Gerry Fortin almost wrote the book on Liberty Seated dimes. Instead, in 2004, he launched a website called “The Definitive Resource for Liberty Seated Dime Variety Collectors” at seateddimevarieties.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame. The basis for Fortin’s deep knowledge of Liberty Seated dimes is his personal collection of some 1,500 coins in all the major design groups and varieties.
Like everybody else, I started collecting coins when I was probably around 10 years old—going to the bank, buying a roll of Lincoln cents, and trying to fill those Whitman folders. My focus was on Lincoln cents from 1909 through 1966. Then I moved up to Jefferson nickels, and I tried to find Buffalo nickels still in circulation coupled with some occasional pre-1965 silver.
I grew up in a relatively small town in Maine, and our family was definitely not middle class. My father had to work constantly just to pay the mortgage and our family’s expenses. My mother was a sales clerk at an old 5- and 10-cent store in the downtown area. With my parents busy trying to make ends meet, I had quite a bit of time on my hands, and I put much of that time into coin collecting—reading “Coin World” at the library, going through coin rolls, and generally getting tied up in coin collecting as a major hobby. My mother would aid my hobby by bringing home interesting coins she would find when she worked as the cashier.
By the time I was 15, I had moved on to other pursuits. I was more into rock ’n’ roll—this was the late ’60s. It was the time of the Vietnam War, the protests, and the music from San Francisco and the British invasion. I focused on music, put the coins away, and worked in a record shop for a few years during high school. I got involved in building stereo equipment and that subsequently led to a university education with a major in electrical engineering. I did not touch coins again until I was 31.
After graduating from the University of Maine, I went to work for IBM in East Fishkill, New York. This was during the early stages of the computer mainframe age. By 1978, IBM was building sophisticated mainframes, so I was involved in the production and testing of the bipolar chips that would drive them. Marriage occurred in 1980 followed by leaving IBM in 1985 and returning to Maine to work for Fairchild Semiconductor.
During the Christmas of 1986, my mother-in-law gave my wife and I a roll of Morgan dollars. That gift lit the collecting spark inside me once again. When I was a kid, I always dreamed of owning some Morgan dollars, but I was just too poor to afford them. I was collecting Lincoln pennies, Buffalo nickels, and occasionally Mercury dimes; to have a real Morgan dollar in my hand, let a lone a roll, was just incredible.
By 1986 my financial situation had improved, so I became hooked on coins again. For about a year after my mother-in-law’s gift, I went to local coin shows and started acquiring Morgan dollars in an attempt to build a complete set.
Collectors Weekly: How did that lead to your interest in Liberty Seated dimes?
Fortin: I quickly became bored with Morgan dollars because there were just so many available, and Morgans were plagued with “sliders,” which were advertised as mint-state examples. As a result, I lost interest in Morgans, but I still wanted to collect. So I bought the “Red Book” because I wanted to collect an early coinage series. I was also interested in the Civil War period, having read quite a bit about the struggles between the Union and Confederacy, with “The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War,” by Bruce Catton, being an ongoing favorite.
I wanted to collect a series with coins that had circulated during the Civil War. Liberty Seated dimes were a series that met my criteria, and I could build a set in fine grade with the disposable income that I had on hand. That’s how I started collecting Liberty Seated dimes.
I’m the type of person who studies before he invests, so I ordered a reference book titled “Encyclopedia of United States Liberty Seated Dimes” by a gentleman named Kamal Ahwash. Once Kamal’s book arrived, I learned how to identify not only individual dates and mint marks in the series but also the different dies that were used for coinage and the anomalies caused by shattered dies. That really got me hooked.
My background at IBM and Fairchild was on the operation side of the business—more in manufacturing than product development and design. So I was always quite interested in manufacturing techniques, the anomalies of manufacturing, and trying to diagnose and correct those anomalies that detracted from the highest possible productivity. So it was natural for me to take that same kind of professional inquisitiveness and apply it to coin collecting. I started going to coin shows again, trying to find Liberty Seated dimes and looking for differences in date and/or mint mark placement.
In 1990 I became aware of a numismatic club called the Liberty Seated Collectors Club. I wrote to the president, John McCloskey, saying, “I’d like to join your club, and I’m really interested in Liberty Seated dime varieties.” John passed my letter to a gentleman named Brian Greer. Brian immediately invited me to work on a population survey that the Liberty Seated Collectors Club was conducting at that time.
I accepted the offer and became friends with Brian and handled all the administrative aspects of the survey—from constructing the survey form to tabulating the survey results to co-writing an article with Brian for the “Gobrecht Journal,” which is the magazine of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club.
During that time, Brian Greer was writing the second book on Liberty Seated dime varieties. Kamal Ahwash had written the first book published in 1979 followed by a second edition in 1981. Kamal had just scratched the surface of Liberty Seated Dime varieties, using only a notepad, pencil, and eyeglass. Unfortunately Kamal died young from cancer, I believe around 1982. Brian agreed to write a second book on Seated dimes as part of a David Lawrence Rare Coins publishing initiative.
Dave Lawrence was publishing a series of numismatic books on Seated coinage including half dimes, dimes, and half dollars. DLRC required Brian to follow a publishing template where he could only identify some varieties. Naturally Brian was frustrated that he could not publish the full extent of the variety information he had gathered on the Seated dime series. So in 1992, Brian published a book titled “The Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Dimes,” and it definitely was an improvement over Kamal Ahwash’s previous effort.
Collectors Weekly: This was well before your website, correct?
Fortin: Yes. When Brian was working on his second book, we often spoke about the need for a comprehensive study of each date in the series to identify all of the dies and the die marriages—the in-depth analysis of the Liberty Seated dime series that remained to be completed.
After Brian published his book, he started selling his collection. Since I was contemplating writing the third Seated dime book, I though it a prudent step to buy as much of Brian’s collection as I could afford as a reference set. So I bought probably half of Brian’s collection between 1992 and 1994, with Brian knowing my intentions.
“It was the Wild West; few gem dimes from Carson City survived.”
Starting around 1993, I became much more serious about studying Liberty Seated dimes by date and variety. This meant collecting different examples in which the date position or mint mark was shifted, or where there were die cracks on the dimes. It was just a long, long process. I made a commitment to the Liberty Seated Collectors Club that an in-depth varieties reference guide would be published.
Concurrently, I studied the steps it would take to publish a hardbound book, and uncovered a number of limitations that were unpalatable to me. Typically a hardbound reference book will be a maximum of 350 pages. That’s about all collectors want to carry around at a coin show. But I had much more information, well beyond 350 pages. I had so much information that I could go 600, 700 pages, which meant multiple books including the incremental expenses of publishing several books and then trying to market and sell those on your own. At that point, I decided the hardbound-book route was not an attractive approach for me.
Being in the semiconductor field and having a technical background, I had used the Web extensively for business purposes. There was a major auction company called Heritage Rare Coin Galleries, and Heritage was using the Web in an innovative manner to market its auctions and to attract a new generation of Web-based auction attendees.
At the time, the other auction houses in the numismatic field like Stack’s, Superior, and Bowers and Merena were still quite traditional in their approach. They would send out beautifully prepared catalogs, but one still had to preview coins at their office or wherever the auction was being held—they weren’t really Web-based. Heritage was taking large-format pictures of the coins, writing accurate descriptions, and providing third-party grading population estimates and price-range information, so you had a Web-based experience for bidding.
And I thought to myself, Heritage is a marketing trendsetter and they’re going to be a major force in the long-term auction market because they know how to harness the power of the Web. At that point, I decided the Web would be the vehicle for my Seated dime book and I was not going to do a traditional hardbound book. Several of my club friends and peers said that limiting the book to the web was a bad idea. To leave a legacy in the numismatic field, they said, one must do the hardbound book because everybody wants a book for their library.
I thought about this feedback and decided against it because I strongly believed the Web would be the future information medium and that the next generation of collectors would prefer getting information from the Web to hardbound books. The other beauty of the Web is that a website can be perpetually updated. A book is obsolete once it’s published. You can’t go back and fix mistakes or wrong conclusions without reprinting. On the Web you can make updates as necessary and involve the entire collector community in adding supplemental information.
So from about 2000 to 2004, I worked extensively in the evenings preparing the website content. I was still managing an operations group for Fairchild Semiconductor that was responsible for outsourced manufacturing on a global basis, and I was traveling throughout Asia frequently. I actually spent a good part of one year living in Jilin, China installing a semiconductor factory. During my spare time, I was using a microscope and a scanner to capture images, writing descriptions, and starting to build this website, or what I call the web-book.
In the summer of 2004 at the Pittsburgh American Numismatic Association convention, I launched the web-book, www.seateddimevarieties.com. It was very well received. In fact, I scheduled a visit with Greg Rohan, Heritage’s President, to show him what I had created via my laptop PC. He was amazed and wrote the site’s first subscription check.
Until this year, 2009, the web-book was subscription based because I wanted to recover most of the website building fees. But about four months ago, I opened the web-book to the public for free. My priority shifted from breaking even on the project to providing education and communicating the passion for collecting Liberty Seated dimes. Everything is online now, without any hard copy whatsoever.
Collectors Weekly: No paper at all?
Fortin: None. I publish in the “Gobrecht Journal,” which is the printed journal of Liberty Seated Collectors Club. I publish in the “E-Gobrecht,” which is the club’s current foray into electronic publishing. I believe that at some point in the future, there will be a convergence of the “Gobrecht Journal” and “E-Gobrecht.”
Collectors Weekly: Are other collecting publications starting to go online?
Fortin: Yes, the transition is taking place, with “Coin World” being a notable example. For numismatic reference books, I believe the new trend is to place the majority of your information online, but also to publish notebooks that are well illustrated. They’re more like field guides. Unlike a traditional research book, a field guide is an easy-to-use visual guide for attributions at coin shows. I will consider publishing a field guide in the future when I have time, but recently my life’s been incredibly busy—for the past four years I’ve lived much of the time in Shanghai working for a Chinese semiconductor company. The website is updated and improved on weekends.
Collectors Weekly: What else do you collect?
Fortin: PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) and NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation) have registries where an individual can register their collections on these third-party grading websites. Presently, I have an extensive Liberty Seated dime collection for two reasons. Firstly to compete on the PCGS registry—I have the number-one registry set, and for the past three years I’ve won PCGS’ Classic Set award. Secondly, to build a reference web-book, I must have a reference collection; confirming new varieties is most difficult without a reference set. As a result, I own more than 1,500 Liberty Seated dimes that form the reference collection. This is all I collect.
Collectors Weekly: Are you knowledgeable about other Liberty Seated denominations?
Fortin: I focus strictly on dimes. This is the one drawback of something like this—you are so specialized that you are essentially naïve about the other series. But the dimes met my criteria of being financially viable, and it’s a long series—there are 121 different pieces, 114 without the major varieties. So that has kept me busy for a while.
Collectors Weekly: Now that you live in China, do you collect online?
Fortin: I’m on eBay every day, and of course I have all of the major Seated dime dealers in the United States bookmarked. I spend as much time as possible on the Web, and I’ve acquired a fair number of very nice dimes from China. Typically, I will call dealers that know me well during late evening, which is early morning in the United States. So yes, I’m still quite active in China.
Collectors Weekly: Can you give us a little bit of history about Liberty Seated dimes?
Fortin: The first Liberty Seated dimes were minted in 1837 in Philadelphia. From 1838 until 1860, New Orleans also minted Liberty Seated dimes. The Confederacy took over the New Orleans mint in 1861 and no Seated dimes were minted there until 1891, which was the last year the coin was struck. In San Francisco, we had the Gold Rush in 1849, and by 1856 the San Francisco mint was striking its first Seated dimes.
The only other mint that struck Seated dimes was Carson City. There was a large silver find in Nevada called the Comstock Lode, and the local miners and business people petitioned the U.S. government to install a mint near the mines so they could turn the silver into coinage. I believe Carson City struck its first coins in 1870, but for dimes the first coinage was in 1871.
The Carson City dimes from 1871 through 1874 are the key dates in the series, even though coins were struck there through 1878. The mintage is quite low, ranging between 10,000 and 35,000 pieces a year. It was the Wild West, and because a dime is so easy to lose, few gem specimens from Carson City survived. Most of the examples minted from 1871 through 1874 are corroded or have been cleaned or enhanced.
Collectors Weekly: How did the design of the Liberty Seated dime evolve?
Fortin: Christian Gobrecht was responsible for the original Liberty Seated design. It was based on a Thomas Sully design of Lady Liberty seated on a rock and holding a scroll inscribed with her name. The Gobrecht design was quite artistic; it’s an absolutely beautiful coin. Later, in 1840, Robert Ball Hughes, modified the Gobrecht design. He gave Liberty larger arms and a larger head, placed her in a rather uncomfortable position on a small rock, and generally reduced the clothing details. Mint Director Robert Patterson ordered that change.
In 1860 there were other modifications to Liberty and the overall design elements on the obverse and reverse. This is when James Longacre made his mark on the Seated dimes design. Longacre was the mint’s chief engraver; he’s well known for designing the Flying Eagle and Indian Head cent designs.
So in terms of the obverse dies and Liberty sitting on the rock, there were three major designs, but there are eight different design groups. If you examine the Gobrecht dime from 1837 through 1840 and the Hughes dime from 1840 to 1860, the differences are immediately seen. During the design transition from 1859 to 1860, the obverse changes are subtler.
Other changes include the placement of stars and legends. From 1840 to 1859 there were stars on the obverse surrounding Liberty. Then in 1860, the legend “United States of America” was moved from the reverse to the obverse and the stars were eliminated. Also in 1860, a larger revised reverse cereal-wreath design was used.
The design elements were fundamentally the same. There was a shield, Liberty holding a pole with a Liberty cap, a rock. There are variations and accommodations due to the size of the coin being minted, so we have a different artistic rendering of the shield design, the angle of the shield, and how Lady Liberty is positioned on the rock for each of the series. If you go to my website, just go to the “Major Design Groups” link and you can view large photos of all the designs changes.
Collectors Weekly: Did each mint have its own engraver?
Fortin: No, the engravers were stationed at the mother mint in Philadelphia. What happened in Philadelphia is like our current corporate-headquarter model with distributed manufacturing sites. The branch mints—New Orleans, Carson City, San Francisco—did not manufacture dies. Their primary role was the striking of coins. Philadelphia manufactured the dies used in the branch mints.
Collectors Weekly: What was the Civil War’s effect on Liberty Seated dimes?
Fortin: The Civil War had a huge impact. Starting in 1860 and continuing almost up to 1872 through the Reconstruction period, small denomination coinage did not circulate in the United States, at least on the East Coast, which was where the majority of the United States population was located. The mintages went down quickly due to the Civil War—for dimes the drop in 1863 was especially dramatic. During 1861, at the start of the Civil War, the mintage for dimes was almost two million pieces. In 1862 it dropped to about 850,000 pieces. These are small numbers compared to our coinage today, but back then a mintage of a million dimes was substantial.
By 1863, mint officials realized that whatever was being minted was being hoarded or, worst case, exported. So in 1863, the Seated dime mintage was radically reduced, to 14,000 pieces from Philadelphia, for example, and by 1867 it was down to 6,000. Then, in 1868, the number jumped back up to a little bit under half a million (1868 was the beginning of the Reconstruction period). So the mint essentially stopped striking small coinage from 1863 through 1867.
What’s interesting about the years 1863 through 1867 is that the lower-grade circulated coins are actually much rarer than the higher-grade counterparts, which were saved, probably by business people or wealthier individuals. Today, one can find nice mint-state examples fairly easily, but trying to find a coin in fine grade is much more difficult because so few pieces circulated.
Of course the other impact was the closure of the New Orleans mint in 1861. The last minting of dimes in New Orleans was in 1860, and then New Orleans struck some dimes again in 1891 after restarting production. That’s quite a gap from 1860 to 1891.
Collectors Weekly: What was the California Gold Rush’s impact on the dime?
Fortin: Well, the Gold Rush occurred in 1849. By 1851 or 1852, a substantial amount of gold entered the U.S. market. Therefore, the price of silver with respect to gold changed, with the value of the silver in a dime increasing above its stated 10 cents face value. This was an opportunity for individuals to take dimes that were struck in 1851 and 1852 and export or melt them, and then re-import the silver and make a profit.
So, in 1853, the mint reduced the weight of the planchet, the blank piece of silver that’s coined, to below a 10-cent value. Mint designers placed large arrows to the left and right of the date on the coin to signify that it was a dime with a lower planchet weight—in other words, with less silver. The arrows were employed on Seated dimes from 1853 through 1855.
Collectors Weekly: When they took off the arrows in 1856, did they go back to the previous planchet weight?
Fortin: No. After three years, I think everybody was used to the fact that there had been a change in the weight of the dime so they just took the arrows off and went on their merry way starting in 1856.
Collectors Weekly: What other events impacted the Liberty Seated dime?
Fortin: During 1873 there was a campaign in the United States to use metric weights so that U.S. coinage weights would match European coinage weights. The U.S. Mint made a slight modification in the weight of the planchet once again, but the planchet weight change was insignificant. Even so, mint officials put arrows back on the dimes again in 1873 and 1874. That is just one example.
Collectors Weekly: How many different varieties of Liberty Seated dimes are there?
Fortin: Well, let’s define what a variety is. Typically a variety is a difference from die to die that’s noticeable. So with dimes, the design was already placed into the master and working hub dies. What typically changed was the date position on the obverse and the mint mark position on the reverse die. The date was still hand punched on the obverse, and on the reverse the mint mark was also hand punched.
From 1837 through 1840, stars on the obverse were also hand punched along with the date. Starting in 1840, only the date was hand punched. All other design elements were fixed into the master die.
Collectors are also interested in what we call die states. A die is used to strike coinage. The process is a piece of metal hitting metal, in this case steel hitting silver. After a certain number of strikes, depending on the quality of the steel, the die will start to wear or crack or, worst case, just completely shatter.
A secondary issue concerns the effectiveness of quality control at the time. Did the mint workers care that some of the coins they were minting had huge cracks through them? Or, if the front and the back dies struck each other and there was no silver planchet in between, well, then you had a design transfer across the dies; the image from the front die was transferred to the back die, and vice versa.
So there’s a chance for numerous manufacturing anomalies during die preparation and the striking of coins. Variety research is all about the identification of obverse and reverse dies.
Once the individual obverse and reverse dies are known, the next step is to identify the different die marriages. Sometimes the mint would take a set of obverse and reverse dies, load them in the striking press, and produce a batch size of, say, 100,000 pieces and retire the dies. One might consider this a large production batch through a press.
Other times, the mint schedule called for small batches. So they would take a pair of dies, put them in the press, and maybe run 10,000 to 20,000 pieces, after which the dime dies would be pulled off the press and shifted to striking half dollars or another denomination.
Once the dies were removed from the press, the dies were greased to prevent corrosion and then placed back in storage. Let’s say maybe two months later the mint gets an order to strike more dimes. The mint workers would pull obverse and reverse dies from storage, but that front and back die pair may not have been the same pair used previously. In fact, there is a high probability that some obverse and reverse dies were mixed during the production of small batch sizes. So we call the mixing of different front and back dies die marriages. Die marriages are also varieties.
As discussed in the web-book, within a single year at one mint I can designate five varieties or 50, depending on the date’s mintage and whether the mint was generating large or small production batches. But to answer your original question, for major varieties, PCGS lists about seven or eight. PCGS’s desire is to keep it simple because they don’t want to spend a lot of time attributing varieties during the grading and certification process. It doesn’t pay for them. So they’ll only recognize significant shifts in die attributes.
On my website, I have defined the Top 100 varieties, and today there are a number of collectors who are trying to put together the Top 100 variety set. The focus for those collectors is not date or mint mark; it’s just the most interesting varieties in the Seated dimes series.
Collectors Weekly: Are some varieties more desirable than others?
Fortin: Absolutely. In the Top 100 variety set, there are varieties that are incredibly difficult to find. We know that maybe less than 10 examples exist. So those rare varieties become highly desirable and really expensive. For example, within the Top 100 variety set for Liberty Seated dimes is an 1839 variety where the obverse die is severely cracked in a pie shape.
Recently, I brokered the sale of an example that graded Good 6 to a specialist for $8,000. That’s one of the toughest varieties to find. Its not in the “Red Book” and PCGS won’t recognize the variety at this time, but in terms of specialists in the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, we become excited if a rare specimen is located. It becomes our pride and joy.
Collectors Weekly: Is it possible to have a complete variety collection?
Fortin: It’s not impossible, but I think highly improbable. I have the most extensive variety collection, and I’m still finding new varieties 20 years later. The challenge is mainly with the common dates, 1882 through 1891, when the mintages were substantial. Take the 1891 Philadelphia date. The mintage is 15 million pieces. Let’s say there are 200,000 coins typically struck per die pair. That required about 75 different die pairs. And then you’ve got the marriages. It becomes an overwhelming amount of analysis.
Therefore, for the common dates, we identify and classify only the most obvious varieties where there’s something dramatic to see on a coin, like some type of preparation anomaly. When a date is punched into a working die, there is always the possibility of a double punching and a shifting of the date between punches. As a result, a double-date image, or what is termed repunching, results in a collectible variety. But if someone is trying to categorize the subtle changes in date positions from one die to another on 75 dies, after a while it can drive you mad.
Collectors Weekly: So, do you collect by date?
Fortin: Well, that’s the way collectors start. The first step is to build a date and mint mark set. Then collectors may move on to major varieties, and/or they may collect the proofs. Then if they wish to specialize further within a series, they start collecting the minor varieties. And that’s where you get persons like me for Seated dimes, or the Bust Half Nut Club for 1794-1836 half dollars and the VAMs for Morgan and Peace dollars.
These are areas where you have specialists that become underwhelmed with date and mint mark collecting, and now they’re moving into collecting the subtleties of the die preparation and minting process.
Collectors Weekly: How did cracking occur on the dimes?
Fortin: It happened during the preparation process for making a working die. A working die is heated so that an image can be transferred from the working hub die to the working die. So the working die steel must be soft enough for the transfer, which is followed by some type of quenching to harden the steel. (Please remember that I am a semiconductor engineer and not a metallurgist.)
If the mint workers made a mistake and didn’t follow procedure, then the working die may not have been properly treated or quenched. So when an improperly prepared die is used to strike a coin, the result is early cracking of the die steel. Another possibility is that there was no quality control to screen out coinage that exhibited large cracks. They just went right into circulation.
So the dimes that we see today with major die cracks or evidence of shattered dies are a function of the preparation of the die steel, how long the mint workers used a die until its terminal state, and whether there was any quality control to screen the outgoing material.
The cracking of dies is one of the larger issues, both in die preparation and during the coinage process itself. When utilizing the dies in the minting process, there are a few issues or mistakes that can happen. One, of course, is that the dies wear out and nobody catches it and the dies become cracked. And when I say cracked, sometimes the dies are so badly cracked that a piece of metal on the side of the die is completely broken off.
This is why collectors will sometimes find coins with just a blob of unprinted metal (known as a cud) in that area where the pieces of die broke off. It’s like a tooth. A part of your tooth breaks. You can’t chew anymore in that area, but if you put food in your mouth, where is it going to go? It’s going to go down along the tooth and not be supported in the spot where the tooth used to be. It’s the same thing with metal. The planchet metal will flow into the hole where that piece of the die was. The most spectacular examples of that anomaly are called die cuds.
Another mistake is called clashing. Inside the coinage press, the front and back dies slam together, with the silver planchet in between. Let’s say the feeding mechanism doesn’t place the silver planchet in the collar and the dies come down and hit each other. Well, what happens is the impression from the front die transfers to the back die, and the impression from the back die is imprinted into the front die.
That anomaly is called die clashing. So now there’s been a cross transfer of images between the two dies, and then the next silver planchet feeds properly and is struck. The result is a coin with the front image, but you also get a halo of the back image behind the front image. This anomaly is quite common for Liberty Seated dimes.
Then there are working-die preparation mistakes. Imagine you have a working die and a date punch, and you must properly place that year’s date into the die. Sometimes mistakes were made in which the first date was punched in an improper location. It might be shifted too far left, too far right. So a second attempt is made to correct the date’s position. That’s what we call a repunched date, where there is evidence of two images for the date, with some of the doubled images being quite far apart. Sometimes the punch would bounce, creating two images that overlap each other.
Collectors Weekly: What about shattered die varieties?
Fortin: Shattered die varieties, yes. As I mentioned, the 1839 pie shape is the most famous shattered die variety for Liberty Seated dimes. There is also an 1839 New Orleans variety that’s collectible. We call it the Cobweb Shattered Reverse. In this variety, the New Orleans mint utilized a die pair until the reverse die was badly shattered. No edge pieces of the die broke off, but there was a pronounced shattering of the die throughout the wreath and down into the bow.
The shattering reached a point where some of the metal is missing within the S of STATES and all that is left are blobs of unstruck metal. That’s also a shattered die. This 1839 New Orleans variety is readily available. Since New Orleans struck so many with the reverse die being shattered, it’s not rare, but it’s neat to own.
Collectors Weekly: Are new varieties still being discovered?
Fortin: Yes. It’s a bit more infrequent now because of the amount of extensive analysis that’s taken place. But in the common dates, there are still new varieties being discovered. Sometimes we’re surprised when we’ve missed a variety that someone has uncovered. Some of these newly discovered varieties have been visible for years, but our eyes are not trained to see them.
Once a new variety is announced, serious collectors must own an example. So collectors and dealers who specialize in that series go on a hunt to find these new varieties, and that hunt typically lasts for one or two years with a fair number of examples being found and placed in collections or appearing on dealer price lists. And then these new varieties tend to become scarce again.
So what I believe happens is that the initial ease of locating new varieties may be a function of examples that were already available in the general market but were unattributed. One obvious variety that followed this pattern is the 1872 Double Die Reverse that made the front page of “Coin World.”
Collectors Weekly: How does a new variety get added to the registry?
Fortin: For Seated dimes, I’m the coordinator of the web-book listings. If someone finds what they believe is a new variety, they typically contact me, and then I’ll have them send me the coin for attribution and verification. If it is, indeed, a new variety, then the coin is photographed, described, and placed on the website. So the web-book is the consolidation and reference point for new discoveries. Sometimes this is a tough job since I occasionally have to explain to certain collectors that what they believe to be a new variety is not so. But I really enjoy working with specialists who are constantly seeking new varieties.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite variety?
Fortin: You’re talking to someone who has 1,500 Seated dimes. That’s like asking which one is my favorite child.
But there is a favorite variety that I have yet to speak about in this interview. It’s a rare one, and quite popular. It’s called the 1841 New Orleans transitional variety. In 1841, the New Orleans mint started striking the Robert Hughes Liberty design. Early in 1841, the Philadelphia mint sent only one obverse die to New Orleans, but they didn’t send any new reverse dies.
But in 1840, both the obverse and the reverse dies were redesigned, except the reverse die redesign was not immediately obvious—if you really know the Liberty Seated series, you can tell the difference. So it’s January 1841, and Philadelphia sends an obverse die to New Orleans. And New Orleans goes, ‘Oh, great. I got an obverse die, but I don’t have any new reverse dies’. So the workers utilized some old reverse dies from 1840 and paired them with the new die from Philadelphia that had the 1841 date.
By March, the Philadelphia mint had sent New Orleans the correct reverse dies, so after March 1841, the New Orleans mint was striking Seated dimes with the appropriate obverse and reverse die pairs. But the coinage struck by the New Orleans mint in January is called transitional because of the re-use of the 1840 reverse dies.
Today these transitional dimes are really popular. People love to try and cherry pick them due to the huge premiums. Over the years, I’ve worked to locate the finest examples. There are actually two different reverse varieties. There is a reverse die with a large O (for New Orleans) and a second with a small O mint mark.
About a year ago, I bought the second finest known large O. It’s in a PCGS AU55 holder and the premium was very substantial. If it were not for the variety, it’s worth maybe $350. For the small O, Brian Greer located an AU example for me, and I plan to send this dime to PCGS for grading and certification. So I would say these are my favorite varieties, and I spent substantial monies to secure the best examples possible.
Collectors Weekly: How has coin grading and the registries changed coin collecting?
Fortin: There are good points and not-so-good ones. Let’s talk about the good points first. David Hall’s registry concept at PCGS was a marvelous piece of marketing. It allowed individuals to display their collections anonymously on the Internet, and it allowed collectors to compete on a quantitative basis with each other on who has the best set. So it’s really inspired certain individuals to stretch and collect at a much higher level than initially expected.
Naturally there are those individuals with a strong competitive spirit who want to win. Some of these folks with access to large sums of monies will pay whatever it takes to do so. So it’s been a real boom for the coin business and certification.
The unattractive side of the registry is that some people are really collecting plastic rather than coins. There are certain individuals who enter the hobby with significant funds but weak grading skills. The result is they buy plastic, by which I mean, a coin in a holder for the grade on the holder, without really appreciating the coin. Thus, some of the top registry sets lack eye appeal because the owner did not understand the difference between an average and a superior coin for the same grade. The sets are developed primarily to rank high in the registry, but the coins are only average.
On a more positive note, there are other individuals who may not have substantial monies but who have considerable patience and understand eye appeal and what is a premium coin for the grade on the holder. These individuals are building marvelous sets, though they will not be in a top position in the registry.
Collectors Weekly: How common are counterfeits?
Fortin: There are two types of counterfeits. The first are called contemporary counterfeits. They were manufactured in the same period of time when the coin that they copied circulated. On my website, there’s a Contemporary Counterfeits section where we track counterfeits that were fabricated back in the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. The base metal varies—it can be lead or bronze with a silver wash.
The second type is the modern counterfeit, and this is a very serious problem. The bulk of modern counterfeiting is being done in China. I know this issue first hand, having lived there for four years. I’ve been in the markets in Shanghai and I’ve written articles in the “Gobrecht Journal” concerning the counterfeiting occurring in China. Being there, I’ve been able to use language interpreters and informally interview some of the merchants in the markets to find out the source for their counterfeits, how they’re made, and so on.
It’s becoming a very big problem, especially online. Trade dollars are probably the number-one counterfeited U.S. denomination, and it has gotten to the point that if you see a trade dollar on eBay, you should assume it’s counterfeit unless it’s in a PCGS or NGC holder.
Chinese counterfeits are made either through crude casting in molds or by being struck with hand-engraved dies. Some of the die work is phenomenal. I’ve seen counterfeit coins in the Shanghai market that I would have sworn were real, but they sell for 20 percent or less than their numismatic value. The workmanship is outstanding, and I could be fooled by one of these items, I’ll admit it. That’s how good they’ve become.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had in your years of collecting?
Fortin: A few things stick out, like the ANR (American Numismatic Rarities) coin preview I attended in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. I live a bit north of Portland, Maine, so Wolfeboro is only about an hour-and-a-half-drive away. ANR was handling an event in Baltimore called the Frog Run Sale.
The Frog Run collection featured many wonderful dimes and I wanted a number of them for my collection. Frank Van Valen was one of the principals at American Numismatic Rarities at the time, and an LSCC member, so I called Frank. I said, “Frank, I really want to preview this collection with you privately. I don’t want to do a preview in Baltimore the day before the auction. I wish to sit down with you for a thorough review of the dimes.” So, of course, Frank invited me to Wolfeboro.
It was a lovely day, so I took my Mazda Miata and drove to Wolfeboro and the ANR office, which was in an old Victorian building on Lake Winnipesaukee, such a beautiful area. Frank and I settled into what was the living room of this Victorian house, and he pulls out the dimes and he says, “Gerry, we must have the proper viewing conditions,” and pulls all the shades and he turns on a couple of viewing lights. We sat there for three hours and inspected each coin carefully, from his perspective, my perspective. It was a phenomenal experience.
The important part of coin collecting is the people you meet. Brian Greer is another example. He was my mentor and taught me much of what I know about Seated dimes, including grading, staying away from problem coins, the ethics of business, and how to value your reputation. The first few times I hung out with Brian was typically in hotel rooms during a coin show. We would go through boxes of his coins and I was taken aback. I felt like a young student next to Brian Greer, he taught me so much.
Collectors Weekly: Seated Liberty or Liberty Seated? Which is it?
Fortin: There’s no right or wrong way. The club is called the Liberty Seated Collectors Club. Some people say Seated Liberty; I try not to do that, but either approach is acceptable in my mind.
Collectors Weekly: Besides your web-book, what other resources would you recommend for collectors of Seated dimes or numismatics in general?
Fortin: For Seated dimes, I would recommend three to four books. The first is Kamal Ahwash’s “Encyclopedia of United States Liberty Seated Dimes.” That one is tough to find—you have to go on eBay or through numismatic book dealers. The second book would be Brian Greer’s “The Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Dimes.”
Another excellent general reference book is Walter Breen’s “Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins.” I use that one quite a bit, along with “The Official Red Book” for pricing. For somebody who wants to focus on Liberty Seated dimes, those four books plus access to my website, which is now 100-percent free, would provide a substantial amount of information.
Collectors Weekly: What coin collector events do you attend?
Fortin: I try and go to the major shows, which includes the ANA, the American Numismatic Association’s summer convention, wherever it’s held in the United States. I also go the FUN Show, which is Florida United Numismatists, in Orlando. That’s always in the beginning of January. And then I will go to regional shows. The Whitman Baltimore show is really growing in prominence. I try and attend the Baltimore show on a regular basis because many of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club people are based in the northeast and central-eastern part of the United States, and we all meet in Baltimore for that show.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for new coin collectors?
Fortin: Buy more books than coins, and read and study them because it’s very easy to make mistakes without a proper education. If you’re going to pick a denomination, go out and spend the money and buy two or three books. Buy a book on grading. Buy a book about the history of the series, the different dates, mint marks, their rarity, and also try and find a mentor.
Don’t do this in a vacuum. It’s very easy to make mistakes, and today, unfortunately, there are many problem coins in the market, and dealers will not always take the time to explain this to you. If you must buy right away, buy common dates and show them to other collectors to get their opinion; did you do well?
I’ll give you an example. When I was working in Malaysia, I went to a local market and bought a Mexican 8 reales coin. It was cheap. I brought it back to the coin club here in Maine and I showed it to the local expert on world coins. He looked at me, shook his head, and said, “Fortin, you bought a counterfeit. How could you do that?” I didn’t know. So I learned. I stopped buying coins in Asian countries because they are mostly counterfeit. If they’re in flea markets, they’re counterfeits. So you’ve got to make a couple mistakes, but live with your mistakes, and find a mentor early on who’s willing to share.
(All images in this article courtesy of seateddimevarieties.com)