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Rare 1796 half-cent sells for over $350,000

In a small provincial auction in southwest England, a rare 1796 Liberty Cap half-cent in mint condition came under the hammer Tuesday. The small copper coin, which looks like nothing special to the naked eye, sold for £185,000 ($293,540) to an American bidder from the Numismatic Financial Corporation of Winter Springs, Fla. The final price including the auctioneer's premium was over $358,000, one of the highest prices ever for a half-cent.

The small coin lay undiscovered for 50 years at the back of a cupboard in a homemade coin cabinet fashioned out of matchboxes. It was almost chucked away as junk by relatives of the original owner, who suffered an untimely death in 1963.

That original owner was a young English scholar named Mark Hillary, who died in a climbing accident at the age of 20 before completing his studies at Oxford University. His love of coins had often taken him to London as a young boy, though where he acquired this coin is unknown. His brother unearthed the small collection while clearing out an old cupboard and brought it to the local auctioneers.

The 1796 Liberty Cap, of the "With Pole" variety, is one of only 1,390 coins minted that year. Only a few dozen are known to be in existence today, and less than ten are in such a mint condition, according to coin specialist Daniel Fearon. Fearon, who first spotted the Liberty Cap amongst a collection of ordinary pennies, said at first inspection not much appeared to be of interest, but then the half-cent "jumped out."

The coin was auctioned off Tuesday at Woolley and Wallis, of Salisbury, England, which placed a conservative estimate on the coin of $40,000 to $48,000. Auctioneer Paul Viney said he was "thrilled" with the hammer price of £185,000 and admitted he had secretly hoped for a sale of £100,000 and over.

The history of this particular coin remains a mystery until the time it was added to Hillary's collection sometime in the 1950s. What happened during the 160 years after it was stamped in pure copper at the Philadelphia mint and before Hillary found it is unknown, but during the last two centuries the coin has increased in value by 71,600,000-fold.