The Engraved "Mature Head" Large Cent Design Model

A WINDOW INTO THE MIND OF CHRISTIAN GOBRECHT

 

Among collectors of the proof Braided Hair large cent series (1840-1857), it is generally accepted that proof examples were struck both from specially-produced "proof-only" dies as well as from dies shared with circulation coinage. In the face of a lack of contemporary documentation regarding the purpose and mintage of these proof issues, this duality of striking style has invited the idea that all proof-only die varieties within the series are later restrikes, with the use of a common reverse die upon the proof-only varieties of 1841 and 1842, and a second common reverse die upon those of 1844 to 1849, seen by some as further indicative of these dates having been struck concurrently [1]. However, the close study of a particular specimen of a proof-only die variety, dated 1843 and demonstrably struck within that year, suggests that these strikes are indeed original and calls into question any assumptions of backdating within the series as a whole.

 

Figure 1: From top to bottom, Petite Head and Mature Head types

Two die varieties of 1843-dated proof large cents are recognized: Newcomb-14 (N-14), struck from proof-only dies, and N-12, the dies of which are shared with business strikes. Both proof varieties are of the Petite Head style, which was adopted at the inception of the Braided Hair cent series in 1839. The circulation strikes of 1843, by contrast, appear bearing both the Petite Head and the Mature Head designs (Fig. 1), the latter of which was adopted partway through the year and would continue to be employed through the conclusion of the large cent series in 1857. The Mature Head features a faintly wider portrait than that upon the Petite Head type, as well as a slight clockwise rotation of the bust with respect to the date and stars, broader lettering upon the reverse, and a narrower wreath. As typical for the pre-1858 era of United States coinage, proof examples of this date are excessively rare, with a mere fifteen to twenty examples estimated to have been struck.

The recent identification of a proof 1843 N-14 example as unambiguously struck within the year 1843 indicates that this proof-only die variety was indeed an original striking, and as such calls into question the post-dating hypothesis for other proof-only die varieties in the series. It will be argued here that this particular coin is critically related to the 1843 design transition from the Petite Head to Mature Head style.


Fig. 2. 1843 N-14 Petite Head proof and proposed design model for the 1843 Mature Head design

At first glance, the aforementioned piece (Fig. 2) appears marred by a profusion of post-production, graffiti-like impairments. Closer inspection, however, reveals that these "impairments" in truth constitute a professionally-placed set of modifications that disclose, with geometrical exactitude and thoroughness of execution, the most intimate details of the design process of its creator, Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht. The modifications take the form of a slew of lines, circles, and small indents that are etched into the surface and traced over in black ink. Many appear to closely follow the design of the underlying coin, retracing the outlines of the devices and distributing them within concentric circles of varying size. On the obverse are engraved thirteen small circles spaced evenly along the perimeter, several larger circles surrounding the portrait and stars, a rectilinear set of ruled lines drawn below and through the portrait, and a subtle retracing of the portrait above and to the left of the original. The center of each engraved circle is marked with a small indentation, indicating the use of a compass or similar tool. The central indentations of each of the thirteen small circles are linked by one of the large engraved circles, and the thirteen circles themselves are bound at the inner and outer points by two additional large engraved circles. Bisecting the centerpoints of each of these small circles is a curved arc. Proceeding clockwise from the viewer's lower left, each arc marks the center of the next small circle, indicating that the engraver used a compass held at a fixed length and proceeded clockwise around the obverse to measure and mark the positions of these circles. The reverse displays additional ruled lines and concentric circles, as well as retracings of the lettering and the wreath. Notwithstanding these alterations, there is a distinct dearth of damage, the surfaces free of distracting handling marks or hairlines and exhibiting a pleasantly toned, original patina.

Figure 3: Overlay of the engraved 1843 N-14 Petite Head and an 1843 Mature Head cent

How do the engraved elements on the discovery piece relate to the new hub's design? Fig. 3 is an overlay of the engraved Petite Head coin upon a circulation strike 1843 Mature Head cent. Several details of the two pieces appear to align exceptionally well. Most notably, the thirteen obverse stars upon the Mature Head cent are found neatly arranged within the small engraved circles of the proof Petite Head coin, and the date upon the Mature Head piece is precisely situated within the engraved rectangular grid below the portrait. On the reverse, the enlarged and relocated “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” legend on the Mature Head example is exactly bounded by two engraved circular guidelines and a horizontal guideline that passes through the wreath ribbon.

Figure 4: Traced Overlay (Engravings over Mature Head)

In Fig. 4, the engraved elements have been superimposed upon the Mature Head example. Without the devices of the engraved cent obstructing our view, the alignments noted above appear more clearly. Additionally, the upper and lower left areas of the portrait appear closely outlined by the tracing. On the reverse, the wreath lies between its own set of circular guidelines. The border dentils align with the outermost engraved circles on each side. It is implausible that the concordance of the engraved elements on the discovery piece with the actual placement of devices on the obverse and reverse of the Mature Head design is coincidental. The engraved modifications of the 1843 Petite Head proof clearly delineate the most salient changes representative of the new Mature Head design introduced during that year.

The engraved proof piece was altered by hand with basic tools, albeit professionally, so there are inevitable small discrepancies between the designs. For instance, the large concentric engraved circles are not perfectly round, enough so that the central indented points are not always at their exact centers. The small circles denoting the star locations are also relatively crude, as it is difficult to accurately hand-engrave very small circles by compass. However, most of the deviations between the markings on the proof coin and the final Mature Head design are of less than a millimeter, and may reflect slight inconsistencies upon the dies of the Mature Head coin selected for the overlay, imperfections in the digital registration of the images, or simple human error during the engraving process.

That said, significant discrepancies are found on the reverse in the position of the lettering in "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA". The engraved letter positions on the modified proof failed to take into account the eventual use of larger letter punches on the final Mature Head master die, and the final character in the engraved legend falls short of both that in the final design and of the engraved horizontal guideline below the wreath. Nevertheless, the legend falls entirely between the two concentric circles ruled out for it on the modified proof.

Such differences serve to inform us that all details of the Mature Head design had not yet been finalized when the discovery coin was engraved, and thus indicate that the piece was engraved prior to the creation of the master hub. Nonetheless, the striking congruence of the engraved markings with the final Mature Head design supports the conclusion that the discovery piece was executed at the Mint as part of the design modification process rather than the work of an unofficial artist outside of the Mint.

Figure 5: Petite Head (left) and Mature Head (right) Wreaths

Comparison of the engraved wreath on the discovery coin and the wreath design adopted for the Mature Head reverse (Fig. 5) reveals a number of differences, suggesting that the modifications indicated by the engraved marks preceded the final stage of the redesign process. Compared to the original Petite Head wreath, the Mature Head wreath has a smaller diameter, additional berries, and a leftward shift to the bow at bottom. While engraved marks on the discovery coin  (Fig. 6) do call for a smaller diameter, they otherwise closely follow the design of the Petite Head wreath and do not match the wreath details evident upon the final Mature Head reverse. The reduction in wreath diameter was a priority for the new design, which utilized larger lettering, but while the engraved marks suggest a straightforward "scaling down" of the device, the engraver evidently rejected such a simple approach on aesthetic grounds. In the final design, the leaves are reduced in number, not size, and the wreath retains a substantial look which balances the larger letter punches. The shift of the ribbon and stem enhances the centering between the legend.

Figure 6: Engraved Wreath (in blue)

It should be noted here that the Petite Head wreath and portrait closely resemble those upon the Braided Hair half cent, issued from 1840 to 1848 as a proof-only type [2]. This half cent type (Fig. 7), though more closely resembling the Petite Head in its wreath and portrait design [3], exhibits the larger reverse lettering and the rotated positioning of the stars and date relative to the bust that would be seen on the Mature Head cent.

Figure 7: Braided Hair Half Cent

The engraved marks at the top of the portrait also indicate that the discovery coin represents a preliminary stage of the redesign. Fig. 8 shows that the hair curl on Liberty's head intersects the upper edge of the coronet just above the "I" of LIBERTY on the Petite Head portrait, and the contour of the hair is flat at the top. (The same is true of the Braided Hair half cent). The engraved marks show an increased height of the coronet, as seen on the adopted Mature Head portrait, but the hair remains flat at the top and the intersection point remains the same. The final adopted Mature Head portrait has a new, rounded hair contour and the intersection point has moved forward to between the "L" and "I".  As with the wreath, the portrait on the engraved discovery coin guided the general dimensions of the new design, but preceded the final engraving work.

Figure 8: Upper Hair Curl
(from top to bottom: Petite Head, Mature Head, half cent, and engraved)
 

Thus, it is most reasonable to conclude that the discovery piece was manufactured and engraved some time during calendar year 1843, before the Mature Head design was finalized.  What remains to be established is the identity of the engraver and the reason the piece was created. Was Christian Gobrecht, the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint at this time, in fact the creator?

To address this, the methods of die production employed by the Mint in the early 1840s should first be discussed. The final working dies were the product of a long process. First, a master die was prepared in softened steel. This preparation could take the form of hand-engraving of the design, of transference of the design to the die via the use of a Contamin pantograph [4], or of imprinting the die with punches containing certain design elements, such as a portrait, a wreath, lettering, or an array of stars. After the master die hardened, it was used to impress a steel hub, which in turn was used to impress multiple steel dies, to be used to strike the coins themselves [5]. As a final step prior to their usage, these coin dies would be imprinted with a date punch.

The processes occurring prior to the creation of the master die, however, remain fairly indeterminate. Contemporary documentation surrounding the designing of coinage and development of pattern issues in this period is essentially nonexistent, in part because such procedures were unique to the styles of individual engravers and generally were kept private even among mint officials. As a result, very little physical evidence is retained of the precise methods Gobrecht may have employed in the creation of new coinage during his time at the Philadelphia Mint. Thus, it is unclear whether such an operation as this engraved model would have routine for the development of remodeled coinage, or if this was the singular instance of its application. It is not inconceivable that during previous numismatic design changes or as part of his standard design process Gobrecht may have made use of this same technique and that any such engraved pieces were consequently lost or destroyed.

The sole piece of documented correspondence that seems to be available regarding any engraving or diesinking work performed at the Mint in the year 1843 is a letter from Gobrecht to Robert M. Patterson, Director of the United States Mint, in November of that year, relating that “the weather being disagreeable this morning, I shall not come to the Mint. Enclosed I send the key of my drawer, in which you will find two half dollar tail dies, which, if intended for our Mint, are finished – one pair half eagle dies, and one pair turned half dollar dies, not finished. Having brought home with me yesterday the date punches, I am fully prepared to finish the last named dies, if they are wanted.” [6] Thus, there is direct evidence that Gobrecht was performing diesinking work in 1843, even if it was simply adding dates to unfinished dies (though his mention of the two “tail” half dollar dies would seem to indicate that he was adding hand-engraved finishing touches to the dies as well, since the date is not located on the reverse and he states that they are finished “if intended for our Mint”; i.e., they were not yet given mintmarks).

What of the possibility that this piece was produced by a secondary or assistant engraver at the Mint? In a letter dated August 28ᵗʰ, 1840, one day after the death of Chief Engraver William Kneass, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson details the following to President Martin Van Buren, regarding the appointment of a replacement for the newly vacant position:

I recommend, very respectfully, but without hesitation, that the vacant office should be supplied by the appointment of Christian F. Gobrecht, who is the present Assistant Engraver, and has filled this place for four years. Mr. Gobrecht is an artist of great skill and industry, and, in consequence of the low state of health of Mr. Kneass, has, for a long time, performed nearly all the duties of Engraver. His personal character is altogether unexceptionable.
 
If this appointment be made, I think it will not be necessary or expedient to supply the place of Assistant Engraver;—as our improvements in the mechanical means of multiplying dies have greatly diminished the labor formerly required of the Engraver.  [7]
 

In an accompanying letter of this date, addressed to Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, Patterson again stresses that “the whole duties can now be performed by one engraver, with the aid of an able mechanician, Mr. [Joseph] Saxton, already in our employment . . .” [8] Evidently, Patterson felt at this time that given the capabilities Gobrecht had demonstrated over the course of his employment, it would not be unsuitable to entrust him solely with the engraving duties. Due to the expressed lack of desire for a secondary engraver, and the corresponding lack of any mention of a secondary engraver in the 1843 Register of all Officers and Agents [9], realistically the only possible artist would be Gobrecht himself; designating the task to another employee would be not only impractical but indeed likely impossible. If one is to accept that Gobrecht was the engraver of the Mature Head design as a whole, as one very safely may, then there would seem no other culprit for the engraving of the model.

So far in this article it has only been mentioned in passing that the engraved areas of this piece are also traced in black ink, a technique often seen employed on prize medals in order to make hand-engraved details more visually apparent. Because of how carefully this piece appears to have been stored, and perhaps due to the relatively few hands it has passed through since its creation, much of the original ink remains.

The inking is performed over both faces of the piece, but only over the areas of the final engraved design and the corresponding guidelines, and not upon several engraved areas upon the obverse that have been scratched over. For instance, there is a large scratch upon the cheek of the portrait; this is in fact the cancelling of a continuous rim-to-rim horizontal guideline that is located at a slight angle to the inked-in "final" horizontal guideline, beginning one bead below it at the left rim and three beads above it at the right (Fig. 9). Additionally, counterclockwise to nearly every engraved circular “star,” there exists the faint remnant of a similar circle from what would appear to be an original mismeasurement of their proper locations, and down near the area of the rectangular grid lines indicating the placement of the new date, there are some botched lines where the engraver evidently miscalculated and corrected himself. For the most part, the details of the final design are etched quite deeply into the surface, the result of careful retracings of the blade over the engraved areas. This was likely performed after the entire design was engraved, as the “mistakes” generally do not exhibit such depth.

Figure 9: Cancelled Horizontal Guideline

By mapping out all of the engraved areas upon the obverse face that are either scratched over or have not been inked over (the reverse displays no such areas), a rough layout of an initial design that was engraved upon the coin may be constructed (Fig. 10).

Figure 10: Initial Engraved Obverse Detail

Evidently, midway through the engraving process, the engraver decided to forfeit this initial design and re-engrave it entirely in a slightly clockwise position from the original. In the initial engraved layout, the horizontal and vertical guidelines are not perpendicular, as they are in the final layout (Fig. 11). It would appear that the horizontal guideline represents the rotation of the stars; in both the initial and final layouts, the horizontal guideline lines up precisely with the corresponding engraved stars, with the topmost star directly centered above the midpoint of the guideline. The vertical guideline would seem to represent the rotation of the portrait, which it correlates with in the final layout. So why is the initial vertical guideline not perpendicular to the initial horizontal guideline, as it is in the final design?

Figure 11: Final Engraved Obverse Detail

Looking closer at the "initial" vertical guideline (which may be viewed unobscured in Fig. 9), it is noticeably different from the other cancelled lines. It is engraved deeper, and is only scratched out in the field above the portrait rather than over its whole length. It is also, as discussed, in a quite different position relative to the initial horizontal guideline in relation to how the two lines appear in the final design, and is in fact quite nearer to the final vertical guideline. Additionally, if the portrait in the initial design were to be placed using this line as a guide, the truncation would overlap with the date below. Thus it would appear that this vertical guideline was made while engraving the second and final design, after the first had already been scratched over. It would seem that after going about halfway down the face of the coin, the engraver realized he was off by a hair, stopped, and recreated the line at a slightly counterclockwise position.

Chronologically, it would seem that the engraver first created the horizontal guideline, then the corresponding stars, then the date box, before scratching over his work and beginning the process over. At first glance this might seem illogical. Since the arrangement of the stars and date are identical relative to one another in the initial and final engravings, one would think there would be no need to stop the process and re-engrave the entire design at this point, and that instead the portrait could simply be engraved at a slightly counterclockwise angle to match the initial engraved layout of the stars and date. The key lies in that there is a reverse to this coin, and that the obverse and reverse of the coin are positioned at a 180° rotation to one another. If Gobrecht had continued with the initial design, the date and stars would not have been centered opposite the reverse design. In the final engraved design, they are aligned.

In sum, the sequence of the obverse engraving work and Gobrecht’s thought process may be delineated as follows:

1) Engraving of the horizontal guideline and large circular guidelines (to place the stars) as well as the corresponding stars and date box.
2) Perceiving that the engraved design is not centered opposite the reverse design. 
3) Cancelling of all prior engraving detail save for the large circular guidelines, which remain in the same position in the final engraved design.
4) Re-engraving of the horizontal guideline, corresponding stars, and date box. 
5) Engraving of the vertical guideline.
6) Cancelling and re-engraving of the vertical guideline. 
7) Engraving of the portrait, using the repositioned vertical guideline as a reference.

Figure 12: Above, the die punch alignment process (image courtesy of Bill Eckberg); below, the leftover impressions from the compass upon the die as seen upon struck coinage: from left to right, central dot upon reverse of Coronet Head cent, and remnants of circular guidelines upon proof 1834 half eagle.

The large circular guidelines that appear upon both faces are very telling in terms of the origin and purpose of this piece. The compass-guided alignment process we see here is in fact not a novel development by the U.S. Mint. In A Guide Book of United States Gold Dollars, Q. David Bowers describes the process by which dies were created: ". . . a metal compass or scribe was placed at the center of the hub die, and tiny circles were scratched around the periphery to serve as guidelines. Then, on the obverse die 13 stars were punched in by hand, and on the reverse die, lettering was placed around the periphery." In other words, prior to using die punches to stamp in sections of the design such as the stars and lettering, a compass or scribe was used to hand-engrave light circular guidelines around the face of the master die in order to indicate where these punches would be placed. This technique was employed upon the dies of early United States coinage as a whole, though collectors of cents and half cents may be especially familiar with it due to the central dot present upon many earlier issues, the result of the compass digging into the die during the alignment process. Since the engraving work upon the master die is recessed, the dot is raised upon struck coinage [10].

Figure 13: Circular guidelines (in blue) and central indentation from compass

This system of compass-etched circular guidelines is exactly that used upon the engraved model. The guidelines are highlighted above in blue, with arrows indicating where the central point of the compass created an indented mark upon the surface. Though there were of course no die punches used upon this piece, the purpose for the usage of this method is essentially the same — only instead of punching in the design elements, they were hand-engraved. This similarity provides another piece of evidence supporting the origin of the engraving with an employee of the Mint.

Due to this piece thus demonstrating evidence of measurements performed directly on the surface of the coin itself, via the guidelines and compass marks, it may be inferred that the engraving was not traced onto the surface using the aid of a design printed on paper, but rather that the design was laid out on the coin using the coin itself as a template.

Why use a struck coin as a model for laying out a fresh design? Given that the Mature Head style is in its most basic form a rotated, adjusted, and resized version of the earlier Petite Head style, it is easy to see why engraving the design upon a struck piece would serve as a useful comparison of the proposed and existing types and a convenient visual aid for the process of finalizing the new design and creating the master hubs. This hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that the engraver had the foresight and care to center his compass upon the coin using the beaded rims as a reference, rather than the edges of the planchet itself. The latter method, though the simpler to perform, would have been counterintuitive for such a comparison, as the obverse of the piece is positioned mildly off-center within the rims and thus would result in an engraving slightly off-kilter to the struck devices. Thus, we cannot simply write off this piece as a sort of sketch of the new design, indistinguishable from one done on paper except in terms of the medium. Rather, there was clearly a reason for using a coin, and a struck coin at that, for the purposes of this project. Additionally, such care and planning must be attributed to an engraver with ample experience in his craft.

One potential theory is that this piece was presented by Gobrecht to Mint Director Robert Patterson as a rendering of his proposed design changes to the cent, essentially functioning as a struck pattern is intended to; as director, Patterson would have been tasked with the approval of any changes to the design of United States coinage, and perhaps the alterations to the wreath, lettering, and portrait made upon the cent following the production of this engraving were the result of decisions arrived upon by Patterson or Gobrecht during such a presentation. Since the differences between the Petite Head and the engraved design are in essence minor modifications to size and rotation, a mere sketch on paper of the proposed design might not suffice for a proper depiction of the suggested changes, as they would not be readily distinguishable without an on-hand comparison to the older style. Using a proof cent as a canvas for this engraving would be ideal for the purposes of such a comparison, as the struck detail of a proof is sharp, defined, and complete, allowing for a more precise template. Aesthetically, proofs also serve as an optimal medium for the intent of display or presentation, if this was the intended purpose.

Another explanation, and perhaps a more likely one, is that the piece was created by Gobrecht for his own personal usage in the planning and development of the Mature Head design, and not for use as presentation. Many Chief Engravers arose from professions of sculpture and other forms of artistry, but Gobrecht had a rich background in banknote, ornamental clockwork, and medal engraving, and engraving was the medium in which he would have felt most comfortable. While professional sketches of the new design might have been presented to the Director, as was typical, it would be logical that Gobrecht would return to the form most natural to him in his own personal work.

Figure 14: Strike Doubling and Tripling Upon Obverse Stars

Even for a proof, this piece has an admirably strong strike, especially given that some examples of the variety are found with quite soft impressions by comparison. The stars are crisp and full, the denticles bold and even, with no evidence of weakness throughout the entirety of the design; it would not be amiss to suggest that the level of detail exhibited by this piece is rivaled by only that of the very finest known proofs of the date. Stars nine through eleven upon the obverse exhibit noticeable doubling and even tripling from the die or planchet vibrating slightly during the strike (Fig. 14), a characteristic not found on other proof examples of the date to my knowledge; strike doubling upon proofs dated prior to 1858 is quite uncommon.

Given this disparity in strike quality, it may be inferred that the underlying proof cent was struck expressly for the purpose of this engraving, with the intentional extra sharpness to the devices allowing for an optimal template for comparison of the designs, a hypothesis that would seem to make some sense for this era of United States history in which proof coinage was very much struck on demand. On the other hand, perhaps the piece was recalled by the Mint because of the aforementioned strike doubling or for an unknown reason, and Gobrecht decided to make use of what would otherwise be a wasted coin. It is difficult to determine exactly what qualities the Mint considered to be unacceptable on proof coinage of this period, especially given the softness of strike upon other extant proofs (and, for example, such faults as the much more obvious die-sided doubling in the form of the “Small over Large 18” overdate present upon all proof cents of 1840), so perhaps a definite conclusion cannot be drawn.

Here the problem arises as to how best to categorize this piece within our commonly used numismatic terms. Stylistically, the engraved model is somewhat reminiscent of the grid-like composition of the Judd-A1836-4 (1836) white metal Gobrecht dollar splasher, in that it provides a measured layout for aligning the proposed design, but in truth there would appear to be virtually no suitable comparables throughout the field of American numismatics. The proposed issues, or patterns, that we know of today present complete, struck representations, rather than layouts engraved upon entirely distinct struck coins. Patterns that display mint-made hand-engraved design elements in any manner are far from typical; the sole other documented type may be the 1849 Judd-115/116 gold dollar patterns, which were hand-engraved by Chief Engraver James Longacre. Though the creation of these pieces may be similar in intent to the engraved model, both having been produced as representations of a proposed type, they are designated as patterns in the traditional sense because they exhibit a full, complete design layout upon a blank planchet.

It may be argued that because the engraved model does not offer a finalized design (for instance, the engraved stars are not truly stars, but circles representing where the stars would be situated), it cannot justifiably be called a pattern in the traditional sense. For a more specific and precise term, the most apt title seems to be something along the lines of “Engraved Design Layout Model”, placing it within its own category in the numismatic field; it certainly cannot be categorized as one of the other various terms sometimes grouped together with patterns: die trials, hub trials, or splashers.

When met with a piece such as this, one of the first questions one must attempt to address is, “When could this have been created?” In the face of what has so far been observed about the piece, and armed with the knowledge that it would be senseless to damage a proof coin as rare as this and in so convoluted a fashion, even the consideration of inauthenticity or of a post-mint engraving might seem absurd. Even so, it is important nonetheless to diligently examine this as a possibility.

Though there are excessively few known proof 1843 large cents, there is little written documentation regarding this specific example. However, a census of proof Braided Hair large cents in the January 1992 edition of Penny-Wise numismatic journal [11] lists this specimen as “Net-20, Engraved”, as assessed by Bob Grellman, and lists “JRF-Matthews” as a provenance. Prior to this mention, the piece was acquired by collector Robert E. Matthews from John R. Frankenfield on January 7th, 1990, according to the Matthews estate. Frankenfield himself purchased the piece for $1,540 from the 1987 Harmer Rooke Numismatists, Ltd., auction of the William Beaver Chamberlin collection, where it is listed and imaged as Lot 66 (Fig. 14). It is noted within the auction catalogue that Frankenfield assisted in the attribution of the piece. For three decades after 1990, the piece would remain in the possession of Robert E. Matthews and the Matthews estate until the author’s acquisition in 2020.

Figure 15: Excerpt from 1987 Harmer Rooke Auction Catalog

William Beaver Chamberlin was a Philadelphia coal dealer born in Danville, Pennsylvania, on August 2, 1865, with an ancestry dating back to 17th-century New England. Chamberlin was a collector of large cents by date and major variety, and, according to a short biography in the Harmer Rooke auction catalogue, purchased them in full from the prominent Philadelphia coin dealer, Joseph Colvin Randall, Jr. from 1891 to roughly 1901. In this era, Braided Hair large cents had not yet been broken down into great detail by individual die variety, and 1843 cents in particular were mainly grouped under the major varieties that we now call the Petite Head with Small Letters, the Petite Head with Large Letters (a mismatching of one of the new Mature Head reverse dies with one of the leftover Petite Head obverses), and the Mature Head, the present coin occupying the 1843 Petite Head, Small Letters spot in Chamberlin’s collection. Chamberlin ceased collecting large cents entirely upon Randall's death in 1901, and following his own passing in 1942, his coins remained in the hands of his heirs until they were put to auction in 1987. Thus it may be safely concluded that this particular piece was acquired by Chamberlin in the last decade of the 19th century, and likely from Joseph Colvin Randall, Jr. himself.

Joseph Colvin Randall, Jr. (1832–1901) was a prestigious and well-connected Philadelphia coin dealer who purchased coinage directly from the Mint from his youth onward, owning numerous famed rarities over the course of his life and amounting what is now the core proof gold collection of the American Numismatic Society. If one is to assume that Chamberlin purchased this piece from Randall, it becomes many times more likely that it is a Gobrecht artifact, as Randall would have likely acquired it himself directly from the Mint. It certainly cannot have strayed far from the Mint before ending up in the hands of either Randall or Chamberlin, both of whom were located nearby. At the very least, it seems to be the case that aside from the author, the engraved model has seen the hands of only three other owners in approximately 120 years, in at least two cases (Chamberlin and Matthews) selling in estate sales posthumously —  a claim that the superb surface condition of the coin can attest to, despite it having remained free of any slabs until very recently, and which explains the lack of documentation or proper identification of this piece until recently.

The question arises: Why would such a piece survive? There would seem to be no truly comparable pieces in the field of American numismatics, so possibly such items, if a standard component of Gobrecht’s design process, were not meant to leave the Mint. One possibility is that the piece was passed on by Gobrecht to his heirs and eventually sold to a dealer. Perhaps the most probable theory is that Gobrecht, upon his death in 1844, simply left the piece behind at the Mint, where its significance was not realized and where it would stay until eventually being sold to Randall or another dealer as a damaged proof.

It is possible that somewhere among the hundreds of thousands of pages of hand-written Mint correspondence from the fifty-odd years between the striking of this piece and Chamberlin’s acquisition, there exists a note detailing the sale of an engraved proof 1843 cent to Randall or another Philadelphia dealer, but the sales of individual pieces were generally not recorded in detail by the Mint until the turn of the century. Perhaps Chamberlin’s or Randall’s purchase records lie hidden away in some library archive, waiting to be unearthed. Even as the present understanding of this piece stands, however, its significance is unquestionable, among other reasons as the first concrete evidence regarding the exact date of issue of any of the proof Braided Hair large cents dated 1840 to 1849. Given that it was demonstrably engraved prior to the inception of the Mature Head design, it must have been struck in 1843, and given that it is engraved upon an example of the Newcomb-14 variety, this variety must be dated to 1843 as a whole, and is not a restrike as some have suggested. In addition, it is a source of rare insight into the opaque nature of the design processes employed by the still-new United States Mint, a form of quasi-pattern hailing from a span of nearly a decade in which pattern coins are essentially unknown, an incomparable piece of memorabilia as a coin not simply struck by, but in all likelihood engraved by hand by Christian Gobrecht himself, and finally perhaps the sole piece of contemporary evidence regarding the timing and planning of the adoption of the Mature Head design.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Walter Breen posits that several proof-only varieties in the series, including the 1843 N-14, were coined in 1850 upon the occasion of the visit of a French dignitary, Alexandre Vattemare (see the July 1976 edition of Penny-Wise, Vol. X, p. 190). However, this claim may be readily disputed: Vattemare’s Collection de Monnaies et Médailles de l'Amérique du Nord de 1652 à 1858, published in 1861, makes no mention of such an occurrence, and while Vattemare’s collection (now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) does contain proof examples of the cents of 1840-1842, those dated 1843 through 1849 are business strikes.

[2] There is debate regarding the actual first year of mintage of Braided Hair half cents dated 1840 to 1848, with some suggesting that even so-called "Original" proof strikes were backdated for collectors.

[3] As discussed in Eckberg, Bill. 2020. “The Large Cent Heads, 1796-1857”. Penny-Wise, Vol. LIV, pp. 4-11.

[4] A machine used to trace three-dimensional patterns from one surface and re-engrave them upon another, introduced to the Mint in 1836 by employee Franklin Peale after a visit to the Paris Mint. A description of the function and operation of the Contamin pantograph at the Mint appears in the December 1861 to May 1862 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Vol. 24, Issue 139, New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1862, pp. 23-24), therein referred to as a transfer or reducing lathe.

[5] Eckfeldt, Jacob R.; DuBois, William E.; Saxton, Joseph. A Manual of Gold and Silver Coins of All Nations, Struck Within the Past Century, pp. 13-14. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Published by the Assay Office of the Mint, 1842.

[6] National Archives, RG 104: Inventory Entry 1 – General Correspondence, Box 22, p. 408

[7] National Archives, RG 104: Inventory Entry 216 – Branch Mint Correspondence, Vol. 5, No. 84

[8] National Archives, RG 104: Inventory Entry 216 – Branch Mint Correspondence, Vol. 5, No. 82

[9] Register of All Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States ...: 1843. Department of State.

[10] Eckberg, Bill. 2020. “The Large Cent Heads, 1796-1857”. Penny-Wise, Vol. LIV, pp. 4-11.

[11] Loring, Denis. 1992. “United States Proof Large Cents, Part 2 (1840-1857)”. Penny-Wise, Vol. XXVI, pp. 4-22.

 

 

 

Special thanks to Roger Burdette, John Dannreuther, Bill Eckberg, Bob Grellman, Craig Sholley, and Saul Teichman for lending me their time, energy, and expertise over the course of my research.

 

A version of this article was first published in the July 2020 edition of EAC's Penny-Wise journal.