CONFESSIONS OF AN EAC ADDICT|
by John Pijewski
BUYING THE 1798/7 OVERDATE, OR, THE COPPER BUG BITES
It's Friday, November 18, 2000. I don't know it yet, but today will be my real introduction to the fellowship of early copper. Today is when the copper bug bites me.
I've come to the Bay State Coin Show at the Radisson Hotel in Boston's Park Square. I've been to this show twice in the previous year and have bought some rare date gold coins each time. One dealer, from whom I'd previously purchased some low mintage $2.50 Quarter Eagles between 1880 and 1899, doesn't have any gold coins that interest me today, but he does have two large cents, a 1794 and a 1798/7 Overdate. I ask whether he knows the Sheldon number for each. He shrugs his shoulders.
Both cents would fill "Redbook" varieties on my list. The major stumbling block is their price. The 1794 is $375, and the 1798/7 is $225. I've never spent more than $120 for any large cent before. The 1794 is a golden tan with a few hairlines on the portrait and two scrapes on the reverse (it's F+ to VF in sharpness,) and the overdate is a glossy two-toned chocolate brown and blackish brown that's easily a VG but has an irregular quarter-inch pit in front of Liberty's neck that shows up as a faint dent on the reverse. (A year later I'd call it a foxhole; in two years I'd call it a trench.)
The dealer sees me looking at the large cents and knows he's got a live one. I'm probably glowing with excitement. He baits the hook. "I'll take $150 for the overdate," he says, "and $300 for the 1794. These early large cents are so hard to find these days."
What the hell, I say to myself. It must've been what Adam said to himself when Eve asked whether he wanted a bite of the fresh, sweet, juicy red apple she had in her hand. I'm somewhat light-headed as I take out $450 in cash from my wallet. I walk away feeling I'm 20 pounds lighter. I also feel 20 years younger. I think I've also lost 20 IQ points.
Since I don't think I could spend any more money, I retrieve my car from the hotel garage and drive home through the overcast grayness of this November afternoon. I try to make the drive longer by taking Storrow Drive, the road along the placid steel grey Charles River.
At home I settle into my study. I open my new copy of Penny Whimsy and within a few minutes I've identified the 1798/7 Overdate as S-151. I don't know any better, so I'm really quite happy with the cent, despite the large pit. I even convince myself that the coin has more character because of the pit. In a year and a half I'll be looking for an upgrade and wondering how I could bury this coin. But right now I'm like a teenage boy who's basking in the afterglow of his first kiss from a beautiful girl.
The attribution of the 1794 cent is much harder. There are about 60 possibilities. After considerable searching I think it's an S-21 because its pole is wide and flat at its end. I mark it that way on its cardboard holder. Even though my attribution is wrong (within two months I'll positively identify it as S-22), I don't care. This is my first 1794 large cent.
AM I BECOMING AN EARLY COPPER ADDICT? OR, DOES THE YOU-KNOW-WHO YOU-KNOW-WHAT YOU-KNOW-WHERE?
I'm beginning to suspect I may be an early copper addict when I attend regional Sunday coin shows and, when I don't find any early dates to add to my collection, I go around the show a second time looking for middle date large cents. I've told myself there are simply too many Sheldon and Newcomb varieties to collect the entire series; nonetheless, I continue to buy middle date large cents.
The idea of going home empty-handed from a coin show is such a disappointment. It's like going to a restaurant and then not eating anything. So I try to convince myself I'm not actually "collecting" the middle dates, I'm just buying occasional varieties to know the series better. I buy attractive VG+ to VF cents, try to find ones with die breaks whenever possible, and attribute them using my Newcomb book.
Over the course of many months, however, this strategy backfires since I'm buying so many duplicate middle dates. I can't lie to myself anymore that I don't collect middle dates. In September 2002 I will need ten Newcomb varieties, excluding proofs, to have a complete set of middle date large cents. And most of these I acquired when I couldn't find suitable early dates for my collection. It was as if I'd adopted a neighborhood child simply because he was always hanging around my house at dinner time.
Will I end up collecting late date large cents, too? With all respect to Robbie Brown, I hope not. I heartily agree with what Dr. Sheldon wrote about the late dates, that they have all the charm and personality of mass-manufactured buttons. But I suspect, given my collector's mentality, that it's only a matter of time before I succumb to the late dates. I have to admit that I recently started looking at attributed late date large cents in various price lists, noting the rarity of each. If there's a VF late date in R4 or above that is reasonably priced, I order it. My foot is lodged firmly in the late date large cent door.
BEING OFFERED AN S-96, OR, HOW I DIDN'T BUY THE CENT I DIDN'T KNOW I NEEDED
I don't know it yet, but in three months, after I've had plenty of time to study the J.R. Frankenfield catalogue, especially his lower grade cents of 1796, I realize that the 1796 cents are my favorite of all the early dates, and I vow to acquire all 39 Sheldon varieties for that year, excluding the NC's. Before that happens I have the following conversation:
I'm talking with Jim Long of J.E.L. Coins on the phone. Jim's describing a porous S-109 in G4 he has for sale, and which I'm considering as a Reverse of 1794 for my "Redbook" large cent set. The coin seems fairly awful, and I'm tying to explain that I want to find a better coin. Even for my "Redbook" set I want attractive coins with good eye appeal.
"Hey, buddy, you wouldn't be interested in an S-96, would you?" Jim asks, probably sensing that he's lost me on the S-109.
"S-96? They're pretty rare, aren't they?"
"You bet your a-- they're rare. Only about 20 are known. This one's an AG. The date and Liberty are there, but it's rough. Hell, they're all rough and corroded. Nature of the beast. I bought it a few weeks ago. It's a new one. Some guy in upstate
New York found it."
"How much you want for it?"
"Boy, that's expensive."
"That's d--n cheap. G5's go for six thousand. And this one isn't that far from a G5. You want me to send it to you?"
Is Jim kidding, or is he crazy? The most I've paid for any large cent is $300. Why would I want to buy this coin?
"I don't think so, Jim. It's way past my budget."
"Be a long time before you see another one of these again."
"That's okay," I say, "I think I'll pass on this one."
"If you change your mind, give me a call."
Nearly two years later I've almost managed to meet my goal. I have 38 Sheldon varieties from 1796, except for the S-96. It's taken a lot of effort and money to get these 38 varieties, and I feel quite proud. But I wince each time I replay my conversation with Jim Long, "You wouldn't be interested in an S-96, would you?"
I want to yell out, "Yes, yes, yes. Send it to me, immediately!" but, instead, I hear my wimpy voice say, "I don't think so."
That was a great chance to get an S-96, and I blew it. Where else can I get an affordable S-96? (There you have it; in two years, my addiction to early copper is complete. I now think $3750 for a badly corroded piece of copper is affordable! Even the J.R. Frankenfield S-96, listed as AG3, sold for just over $6000, and that one was pretty much a dog. I hear Jim Long's voice on the phone nearly two years ago, though now his voice is a taunt: "Be a long time before you see another one of these again.")
JOINING EAC, OR ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER
After I learn about attributing large cents and finding I'm fairly good at puzzling through all the clues in the Sheldon and Newcomb books (though I have to admit that the late dates are still a very slippery bunch,) the only logical thing to do is to join the Early American Coppers Club (EAC), which I do in early January 2001. At this point I have 44 Sheldon varieties and 78 Newcomb varieties, plus some 1850's cents that defy all my attempts to attribute them. The cents of the 1850's, I'm learning, are the terrible twos of the large cents - just impossible to deal with.
When a packet from EAC arrives, along with the November 15, 2000, edition of PennyWise, I'm a bit overwhelmed by the staggering amount of information available about early copper. I'm also intimidated by the camaraderie of the members within EAC as I glimpse through PennyWise. I'm not usually a club joiner. Now I'm actually depressed because I feel - and don't laugh at me - like I'm entering the first grade again where I don't know anyone and don't know whether I'm up to the challenge. Skimming through PennyWise only makes it worse because the articles seem so arcane and esoteric - "The Eckberg Emission Sequence for the 1809 Half Cent."
I actually have to put the packet from EAC away for a few days before I have enough fortitude to face it again. When I joined EAC, I remember thinking that my large cent buying days were over (they're so expensive) and that I'd be focusing on the history of the large cents. What I will quickly learn, however, is that I haven't yet scratched the surface of acquiring large cents - now there's a metaphor to make any collector of early copper cringe.
When I have the courage to open the EAC packet again, the most important thing I see is a recommended list of books for every EAC member. I immediately order Jack Robinson's 16th edition of Copper Quotes by Robinson (CQR), Bob Grellman's Attribution Guide for U.S. Large Cents 1840-1857 in two volumes, and the soon-to-be-published Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of U.S. Large Cents 1793-1814, edited by Mark Borckardt.
Each of these books opens a whole new world of large cents to me. I love Jack Robinson's friendly curmudgeon's voice in CQR, but I struggle mightily with the concept of EAC grading - deducting grade points for a coin's problems that leave you with a net grade. This seems as unscientific and unchartable as any of Carl Jung's theories about the unconscious. I wonder whether I'll ever be able to reduce this concept to a working formula, all of which seems to base itself on a kind of honor system.
The Bob Grellman book is physically harder to deal with as it comes in two three-ring binders. But with a lot of effort and patience on my part, the Grellman book helps me tame those recalcitrant cents from the 1850's. In just over a year a new, improved one-volume edition will be published to supplant this two-volume edition.
And I can't say enough wonderful things about the Breen large cent encyclopedia. It contains an absolute wealth of information that I keep coming back to over and over. Del Bland's extended Condition Census is a paragon of research and information. (And, after I buy Bill Noyes' Condition Census Encyclopedia, I can spend hours comparing their research and grading. Now I'd like to introduce our feature battle for today: A gladiator grading match to the death between Del Bland and Bill Noyes.) The die state information provided for each variety (up to 12 die states for some varieties) is fascinating and extremely helpful.
But for me the most valuable part of the Breen book is the illustrations of each variety's obverse and reverse which, together with the written descriptions in Sheldon's Penny Whimsy, will provide fool-proof attributions. (Some months later when I buy Bill Noyes' two-volume book on the early and middle date large cents, I recognize the landmark contribution he made to attributing large cents. Nonetheless, I still prefer the cheaper illustrations in the Breen book, most likely because I saw them first and got used to relying on them.)
I will keep buying books about large cents through the year until I've accumulated an indispensable library. David Bowers is correct when he says, "Buy the book."
MAIL ORDER COIN, OR, TALL ORDER BRIDE
I order an S-152 (1798/7 Overdate) from a coin dealer in Coin World. It's listed as VG8 detail, some corrosion, $57. Even with the corrosion the price seems reasonable.
When the coin arrives, I'm astounded that the dealer was able to attribute it. It's covered with light to moderate corrosion, as though it had spent more than a few years in the ground. Its obverse has a matte (non-glossy) surface caused by underlying fine porosity with some scattered patches of raised corrosion. Quite frankly, it looks as though someone coated it with ground pepper and barbecued it to a crisp. The reverse is moderately corroded and some of the legends are obscured. It has VG detail (where you can see it), but the sharpness of the details is gone. Here is a scudzy coin. It takes five tentative minutes, but I attribute it as an S-152. This is possibly a Coltman blank, arguably the worst blanks ever used in minting large cents.
I'm tempted to send it back. The reverse is awful, but the all-important obverse isn't that bad. The overdate is clearly visible. If I keep this coin I'll be ahead of the game because an average G5 costs $150, while an average VG8 costs $450. I can take the money I saved on this one and use it on other Sheldon varieties I need.
Over the course of six months I look at the coin regularly and, even though it makes me wince a few times, I think I can live with it. I have a vague sense of dissatisfaction, but it cost only $57.
Then I remember an old girlfriend, Olga, a few years out of college. She was tall, buxom, and filled a room with her exuberant personality. She was a real extrovert. She had a great sense of humor. She'd studied Theatre Arts in college so she could vamp it up like crazy. She was a lot of fun and we had marvelous times for over half a year, until the marriage question came up. Olga never raised the question; I asked myself if she was the one. I genuinely liked her, liked being with her. She found all my interests fascinating (Edna wasn't among them.) But there were nagging issues. She'd do or say something offensive, usually after a few drinks, for which she needed to apologize the next day. In groups she'd trained herself to be outgoing, but in private she could be very insecure, even neurotic. She didn't have an enormous amount of self-respect. She had a major father complex (she claimed her father had never told her that he loved her) and confessed she consulted with three therapists, none of whom had been able to help her.
After eight months with Olga it became clear to me that I wasn't going to marry her. And if I wasn't going to marry her, what was the point of continuing to see her? During the next few weeks I brooded about Olga and me. Our fun diminished. I lost interest in seeing her; even conversations became strained. And then I told her that it was over between us. She got upset and raised her voice. She suggested couples counseling, but I said no. It was over. I wanted to see other women. She returned all my little gifts from the past year and said she never wanted to see me again.
In thinking about Olga, I know she has one final something to teach me. I realize that if I can't commit myself to my S-152, then I need to find a better one. In my large cent notebook I write down that I'm still looking for an S-152, preferably G5 to VG8. I decide to keep the old S-152 until I find a new S-152; after all, It's not as if I'm cheating on her.
EDNA, OR, THE OTHER WOMAN
"Lizzie," I say to my beloved wife after we've watched the local news on TV, "I'm going upstairs to be with Edna for a while."
"I knew it," she says in her British accent, shedding mock tears, her hands covering her face, "that brazen hussy has you in her grip."
Edna is My Beloved Lizzie's euphemism for anything to do with large cents. Lizzie isn't a collector, so she tends to scorn and mock my interest in large cents. "That's right, lie in Edna's arms while I have to slave over a hot stove."
"But I thought we're going out to dinner tonight," I say.
"While I have to pour my own glass of wine," Lizzie says, "Boo Hoo. I'm losing you to the other woman." Her alligator tears become louder.
"You know, Lizzie, I've invited you upstairs to join me and Edna in a three-some many times. You can't imagine how an S-219, if used the right way, can get you screaming with ecstasy."
"I'm not going to snuggle up to some 200-year old broad. Who knows what kind of diseases she has."
"Well, My Beloved Lizzie," I say, "at least let me get you a fresh glass of wine before I go upstairs."
This has become a ritual we go through once or twice a week. Edna is "the other woman." Edna is going to break up our marriage. Edna is a vixen, a hussy, an oversexed, 200-year-old floozy. Edna is my way of avoiding spending time with Lizzie. Edna is a demanding mistress who'll suck me dry of money and then cast me aside. "If you have no money left," Lizzie asks me, "do you really think she'll stick around?"
I make fun of myself as much as possible. "Edna," I say, "is driving me crazy with all her demands for a fur coat and a sports car." Or, "Edna called me a cheap SOB and won't let me touch her until I take her to Las Vegas."
I've taken to referring to anything associated with coin collecting as Edna. If anyone listened to my conversations with My Beloved Lizzie, he or she'd be convinced Edna was a real person who lived on the third floor of our house.
When I think My Beloved Lizzie's calling me on the phone, I'll answer it by saying, "Edna's Nursing Home," or, "Edna's Massage Parlor," or, "Edna's Copper Pizzas." These usually elicit a good laugh from My Beloved Lizzie, except when the caller isn't her, at which time the caller will say, "What?" or, more likely, hang up.
I've promised not to show any Edna to My Beloved Lizzie because I can't endure her "So?" And My Beloved Lizzie's promised not to ask how much I spend on Edna. As long as all the house bills are paid, there's money for movies, books, an occasional ballet or vacations, the Roth IRAs, and continuing house renovations, money spent on Edna is a non-issue.
When I really think about it, I realize I have the perfect life - I have a wife who is wonderful, smart, gorgeous, knows how to kid around with me, whom I love to be with. And then I have a mistress, Edna, who gives me all the little things (like a perfectly centered planchet with well-defined denticles) that My Beloved Lizzie's just not
Lizzie and Edna, the two perfect women in my perfect life.