Face value, the small copper coin that went under the auctioneer’s hammer Tuesday represented the smallest denomination of currency the United States ever produced – just half a cent.
But in one of the more astonishing bits of numismatic lore, the 1796 Liberty Cap half cent sold for nearly $300,000 – nearly $360,000 with auctioneer’s premium – meaning the coin increased in value 71,600,000-fold over the 210-plus years since it was minted in Philadelphia during George Washington’s presidency.
The rare half cent, sold at a small provincial auction in southwest England, went to an American bidder from the Numismatic Financial Corp. of Winter Springs, Fla., according to CBS News.
The final price, perhaps not surprisingly, is one of the highest ever paid for a half cent.
The coin bears a liberty head design on one side, with a pole and liberty cap in the background. The reverse features an open wreath of olive stems tied with a ribbon.
Half cents were minted by the US from 1793 until 1857.
The story of the coin sold Tuesday is both fascinating and perplexing.
“The small coin lay undiscovered for 50 years at the back of a cupboard in a homemade coin cabinet fashioned out of matchboxes,” CBS News reported. “It was almost chucked away as junk by relatives of the original owner, who suffered an untimely death in 1963.”
Mark Hillary, a young English scholar who died in a climbing accident at the age of 20 before completing his studies at Oxford University, was an avid collector who acquired the coin in the 1950s.
The bulk of his collection was sold at auction following his death, but approximately six dozen coins – including the 1796 half cent – remained hidden at his former home for almost half a century, according to The Daily Mail.
It was not until family members cleaned out an attic recently that the rare piece was discovered.
The half cent is identified as being of the “With Pole” variety, and is one of only 1,390 half cents minted that year. It is classified as being in “extremely fine” condition.
Only a few dozen 1796 half cents are known to exist today, according to coin specialist Daniel Fearon.
In 1796 the Philadelphia Mint was busy producing the first issue of $5 and $10 gold pieces and the half cent didn’t receive much attention, according to the auction company, Woolley and Wallis, headquartered in the English city of Salisbury.