Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents

In last week’s post, “An 1809 Half Cent from eBay“, I mentioned as my attribution guideĀ “Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents”. Published in 1983 and weighing in at almost seven pounds (!), this book is an excellent update to the original half cent book by Roger S. Cohen, “American Half Cents, the Little Half Sisters”.

The main strength of this book is of course the illustration and description of each known variety, organized by date and cross referenced to earlier works. Each variety commands multiple pages and plates. Not only are the variety markers described but die states are also illustrated along with easy to follow descriptions. Breen also provides rarity ratings for each variety and die state, condition census information, and auction appearances for the finest known specimens.

Breen’s chapters on minting technology, the literature that was published prior to this book, and the history behind the half cent are excellent reading, even if some of the information is out of date. Breen wrote in a very readable and conversational style, to the point that you can envision a sly sideways glance that would probably follow a particular statement.

For all its positive points there are a couple of drawbacks. Breen’s habit of speculating when source material is lacking or absent is apparent, though this doesn’t detract from the attribution portion of the book. In addition, the auction records and rarity ratings are somewhat dated. One needs to keep in mind that this book was published almost 30 years ago. Subsequent discoveries and new attributions change these statistics over time.

All in all, “Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents” is an outstanding attribution guide and an entertaining read. It’s also one of the more affordable numismatic volumes at around $50 for a new hardcover copy. If your interest in these fascinating early American coins is new, or if you are a long time collector, this book should be the foundation of your half cent library.

 

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