnatian Thomas Cleneay privately; S.H. and Henry Chapman's sale of the Thomas Cleneay Collection, December 1890, Lot 1795; Charles Steigerwalt to John G. Mills; S.H. and Henry Chapman's sale of the John G. Mills Collection, April 1904, Lot 1227; Henry Chapman's sale of the George H. Earle, Jr. Collection, June 1912, Lot 3355; Henry Chapman to Clarence S. Bement; Henry Chapman's sale of the Bement Collection, May 1916, Lot 286; Col. James W. Ellsworth to Wayte Raymond to William C. Atwater; B. Max Mehl's sale of the William C. Atwater Collection, June 1946, Lot 10; Bowers and Merena's sale of the Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection, May 1996, Lot 487. Plated in Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Large Cents 1793-1814 for the Breen-5 variety.