Grading Chain Cents (1793)
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The first cents coined by the United States Mint for general circulation were the Chain cents of 1793. These bore a crude profile bust of Liberty on their obverse and a circle of fifteen interlocking chain links (representing the number of states at that time) on their reverse. It is generally accepted that these dies were hand engraved by Chief Coiner Henry Voigt, who performed this unfamiliar task in the absence of a true engraver. The resulting design was immediately unpopular, and these cents were minted for a period of just two weeks, from March 1-12, 1793, at which time the supply of planchets was depleted. When the Philadelphia Mint was able to resume coining cents shortly thereafter, a new design was substituted. Only 36,103 examples of the Chain cent were issued, and it's doubtful that even a couple thousand survive in all grades.
The term grading, as it is usually understood, really doesn't apply to these crude and often quite flawed copper pieces. It is more correct to say that Chain cents are assessed, rather than graded. Still, the coin market demands that some numerical grade be applied to each United States coin. Professional graders are thus handed a very daunting task indeed. There are only a handful of Chain cents surviving in uncirculated condition, though a couple of these are truly stunning pieces that were obviously preserved as souvenirs of the new issue. The vast majority of these coins, however, went into circulation and wore quite rapidly.
It turns out that wear, while certainly an issue, is actually the simplest factor in grading these coins. Far more of a problem is the planchet quality and the overall state of preservation of each coin. The typical Chain cent was made from copper that contained numerous impurities. Also frequently seen on these coins are voids and laminations in the planchet that may easily be mistaken for damage incurred in circulation. With less valuable coins, such flaws would typically be cause enough for grading services to reject them outright. The demand for this coin type in any condition is sufficient that the majority of Chain cents will receive some sort of grade and encapsulation, though the grading service may include a qualifying statement on the label indicating the type of problem evident on the coin. In addition to voids and laminations, these can include corrosion (that occurred subsequent to striking) or porosity (which may have been present at the time of striking). Though NCS does not publish its population data, it's likely that more Chain cents have been details graded by this company than have been graded numerically by its affiliate company, NGC.
Aside from just a handful of examples surviving in mint state condition or close to it, the overwhelming number of Chain cents are very heavily worn. Their flat fields and very shallow rims offered little protection from wear. These factors, combined with the very low relief of Liberty's portrait, have resulted in many coins that are identifiable only by the reverse chain, which was the last feature to wear away. Still others may be found with the portrait barely evident but with the date worn away. As a one-year type, however, these coins are still identifiable as to year even when dateless.
For most collectors seeking an example of the Chain cent, the grades of About Good through Very Good will have to suffice. Specimens in higher grades are rare and quite expensive, while those grading less than About Good are scarcely identifiable. It is possible to acquire an attractive type coin in the lower grades if one is a patient shopper. The qualities to seek include the following: 1) all design features (bust, chain, date and legends) are visible; 2) the planchet is complete and smooth, without voids or porosity; 3) the color, even if not original, is at least natural and attractive. Coins meeting these criteria are few and far between, and the demand for them is endless. You may have to pay somewhat over catalog and price guide values for these desirable pieces, but it will be worthwhile in the long run.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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