CONFESSIONS OF AN EAC ADDICT|
by John Pijewski
I'VE ALWAYS BEEN A COLLECTOR, or ONE IS NEVER ENOUGH
I've always been a collector. If I liked something, I wanted many of them. My first collection consisted of a small shopping bag of acorns I'd gathered at The Franklin Park Zoo in Boston when I was seven. For weeks I filled my three dump trucks and drove them through our apartment lugging their cargo. I practiced making wide turns around the coffee table and the sofa, doing Y-turns in the narrow hallway, and backing up between two easy chairs. (All this practice paid off since, as a car driver, I can always back my car into a parking space that's only six inches bigger than my car.) My hoard of acorns, however, was slowly being scattered around the apartment and my father became increasingly annoyed until I woke up one morning to find all my acorns gone.
Over the years the acorns were supplanted by a whole range of other things: shoe boxes of horse chestnuts in the fall (Were their hard and glossy brown skins a foreshadowing of my later interest in large cents?); U.S. postage stamps; baseball cards; peanut jars filled with clear marbles that held colored swirls; Lincoln pennies and Buffalo nickels; rock 'n roll albums; in college my book collection, particularly Signet Classic paperbacks (I managed to find 342 of the first 350 titles in the series); my 30-year quest to collect signed, limited edition booklets by Edward Gorey; Japanese prints; by the age of 33, I owned 5 rental properties around Boston (Does 5 constitute a collection?); paintings by Ralph Hamilton, a contemporary Boston artist; photographic collages by the artist John O'Reilly; religious shrine boxes from the turn of the century; Stickley furniture; postcards of Boston; postcards of trolleys; religious statues; more books (over 6000); photo-postcards of children in their first communion outfits (over 700). Later, when I owned a house with a substantial backyard, I planted over 500 different daylily hybrids (of the nearly 40,000 available).
So my current interest in large cents mirrors my lifelong quest to collect. My Beloved Lizzie has been known to tease me, saying jokingly, "If only you'd received more love as a child, you wouldn't need to collect big pennies." Her joking may or may not have some basis in truth. But I could also be so well adjusted and so spiritually advanced that I'd be content to sit alone on a straw mat staring at white walls in an empty room. No thanks. I love the world and how we experience it through our five senses. I love the sense of history contained by antiques. I love the richness of our cultural fabric. I love literature and art. I love early American large cents.
IS THERE A CORRECT BUYING STRATEGY? or HOIST BY MY OWN PETARD
I'm at a Sunday coin show in Maine that I've never attended before. I'm checking out the dealers with large cents, and the third dealer I meet has about 20 of them on display. If every third dealer here has this many large cents, I'm certain to find some Sheldon varieties I need. I decide to walk through the entire show (about 30 dealers) before I buy anything, in case there are multiple coins I need, so I can buy only those I want most.
Among the 20 large cents the dealer has are two 1794's, both marked as Fine in the low to mid $400 range (an S-31 and S-67). I have only five 1794's in my collection, since I've convinced myself they're too expensive to buy now when I need so many other, later, cheaper Sheldons. I'll be able to buy more cents for my collection if I focus on buying the later Sheldons. I tell myself I can buy 1794's in earnest in a year or so.
After checking my 6" X 4" pocket notebook, I determine that the only large cent the dealer has that I can use is an S-153. It's marked VG1O, but to my eye it looks closer to VG8. It is a very warm walnut brown color with some minor circulation marks, but no problems with rim damage or any sort of corrosion. The coin's a little above average. Its $200 price tag is consistent with the price for a VG8 average coin, so I won't say anything about the slight overgrade.
"What's the best price you can give me for this one?" I ask. He picks up the coin with a flourish, places a magnifying loupe to his eyes and squints at the coin for some time. What's behind this dramatic dealer gesture? Is it something they teach at coin-selling college? Or will he see, finally, that this isn't a large cent at all, but a rare, 200-year-old copper washer that's worth $6000 to someone from EAP (Early American Plumbers)? Or is it a time-honored tradition to take a long final look before kissing it off to the buyer - The Long Goodbye?
The dealer says, finally, "$180."
I don't say anything as he hands me the coin. I look at it again. I very much want the coin, but I don't want to seem too eager. I tell him I'll think about it and come back later.
"I'm not a museum, you know," he says. "It's okay to buy something."
I don't know whether he's trying to be funny or rude. I should buy the cent now rather than wait to see what else is available at this show, but I walk away. I'm going to be cautious today, so I'll see what else is available before I buy anything.
Because I've driven 125 miles to get here and have a two-hour drive back, I check the stock of the other dealers carefully. A little over an hour later I have to face the fact there's nothing else I want to buy at this show, so I head back to the dealer with the S-153.
"I've decided to get the S-153," I tell him.
"You're a bit late," he says. "A gentleman bought it about five minutes ago. Bought six other large cents too."
I'm hugely disappointed. I could've had that S-153 if only I'd bought it right away. Now I'm facing a long drive home with nothing to show for my time. Maybe I should take a look at the two 1794's and get one of them.
"Still have the two '94's?" I ask.
"Sorry. That gentleman bought both of them."
The dealer nods his head confidentially. He's made a good sale and he knows it. I can tell he's restraining himself, however, from saying to me, "Should've bought it when you had the chance."
I look over the dealer's large cents to see whether there's anything I've overlooked. Nothing. With a sheepish, "Thanks anyway," I try to remember which dealer had some unattributed middle date cents - 1835's and 1836's. I hate to buy something just for the sake of buying something, but it's going to be a long two-hour drive home.
1793 LIBERTY CAP CENTS, or TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE
In October 2001 Rod Burress gives me advance notice about the Bowers and Merena Auction in January 2002. It's going to contain 50 Liberty Cap cents dated 1793.
"This may be one of your few opportunities to buy a '93 Liberty Cap," he says. "You'd better start saving your money."
I'm astounded that anyone could collect so many Liberty Caps from that year, but I'm also bewildered. It must've been a great challenge, but it also seems like an ego trip, the ultimate quest of someone who has too much time and money on his hands.
I say to My Beloved Lizzie, who's sitting at the other end of the sofa, "Why would anyone in his right mind want to collect 50 Liberty Cap cents from 1793? The expense must've been enormous."
My Beloved Lizzie looks up at me from The New Yorker she's reading and places it in her lap. She says, "Why would anyone in his right mind want to collect all 39 Sheldon varieties of the 1796 large cent?"
Touché, My Beloved Lizzie, touché.
Nonetheless, when the auction catalogue arrives, I peruse it endlessly for potential candidates for my collection. I don't have any cents dated 1793, so it'd be quite a coup to have my first 1793 cent be a Liberty Cap.
I make a list of 20 cents I think I'd be happy to own. All of them are in low grades, G6 down to Fair 2, and all of them have problems that bedevil those early cents - planchet fissures, voids, pitting, laminations, striations, porosity, granularity, poor strikes. This is the elite variety of early cents that Walter Breen called, "the most beautiful of all American coinage," yet most of the 50 are truly scudzy.
Rod has agreed to bid for me at the auction. He thinks the prices will be high. "If you really want a 1793 Liberty Cap," he asks me, "can you afford to be outbid on them?" That's not the logic that My Beloved Lizzie would bring to this table.
I will learn from this auction that the photos of the coins aren't necessarily representative of what the cents really look like. Lighting coins for photography is extremely difficult. (Is there anyone out there who can give us some good advice?) Underlighting or overlighting can make a good coin look bad, or a bad coin look good. You need to see the coins in person to make up your own mind about each one. So, if you can't personally attend the auction, it's always better to have a bidding agent who can examine the coins and advise you about their condition, rather than sending in a mail, phone, or E-mail bid.
I try to put reasonable prices for the cents that have some good detail and aren't overwhelmed with problems. I tell Rod I want to get an S-13 and S-14 but that I have a total budget of $6000. Even if the 1793 Liberty Caps are on the expensive side, I should be able to get both varieties.
My personal thinking is that the laws of supply and demand will apply here. If 50 of the same type of cent, about 20% of the total that exists for that type, come on the market at one time, won't this cause a glut in the supply and cause prices to decline? Or will there be enough demand from individual collectors and large cent dealers to absorb this quantity of 1793 Liberty Caps without any affect on prices?
As it turns out, the better quality 1793 Liberty Caps get good prices (higher than those listed in CQR), the fairly decent cents get average prices, and the lowest graded cents (there are eight S-13 cents listed at Fair 2) take a bath (they sell for less than $1500, some for $800).
Rod managed to get both an S-13 and S-14 for me, along with another variety of my beloved 1796 cents (S-86) and an S-126 in F12, and still stay within my budget. In the catalogue my S-13 (listed as G6) looks like a real dog. It was at the bottom of my "could live with" list, and now (before actually seeing the coin in person) I lament the fact I included it on my list. On the other hand, the S-14 looked all right if I didn't mind a grainy surface.
When I receive the coins, the S-13 looks better in person than in the photo. Forty percent of the obverse beading is still there, there's a small void (as minted) just below the ear, the flurry of rim bruises on both sides isn't that bad, and the worst defect is a rather sizable void at the rim between the left stem and the U in United. And it doesn't look as splotchy as it did in the photo. The date and Liberty are bold, at least VG1O.
But the S-14 doesn't even look like the coin pictured in the catalogue. For one thing, the light in the photo revealed a readable LIBERTY, date, and a bold profile beneath somewhat granular surfaces, while in real life the coin is black, as though it's been heavily Cajun pan-blackened, and the granularity obscures most of the details, even the whisper of a date. The only thing visible is the bisecting die break that runs faintly across the entire coin from E in Liberty down to just past the 3 in the date. However, if you angle the coin under a light just so, you can make out all the obverse details, which is what they must've done for the photo in the catalogue. But the S-14's reverse is remarkable. All the legends are readable with about half the beading visible - easily a G5 or even a G6. The obverse, on the other hand, is debatable; I can understand someone grading it Fair 2, or even AG3-. In the catalogue it was graded G4 and sold at an AG3 price.
Now that I have two 1793 Liberty Caps, I'd like to get one Chain cent and one Wreath cent. Or, better yet, two Chain cents and two Wreath cents. And this is how, halfway up the Mt. Everest of early date large cent varieties, I spur myself to climb up a bit higher.
PAYING FOR COINS AT AUCTIONS, or RAIDING THE PIGGY BANK
I've been on a year-long splurge buying early date large cents. I recently acquired my 207th Sheldon-numbered large cent, and at this date a year ago I had about 45. I've bought so many, in fact, it's becoming difficult to find Sheldon varieties I need from the list of dealers I use to supply my habit.
Jim Long, mimicking the family friend in the movie, "The Graduate," who offers advice to the recently graduated Dustin Hoffman, said to me, "I've one word for you: Auctions." It was, he said, the next level collectors took to find suitable material.
From the few auctions I've bid in, I've found that coming up with a winning bid is easy; paying for the coin is the hard part. Beginning in January 2002, when I knew I'd be bidding in four auctions in as many months, I begin to liquidate coins I'd purchased earlier in my career as an aimless drifter in the American coin wilderness, before I found my purpose and passion in EAC.
There goes my collection of 70 Bust Half Dollars (I never joined the Bust Nut Half Club), my rare date gold coins including double eagles minted at Carson City, eagles minted at New Orleans, and a nearly complete set of quarter eagles dated 1880 to 1899 (all low mintage). Then I sell 800 silver bullion eagles, extra proof sets from 20 years, extra silver proof sets of the 1990's, extra proof silver eagles, even my type set of gold coins.
What I didn't want to sell, however, and what provided me with the most money, was my collection of 80 signed, limited edition booklets by Edward Gorey, who's best known for designing the sets for the 1970's Broadway hit, "Edward Gorey's Dracula," and his animated illustrations that begin and end the PBS series on TV, "Mystery!" But Edward Gorey's real genius was writing and illustrating, in his inimitable black and white cross-hatched drawings, what I call his children's books for adults. Even though they're filled with death, crimes of passion, and murder, along with an obsessive sense of dread or boredom, all in a late Victorian or Edwardian setting, they're witty, hilarious, and entertaining. His Gashlycrumb Tinies, for instance, is an alphabet book that describes the awful way children named A to Z can die: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears," and which finishes, "Y is for Yorick whose head was knocked in, Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin." It's ironic, campy, black-humored, and wickedly funny; a wonderful parody of Victorian sentimentality. He's often referred to as the 2Oth century Edward Lear (author of the poem, "The Owl and the Pussy Cat," and numerous limericks).
It was heart-wrenching to sell these books, but I soon realized that Edward Gorey, who died at the age of 75 in 2001, and who loved America's cultural trash (he watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" avidly on TV), would somehow find it appropriate that I sold his books to fund my passion for early American large cents.
HOW MUCH DAMAGE IS OK? or IT GIVES THE COIN A LITTLE PERSONALITY
At the Bay State Coin Show in Boston, MA, on March 15, 2002, I find an S-113 at Tom Reynolds' table. It's only one of three 1796 varieties I'm missing, and if I buy this one I'll need only the S-96 (good luck on that one) and S-107 to complete the date set (NC's excluded).
I introduce myself to Tom. We haven't met formally, but we've spoken on the phone a few times. In fact, Tom was my bidding agent at the recent Superior Galleries Pre-Long beach Auction last month. Tom and I shake hands and we're both happy to attach faces to the voices we know.
"That was quite the auction for you," Tom says in his soft-spoken way. "Nine lots and nine winners."
"1796 is my favorite year, so I was a bit aggressive with my bids. With those nine in my collection, I just need three more to complete the set for the year, not counting NC's."
"How long have you been collecting large cents?"
"Just over a year," I say.
"Just over a year? That's impressive."
I think to myself, does he mean impressive or obsessive?
Tom says, "The year I collect is 1798."
I ask Tom to show me the S-113 in his case. The yellow envelope reads G6+ details, Net Grade G5. I lift the flap of the 2" X 2" envelope and let the coin slip into my palm. It's very clean and has a chocolate brown color, but there's a moderate scratch on Liberty's face diagonally from her temple down to just behind her mouth. LIBERTY's a bit weak, but the date is bold with a touch of porosity weakening the 6. Dentils show from 4:00 to 9:30. Otherwise, it's a clean obverse with no rim damage. The reverse is sharper, easily F12 (unusual for a 1796), but there are three light rim bruises at the top and another at 8:30. About 80% of the dentils are there.
I like the cent, but I'd like it a lot more if the scratch wasn't on Liberty's face. And if the scratch wasn't there, the price would be closer to $800. The chances of finding another S-113 in this good overall shape in the near future are, I think, fairly small, so it's a no brainer. Tom takes $50 off the price, and I take out my checkbook.
If this had been a common R1 or R2 cent for $30, I would've passed on it. I'd want a cleaner coin and in a higher grade, F12 to F15. Because the S-113 is an R5 and 1796 is my favorite year, I buy it despite the damage. It's a difficult cent to find nice in low grade and I'm happy to have it.
Some weeks later I'm with Edna flipping pages randomly in Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of U.S. Large Cents, 1793-1814, edited by Mark Borckardt, and I remember Tom's comment, "The year I collect is 1798." I turn to 1798 to see whether Tom has any cents in the Condition Census. I'm astounded to learn that if Tom doesn't have the best cent of each variety, he owns the second or third best. Sometimes he owns two in the top four or five best cents for certain varieties. The farther I look into the 1798 varieties, the clearer it becomes that Tom has an outstanding and amazing collection of cents from 1798. I feel a wave of vertigo come over me as I contemplate Tom's numerous, very high-grade large cents.
THE RUST BELT, or WHY DIDN'T I PAY ATTENTION IN CHEMISTRY CLASS?
I've been studying large cents for a year and a half, and I'm still perplexed by certain terms used for corrosion. Or even what constitutes corrosion. I've asked EAC dealers but have been given inconsistent and contradictory information.
As far as I can gather from reading many descriptions of copper corrosion in books, dealers' price lists, and auction catalogues, corrosion in copper seems to manifest itself in five major ways: rust, porosity, granularity, raised corrosion, and verdigris.
(1) The earliest stage of corrosion seems to be a kind of very shallow corrosion that appears as a thin layer of rust. It usually affects a small area or small areas on a coin, rarely the entire surface. It's usually colored a faint reddish brown (like rust) and doesn't really affect the details of a coin, just its surface. How does this corrosion process begin? Water or humidity? Can this corrosion be removed by cleaning or conservation? If left untouched, will this rust lead to a more serious form of corrosion?
Occasionally a coin will be described as having "light or underlying roughness." What does this really mean? Is it an incipient form of porosity or granularity? Or is it the earliest stage of something that will ultimately erupt into raised corrosion? Or does it refer to a separate kind of corrosion that's been stopped and won't manifest itself beyond the "underlying" range?
(2) Porosity seems to come in various grades of severity (micro, fine, moderate) and manifests itself as surface pitting (think of pores in human skin). Micro-porosity is tiny pitting that is best seen under a microscope or a high-powered loupe. Occasionally the pitting is so tiny that it doesn't detract from a coin's visual appeal (but the coin is still downgraded for this defect).
Fine porosity is visible to the naked eye. Both types of pitting (micro and fine) usually take the normal gloss off a coin's surface and make it appear matte, or non-glossy (it's like comparing flat paint to glossy paint; flat paint, or a matte surface, absorbs light and makes the surface have a dull finish, while glossy paint, or a glossy surface, reflects lights and makes the surface glossy).
Moderate porosity is the worst kind of porosity because the pitting is large and makes the coin unsightly, as though it seems to have a bad case of teenage acne. Micro- and fine porosity are less objectionable since they don't usually erode the details of a coin. Is there any connection between moderate porosity and raised corrosion, or are they just kissing cousins?
Is porosity the natural consequence of shallow rust-like corrosion? Is it caused by moisture or another environmental factor? I know that improper manufacture of copper planchets, either through impure ingredients or improper smelting can also cause pitting in a coin, but this pitting is different from porosity and seems to emerge from the copper itself.
(3) Granularity gives the coin's surface a sandy look, as if very fine sand had been incorporated into the coin's surface. It can be very fine, fine, or moderate, and can take away a coin's glossy surface. Sometimes it can be detected only through a microscope or high-powered loupe (extremely fine granularity), or the naked eye (fine granularity). Moderate granularity is the worst kind because it seriously affects the surface and a coin's details (imagine a saucepan of caramelized sugar and its bubbling surface). I've been told by one EAC dealer that a particular coin's surface is porous, only to be told by another dealer that the coin is granular.
What's the connection between porosity and granularity? They seem to be the product of two separate kinds of chemical reactions. It's as if copper has two basic chromosomes, and X and a Y. When a corrosive (such as water) touches the copper, the X chromosome may kick in and the corrosion exhibits itself as porosity (concave pitting), and if the Y chromosome kicks in then you have granularity (tiny raised dimples). What's the connection between the two types of corrosion? Or are they meant to be totally different types of corrosion, the way mumps are different from chickenpox?
(4) Raised corrosion appears when a coin has been left in the ground or other wet environment for a long time. It can have either moderate or heavy raised corrosion. The coin looks as if it's been lightly battered and then deep fried. All sorts of scaling or corroded metal exude from the coin's surface, obscuring its detail.
Is raised corrosion related in any way to porosity and granularity? Or is it a totally different kind of corrosion? Are there circumstances where some kinds of porosity or granularity can lead to raised corrosion? I suspect the raised part of the corrosion is some kind of oxidation that can be scraped off a coin and the coin's surface smoothed to enhance its eye appeal. I have one large cent where this has been done; the coin has good eye appeal but is still considered scudzy because it has an altered surface.
(5) The last kind of corrosion is called verdigris. This is, I think, oxidation that has reached its final stage of patinization that manifests itself as pale green, brick red, or black. It's the final stage of copper disintegrating into elemental components, but it's not going to crumble in your hands. (I've read somewhere that verdigris can be removed. Is it possible? Is it advisable?) Very often the pale green color of copper verdigris is highly prized (but not in coins). Most often it's seen in old copper statues where the entire surface has turned a highly desirable pale or murky green (called a patina), or in copper flashing on a century-old building that, too, has turned a warm shade of pale green. But why is something that's so highly prized in art and architecture so objectionable to numismatists?
You can see small areas of pin spots of verdigris on a coin, and these invariably lessen its value. I've heard verdigris referred to as active or inactive. Or can all copper corrosion be referred to this way? And what is the relationship between porosity and granularity to verdigris? Or does only raised corrosion lead to verdigris?
What I'm looking for is someone, probably a chemical engineer who's a numismatist, to carefully explain how copper corrodes. How much is due to chemical impurities in the copper, and how much is due to environmental causes? And what kind of environmental causes? Or are certain types of corrosion distinct and terminal in themselves? Can you explain this using a tree, where the trunk is copper and the various limbs are different kinds of corrosion? Or is a tree not the best way to illustrate this subject?
We need help here, please!