A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO LARGE CENT
Denis W. Loring
This article was originally published in Remy Bourne's "Numismatic Literature Review and Fixed Price List", Vol. 1, No. 3 (May, 1995). It is reprinted for P-W with permission.
In 1988, I wrote an article for Penny-Wise, the journal of the early American Coppers Club, entitled "A Beginners Guide to Large Cent Literature." In it, I proposed a basic library for a new large cent collector. The total cost of that library was less than the price of an XF 1802 large cent, or about $450.
Seven years later, new books, auction catalogs and publications abound. Remy suggested that I update my article for the neophyte collector of 1995. I'm happy to do so, but must unfortunately report that the information explosion has its price. The XF 1802 cent that would have bought 1988's library isn't quite nice enough in 1995: the coin must now be just about AU. No matter; your core library will still be the smartest copper purchase you ever make.
So here you are, a new collector of US large cents. The words of the late Aaron Feldman are ringing in your ears: "Buy the book before the coin." You agree wholeheartedly, but there's one small problem: you don't know what "the book" is. That's the purpose of this article: to suggest a basic library for the beginning large cent collector. The books, auction catalogues, and other publications described below are all readily obtainable, as quality reprints if not originals. The entire library should cost somewhat less than a common AU 1802 cent; its value will be immeasurable.
1. A GUIDE BOOK OF UNITED STATES COINS -- the "Red Book". Still the basic reference for all United States Coins, giving basic data on composition, mintage, major varieties, and prices.
2. OFFICIAL A.N.A. GRADING GUIDE FOR UNITED STATES COINS. Not the last word on grading large cents, but definitely the first.
After due consideration I've decided not to include WALTER BREEN'S COMPLETE ENCYLOPEDIA OF U.S. AND COLONIAL COINS in this list. This all-encompassing work should be owned by every numismatist. However, it's an expensive book, only 38 out of 754 pages are devoted to large cents, and much of the information is either highly technical or may be found in other large cent references.
3. The basic die variety texts:
A. 1793-1814: Two books, the classic and the newcomer. Once Breen's magnum opus is published it'll be three.
1) PENNY WHIMSY, by Sheldon. Really one of the classic numismatic books of all time, on any topic. The rarity, condition census, and basal value data are largely outdated, of course, but we'll get to that later. Knowing just how rare each variety is does you no good at all if you can't tell 'em apart.
2) UNITED STATES LARGE CENTS 1793-1814, by Noyes. A wonderful attribution guide for the beginner with enlarged photographs and highlighted distinctive features of each die. The CC information is controversial, but it's certainly more accurate and up-to-date than Sheldon's.
B. 1816-1839: Three books, an oldie and two new ones.
1) UNITED STATES COPPER CENTS, 1816-1857, by Newcomb. The standard reference. For over 40 years, a handwritten (!) labor of love. Though Noyes and Wright are easier to read and use, there's still more than enough in Newcomb to make it a must-have.
2) UNITED STATES LARGE CENTS 1816-1839, by Noyes. A twin to his book on early dates, and even more of an improvement over it's predecessor as an attribution guide.
3) THE CENT BOOK, by Wright. The masterwork by the best known name in middle-dates. History, attribution, die states, some CC and pricing data. Excellent photographs. Although Noyes and Wright books do overlap, each has its strengths, and you should have them both.
C. 1840-1857: ATTRIBUTION GUIDE FOR UNITED STATES LARGE CENTS 1840-1857, by Grellman and Reiver. This book is to Newcomb what a Mercedes is to a Model T. I'm a confirmed early-date nut, and even I enjoy using G-R. It brings late- date attribution and study within the grasp of even the beginner.
4. Auction catalogues. Neophyte collectors (and experienced ones, too) often overlook auction catalogues as a source of numismatic information. A well-researched catalogue is much more than a sale record. In the last 25 years, there have been a number of major auctions of large cents that belong in every collector's library. These catalogues serve as more than updates of the standard reference works. They are also illustrative grading manuals, pedigree sources, price guides, and just plain fun reading.
A. The Naftzger sale, New Netherlands, 11/73. Cataloged by Jon Hanson. The blockbuster sale of Ted Naftzger's spares (a truly mind-boggling thought) after he bought Sheldon's collection in 1972. In many ways, the dawn of a new era.
B. The first Ruby sale, Superior, 2/74. Cataloged by Walter Breen and Denis Loring. Virtually a complete set of early cents, with plenty of rare die states, scarce duplicates (count the '99's!), and other goodies. This was the first major sale to use "EAC grading." I'm told that of the coins won by mail bidders, not a single one was returned as overgraded.
C. The first Floyd T. Starr Sale, Stack's 6/84. Cataloged by C. Douglas Smith. In the 1940's, Starr bought Hines's late dates intact, Newcomb's late dates intact, and went on from there. The sale also featured some choice early dates, including a complete set of 1793 cents with two Strawberries!
D. The Van Cleave sale, Kagin, 1/86. Cataloged by Del Bland. Every Sheldon number except S79 and S80, and numerous NC's, all in "collectible" grades. The sale also included extensive and important groups of early and late dates from other collections. EAC grading.
E. The Robbie Brown sale, Superior, 9/86. Cataloged by Jack Collins. In my opinion (for those who don't know me, I always have an opinion), the finest numismatic auction catalogue ever produced, on anything, by anyone, period. Every Sheldon number (the first time ever), plus more NC's than you've ever seen. Every Newcomb number from 1840-1857 listed in Newcomb, plus many unlisted varieties. Every coin meticulously described by EAC standards, including die state. Every coin plated, obverse and reverse. Enough raving -- go buy a copy and savor the pinnacle of the cataloguers's art.
F. The Halpern sale, Stack's, 3/88. Cataloged by Carl Carlson. Some people buy coins; Hy Halpern bought collections. Bland 1794's, Norman Stack 1794's, Doug Smith 1816's and 17's, Loring date set, huge groups from Starr, Wyatt, and Brown, plus other groups and key singles acquired over nearly forty years of collecting. All came together in a sale billed as "magnificent." So it was.
G. The Robinson sale, Superior, 1/89. Cataloged by Del Bland. The second of the great Superior catalogs. Complete early dates, complete non-proof middle dates, hundreds of late dates, detailed die state information with enlarged photographs. Del's descriptions, EAC grading. Simply put, everything a catalog should be. After Robinson, Superior held a number of other well-catalogued sales of significant large cent collections: Matthews, Chalkley, Mendelson, Kuntz, Nicholas, Cohen, Morley. All of these are well worth owning. Brown and Robinson, though, are in a class by themselves.
5. COPPER QUOTES BY ROBINSON. The definitive price guide for large cents (half cents too). It also offers up-to-the-minute information on rarity and condition census, plus timely insights on the large cent world. If the Gray Sheet could see CQR, it would become the Green Sheet -- green with envy.
6. PENNY-WISE. I won't even try to overview the riches contained in P-W. Just trust me on this: borrow the complete set from the EAC library, copy it, and start from the beginning, a little each day. A rich and rewarding journey awaits you.
So: eight books, seven catalogues, CQR, and PENNY-WISE. Read, study, enjoy, and don't be surprised if you feel change along the way. That's you, a collector, becoming a numismatist.