A Look at Liberty's "Shifty" Face

Posted on 7/1/2005

"Turn to the right" is a catchphrase in one of my favorite movies, "Raising Arizona." Holly Hunter plays a sheriff's deputy who says it time after time to perennial arrestee Nicholas Cage, as she takes his mug shots after each petty crime. While Miss Liberty has occasionally turned to the right, too...

David Lange

"Turn to the right" is a catchphrase in one of my favorite movies, "Raising Arizona." Holly Hunter plays a sheriff's deputy who says it time after time to perennial arrestee Nicholas Cage, as she takes his mug shots after each petty crime. While Miss Liberty has occasionally turned to the right, too, as when the Seated Liberty design gave way to Barber's Liberty Head type in 1892, in other instances Liberty's portrait has simply been moved a bit from side to side without a change in direction. Such curious movement forms the basis of this month's column.

An early example of this phenomenon is found in the Draped Bust silver dollar series. When this charming portrait of Liberty debuted in 1795, the first obverse die prepared for dollar coins featured the Liberty bust placed far to the left (Bolender variety 14, Bowers-Borckardt variety 51). This would not be so noticeable had not the next die (B-15, BB-52) and all subsequent obverse dies for this type been prepared with Liberty's portrait moved to the center of the die face. Since BB-51 was the first coin of this type issued, it was saved in greater numbers, though there's little premium attached to BB-52. Most collectors desire only a single example of the overall type having the Small Eagle reverse of 1795-98, and any coin will suffice for that purpose.

Just two years later this same oddity recurred. The Cohen-3, Breen-3 variety of the 1797 half cent is popularly called the "Low Head" variety, since Liberty's portrait is placed so low in the obverse field as to crowd the date. Notably scarcer than the more common C-1 and C-2 varieties, which have the portrait centered, it does bring higher prices in most grades. This placement was certainly not intentional, and it likely represents just a lapse in judgment on the part of the die sinker or a slip of the tooling during the hubbing process.

As the die sinking process became more standardized during the 1830s, it seems that such changes in the relative position of Liberty's bust were intentional on the part of the Mint. An example of such discretion is seen in the transitional large cents of 1843. Christian Gobrecht experimented with several distinctive portraits of Liberty beginning in 1835, finally settling in 1839 on the type collectors have labeled the Petite Head. This was used for just one obverse die in 1839 (Newcomb-8), but it appeared on all obverse dies of 1840-42. During 1843, it was transitional with a modified version of the same portrait known as the Mature Head, and this bust was used for the remaining years of large cent coinage. Rather than being a new portrait, the Mature Head was simply the Petite Head rotated with respect to the date and stars. The only distinction in the modeling of these busts is that Liberty is craning her neck a bit in the Petite Head, while she appears more reposed in the Mature Head.

A similar situation had occurred just a few years earlier with the gold eagle, or 10-dollar piece. Re-introduced in 1838 after a lapse of more than 30 years, the new eagle featured a portrait quite similar to that of the Petite Head cent. In the midst of the 1839 coinage, however, this bust was modified. While Liberty's hairstyle was revised a bit, the main change consisted of simply turning the bust a few degrees clockwise so that her gaze was upward rather than downward. As noted previously, such changes during and after the 1830s were always intentional on the part of the Mint's Engraving Department.

One of the most obvious example's of intentional change in the placement of Liberty's portrait is found in the Coronet double eagle series. Both the Type 1 (1850-66) and Type 2 (1866-76) variants featured Liberty's portrait placed the same within the obverse field: Her bust is to the right of center, and she gazes distinctly upward. In 1877, however, her portrait was both sharpened in detail and relocated within the field. Imagine a pivot point at the tip of her bust. The portrait was turned counterclockwise from this pivot point so that Liberty now gazed straight ahead and her bust was faintly to the left of center. While no record survives as to why such a change was made, it coincided with the spelling in full of the coin's value. Perhaps this repositioning improved striking quality and/or extended the useful life of the dies.

Nine years later a similar change was effected in the Indian Head cent. The cents of 1886 come in two major subtypes: the old obverse hub, known as Type 1, shows the lowest feather on Liberty's headdress pointing between letters IC of AMERICA; Type 2 cents of 1886 and all subsequent years show the lowermost feather pointing between letters CA. Other differences may be seen in the relationship between the lettering and Liberty's portrait, yet, in this instance, the portrait did not move. Instead, the lettering was condensed in an upward direction. The second S in STATES and the O in OF remain approximately where they were on the old obverse hub, but all the remaining letters are closer to one another, making the legends occupy less space. Thus, the movement of Liberty's portrait was simply an illusion.

David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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