1792 Birch Cent, Judd-5, MS61 Brown
1792 P1C Birch Cent, Judd-5, Pollock-6 MS61 Brown NGC. 262.2
grains. Struck to the weight standard of the April 2, 1792 Mint
Act, this high grade Birch cent is by far the finer of the two
known specimens of this variety. Once again, the Partrick
collection combines ultra-rarity with the highest quality that can
be attained for the issue.
Finer of Only Two Pieces Known
The Birch Cent Engraver
The identity of the engraver Birch is one of the oldest riddles in American numismatics. For that matter, none of the engravers of the 1792 patterns are known with much certainty, with the exception of the Eagle-on-Globe quarters (Judd-12 and Judd-13), for which there is evidence associated with the artist Joseph Wright. The prominent clue on the truncation of Liberty, BIRCH, should ostensibly resolve the issue for the Birch cents, but, even after 150 years of numismatic investigation, the mystery remains. A longstanding speculation, and a natural guess, has been the miniature painter and enamellist William Russell Birch (1755-1834).
Birch was a socially connected painter in Philadelphia especially known for portrait enamels of Washington based on the iconic Gilbert Stuart painting. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds the manuscript of Birch's autobiography, and in 2011 this document was published in William Birch: Picturing the American Scene. Unfortunately, Birch did not emigrate from Britain to the United States until October 1794. Carl Carlson, writing in the March 1982 Numismatist, was aware of the late emigration date but suggested that Birch made one or more visits to the United States in 1792.
Birch's autobiography argues against this. Although coverage of the period from 1791 to 1794 is thin, there is no discussion of the Mint in Philadelphia or die engraving. Furthermore, Birch's autobiography discusses letters of recommendation prior to the 1794 voyage. Had Birch already traveled in the United States and established contacts at the Mint, these would have been unnecessary. Birch did carry one letter of recommendation from the celebrated painter Benjamin West and this was sufficient to secure his initial employment in Philadelphia. Birch's first patron in America was William Bingham, whose wife, Anne Willing Bingham, has traditionally been cited as the model for the 1796 half dollar. (Researcher R. W. Julian disagrees with this idea and argues that the choice of Anne Willing Bingham, a Federalist ally of Washington, would have been politically inflammatory.)
William Birch seems to have been in the right place at the wrong time. But the more convincing case against Birch is found in his overall portfolio. Birch simply was not involved in the plastic arts. He painted, executed enamels, published collections of print engravings, and eventually settled into the occupation of landscape architect. In this capacity he designed the estates and gardens of "country seats," properties created by American elites to escape the bustle of nearby cities. If William Russell Birch had any involvement with the Birch cents, it was an isolated incident that escaped his autobiography.
Speculation has also fallen on Birch's son Thomas Birch (1779-1851). Thomas Birch was an accomplished marine painter, but placing him in Philadelphia, as a 13-year old engraving the Birch cent dies, stretches the known facts beyond a credible level.
In the December 2012 Numismatist, R. W. Julian noted a "Bob Birch" in the expense records of the Chief Coiner, Henry Voigt, for 1793. The payments, several dollars in total, are "on account," "for services," and "for medicine," suggesting that Birch was in some way connected with the care of the horses used to operate the rolling mill. Indeed, the July 20th entry, for one dollar ("Bob Birch on account"), is followed immediately by the July 22nd entry, for eight cents, "Ferriage for the hostler [horse groom or stableman]." The Birch entries were duly recorded and then later crossed out on the final quarterly accounts, for reasons unknown. This places a Birch in the Mint but says nothing about engraving dies in 1792.
Philadelphia city directories reveal only a Mathias Birch (alternately rendered "Matthew Burch"), "ship joiner" during the period of interest. From these scant records in the 1790s, the record is silent on the identity of Birch until 1843. In that year, Jonas McClintock, melter and refiner at the Mint, wrote the following in reference to 1791 and 1792 Washington cents, in the Pittsburgh Morning Chronicle:
"...Mr. Jno. Harper, (an extensive manufacturer of saws), then located on the corner of Sixth and Cherry streets, caused dies to be engraved under the direction of Mr. Robt. Birch, and which were it is believed, executed, by a German artist in his employment, with the exception of the lettering, which in all probability was done by himself."
McClintock (1808-1879) was almost certainly reciting oral history, and his most likely source was the retired Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt, who maintained an office at the Mint until his death in 1852. McClintock (or Eckfeldt) was mistaken on the matter of the 1791 Washington cents, as R. W. Julian, writing in Seaby's Coin and Medal Bulletin (October and November, 1962), demonstrated these originated in Birmingham, England, not Philadelphia. That aside, "Robert Birch" now becomes a possible identity for the enigmatic Birch. Although McClintock did not specifically mention the Birch cents, Philadelphia was a small town, and likely supported only a single Birch in the die-sinking business.
Don Taxay, in The U.S. Mint and Coinage (1966) identified a "B. Birch" working out of New York in the 1780s:
"Birch had evidently come to America from England after the Revolution. On November 25, 1784, he advertised his work in the New York Packet as follows:
'Likenesses (simply imitative of the originals) are painted in crayons, at one guinea each; with elegant oval frames included. Seals and Copperplates, Cyphers, Crests, Toys, Trifles, &c. Engraved. Hair Devices set in Rings, Lockets, &c. Watches Repaired: And any wheel, Arbor, Pevot, Spring, Cock, Slide, Figure-piece, verge, &c. made new and fitted. Watch glasses at one shilling each, and a quantity to be sold cheap for ready cash. Any curious Punch or Instrument made in steel, iron brass, &c. By B. Birch, from London.'"
Note that "Robert Birch" is not specifically identified in the Packet, only "B. Birch." Taxay suggests the name "Robert 'Bob' Birch," and apparently felt that any qualified artisan with a closely matching name was a possibility. Taxay's suggestion is plausible but far from confirmed. Following Taxay, Carl Carlson took the next stab at identifying Birch in the March 1982 Numismatist. Carlson centered on William Russell Birch and apparently did not have access to the Birch autobiography discussed above. From there the trail stops and awaits the efforts of future researchers.
1792 Birch Cent (Judd-5) Roster
The Judd-5 Birch cent is represented by only two specimens. The present sale constitutes only the seventh opportunity in history to acquire an example of the variety at public auction and only the fourth opportunity to acquire the present coin, which is considerably the finer of the two. The Partrick collection of 1792 patterns boasts an array of ultra-low population specimens, and, once dispersed, becomes a part of numismatic history that is not likely to be repeated.
1. MS61 Brown NGC. 262.2 grains. San Francisco Collector (Stack's, 5/1946), lot 742; Theodore Grand (Stack's, 12/1947), lot 16, realized $800; Hollinbeck Stamp and Coin Company private sale (1956); Norweb Collection (Bowers & Merena, 11/1988), lot 3395, realized $59,400; Donald Groves Partrick; the present coin.
2. Fair 2 NGC. 240.6 grains. Hollinbeck-Kagin (10/1958), lot 1392; Loye Lauder (William Doyle Galleries, 12/1983), lot 235, realized $3,200; Stack's private treaty transaction (1983); Fritz Weber; Denis Loring; Stack's; Lemus Collection / Queller Family Part Two (Heritage Signature, 1/2009), lot 1501, realized $86,250; Denis W. Loring and Donna Levin. This coin exhibits about half of the obverse lettering and is worn smooth on the reverse.
Pleasing brown color highlights this well-detailed example of the Judd-5 Birch cent. There is a touch of softness in Liberty's curls and some strike weakness on the lettering to the right of Liberty. The protected areas of the obverse, among the letters and Liberty's hair, contrast nicely with the lighter fields. The obverse right field exhibits what appears to be, at first glance, a patchwork of light scratches. However, upon further examination, much of this disturbance is likely the result of a defective planchet. The planchet is centered and reveals sharp dentilation. The edge lettering reads TO BE ESTEEMED BE USEFUL *, with the crucial single star distinguishing this from the more common Judd-4 Birch cent with the two star edge. Die alignment is 180 degrees (coin turn). The reverse is virtually perfect for the grade, with the slightly uneven engraving of ONE CENT adding to the charm of this exceptionally desirable specimen of the early Mint. (NGC ID# BFH4, PCGS# 11014)
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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