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Did You Know That In the 19th Century Some Early American Copper Collectors Would Hand-Write Variety Attributions on Their Coins?

In the past, collectors of colonial and pre-federal coinage would paint or otherwise hand write die variety attribution numbers on their coins. Evidence of the practice, considered taboo by collectors today, can be seen on many pre-federal coins. These are known as PDVs (Painted Die Varieties).

Ray Williams, former president of the Colonial Coin Collectors Club and an expert on Confederation-era state coinage, authored an article on PDVs for the March 2024 issue of The Numismatist that lays out the rationale for the painting. Collectors who stored coins in cabinets understood that if a tray from a cabinet was dropped and coins were separated from their identification tags, “All [their] attribution work would be for naught, and it would take possibly days or weeks to reattribute the coins.” Thus, they chose to record the variety in a way that couldn’t be separated from the coin!

Using ink, usually white or another light color (occasionally black ink or pencil was used), collectors hand-wrote variety attribution numbers on their coins. The practice came into vogue, per Williams, as the first serious efforts at cataloging pre-federal coinage by die variety were being published, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th.  

In a phone interview for this blog, Williams explained that the practice started falling out of favor in the early-to-mid 20th century and by the 1960s it was a historical footnote.

Williams has found that PDVs are most common on Connecticut and New Jersey coppers, though they are known on other pre-federal material as well. Some markings have been attributed to specific notable early copper collectors.

Examples of colonial and other early copper coins with handwritten variety attributions appear in our auctions with some regularity. A number are in our upcoming May 20, 2024 Collectors Choice Online Auction of Colonial Coins featuring the Charles Smith Collection.

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