Part 3
by John Pijewski


Among the many papers I receive when I join EAC is a Superior Galleries ad for the upcoming auction (Feb. 17, 2001) of the J.R. Frankenfield Collection of Half Cents and Large Cents. It's the most complete collection of early date large cents ever put up for auction, containing 340 of the total 355 varieties.

I've read in Coin World that there hasn't been a copper auction this prominent in five years, since the Robbie Brown II auction. It only stands to reason that this collection contains any number of rarities that collectors are dying to get their hands on, in addition to all the Sheldon collectors who're looking for a particular variety or two, or three. Of course all this hype is being generated in the hope that the auction will set new copper records for individual varieties and as a collection.

I've never been to a coin auction, but I've been to enough antique auctions to know they're as exciting as watching a puddle evaporate. I'd also yawned my way through a few coin auction catalogues where every Morgan Dollar is Choice Gem Brilliant and One of Only Four Known. So I wasn't interested in attending the auction, but I was anticipating getting the catalogue. I was eager to see a complete set of Sheldon varieties.

By the time I receive the catalogue it's early February. I've worked myself up to a mild frenzy of anticipation. As I look through the large cents I'm in awe that anyone would be so single-minded to collect a complete Sheldon variety set of large cents, the Holy Grail of copper. Nearly each cent is photographed, and many of them are in great condition and have fabulous eye appeal. Of course J.R. is very well off, since collecting a complete set of Sheldons is a rich man's game, but his collecting interests mentioned in his catalogue biography make him a master eccentric. But money aside, it's a great achievement of will and determination, and I can admire a man who has such an offbeat yet intense desire to "collect" the world.

As I turn the catalogue pages I feel overwhelmed by the wealth of large cents in J.R.'s collection, but I'm also inspired. I may not be able to collect a complete set of Sheldons, but I can try to find as many as I can. Once I get on this road, I don't know exactly where it'll take me, but I'm sure I'll enjoy the ride.


By the time I've read the catalogue into the 1796 cents, I know two things: that the cents of 1796 are the ones that interest me the most of all the early years; and that I want to price bids for each early date large cent in the catalogue as a way of educating myself about EAC grading. I have three cents dated 1796, and just seeing that date does something for me; the date has a symmetry or beauty that's very satisfying. Also, the date makes American history come alive for me, especially the vulnerability of a young country facing the uncertainty of a great experiment in democracy. I can't articulate it yet, possibly because of the potential expense it presents, but I have an inkling that I want to acquire all 39 Sheldon varieties of the year, excluding the 7 NC's.

Using the values in the 16th edition of CQR I think I can come up with bids for all the early date large cents that will approximate the final bids. For the first 100 lots or so of the large cents I'm guessing when I make a bid. I don't know what grade to use as a basis for my bid - the first grade mentioned, which is a net grade, or the sharpness grade mentioned later. At first I favor the sharpness grade, until I remember Jack Robinson's lecture on net grading in his introduction. But is this really accurate? Does a touch of light porosity lower the value of a coin from VF2O ($4500) to VG10 ($1200)? Welcome to the murky no-man's land of EAC grading.

At 1795 S-78 (Lot 284) I make my realization that the first grade provided, the net grade, is the grade that truly describes the coin's condition. No more equivocating about values when the sharpness is substantially better. Net grade it is. Immediately I see why there's so much contention and controversy about the grade. Even a slight difference of opinion in grade between a seller and buyer can result in steep differences in price. "Buyer Beware," Jack Robinson says. "Whose ignorance?" Jack asks.

It takes me a few days to go through all the dates up to 1814. My Beloved Lizzie wants to know what's keeping me upstairs in my study for so long. Am I not feeling well? I tell her about the Frankenfield catalogue, and she snorts derisively. Then she gives me a harumph. I say to myself, Perhaps I'm spending far too much time with the Frankenfield catalogue? It's not a good sign when My Beloved Lizzie can't be bothered to use the King's English to express herself, and resorts to rude noises.

When I receive the final auction prices in the March 15, 2001 issue of PennyWise, I compare them to my bids. There's a wide discrepancy in the beginning, but then the gap narrows and I'm fairly accurate (within 10 to 15 percent of the hammer price.) But I still come up with some very wild bids. The famous reeded edge S-79 that I priced at $125,000 sells for $195,000. An S-82 in VG7 that I priced at $1400 sells for $632. An S-90 in VG7 that I priced at $1500 sells for $2990. Then I strike out very badly. The S-96 in AG+ that I price at $920 (it's scudzy) sells for $6037; and the S-99 in VG10 (that was EF4O and burnished lightly) that I priced at $8600 sells for $1610.

This has been an invaluable less in EAC grading and pricing. But I still have so much to learn. Environmental and manmade damage (porosity, granularity, raised corrosion, scratches, pitting, rim bruises) reduces the value of a large cent, as does a whole slew of manmade improvements such as scraping, retooling, and whizzing off corrosion. And the best part of this lesson learned is that I didn't have to lose one penny of my money to learn it.


Since I'll be acquiring more large cents, I need a new system to record my collection. It's got to be lightweight, portable, and easy to use, preferably something that'll fit in my pocket.

Previously, when I was collecting a "Redbook" variety set of large cents, I ran a pink magic marker through the variety in the "Redbook" to show I owned it. Later, when I began attributing large cents, I wrote the Sheldon number to the left of the pink-colored line. Clearly this system isn't going to work if my collection is going to grow.

Seeing the Frankenfield catalogue makes me realize I need to think bigger; I want to include all the Sheldon varieties in my list. While I have no conscious desire to collect all the Sheldon varieties (I simply don't have that kind of money,) by devising this kind of cataloguing system I could be unconsciously pointing myself in that direction. I know myself well enough that I just might see a challenge here, and where it might lead. I tell myself I'm going to collect only as many of the Sheldon varieties as I can find or afford, and that's it; I have absolutely no desire to collect a complete Sheldon set of large cents. If my therapist were here, he'd say this is clinically known as "self-deception."

At the stationery store I find a sturdy 6" x 4" notebook with lined pages. Using the Frankenfield catalogue as a numbering guide (including the NC's) I start my notebook with 1793 S-1 on the first line. S-2 goes on the second line. I provide a brief description (Chain cent), give its rarity rating (R4), and leave enough room so I can include the grade and purchase price. If I have the Sheldon variety, I run a pink magic marker through the line so I can easily see which varieties I have or don't have. It's a simple yet effective system that I can consult anywhere and quickly.

Halfway through filling my notebook with dates and Sheldon numbers, I am disheartened to realize I'm doing exactly what my father did. In March 1955 he acquired an accounting ledger and started documenting the hours he worked each day, including overtime hours, how much money he earned each day, each week, each month. I'd see him open his ledger each evening and write in his numbers. I thought nothing of it until I was in high school when things became adversarial between us. I thought it was downright silly of him to reduce his life to a series of numbers in columns. Not only that, it was anal, obsessive, and stupid. Now I'm doing the same thing. I've become my father. We both chart something important to use in ledgers. It's something most sons try like hell to avoid, but few succeed in avoiding.

The only difference, and this is what helps me to tolerate my realization, is that my father, who survived an economic depression and six horrible years of World War II in Poland and Germany, was documenting how much money he was earning, while I'm documenting how much money I'm spending for large cents. If he were here, he'd vigorously complain about how much money I'm throwing away for something so totally useless.


I've been a member of EAC for three months and receive my first EAC sale catalogue (2001). I'm literally giddy to see so much early copper available in one location. I read the catalogue very closely. It's in a new glossy format by Chris Victor-McCawley and Bob Grellman with lots of photos. Since I have only 60 large cents attributed with Sheldon numbers, I'd like to acquire most of the large cents in the catalogue.

I get out my 16th edition of CQR. Checking for appropriate values in CQR, I go through the early date large cents listed in the 2001 EAC sale catalogue and determine a price that each cent should sell for. Jack Robinson, originator and keeper of the CQR flame, advises that his publication isn't a price guide, but what else can I use? I tell myself, if nothing else, this will be a good exercise to see whether CQR is an appropriate guide for pricing large cents.

While ordering a 1797 S-147 (R5) in net G5, full bold date with typical porosity, from the monthly price list issued by Rod Burress (the secretary for EAC,) he asks me whether I'm attending the EAC sale in Virginia. I say I won't be able to attend, but that I'll probably mail bids on some of the coins. Rod mentions that he acts as a bidding agent at sales and charges 3% of a coin's hammer price. If I don't get the coin he's bidding for, I don't pay anything. This seems incredibly reasonable.

Quite arbitrarily, I decide to limit myself to bidding on eleven large cents. I settle for more common varieties (R1 to R4) in G5 to F15. There's absolutely no method to my choices; I just try to focus on decent cents.

I send a list of large cents I'm interested in to Rod, and he'll examine the coins at the convention. I agree to call Rod at a certain time in his hotel room, and he'll give me his assessment of each cent and what it may possibly sell for. Rod's prices are higher than mine, so I agree to raise my prices, which should give me a better chance of landing some coins. Rod also suggests that I give him a dollar limit, because getting all eleven coins could be more than I could afford. He's right, of course. I set my limit at $1200.

Here are the large cents that Rod bid on for me (the first price is my bid; the second price is the hammer price before the 10% premium is tacked on):


All 11 cents were hammered at higher prices than my bids. I was prepared to spend up to $1200, but it was as if they'd told me they didn't want my money. But Rod had a small surprise for me. Because I hadn't won any cents with my first eight bids, he raised my last three bids by 10% and managed to win the S-238 (R4), which he thought was undergraded at VG10 and which he got for me at the hammer price of $145, only $5 more than my original bid.

There was one complication that I hadn't expected. Jack Robinson released the 17th edition of CQR at the 2001 EAC Convention, his first update in 2 1/2 years. Of course prices had increased for nearly all varieties in all grades, and these newer values were mirrored in the higher bids. Had I received a copy of the new CQR (17th ed.), I could've adjusted my bids accordingly and, possibly, gotten more large cents. Wait until next year.

One major lesson I learned from this sale is the idea that if I really want a certain coin, I should be willing to make a strong bid. This means not just raising the prices I was willing to pay for a large cent, but doing some research into past sales to see what similar cents have sold for and how fast their prices rose. It's all very well to pay $600 for a large cent, but if the cent is worth only $400, then I've paid a steep fool's surcharge. Unless, there's a major excusable factor involved. For instance, if I've been looking for this particular cent for 3 to 5 years without any success, then paying an extra $200 to secure it is a small price to pay. This probably means the coin's rarity has been understated and that it should sell for more money.


I'm calling Jim Long of J.E.L. Coins about a 1797 S-139 in VF30 with some shallow corrosion, all on the reverse. The obverse is choice. It's listed in his monthly ad in Coin World. Month in and month out, Jim is the coin dealer who provides the best selection of attributed large cents in that coin newspaper.

"If the d--n thing didn't have that d--n rust on it," Jim says, "it'd be a $1000 coin."

While I'm thinking whether I want to buy the S-139, Jim asks, "By the way, you wouldn't want an S-218, would you?"

"Those go for a ton of money. I don't think I could afford one."

"This one's cheap," Jim says. "It's a fine with some heavy corrosion. Looks like it sat in the ground for a long time, but it's all there, the Liberty and date. $1500. Try getting one for less."

"I'm tempted," I say. Earlier in the spring I paid $770 for an S-99, but that was an R5+ 1796 cent. It had VG10 detail, but had some even light porosity, so it netted a G5. But I can't for the life of me imagine paying over a $1000 for any large cent.

I ask Jim, 'Where'd you get it?"

"My man, Dan Holmes. He was flashing it at a show recently. He got a better one and was looking to sell this one. Should I send it up to you?"

"I don't know," I say. This is one large cent I never thought I'd get because it's so rare and expensive ($5000 in G5 Average,) but the opportunity just opened itself. If the coin was good enough for Dan Holmes (one of the 12 people who've acquired a complete set of Sheldon varieties) until he found a better one, it's probably good enough for me.

"Hell, it's a rare coin. I'll always buy it back from you for $1200, so you don't have much to lose."

A Sheldon-218 has LIBERTY far to the right so the coin's obverse isn't properly balanced. It's one of the great rarities of the 1801 large cents. The S-217, which shares the same obverse with the S-218, is the rarest of all late Sheldons, one of his fabulous four. I know I'll never have one of those. If I get the S-218, it means I've really crossed the threshold into serious EAC collecting. I won't be able to fool myself that I'm just dabbling.

I can't believe myself I'm telling Jim, "Go ahead and send it." I know I can always return it with no better excuse than I can't afford it.

I get off the phone and realize I didn't tell Jim that I wanted the 1797 S-139. I'll call him back later. I walk downstairs in a light daze and ask myself, "Did I do what I think I just did?"

I think of my Polish immigrant mother who, in her early seventies wearing her bright red kerchief or babushka, still went out each week on trash day with her two-wheel shopping cart to collect empty soda cans to redeem for 5 cents each at the corner store. If she were paying for the S-218, she'd have to collect 30,000 empty cans. And if she collected 40 empty cans each week, it'd take her 7,500 weeks, or about 144 years, to pay for the S-218.

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