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Collecting Large Cents

collecting-large-centsLarge cents are one of America's most widely collected series of copper coins. This is due, in part, to their large size, attractive designs, and general affordability, particularly when circulated examples form the basis of the collection. Large cents were minted from 1793 to 1857 and utilized seven basic designs:

  • Flowing Hair - 1793 only
  • Liberty Cap - 1793 to 1796
  • Draped Bust - 1796 to 1807
  • Classic Head - 1808 to 1814
  • Matron Head - 1816 to 1836
  • Modified Matron Head - 1837 to 1839
  • Braided Hair - 1839 to 1857

Within the seven basic types, large cents are often collected by date. A complete date set is an easily obtainable goal within moderate budget constraints. Key dates include the 1793, 1799, and 1804. Of course, there are many different die pairings and Guidebook varieties. As a collection advances, various interesting varieties are often added; several different reverses found in 1796, overdates (often dies were recycled by simply punching a new digit over a previous year's digit in the date) such as 1798/7 or 1807/6, and errors like the 1801 with the fraction on the reverse reading 1/000 instead of 1/100. Large cents are often attributed by Sheldon or Newcomb numbers; there are literally hundreds of these indicating different die pairings used throughout the years of production. Some years featured many different die varieties, some years used only one die pairing for the entire production. More advanced collectors frequently further expand their holdings by collecting large cents by Sheldon and/or Newcomb varieties.

Coin grading is the process by which one attempts to evaluate the condition of a coin, in this case a large cent. The "grade" or condition tremendously impacts the value of that coin, and is determined by several factors. The initial condition of the planchet (the blank coin before it was struck) often is a significant issue for this series. Many early U.S. large cents, notably the Classic Heads of 1808 -1814 were often struck on poorly prepared or initially corroded planchets. The condition of the coining dies also affected the quality of the coin that was produced. The Mint often used badly worn dies far past their life expectancy, as was the case of some 1829 large cents. This resulted in very "flat" strikes, with many of the coin's details being poorly defined even on an Uncirculated example.

The obvious reason that a coin's grade diminishes is because it entered circulation for a period of time resulting in a gradual loss of detail. Other factors can affect a coin's grade such as corrosion and pitting that has accumulated from exposure to environmental factors, or other detractions such as improper cleaning, holes from jewelry mounts, and surface graffiti. Over the years, an alpha-numeric grading scale has emerged for transactions involving U.S. coins. This system was the direct result of large cent author and authority Dr. William Sheldon, who tried to more accurately describe his large cent collection. This scale runs from 1 to 70, with 70 being "perfect." All numbers of 60 and over apply to coins that are considered to be in "Mint State, or Uncirculated" conditions. Here is the breakdown:

  • Poor-1
  • Fair-2
  • About Good-3
  • Good 4-6 Very Good 8-10
  • Fine 12-15
  • Very Fine 20-35
  • Extremely Fine 40-45
  • About Uncirculated 50-58
  • Uncirculated or Mint State MS 60-70

Presently, there are a number of prominent third party grading services that assign these alpha-numeric grades to large cents (and other U.S. coins as well). The three most prolific are PCGS, NGC, and ANACS. These firms are highly respected and have stood the test of time with their grading practices. If requested, in addition to grading your coin, these services will attribute it by die variety with the proper Sheldon or Newcomb number. Some of the die pairings are very common, some are extremely rare with only one or two known specimens. Dr. Sheldon also designed a rarity scale based on known populations of a certain die pairing. All large cents sold or auctioned by Superior Galleries are attributed by die variety, thus a typical attribution will read, 1794 S-30, R.4 indicating there are 118 to 158 pieces known of this particular variety in all grades. Here is a listing of the Modified Sheldon Rarity Scale as it is now used:

Quantity Known
1501 or More
High R.1
Low R.2
High R.2
Low R.3
High R.3
Low R.4
High R.4
Low R.5
High R.5
Low R.6
High R.6
Low R.7
High R.7
Low R.8
High R.8
1 (Unique)

There are several excellent reference books that the prospective large cent collector will want to purchase. Some of these are currently out of print, but are generally available from numismatic booksellers, or on ebay.

A Guide Book of United States Coins (2009) by R.S. Yeoman, edited by Ken Bressett

Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents 1793-1814 by Walter Breen, Del Bland and Mark Borckardt

United States Large Cents 1793-1814 (Volume I) and 1816-1839 (Volume II) by William C. Noyes

The Die Varieties of United States Large Cents 1840-1857 by John R. Grellman, Jr.

Auction catalogs are also a rich source of information; the back issues of most Superior Elite Auction catalogs feature many important collections of large cents, and their descriptions. Contact Superior Galleries at for further information.

The most important organization for large cent collectors is the Early American Copper Society, where members are invited to submit articles for publication and to comment, pro and con, on articles already published. The EAC Convention is held in early spring. Meeting sites are rotated throughout the United States, and another meeting is held in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association Convention in the summer. This is one of the best ways for new members to become familiar with early coppers and to meet others who share similar interests. Generally speaking, many EAC members do not necessarily agree with grades that are assigned by the previously mentioned third party grading services, and assign their own grades to large cents. This is sometimes seen in some auction catalogs as a footnote to the description. Obviously, some controversy can develop as a result of this process, even among EAC members, as to the correct grade of a specific large cent. Beginners to the hobby should be careful observers of this practice, particularly when price becomes a consideration.

Large cent values are determined by three criteria: condition, rarity, and demand. Any collector, beginner or advanced, should always perform the necessary due-diligence by researching all available information about a particular coin or die variety BEFORE making a purchase. The numismatic staff at Dallas Gold and Silver Exchange is always available to help you make the correct decision. Fell free to contact us with any questions.

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