PCGS experts draw from a wide range of techniques and technologies to verify the authenticity of frequently counterfeited coins. Sometimes, however, the quickest weapon is simply to have done your numismatic homework. Consider the following 1799 Cent recently submitted for authentication and grading. Do you notice anything suspicious? No magnification necessary!
“The Aristocrat Among U.S. Cents”
One of the most famous rarities of early American numismatics, the 1799 was called “the aristocrat among U.S. cents” by Theodore J. Venn in his 1915 work on the series entitled Large United States Cents: A Monograph on the Big Copper “Pennies” Coined by the U.S. Government from 1793 to 1857. The issue’s scarcity was widely noted after the transition in 1857 from large cents to “small” cents, which are of the physical size most collectors know today and ignited an immediate interest in the departing diameter. Most found the 1799, along with the ever-elusive 1815, among the last to be located for their collections, while rumors of wild prices for choice specimens built an increasing romance around the final cent of the 18th century.
Coveted and scarcely attainable even at the dawn of numismatic consciousness in the United States, the 1799 was in all likelihood the most counterfeited of all US coins until the advent of mintmark rarities provided easier targets for alteration. Another of Venn’s notes indicates the problem’s prevalence even a century ago: “the greatest danger lies in the altered dates of the 1798 cent.” Luckily, the issues are distinguished by much more than the date alone.
The Other Sheldon Numbers
Most numismatists will recall it was Dr. William Sheldon who introduced the 70-point grading scale we use today. As collectors of early American coppers will know, Dr. Sheldon also published one of the most influential die studies in United States numismatics, Early American Cents, a 1949 publication that lists and describes all then-known die combinations for Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, and Classic Head Large Cents. The first listing, Sheldon-1, designates the first die pair used to strike cents when production began in 1793: the “Ameri.” Chain Cent, while the last, Sheldon-295, refers to the 1814 Plain 4 Classic-Head Cent. The 1799 is Sheldon-189:
Sheldon-189 is typically an exquisite dark chocolate color with weakness in the lower portion of the date and heavily circulated. Most show a raised die lump above “T” in “CENT” on the reverse, referred to by early collectors as a “mintmark” long before the modern sense of the term came into use. This is the only known die pair for “perfect date” or “normal date” 1799s. There are also two overdate die pairs, featuring the final “9” in the date punched over an underlying “8”.
The Answer Revealed
Compare the genuine 1799 closely to the piece presented earlier. Are any as-struck differences immediately apparent?
Early cent specialists will no doubt have instantly recognized the distinctive intersecting die breaks in the right obverse field, as well as the small projection from the lower reverse rim to the right of the denomination on the suspect coin. These are signatures of a common variety of 1798s, Sheldon-187:
Thus, no matter how skillfully the date’s final digit may have been transformed, the coin is identifiable at arm’s length as a counterfeit made by altering the date of a 1798 Sheldon-187.
That it was created from this particular variety adds a twist to the story illustrative of the richness die study can add to collecting.
The deteriorating obverse die of Sheldon-187 was combined in an earlier state with a spectacularly-cracked reverse to form another readily-available late 1798 variety, Sheldon-186:
This unforgettable reverse has been mistaken for a later state of that seen on 187 more than once in print, but the trajectory of the arc is different, passing through the final digit of the denomination rather than slinking to the right of it. It does occur elsewhere in the series, however, and this is what allows us to confidently refer to 186 and 187 “late” 1798s. It is the reverse of Sheldon-188, one of the 1799/8 overdates mentioned earlier:
Note, however, it hasn’t yet cracked. Thus, the 1799/8 cents were struck before at least two varieties of 1798, and the genuine 1798 which became our counterfeit 1799 was in fact struck after many coins dated 1799!
Although this particular forgery may not have been highly deceptive, many of the date are. Writing about this famous issue in 1879 in his seminal work Monograph of United States Cents and Half Cents Issued Between the Years 1793 and 1857, numismatist Edward Frossard made an important recommendation:
“...the boasted rarity of [the 1799] has undoubtedly acted as an incentive to dishonest practices on the part of numismatic tinkers and others, who wished (and still wish) to produce specimens that can pass as genuine among credulous or inexperienced collectors. We therefore caution those collectors in whose eyes and altered or forged coin is an abomination, and who want none but genuine specimens in their cabinets, to closely examine by means of a lens, or to submit to those more experienced than they, before purchasing, any specimen on which rests the slightest shadow of a doubt.”
While we can’t be certain he was referring to PCGS, we know professional authentication is necessary in the case of the aristocrat among U.S. cents.