CELEBRATED 1776 JANUS COPPER RARITY CONTINUES MYSTIFYING NUMISMATISTS
By David Stone
The 1776 Janus copper is among the rarest and most enigmatic coins in American numismatics. A single specimen is known, a celebrated rarity since the earliest days of the hobby.
Traditionally, the Janus copper was believed to be a privately produced pattern for a proposed Massachusetts half-cent copper coinage that was never issued. This view held sway until about 20 years ago, when some numismatists advanced the theory that the coin was a 19th century fabrication, perhaps the work of someone like Thomas Wyatt, the perpetrator of some scandalous forgeries that were discovered in 1856, or C.W. Betts, who began striking his more-innocent reproductions and fantasies around 1860.
Numismatists at Heritage Auctions recently discovered correspondence that indicates the Janus copper was known to early numismatists before Wyatt and Betts began their operations, making it impossible for them to be the authors of this piece.
Matthew Stickney was the first owner of record of this coin and, until now, the first-known numismatic reference to the Janus copper was believed to be the description of this piece in Montroville W. Dickeson’s American Numismatical Manual, published in 1859. The design of the coin features three conjoined heads on the obverse, with the legend “STATE OF” on the left, “MASSA:” on the right, and the denomination “½ D” below. Unfortunately, Dickeson only saw a rubbing of the coin, which is heavily worn on the central obverse, with the middle head nearly effaced. The rubbing seemed to show only two heads, leading Dickeson and others to call this piece the Janus copper, after the two-headed god of beginnings in Roman mythology.
The reverse of the coin shows a seated figure of Liberty (or Britannia). A globe appears in the lower left field and a small animal (either a dog or cat) is at her feet. The legend “GODDESS LIBERTY” hugs the border, with the date 1776 in the exergue.
In The Early Coins of America, published in 1875, Sylvester Sage Crosby noted: “The only specimen known of this curious pattern is in the collection of Matthew A. Stickney, Esq., and was found with an engraved piece (see plate VII, No. 9,) and some proof impressions from plates for continental paper money engraved by Paul Revere; from this circumstance Mr. Stickney is inclined to the opinion that they were the work of that engraver. However, this may be, the Pine tree cent, and this Halfpenny sufficiently resemble each other in their workmanship, to be considered the work of the same artist. They were probably private enterprises, as no mention of them is found upon any records.”
When Heritage numismatists in 2015 examined Stickney’s papers, which are preserved in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, a May 5, 1854, letter was discovered from New York City numismatist Charles Ira Bushnell to Stickney that specifically asked about the Janus copper. The letter reads, in part:
“I have understood that you had in your possession a coin bearing the following description,
Obv: a head with 3 faces.
Rev: a figure resembling Britannia.
Legends: ‘State of Massa: ½ d’
‘Goddess of Lib:’ date ‘1776.’ ”
Bushnell wanted to examine the coin for a prospective work on early U.S. coinage he hoped to publish, but apparently never did. This letter predates Dickeson’s work by five years, and pushes numismatic knowledge of the Janus copper to a date before either Wyatt or Betts was operating. It seems likely that Stickney had the coin for some time before Bushnell wrote his letter, and the coin grades VF35 NGC, indicating it was carried as a pocket piece or circulated for a significant period before Stickney acquired it. If Paul Revere struck the coin in 1776 and carried it as a pocket piece for many years before his death in 1818, that could account for the coin’s worn appearance.
On the other hand, opponents of the “Pattern Theory” point out that the abbreviation “MASSA” (for Massachusetts) was not in general use in 1776, and the denomination seems to be incorrect for a half cent, unless D was meant to refer to the English symbol d, for pence, which comes from the Roman denarius. The Bushnell letter does nothing to answer these objections, and it may be that the Janus copper is a 19th century fantasy piece but, if so, it is certainly from an earlier period than previously believed.
DAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.
This story appears in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.