Part 6
by John Pijewski


I call Jim Long of J.E.L. Coins. I'm looking for a Chain cent, and he frequently has lower-grade Chain cents with minor or not-so-minor problems. Because I'm about halfway through the 1794 Sheldons, I'm beginning to look down the horizon for 1793 cents. I want Jim to find an attractive lower-grade Chain cent for me.

"Hi, Jim. It's JP."

"Hey, how're they hanging?"

"I know you have a lot of EAC connections around Baltimore and Virginia, and you know a lot of copper collectors. I want to let you know that I'm in the market for a clean G5 or G6 Chain cent.

"Whoa, that'll set you back four or five G's plus."

"I'm not ready to get one yet. But keep your eyes open for one later in the year, or even next year. Or, if you find one sooner, maybe we can do payments over time."

"I got Chains right now, but they're more like AG3 or G4 and no one would ever mistake them for gems. You know, they almost never come clean. They've always got something wrong with them - porosity, or fissures, or some kind of crap."

"That's why I'm calling you. I want you to keep an eye out for me for a nice one. I don't care how long it takes. A year, or two, or more. I've got some Wreaths with the standard problems, so I want at least one clean Chain and, maybe, one clean Wreath."

"I'm trying to think of anyone with a clean low-grade Chain. Even if they're low grade, they go for big bucks."

"Jim, I figured of all the people I know, you're the guy I'd want looking for me. You're going to find one and you're going to save it for me."

"It's not going to come cheap."

"I know. That's why I'll need some time, to save money."

"Okay, JP, you're the boss. So how clean does it have to be?"

"As clean as possible. No corrosion or scratches. No rim bruises. No fissures or pitting. No laminations or voids. No dents."

"I don't know if that kind of Chain cent exists."

"If it does, Jim, you'll find it for me. And when you do, you'll charge me a fair price so I won't have to sell my car to pay for it."

"Anything else you're looking for that I can find? An S-37 for $100? How about a naked woman on a pogo stick?"

"No thanks, Jim. I've got enough trouble with clothed women on pogo sticks. Just keep your eyes open for a clean Chain. That's all I know so far. So, keep me in mind. OK? I'll talk to you later."

"OK it is, JP."


In my dream My Beloved Lizzie and I buy a house in the southern part of Maine, near Gray. It's going to be our vacation home, just 90 miles north of Boston, an easy hour-and-fifty-minute drive. Two acres of land, mostly woods, come with the house, whose large backyard slopes down to White Goose Pond. It had been built in 1784 and added onto about 50 years later. The house has eight rooms, four bedrooms and two baths. Even though it needs extensive renovation, we're attracted to the house because most of its original details are intact, although the wide pine-board floors aren't completely level.

My Beloved Lizzie and I decided, after many discussions, diagrams, drawings, and even some raised voices, what kind of updating we need to do, and hired a local contractor, James Hartley, who'd been very highly recommended by our realtor. James began working on the house in late April, and I drive up from Boston two or three times each week to monitor the project, answer questions, and resolve renovation issues as they come up.

Old houses, as you probably know, are especially difficult to renovate because when you begin working on one thing, you quickly discover that something related to this is in poor condition and needs to be addressed before the first thing can be fixed. Having worked in real estate for nearly 25 years, I'd learned that if you budget $30,000 for a 100-year-old house, you'll end up spending twice as much; and if the house is more than 150 years old, you'll end up spending three times your original budget.

Which is what I encounter on a gloriously sunny and warm May Monday when I arrive at the Maine house around noon. In gutting the downstairs bathroom to install new plumbing, the contractor found that persistent leaks over the years from the upstairs bathroom has damaged the 6" X 6" wooden posts crucial to supporting the house. They need to be bolstered, and an adjoining wall has to be stripped to accommodate the repair. After I give the go-ahead to do the repair, James Hartley gives me a small mahogany box, still covered in plaster dust, that one of his workers found the previous Friday when they opened up a wall to install ductwork for the air conditioning system. (Yes, even in Maine you get 90 degrees plus in the summer with high humidity.)

The box is eight inches by six inches and four inches tall. It weighs about six or seven pounds and feels very solid. I shake it, but whatever is inside is securely bound. I want to open it, but it's locked and there's no key, so I toss it into my car's back seat. After another hour of looking things over at the house, I start back to Boston, hoping James Hartley will be finished by the end of June, so My Beloved Lizzie and I can spend, at least, part of the summer in our new old house.

When I arrive in Boston I carry the mahogany box down to my basement workshop. First I wipe the box clean of plaster dust with a moistened rag. It doesn't take much to open the box because the hinges are on the exterior. All that is needed is some careful unscrewing of some rusted and resistant screws. The lid comes off in less than ten minutes.

The first thing I encounter is a stiff, rumpled envelope that has some brown foxing. On the envelope is written in a florid, old-fashioned script, "To the Opener of this Box." Under the envelope something is wrapped securely in a heavy stiff cloth, possibly canvas.

Here is the text of the letter (with the spelling changed to conform to current usage):

September 25th, 1807

Herein lies a memento of our darling deceased daughter, Abigail Sarah Thomaston. She died in her fourteenth year, on September 15, after contracting a fever ten days earlier. No amount of prayers or medicines could assuage her fever and save her life. Two days hence we laid her in a grave at St. James Church and returned her to Our Lord. May he keep her safe in His Bosom.

As a girl of seven years, Abigail became much enamored of our new federal copper pennies and delighted in saving those dated 1793, the year of her birth in this house. Each one we encountered we gave to Abigail, who kept them in this box. By the time of her death seven years later, she had managed to accumulate seventy-three pennies of this date, all of which we have wrapped and laid in this box, which we plan to place inside a wall in our house, our hope being that whomever opens this box, in whatever year, simply by reading this letter, shall give a breath of life again to our beloved Abigail, however briefly.

David Owen Thomaston

I'm not ashamed to admit there is some moisture in my eyes that I dab dry with my fingers. It is a few moments before I can compose myself and dare to unwrap the stiff cloth, all the while not believing there will be any cents from 1793. I keep thinking this must be a hoax. Then they are there - a whole slew of cents from 1793. I catch a glimpse of two Liberty Cap cents in excellent condition, then an AMERI. Chain cent with a few striations on the reverse. There are Wreath cents with some minor pitting and a void, and some small fissures. There is another Chain cent in EF4O+ condition with a hard, glossy surface. And there are a few more Wreath cents in a remarkable state of preservation. At a glance, the lowest grade seems to be around VF25, while many of the others are close to EF4O. While none of them has any mint luster, they all look relatively fresh and new. A few seem in perfect condition, while there is some pitting and small areas of corrosion on others. Most of the cents are a golden tan color, ranging to light chocolate with minor surface disruptions. A couple of the cents are a rich milk chocolate.

I place them, one by one, into three separate piles, being careful not to scratch them. One by one I go through the entire group, stopping now and then to look more closely at a Liberty Cap to admire its design, or bemoan a small area of pitting at the date, or look at a Wreath cent to enjoy the sharpness of its hair details. There are 20 Chain cents, 39 Wreath cents, and 14 Liberty Cap cents. Seventy-three cents dated 1793 and accumulated by a girl who then died at the age of 14. I stand here in my basement knowing it's important to consider her brief life, and to honor her father's love, before I can think, even in my dream, of consulting my Sheldon and Breen books to begin attributions.


When I was collecting a "Redbook" variety set of large cents, I kept them in cardboard flips that you stapled shut. I used the half dollar holders, even though the cent had a tendency to shift if I didn't staple it securely. At least I could see the coin without having to touch it. But I really couldn't see the coin, I ultimately learned, because the Mylar tended to obscure some of the coin's surfaces. It made an average-minus cent look average or better.

Then I find that putting the cardboard holders in and out of a 9" X 2" plastic coin box exposed the coins to being scratched by the back folded part of a staple. (If you want to see an EAC person take a hissy fit, show him a large cent with fresh scratches and the bright orangey-red color of new copper sparkling in the groove of the scratch.) And besides, these stapled cardboard holders didn't keep the air and humidity out. Any number of times I'd notice a darkness on the Mylar, only to open it and find it was moisture. A definite no-no.

So I changed over to soft plastic flips because that's how they often came mailed to me. These were an improvement because I could enclose a 2" X 2" card in the second pouch on which I could record all the necessary information about the coin. On the front: date, Sheldon number, grade, die state, and an overall assessment of its eye-appeal (Choice, Avg+, Avg, Avg-, Scudzy); and on the rear: mintage, rarity, date of purchase, from whom purchased (along with any pedigree), and price.

This worked well until I noticed that, while great to handle, soft plastic flips had a tendency to collect moisture - dark areas on the coin's high points. Besides, the more I read about soft plastic flips, the more awful they seemed - great for mailing or short term storage, but dangerous for long term storage. The plastic was liable to leach a chemical that reacted with copper to produce the dreaded green slime that would eventually corrode your choice gem beauty into a Scudzy horror.

So, yet again, I had to change large cents holders. By this time I'd already joined EAC. I mentioned to Rod Burress that I was looking for a safer and more permanent storage of my large cents. He recommended 2" X 2" heavy-weight paper envelopes with a flannel pouch inside to protect the coin.

"This is what most people in EAC use," he said.

"But I've found some hard plastic flips that museums use for long-term storage; at least that's how they're advertised."

"I don't think I would trust them. The sharp edges of the plastic could scratch the copper."

"But," I said, "you can't see the coin in the little envelope. You have to slide it out every time you want to see the coin. Doesn't that sliding scratch the coin?"

"That's why we use flannel pouches. Flannel doesn't scratch."

"But the hard plastic allows me to see the coin without having to handle it."

"You're right," Rod says. "There may be some inconvenience with the pouches and paper envelopes, but they're the safest way to store copper."

"Well," I said. "I'll have to think about it."

And I thought about it. I compared the prices for storing 450 large cents. While the hard plastic flips were more expensive than the soft plastic flips, they were much cheaper than the envelopes with flannel pouches. And they allowed me to see the coin without having to handle it. And they were recommended for long term storage by museums.

So I convinced myself. And the process of transferring each large cent from a soft plastic flip to a hard plastic flip began. At least there were no staples I had to deal with. A few weeks later I had what I thought was a safe, convenient, permanent storage system for my early copper. Until I realized that I was subjecting my large cents to possible hairline damage from the hard plastic. Suddenly my safe storage system didn't look like a good idea. I told myself I'd be extra careful whenever I'd take a large cent out of its hard plastic flip. And then, nearly a year later, I noticed some dark areas on the high points of my large cents (usually Liberty's cheek), and removed the coin to find it was moisture.

And so, yet again, I'm confronted with using a totally new storage system for my large cents. I don't want to do it, but if I value my large cents and want to preserve them for the future, then I have to do it.

Yes, I'm sorry I didn't listen to Rod Burress in the first place. I'm sorry about the extra expense. And I'm sorry about all the time I'll need to transfer, yet again, some 600 large cents this time, individually, into their own 2" X 2" envelope, each one with its own flannel pouch. And this time I'm enclosing a few packets of those moisture-absorbing crystals in each of my 9" X 2" plastic coin boxes.

If I'd known that storage of large cents was going to be such a finicky and time-consuming issue, maybe I would've chosen to collect, say, one-foot sections of all the 237 known types of 19th century barbed wire from the American West and Midwest, instead of early American copper.


It's late August, 2002, and I've just reached 260 Sheldon varieties in my large cent collection. My most recent acquisition was S-24, the Apple Cheek variety, at a Sunday coin show this past week. Although it's an R1, I'd never had the opportunity to buy one before. This one is only G4, and I've already placed it on my upgrade list; I got it because I wanted to reach the 260 level of Sheldon varieties.

My Beloved Lizzie recently expressed concern about keeping such valuable coins in the house, and I have to agree with her that I would definitely feel safer with them in a bank vault, but then I'd no longer have instant access to them whenever I want. This becomes another in a long line of trade-offs: security or accessibility.

I drive three miles to an office of my bank that has safe deposit boxes and ask to speak to someone who has information about them. A young woman is happy to provide me with information about the size and cost of the boxes. After hearing all the alternatives, I decide a box of 3" high X 5" wide X 24" deep at $36 per year seems the most appropriate as it will hold four 9" X 2" blue coin boxes that contain all my Sheldon-numbered large cents. I ask the young woman to show me the vault and the area where I can view the contents of my box. She leads me to the vault which is already open (it has a massive two-foot deep metal door with what appears to be a ship's steering wheel with extra spokes to facilitate turning the wheel). She unlocks a metal grate door and we enter the viewing room that has four closed wooden cubicles, where you can view your box in private. The cubicles are like a public rest room, but the cubicles are larger and have a desk and chair. The safe deposit boxes are in the next room behind another grated metal door, but she can't take me inside for security reasons. I can see three walls stacked seven feet high with safe deposit boxes, larger ones on the bottom, the smaller ones up higher.

I wonder what kinds of valuables are hidden away in these boxes - diamonds, pearl necklaces, antique gold watches, company stocks, perhaps even a large cent collection? I remember reading a humorous article about the unusual things some people put into their safe deposit boxes: A bottle of cognac and one small glass; 600 4" X 6" index cards of recipes in Italian; a pair of a woman's used panties that were over 40 years old; 3 Little League baseballs; a book, 2001 Insults for All Occasions; a pack of cigarettes with matches and an ash tray; a girl's doll with two detached arms.

The trip to the bank has saddened me. Putting my large cents into a safe deposit box would be like putting them into a nursing home. Three months before my mother died I had no choice but to place her in a nursing home. She was 84. She'd lost her ability to walk and couldn't take care of her daily needs. Then she had a stroke and lost her ability to speak coherently and couldn't communicate. In the nursing home I would speak to her in Polish (her native language) and be reasonably sure she could hear me, so I told her stories of my childhood and what a good mother she'd been. She died in the beginning of her fourth month in the nursing home.

Going to the bank vault to visit my large cents would, I'm sure, invariably remind me of my mother and ruin the event for me. The young woman said I could come as often as I wanted and stay as long as I wanted during normal business hours, but I couldn't see myself hanging around in one of those cubicles for hours at a time. I'd probably come in with a purpose - to look at a few large cents to see whether they needed to be upgraded, or just to spend half an hour casually looking at them. The idea that I couldn't just walk up a flight of stairs in my own house and have instant access to them really bothered me.

If I can't come up with a reasonable solution to this problem, I don't think I can put Edna into a nursing home.


After a week of considering putting Edna in a bank safe deposit box, I may have found a solution - an expensive solution. I'm a teacher and writer who's successfully avoided getting a computer for 20 years (I may be in the less than one percentile of all computerless teachers/writers in the country), only to be brought down to my knees because of big copper pennies that are 200 years old. The irony of the situation is very rich. If I had good quality photos of my Sheldon large cents at home, I think I could store the actual large cents in a safe deposit box in a bank.

In order to get good quality photos, I need to buy a digital camera (a friend suggested the Canon S30), an AC adapter so I don't have to buy a $50 Canon battery for every hour I use the camera, a few extra 64 and 128 megabyte memory cards (film), a tripod, three good lights, a CD transfer that would transfer the photos on the 64 or 128 memory cards into the computer's memory, and a piece of black or navy blue flannel to use as a backdrop for the large cents. If I had a computer then I could get a really good quality color printer to print my own photos. If I don't have a computer, I could take the 64 or 128 megabyte memory cards to a good local photo lab.

If I bought just the digital camera and all the necessary things for it, and let the photo labs around town process the photos, it would cost me about $800, plus the cost of photos.

And if I bought the camera and a computer and color printer (plus a few more needed accessories), I'd probably be out the cost of a Choice G5 Chain cent (at the very least).

Not an easy decision. Both alternatives would require a huge investment in time. The camera-alone solution would be the most financially prudent, but the computer solution, though more expensive, would allow me to join the Internet part of EAC, in addition to broadening the scope of EAC dealers available to me.

I wonder what I'll decide to do.


In a late September, 2002, issue of Coin World I come across a small ad from a dealer that lists 12 early large cents for sale. One of them is an 1801 NC-1 in net G5 for a price of $1000. I'd never considered buying an NC before because of high prices and low availability (I'd always assumed NC's were the equivalent of '56 Thunderbirds), but this one's available for the price of an S-99 in G5. I figure there's no harm in phoning the dealer to talk.

"Hello. My name's JP, and I'm calling about the 1801 NC-1."

"Yeah. This is Shawn. It's a nice coin, with VG8 detail, but it's dark. It's got that very fine porosity that gives the coin a matte finish. Despite the porosity, you can read the date, Liberty, and all the legends on the reverse."

"How bad is the porosity? Is there any raised corrosion?"

"Well, let me take it out." After a short pause he continues, "There's a full date. You can see hair on Miss Liberty. There's no raised corrosion, just that tiny stuff that takes away the gloss. It doesn't take away the detail. You know what, I have a decent Xerox of the coin. Want me to send it to you?"

"That'd be great," I say. "You have a price list of other large cents?"

"Yeah, I'll send that too. Oh, I should tell you I'm taking my coins to the show in St. Louis this weekend. I'm actively selling. My wife and I are building a house next spring, so all my coins are for sale, know what I mean?"

The dealer's price list and the Xerox of the 1801 NC-1 arrive on a Friday. I study the Xerox. The coin is dark and porous. Bill Noyes would call it Scudzy, and I guess I would, too, but it's not that bad. All the details are there, even if the coin's a bit dark. I read the dealer's price list. There are some really nice upper grade cents, but they're not what I collect. I wait until Monday to call the dealer. I've decided to buy my first NC.

"This is JP. I called last week about the 1801 NC-1, and you sent me a Xerox of it." "Oh, yeah," Shawn says. "I sold it in St. Louis." My heart sinks. "I sold it to Tom Reynolds, "he says. "Do you know Tom?" "Yes, I do."

"I gave him a dealer price, so you may be able to buy it from him for less than I was asking. Do you have his number?"

As soon as I thank Shawn I reach for my little phone directory and look under E for EAC Dealers. I phone Tom's number. He's home.

"Hi, Tom. This is JP in Boston. I was just talking to a dealer who said he sold you an 1801 NC-1 in St. Louis over the weekend."

"It's right here. Haven't even logged it in yet."

"Well, I'd love to get it. The dealer sent me a Xerox of it, so I know what it looks like. Know what you want for it?"

"Let me see," Tom says and pauses. "I could let you have it for $900."

"You've got a deal. That's a decent price."

"If I can turn over a coin quickly, I can let it go cheaply," Tom says. "I'll send it out tomorrow morning."

The cent arrives in three days. It looks just like it did in the Xerox, except that now I can see its true color, a steel brown that's more steel than brown. It's a small historic event for me - my first NC.

I don't know what's happening, but ever since buying this NC, I see four more NC's for sale in various places, all with reasonable prices. One of them is a newly discovered 1796 NC-4 in G5 for sale by Chris Victor-McCawley. I'd love to get it since that's my favorite year. I struggle with the decision because it's a lot easier to decide if you can't afford a coin, in which case you don't buy it. I can afford to buy this coin (with some difficulty), which makes the decision so much harder. Ultimately it comes down to this reasoning - How can I buy an NC for 1801, if I won't buy an NC for 1796? I can't, so I call Chris and give him my credit card number in exchange for his 1796 NC-4.

At this point, since I've purchased two NC's in two weeks, I say that I'll try to get one NC for each year they're available, though 1793 and 1794 will be out of my league. As soon as I say this, I find an 1802 NC-2 (R6+) at a reasonable price. After a two-year hunt for Sheldon varieties during which time I explicitly avoided NC's, I've bought three NC's in three weeks, even though the third dealer agreed to take payments over four months from me for his NC. Now I'll have to keep my eyes open for a decent NC from 1800 and 1803. And once I get those, I wonder whether I'll be happy with just one NC from each year?

What's happening to me? I'm buying cents I never thought I'd buy. Is this what it's like to be a "variety junkie?"

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