Remarkable 1793 Chain Cent, AU55
1793 Chain 1C AMERICA AU55 PCGS. CAC. S-3, B-4, Low R.3. Die
State III. The 1793-dated half cents and cents were the first
coinage struck in the newly completed U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
The 1792 silver half dismes were an officially authorized coinage,
but it was apparently struck in the basement of sawmaker John
Harper before the Mint buildings were completed.
Tied for Sixth in the Condition Census
The first Mint Director, David Rittenhouse, hired Henry Voigt as chief coiner and engraver pro tem, according to a letter from Rittenhouse to George Washington dated July 9, 1792, accepting the Mint directorship. Voigt was perfectly competent as a coiner, but he was no engraver. It was hoped for a time that the incredibly talented and equally obstreperous Swiss engraver, Jean Pierre Droz, would take the engraver position. But by the time the Mint Act of April 2, 1792 was passed, Droz was already out of the picture. (The contract coiners Matthew Boulton and James Watt had extensive experience with Droz at their Soho Mint in Birmingham and finally had enough, dismissing him and saying he had a "troublesome disposition.")
The copper coinage of 1793 and most of 1794 was due to the so-called "coinage impediment," the requirement that the Mint's assayer and chief coiner, Albion Cox and Voigt, respectively, each post surety bonds of $10,000. The bonds were reduced and/or satisfied only in late 1794, at which time the Mint began coinage of silver half dollars and dollars. Gold coins--half eagles and eagles--would follow in 1795.
The Breen large cent Encyclopedia notes of the 1793 Chain cents:
"These were the first cents made pursuant to the Act of January 14, 1793 at the new legal weight of 208 grains (13.48 grams), reduced from an impossibly high 264 grains (17.11 grams). They are the first mass production coins in any metal issued by the federal government on its own machinery, and within its own premises. For all practical purposes, these are the first regular issue United States coins."
After the January 1793 standard was set, Voigt did his best with the Chain cent die engraving, following vain attempts to find a competent engraver. Voigt completed the dies in February, and the 36,103 Chain cents were struck in eight recorded deliveries in February and March 1793--possibly beginning ceremonially on Washington's birthday, February 22.
The Chain cents, unfortunately, were a bad beginning for an institution that would be politically troubled for much of its first four decades. They served merely to demonstrate Voigt's incapacity for die-engraving. The reception to the Chain cents ranged from chilly to hostile.
Finally the talented American engraver Joseph Wright was engaged, but his tenure at the Mint would be short-lived, as he succumbed to yellow fever in September 1793, after completing the device punches for the 1793 Liberty Cap cents.
The 1793 Chain cents are of such momentous importance today--particularly high-grade specimens such as the present example--that it is easy to forget what a limited production window this first U.S. cent type had at "Ye Olde Mint." The coinage window was literally of less than two weeks' duration, according to the Breen series reference.
The Sheldon-3, Breen-4 die pairing is by far the most available of the five known. The date is closely spaced, and the R of LIBERTY leans right, nearly touching the T at its right base. The present piece is one of six coins tied for sixth place in Del Bland's Condition Census: 63-61-55 (3)-45 (6). The color overall is an even, medium olive and light steel-brown. The definition is quite sharp throughout, especially in the recesses of the hair. The central mass is flat, as usual, and as always, the reverse is stronger than the obverse.
Lester Merkin wrote of this piece in its 1967 appearance:
"Obv. shows a small flattened area in very center where the design was not fully struck up and where genuine cabinet friction occurred (the piece was evidently stored with its remarkably splendid reverse uppermost); rev. is well above 50 grade and flawless. One of the most beautiful Chain cents we have had the pleasure of viewing."
There are two notable marks, both in the right obverse field, with other faint, old scratches hidden in the hair detail. The reverse is indeed choice. MRB XF45.
Ex: Lester Merkin (3/1967), lot 150; Dr. E. Yale Clarke (Stack's, 10/1975), lot 38; to "EMG" per Del Bland's Condition Census.
From The Dr. and Mrs. Claude Davis Collection.(Registry values: N7079) (NGC ID# 223F, PCGS# 1341)
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