Collecting American coins: type vs variety vs…?

Through Mike Sherman for PCGS ……

Categorizing American coins into types, subtypes, major, minor, or subvarieties and matrix varieties is far from a straightforward process.

Some modifications (such as 1913 Type 1 and Nickel Buffalo Type 2) have long been recognized as major varieties, noted prominently in the Red book and included in almost all type coin albums.

Others, like the reverse “AMERI” of the 1793 chain cent, did not achieve full “variety” status in the Redbook, but were fully recognized as a distinct type in Q. David Bowers excellent Guide Book of United States Type Coins.

The question of what constitutes a separate “type” piece, versus a “variety” and even a “sub-variety” is a very gray area.

Take, for example, the 1838-1840 “No drapery” and ten cents. The “No Drapery” coin function that of Christian Gobrecht original Seated freedom design, with a slanted shield and without any drapery hanging from freedom left arm. Robert ball hughes the modified design that appeared in 1840 added drapery, a vertical shield, and many other changes to the portrait of Miss Liberty. In his Complete Encyclopedia of American and Colonial Coins, Walter Breen devoted considerable space to a scathing explanation of these “modifications”.

How many of his theories were true is a matter of debate, but he certainly made his feelings about it clear.

Although the Redbook notes this difference, it does not provide a unique variety for this change. Bowers’ Guide Book however, makes a clear distinction, placing them on separate pages and assigning them each unique WCG (Guide to Whitman coins) Numbers.

In future issues of PCGS Rare Coins Market Report, we take a look at a few of these inconsistencies and explore possible reasons why some seemingly minor edits achieve full variety status, while other, often more noticeable, changes have been largely ignored.

We’re going to start this series off with one of my favorites and what is probably the most ignored and underrated strain: the 1838 – $ 39 10 Liberty Head Eagle.

Collecting American coins: type vs variety vs…?  Image: PCGS.

Take a look at the two pieces above. Can you see any differences?

1838 – $ 39 10 Liberty Head Eagle

Why the Liberty Head 1838-39 eagle never achieved full variety status in any of the major numismatic references remains a mystery to me. The differences in the portrait on the obverse are easily apparent, even to the casual observer. Start with the truncation below the neckline, move to the hair covering the ear, then step back and watch the steep tilt of Miss Liberty’s head from the date.

Additionally, the lettering on the reverse side is larger on the Liberty Head eagle from 1838-39 (note that the change was made in 1839, so for that year the head styles and reverse lettering sizes were products.)

In my eyes at least, this is just as much a “change” as moving the buffalo from the “mound” to a “line” in 1913 on the nickel or removing one of the border lines from the trim in 1859. Both the aforementioned modifications are recognized as complete varieties in the Redbook and Bowers’ Guide Book of United States Type Coins, yet the differences between the eagles of 1838 and 1839 receive only a tiny footnote in the Redbook and only a brief mention in the last (third) edition of Bowers Guide Book.

Large letters (top) vs small letters (bottom). Images courtesy of PCGS.

So that leads us to wonder why this problem has been historically ignored as a separate type.

Due to their high value, gold coins have not traditionally been included in type coin albums made by Whitman and other major manufacturers. This contributed to the general ignorance of this variety, even among intermediate numismatists.

Second, these parts don’t come cheap (of course, the Small eagle draped bust halves from 1796-1797, but this reverse change is a slam dunk for a single type). But it doesn’t help that a fine example of the Liberty Head eagle from 1838-1839 is either a high four-digit coin or a low five-digit coin.

Finally, despite their fairly obvious obverse differences, nothing has really been added or subtracted from the design. You cannot indicate any change in lettering, currency, stars, arrows, or diameter which generally defines a distinct type or variety.

So how do you best define a distinct type or variety? Years ago, when I was working in stamp collecting, I came up with the “seven years” test.

Quite simply, I offered to put a stack of stamps in a room with a bunch of seven year olds and tell them to sort them according to how they looked. The resulting stacks were distinct “types” of stamps. Extending this to the coins, I think if you gave a few scrolls of mixed eagles 1838-1840 to this group (good luck finding the coins!) And tell the kids to sort these gold coins, they might. do it fairly quickly and easily – and probably accurately. i’m not sure Type II and Type III Three cents in silver could pass this test though.

Therefore, since I think these coins could pass the “seven years” test, I hope to see future editions of the Redbook (and Guide Book of United States Type Coins) give these coins the recognition they deserve. I think they certainly qualify for a separate variety designation and illustration as well. In subsequent articles on this topic, I will attempt to define more formally what could constitute a type, a subtype, and both major and minor varieties.

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This article is taken from the current January / February 2020 issue of Rare Coins Market Report. All current members of the PCGS Collectors Club will have free access to the Rare Coins Market Report. To purchase a single number or a one-year subscription, please visit RCMR Home page.

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