In the realm of coinage, there exists a peculiar little gem known as the bar cent. This unassuming piece of copper bears a simple design—a monogram of the USA on one side and 13 bars on the other. At first glance, you might mistake it for a token or trinket, but don’t let its unpretentious appearance fool you. The bar cent has a rich history and holds considerable value.
Back in the early days of the United States, there was a shortage of small coins. Great Britain, the reigning minting master, wasn’t producing many coins of low denominations, leaving the young nation scrambling for a solution. Enter George Wyon, an engraver extraordinaire who hailed from Germany but had settled in England. Wyon recognized the pressing need for small coinage and took matters into his own hands.
Drawing inspiration from the buttons adorning Continental Army uniforms, Wyon devised the design for the bar cent. He privately minted these curious coins in Birmingham, England, and shipped them across the Atlantic to New York for use in daily commerce. Although the bar cents lack a specific date, they were already circulating in late 1785.
The New Jersey Gazette, always an ardent observer of all things noteworthy, made note of these unusual coppers on November 12, 1785:
“A new and curious kind of coppers have lately made their appearance in New York, the novelty and bright gloss of which keeps them in circulation. These coppers are, in fact, similar to Continental buttons without eyes; on the one side are thirteen stripes and on the other U.S.A., as was usual on the soldiers’ buttons. If Congress does not take the establishment of a Mint into consideration … it is probable that the next coin which may come into circulation … will be the soldiers old pewter buttons, for they are nearly as variable as the coppers above described and hardly so plenty.”
While there are subtle differences between the obverse of the bar cent and the Continental Army buttons—the “S” on the coins is notably larger than the other letters—people commonly referred to these coins as “cents.” However, this nomenclature might be a tad off the mark. Bar cents were lighter than standard copper cents of the time and closely resembled the half cents that appeared eight years later. They were typically found on narrow planchets (the prepared metal discs for coin striking), with some denticles (the tooth-like projections around the edge) missing. A few larger planchet examples exist, but they are believed to be presentation pieces or souvenirs. Intriguingly, one bar cent was even struck over a 1780 Indian 1/2 anna coin issued during the Bengal presidency, adding a touch of legitimacy to its tale.
The Birmingham Mint, where the bar cents originated, also produced other coins during this period, such as theNova Constellatio coppers. Unlike the bar cents, most of these copper coins were heavier and featured edge lettering. But it’s the bar cent that truly stands out as a numismatic curiosity.
Fast forward to the present day, and the bar cent has become quite the sought-after collectible. The exact number of original bar cents minted remains unknown, but it is estimated that only around 200 have survived the test of time. More than 100 of these have received certification from third-party grading services, solidifying their status as valuable artifacts. Even in Good-04 condition, an authentic bar cent can fetch over $3,000 USD at auction. The most commonly encountered grades among certified pieces range from Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated.
NGC boasts two in MS65, one of which clinched the highest auction record to date—sold by Heritage Auctions in 2015 for a princely sum of $70,500. As for the MS66 specimens, they have yet to make their grand entrance onto the auction stage, leaving us in suspense regarding their potential value.
Of course, where there are treasures, there are also pirates. The realm of bar cents is no exception, as it has seen its fair share of counterfeit specimens. In the mid-1800s, a certain John Adams Bolen, a medallist and diesinker hailing from New York, made his mark by crafting replicas of colonial pieces, including the bar cent. To his credit, Bolen never intended to deceive the public, as he clearly labeled these replicas as such. However, he later expressed regret when he discovered that some unscrupulous individuals had artificially aged and passed off his replicas as genuine. Bolen’s replicas were meticulously produced, with 65 copper copies struck in 1862.
Bolen eventually sold the dies to William Elliott Woodward of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who proceeded to strike 12 silver replicas. These differed slightly from Bolen’s issues, leading us to suspect that Woodward made some tweaks to the dies. At some later point, the dies found their way into the hands of someone named Lovett, residing in New York. Replicas made from these dies were also crafted in nickel, brass, and tin, but the identity of their creator remains shrouded in mystery.
Now, let’s delve into the murky world of William Elliott Woodward. Originally a pharmacist by trade, Woodward dabbled in the realm of coin auctions, hosting them semi-annually. However, his character comes into question when we examine his association with the bar cent dies. In 1863 and 1864 alone, Woodward managed to sell multiple bar cents, listing five different types altogether.
Some he listed as original without any fuss. Others he attributed to Bolen, although an 1863 catalogue claimed that “the die and most of the impressions having been destroyed, these pieces are now rarer than the originals.” Yet, we know for a fact that the dies ended up in Lovett’s possession after Woodward. Thus, it’s highly unlikely that they were destroyed by 1863. Woodward also cataloged a few electrotypes as Bolen’s work.
The last two types listed by Woodward raise eyebrows and questions aplenty. On two occasions during those two years, he listed an “impression from the Bolen dies, in silver, very rare, only twelve struck.” We suspect that Woodward himself struck these coins, perhaps aiming to create a new “rarity.” Finally, he presented a “Bar Cent, U.S.A., original, unlike the usual type, in this the S. goes over the A., fine and very much rarer than the last.” The trademark of the Bolen dies is the S atop the A, whereas all genuine bar cents have the A on top. Since Woodward categorized other pieces as Bolen’s replicas, one can only conclude that he was well aware of this distinction.
Distinguishing genuine bar cents from counterfeits can be a daunting task, but there are certain telltale signs—though authentication is often necessary. Authentic bar cents feature the A on top of the S, a feature absent in most counterfeits, including Bolen’s replicas. Another notable diagnostic is a minuscule thorn-like protrusion on one of the reverse bars. Although the reverse technically lacks a top or bottom, this particular bar is typically considered the second from the top, and the thorn appears on the far right side. It extends downward and to the right, serving as an unmistakable identifier.