Grading Liberty Cap Half Cents (1793-1797)
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The first United States half cents were coined in July of 1793. These are similar in design to cents of that time, as they feature a nude bust of Liberty with her shoulder supporting a staff from which hangs a pileus, or freedman's cap. Unlike the cents, however, Liberty faces left. The legend LIBERTY is placed above the portrait, while the date is below it. On the reverse appears an ornate wreath enclosing the value HALF CENT. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is arranged in an arc around the border, while the fraction 1/200 appears beneath the bow that secures the wreath. The edge of each piece is lettered TWO HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR. Thus, this coin carries its value expressed no less than three ways.
This attractive type traditionally has been attributed to Adam Eckfeldt, but more recent research casts some doubt on his claim. Researcher and author Karl Moulton credits Joseph Wright with these dies. This original design was replaced in 1794 with a modified version of it by Robert Scot in which Liberty now faces right. Both of these busts were in fairly high relief and were thus unsuitable for mass production. John Smith Gardner furnished yet another rendition of this basic design, lowering the relief of Liberty's portrait and continuing Scot's effort at simplifying the wreath. Both elements could now be almost entirely hubbed, only the smaller details being punched into the working dies. Gardner's Liberty Cap half cent was coined bearing the dates 1795, 1796 and 1797. The 1795 pieces come with either lettered or plain edges, while all subsequent issues (with the exception of a few rare varieties) are plain edge coins.
Grading half cents of the Liberty Cap type is complicated by the fact that this series really includes these three distinctive sub-types. The high-relief half cents of 1793-94 typically display more wear on the reverse than on the obverse, while the later pieces wear more evenly. The higher relief of the first two sub-types also means that the center of their reverses did not strike up fully, because the deeper cavity of the obverse die drew away metal that would have filled the value HALF CENT. This problem was further aggravated by the tendency of early dies to sink at their centers from improper hardening. This left many early half cents indistinct at their centers even when new.
Another problem with early half cents is that the Mint lacked adequate supplies of good planchet stock. Much of the copper it used to manufacture its own planchets was flawed by impurities, and the Mint's rolling mills were subject to rapid wear and outright failure. It was not until the late 1790s, when the U. S. Mint began purchasing planchets ready-made from Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint in England, that this problem was solved. Seemingly all of the Liberty Cap half cents, however, were made from pre-Soho planchets of variable quality. The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins include many useful notes regarding the peculiarities of specific dates and varieties within this series.
Mint state half cents of the 1793-97 type are so rare that few collectors will ever own one. While some collectors acquire Liberty Cap half cents by dates and even by varieties, the typical collector will seek them by type alone. Ideally, a type set should include one each of the three sub-types, since they are quite distinctive. More common is for a collector to seek just one coin of the basic design, and the best candidates are 1795 with plain edge and 1797 (1796 half cents are all quite rare).
The ideal specimen will have a good quality planchet with no voids, corrosion or discoloration. Look for a coin that is well centered, evenly worn and has not been cleaned. Beware also of repairs, since some early half cents have been skillfully engraved to cover up plugged holes and signs of mounting.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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