CONFESSIONS OF AN EAC ADDICT|
by John Pijewski
BUYING A VF 1836 LARGE CENT, OR, GETTING MY FEET WET
I'm just beginning to acquire a set of large cents according to "Redbook." I'm at a local coin shop in Newton, MA, that has a decent selection of large cents. The stock consists of four or five, or more, of most dates, so I can select the best one of each date.
Now I'm looking at a group of five 1836 large cents. There is a very attractive VG+ that's nearly choice (except for a few, tiny circulation marks) for $18. The others are in higher grades but have a variety of problems with corrosion, rim bruises, and scratches. And then there's a VF that's absolutely choice, sharply struck with exceptionally clean surfaces and a beautiful deep tan brown. It's almost as though the coin has an aura, or a halo. Absolute perfection for $65. It's the most gorgeous large cent I've ever seen. (Remember, I've only been buying early copper for three weeks, and this is my second buying trip.)
I ask myself, Who knows if I'll ever find another large cent as gorgeous as this? (In a year I can give you an answer, but right now I'm dancing "the copper waltz.") I'm trying to maximize my money and acquire the most number of large cents to add to the four I have at home. I've selected ten middle and late date large cents I want to buy. They range in condition from VG to F+ and their cost comes to $185.
My budget today is $200. If I splurge on this VF 1836 cent, that's about 33% for just one coin. The 1836 in VG+ is also a very attractive coin. The few, tiny circulation marks it has endow it with a wonderful patina. I imagine a woman in a full-length gingham dress in a Boston grocery store around 1855 carefully picking this cent from her purse with three others to pay 4 cents for the half dozen eggs she's buying. If I give this cent a specific history, I may be able to convince myself that it would be perfectly adequate for my "Redbook" variety set. And it would keep me within budget. But the VF cent is downright gorgeous. If I buy it, it'd be the best large cent I own. I can see Miss Liberty on this coin winking at me and saying, "Baby, what's the matter with you? Don't you want to take me home?"
I go through all ten large cents I want to buy and see whether I can put one or two back so I can afford to get the VF 1836 cent. In terms of surface condition they're an attractive group, and I find myself unwilling to part with any cent I've selected. I want them all. Quite frankly, I'd prefer to raise my budget to $400 and buy even more large cents, but that's not going to happen today.
Hey, I'm an adult. I can control my passions. I decide to buy the VF 1836 cent along with the ten others. They come to $250. I'm counting on Arthur Fins, the coin shop owner, to give me a good discount.
INTRODUCING MY BELOVED LIZZIE TO LARGE CENTS, OR, A SLIGHT DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
I'm sitting with My Beloved Lizzie on our new white sofa in the upstairs living room that opens onto a deck that, in summer, is totally screened from the street by large maple trees. It's a grey Saturday in late March and, through the bare trees, I can see the large Victorian houses that comprise our neighborhood.
My Beloved Lizzie wants to see what I bought today on my trip to a coin shop. I can't tell whether she's amused or perplexed that I, a mature adult male, am interested in big old American pennies. I bought five middle date large cents between 1816 and 1826 in lower grades for my recently started date set of large cents according
to the "Redbook" varieties. The best cent is an 1823 normal date in VG.
My Beloved Lizzie handles each coin without saying anything. Then she asks, "How much did you pay for them?"
It's a question that makes me feel a bit guilty. I try not to feel this way, but 12 years of guilt-inducing Catholic education and having parents who endured an economic depression and World War II in Poland and Germany won't die easily. We bought this house six months ago and, being an old house, it needs considerable updating. We've just started gutting the bathroom with the hideous pink and black tiles with a lot more to follow.
"About $25 each," I say, "except for the 1823. It's a normal date. That was $95."
My Beloved Lizzie's eyebrows arch and she says, "You spent $95 for one penny? Let me see that one." She looks at it intently, as though once she's finished looking at it, there'll be nothing left of the coin. "Why is it called a normal date?"
"Because the other cent made that year is an overdate. 1823 was cut in over 1822. Both varieties are rare coins."
My Beloved Lizzie looks at me skeptically; there's a certain laser-like quality to her look. She was born in England (Warwickshire) and raised in Worcestershire, not far from the famous villages of Upper Piddle, Lower Piddle, Wyre Piddle, and Piddle in the Hole. Her definition of an old coin is a hammered silver groat from the reign of Edward II in the thirteen hundreds. She also thinks that the more wear a coin has, the more it should be worth because it's encountered so much history and the passing of hands.
That's one of many reasons why I love My Beloved Lizzie. She has such unique views. That's also why we bought an old house - at least, according to American standards; in England an object has to be from the sixteenth century to earn the adjective "old" - and why we're filling it with functional antiques. We both love the patina of old things. My Beloved Lizzie and I are, respectively, in our early to late-middle forties. We've been together three years; it's her second marriage and my first and, yes, I have to admit that each of us has a patina.
"But we have," I say, "enough money put aside for renovations."
"Are you sure it's wise to be spending money on coins when we're going to be spending so much on the house?"
I'm afraid that My Beloved Lizzie has a bit of her mother in her. Her mother survived the depression, too, along with the severe rationing in World War II England, so that, even 20 years later, My Beloved Lizzie's mother refused to feed her and her two younger sisters biscuits (cookies, to Americans.) "I don't buy biscuits," her mother would say. "People just eat them."
I say, "I'm not spending much money on coins." This is, of course, a matter of opinion.
My Beloved Lizzie gives me another of her laser-like skeptical looks. It's one reason I wanted to buy an old house with her. Her skeptical looks can peel wallpaper off walls, so we have a built-in head start on our renovations.
BUYING A MISTAKE, OR, BURYING A MISTAKE
I'm looking at an 1823/2 large cent overdate at a local Sunday coin show. The coin holder says it's VG8 and priced at $120. But there's absolutely no hair detail on the coin. It can't possibly be VG8. Otherwise, however, the coin is choice - no rim bruises, pits, scratches, or corrosion.
I catch the dealer's attention and ask, "Are you sure this large cent is a VG?"
The dealer makes a show of looking at the coin under a glass and pronounces, "Yup, that's a full VG. Choice. Bet you won't find another large cent as clean as this one on the floor."
I look at the coin as if it's going to tell me what grade it is. Maybe the dealer knows something I don't know. Maybe because it's choice it can step up to the next grade. I've been looking for an 1823/2 overdate for six months, and this is the first one I've come across. If I don't get it, who knows how long I'll have to wait until I find another one?
This is, I realize much later, the failure of my thinking. Unless a large cent is R5 or higher, you will encounter it with some frequency given enough searching. I have a classic case of "hot pants," which has led any number of men to make quick, poor decisions that sometimes result in bad marriages, never mind poor coin purchases.
I decide to buy the coin despite my reservations. The dealer's $10 discount doesn't make me feel any better. When I get home I transfer the large cent to a cardboard flip that I staple shut and studiously label VG8, even though I know it's G5. Now I'm only cheating myself. I decide to consult my two grading texts: The Official A.N.A. Grading Standard for U.S. Coins, and Photograde. Both show the 1823/2 large cent is clearly a G5. Now that it's my coin I feel an obligation to grade it correctly. I remove it from its cardboard flip and place it into a new one, which I label G5.
I'm crestfallen. Why did I buy the coin? Especially since I knew it wasn't what the dealer purported it to be. Whenever I look at the coin from now on, I don't see a Choice G5 1823/2 overdate large cent, I only see the mistake I've made. At no point in my ownership of the coin does it bring me any joy or satisfaction.
Over a year later I locate another 1823/2 overdate in VG10, two tiny rim bruises away from being Choice. The rim bruises are a small distraction, but I'll happily live with them because this coin is such a beautiful, original chocolate brown. When I get around to selling my first 1823/2 overdate, I consign it to a large cent dealer's price list. He calls me to say he's received my coins.
"The 1823 overdate is a very nice G5," he says.
"Yeah," I say.
"It's Choice," he says.
"I'll price it at $65," he says.
"I bet it'll sell very quickly," he says.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. If only divorce were this easy.
WHAT GRADE TO COLLECT, OR DO I WANT TO TAKE A SECOND MORTGAGE ON MY HOUSE?
This is a difficult choice because there's no right answer. Bill Gates may choose to collect only uncirculated large cents, but my accountant may decide to collect large cents that are G4 or G5. Both collections will be wonderful.
How much money can I part with is the operative question because money is, unfortunately, inextricably linked to grade. For better or worse, with all antiques, whether they're baroque Italian paintings or 1794 Liberty Cap large cents, condition is not only important, it's paramount. Patina and wear may be aesthetically pleasing, but perfect condition rings up the big bucks.
Personally, I've decided to focus on G5 to VG10 large cents, with occasional climbs up the grade ladder as finances and opportunities permit.
Of course, I'd love to collect VF20 and higher grade large cents, but I want to acquire more than one coin a year. It's a trade-off: how much coin I want for how much money I'm willing or can afford to pay. With my budget, high-grade and near-perfect large cents aren't for me.
This isn't to say that high-grade large cents are the only ones worth collecting. There are many low grade large cents that are beautiful and very desirable. I have a 1795 S-76b (plain edge) that is breathtaking to me, and not because I'm prone to bronchitis. Miss Liberty and the cap are sharply outlined with some hair detail. Both LIBERTY and the date are full and sharp. The coin is perfectly centered. Its surface is smooth and hard. There are no nicks or rim bruises, nor any hint of corrosion. The color is a warm walnut brown that emanates a hazy glow, much like a sunset on a humid summer evening. About a third of the denticles are visible. The cent is a split grade 7/4, so the reverse is less attractive, but it's a genuinely beautiful coin that holds a place of honor in my collection. I don't know it yet, but even the fabulous, complete Sheldon large cent collections of Robbie Brown, Jack Robinson, Lee Kuntz, and J.R. Frankenfield contained low-grade coins, some of them with enough problems or damage to qualify as scudzy. If you're looking for completeness, there's no way to avoid low-grade cents in your collection. Sometimes there are only 20 or so coins that comprise a certain variety (say, S-7), and all of them are locked in collections. Your only hope is that someone decides to sell his collection, usually at auction, and an S-37 comes on the market. If it's an AG3 with moderate porosity and some deep rim bruises, you've got no choice. You either buy it, or you do without.
MY BELOVED LIZZIE'S VIEW OF COINS, OR, WHAT ALL US LOW-GRADE LARGE CENT COLLECTORS WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE
My Beloved Lizzie has a unique perspective on coins. She thinks that the more wear a coin has, the more valuable it should be. If a coin sees many years of hard commercial use, it becomes "the real thing," a survivor.
"It's just like a celebrated war veteran," she says, "who got through the D-Day invasion fighting on the front line and then through the push across France into the Battle of the Bulge and then into Germany. You value and cherish the soldiers who've fought hard and survived. They earned incalculable experience at great cost. This has to be worth a lot."
"And what about high grade coins?" I ask. "Are they worth nothing then?"
"Of course, they're worth nothing. They're just the lousy colonels and generals who spent the war very safely on the home front as commanders of stockrooms dispensing shoes, combs, and toilet paper to the troops. They didn't risk their lives. They didn't have to fight an enemy eager to kill them. No. They slept on soft mattresses during the war, ate three meals each day, had all the cigarettes they could smoke, all the Coca-Cola they could drink. They had it so easy sitting around signing forms in triplicate while the real soldiers were fighting the war. No. A high-grade coin shouldn't be worth much just because it was lucky enough to get put aside in a box or drawer. They may look nice and have a lot of detail, but they didn't do anything to win the war, while the worn coin put its life on the line, has the wear and tear, the scars to earn its worth. If I had a say in the matter, only worn coins would be worth anything."
I can hear many collectors of early copper cheering madly for My Beloved Lizzie.
She continues, "Bring some war veterans with missing or disfigured limbs, and I dare you to call them scudzy. Tell them to their faces they're not worth as much as the colonel who sat on his a-- through the whole war in his safe little office. Go ahead, I dare you."
Thank you, My Beloved Lizzie.
BUYING THE BOOK, OR, ENTERING EAC's HOUSE
I now have about 85% of a large cent set according to "Redbook" varieties. The few varieties that I don't have are the most expensive, and I'm not sure I'll ever get them. Since I've already made a significant commitment to large cents, I want to learn even more about them. Penny Whimsy is the obvious place to learn more. If William Sheldon's book had a more compelling or serious title, I think I would've bought it sooner than this (October 2000). In any case, buying this book begins my inevitable and wholehearted slide down the ruinous road that leads to EAC addiction, though I don't know if yet.
Dr. Sheldon provides a simple yet eloquent introduction to large cents in his book. These will be chapters I'll reread many times in the upcoming months and years. What stays in my mind now is the good doctor's affection for the problems that beset these coins - impure copper planchets that develop fissures, pitting, laminations, striations, voids; primitive minting technology that produces weak or uneven strikes, die cracks or die failures; the environmental problems that produce a rich variety of corrosion - porosity, granularity, raised corrosion, verdigris. These difficulties, says Dr. Sheldon, give large cents their unique personalities.
While the "Redbook" opened a window to the world of large cents for me, Penny Whimsy brought me inside the house. So this is what serious copper collecting is about. You don't just collect major varieties, you collect every single variety. This is going to make the quest so much more difficult and expensive. Do I really want to do this? I ask myself. Will My Beloved Lizzie care that I'll be spending more time and money on my copper mistress? Don't I have more important things to do with my life? Apparently not.
At first, attributions are very difficult. Sheldon uses acronyms (HWH, JHF, PHL, PLLR) to describe identification points on the different varieties, so I have to keep turning pages just to find the original explanation of the acronyms. I decide I need to approach this methodically and write a glossary of all the acronyms Sheldon uses on the endpapers of the book so I can easily refer to them anytime. Only after I've done this do I find a glossary of acronyms on page viii before the preface. Having written them down, however, makes them easier to remember.
The first coin I attribute is my earliest cent, 1795 with a plain edge, so it's easy to attribute. The top part of the 5 is embedded in the bust, and the placement of ONE CENT is high inside the wreath, so it's an S-76b.
I have three 1796 large cents: a Liberty Cap, a Draped Bust, and the LIHERTY variety. These are much tougher because there are more possibilities for this year. I read through all the Liberty Cap obverse descriptions before settling on Obverse 5, where the low LIBERTY and high date crowd Miss Liberty. I eliminate the reverses one by one until I come to Reverse E, which has a triple leaf cluster under the T in CENT. It's an S-89.
I find I enjoy attributions because they require careful observation and logic. They're like puzzles or little detective stories. On lower-grade examples, however, attributions can be treacherous since important identification points can be worn away. I know it'll be a pleasure to attribute my two other 1796 cents, plus the 20 or so early date large cents that I have.
Once I've attributed all my early date cents, I know I need to buy Howard Newcomb's United States Copper Cents, 1816-1857. I'm getting ahead of myself now, but once I buy the book and attribute the Newcomb varieties, I'm hooked an large cents. The process becomes easier and more enjoyable later when I buy John Wright's delightful The Cent Book. Middle dates are fairly easy to attribute, but those after 1835 pose a greater challenge because the distinctions between varieties can be so small. The expression, "Picking flys--t out of pepper", immediately comes to mind.
Every time I see a large cent, I'm not truly happy knowing only its date; I need to know its Sheldon or Newcomb number, too. It's why we give our children middle names.