The categorization of U.S. coins into types, sub-types, major varieties, minor or sub-varieties, and die varieties is far from a straightforward process. Some modifications (such as the 1913 Type 1 and Type 2 Buffalo Nickels) have long been recognized as major varieties, noted prominently in the Redbook and included in nearly all the type coin albums. Others, like the “AMERI” reverse of the 1793 Chain Cent, have not achieved full “variety” status in the Redbook, yet have gained full recognition as a distinct type in Q. David Bowers’ excellent Guide Book of United States Type Coins.
The question as to what constitutes a distinct “type” coin, versus a “variety” and then even a “sub-variety” is a very gray area. Take for example the 1838-1840 “No Drapery” Half Dimes and Dimes. The “No Drapery” coins feature Christian Gobrecht’s original Liberty Seated design, with a tilted shield and absent any drapery hanging from Liberty’s left arm. Robert Ball Hughes’ modified design that appeared in 1840 added drapery, an upright shield and numerous other changes to the portrait of Miss Liberty. In his Complete Encyclopedia, of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Walter Breen devoted considerable space to a scathing explanation for these “modifications.” (How much of his theories were true is a subject for debate, but he certainly made his feelings clear on that subject.) While the Redbook notes this difference, it does not provide a unique variety for this change. Bowers’ Guide Book however, does make a clear distinction, placing them on separate pages and assigning them each unique WCG (Whitman Coin Guide) numbers.
Over the next several issues of the RCMR, we’ll be taking a look at a few of these inconsistencies and exploring possible reasons why some seemingly minor modifications achieve full variety status, while other, often more noticeable changes, have been virtually ignored.
We’ll start this series with one of my favorites and what is likely the most ignored and underappreciated variety out there: the 1838-39 $10 Liberty Head Eagle.
Why the 1838-39 Liberty Head Eagles have never achieved full variety status in any of the major numismatic references remains a mystery to me. The differences in the obverse portrait are readily apparent even to the casual observer. Start with the truncation below the neckline, move to the hair covering the ear, and then step back and look at the sharp tilt to Miss Liberty’s head relative to the date. In addition, the lettering on the reverse is larger on the 1838-39 Liberty Head Eagle. (Note that the change was made in 1839, so for that year, both head styles and sizes of reverse lettering were produced.)
To my eye at least, this is every bit as much of a “change” as moving the buffalo from the “mound” to a “line” in 1913 on the nickel or removing one of the bordering lines off the trime in 1859. Both aforementioned changes are recognized as full varieties in the Redbook and Bowers’ Guide Book of United States Type Coins, yet the differences between the 1838 and 1839 eagles garner only a tiny footnote in the Redbook and only a brief mention in Bowers’ latest (3rd) edition of his Guide Book of United States Type Coins.
So, this leads us to the question as to why this issue has been historically ignored as a distinct type.
Due to their high value, gold coins have traditionally not been included in the type coin albums made by Whitman and other major manufacturers. This has contributed to general unawareness of this variety, even among intermediate numismatists. Secondly, these coins are not inexpensive. (Of course, neither are the Small Eagle Draped Bust Halves of 1796-97, but that reverse change is a slam dunk for a unique type.) But the fact that a nice example of the 1838-39 Liberty Head Eagle is a high four-figure to low five-figure coin doesn’t help. Finally, despite their rather obvious obverse differences, nothing was really added or subtracted from the design. You cannot point to any change in lettering, motto, stars, arrows, or diameter which usually defines a distinct type or variety.
So how best to define a distinct type or variety? Years ago, when I was doing some work in philatelics, I suggested the “seven-year-old” test.
Quite simply, I proposed placing a pile of stamps into room with a bunch of seven-year olds and telling them to sort them out by their appearance. The resulting stacks constituted distinct “types” of stamps. Extending this to coins, I believe if you gave a few rolls of mixed 1838-1840 eagles to that group (good luck finding the coins!) and told the kids to sort those gold coins out, they could do it fairly quickly and easily – and probably accurately. I’m not sure the Type II and III Three Cent Silvers could pass that test though.
Therefore, given that these coins could pass the “seven-year-old” test, I would hope to see future editions of the Redbook (and Guide Book of United States Type Coins) give these coins the recognition they deserve. I believe they certainly qualify for a distinct variety designation and an illustration, too. In subsequent articles on this topic, I will make attempts to more formally define what might constitute a type, subtype, and both major and minor varieties.
This article is from the current January/February 2020 Rare Coin Market Report. To continue reading this issue, please visit the digital version for the Current Issue. You will be prompted to input the email address linked to your PCGS account. All current PCGS Collectors Club members will have free access to the complete digital Rare Coin Market Report. To purchase a single print issue or 1-year subscription, please visit the RCMR Homepage. If you are not a PCGS Collectors Club Member and wish to join please visit the PCGS membership page at www.pcgs.com/join.