Grading Flying Eagle Cents (1856-1858)
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For such a short-lived series Flying Eagle cents offer some interesting grading challenges. At least this is true of mint state and proof specimens, as explained later in this column.
Grading circulated pieces is a fairly straightforward process, and the various photographic guidebooks available to collectors and dealers are simple to use. Some allowance must be made for worn dies and/or weakness of strike. The latter problem often is evident on this coin's obverse, at the eagle's head and tail feathers. These are the points of relief directly opposite the wreath on the reverse, and this positioning sometimes resulted in insufficient metal displacement at the moment of striking. Thus, the eagle's head and tail feathers may be incompletely defined. In most instances, the coin market does not place a lot of emphasis on quality of strike when grading, but it's still important to learn the difference between ill-defined coins and those that are legitimately worn.
Mint state examples of the two dates issued for general circulation, 1857 and 1858, vary widely in quality. Contact marks usually are not a problem with these coins, as their hard, copper-nickel alloy proved quite resistant to the tumbling they received during shipping. The biggest issue in grading Flying Eagle cents seems to be luster. Many examples are quite dull, either as made or because of harsh environmental conditions. Since such pieces typically grade low and can be difficult to sell, the temptation to clean them has proved great. The abrasive cleaning to which so many have been subjected by non-numismatists or novice collectors often means that these pieces must be NGC Details Graded, labeling their surface condition appropriately.
A more sophisticated method of cleaning is known as "dipping" and consists of immersing a coin briefly in a mild acid bath to strip away its toning. While this will not restore luster when a piece has been toned to the point of suffering environmental damage, it will brighten one that is only lightly or moderately toned. The experienced eye of a professional grader will be able to detect such dipping but, if it hasn't had a negative impact on the coin's appeal, the may still be certified.
Because of their hard alloy, copper-nickel planchets often did not completely fill the dies. In addition to showing specific areas of weakness, these coins also may retain the rough texture typical of planchets prior to striking. Well struck coins have such irregular surfaces smoothed out by the compression of the dies, but an indifferent strike will leave visible rough patches. This is most often seen at the highest points of relief. If sufficiently distracting, this may be cause for downgrading, as surface quality is very important in grading.
Collectors frequently desire an example of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, though technically this is a pattern coin. Ironically, proofs of this date are far more common than currency strikes. Just the opposite situation exists for 1857 and 1858, both of which are quite rare as proofs yet may easily be found in various mint state grades.
Distinguishing proofs from currency examples of the latter two dates is easy, as the proofs are fully brilliant and almost always quite well struck. The 1856 Eagle Cents, however, vary dramatically in quality. The truth is that there's no exact formula for telling proofs from non-proofs for this date, though I suspect that all or most were intended to be proofs. Some dies marriages have been labeled by specialists as exclusive to currency strikes, but I'm not convinced. When it comes to determining the status of 1856 Eagle Cents, the graders at NGC call them proofs in most instances, while the MS designation is used only when there is compelling visual evidence that the coins are not proofs.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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