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A Specialist’s Perspective on Colonial Coins

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I realize that I may sound like a broken record to some, but one of my favorite aspects of numismatics is the people. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by men and women who have dedicated countless hours to the pursuit of a certain series or discipline. As I count myself a generalist, it is always fascinating to pick the brains of the true specialist. I almost always find myself gaining a great deal of respect on the subject and, often, I catch the “collecting bug” and decide to tuck a piece or two away for my collection. The subject of colonial coins has always been fascinating to me, both in respect to history and numismatics. Some of the coins, tokens, and medals that the early colonists and revolutionaries were able to produce are simply amazing. It was a pleasure to delve into the subject with this specialist who is respected around the world as an expert in this field. I hope you enjoy his perspective like I did.

Q. When did you first get interested in numismatics?

A. I was about six or seven. Several things happened at more or less the same time, so it's tough to remember what was really the spark: finding a Civil War token in my grandmother's kitchen cabinet, my dad giving me some silver quarters and Red Seal $5s, a few local country auctions selling an old coin here or there. I loved history enough and read enough that the tangible connection to early American history sunk its teeth in early – when you have to drive through Valley Forge (a hub in Pennsylvania that gained prominence during the American Revolutionary War) to go to the mall, history plays a real role in your everyday life.

Q. I know that you specialize in early Americana. What was it about American Colonial coinage that interested you early on?

A. I grew up in an area that saw a lot of action in the Revolutionary War and the era that followed it, so that period of time attracted my interest even before coins did. Once I got into coins, it was natural to gravitate to the kind of coins that might have been in George Washington's pocket. From the very beginning, that included not just New Jersey coppers or Fugios, but also Spanish Pillar Dollars and English halfpennies, and all of the foreign coins that were so commonplace in early America.

Q. In broad terms, what are United States colonial coins and why were they produced?

1652 Pine Tree Shilling Massachusetts Large Planchet PCGS MS64. Click image to enlarge.

A. "Colonial coins" is actually kind of a misnomer. The colonies that became the United States stopped being colonies in 1776 (the Declaration of Independence), 1781 (the end of hostilities), or 1783-1784 (the signing and ratification of the Treaty of Paris), and most of what we think of as colonial coins were actually struck after that. I've always liked the term "early American coins," which incorporates those struck in or on behalf of colonies (like the Pine Tree Shillings of Massachusetts or the Maryland silver coins of the 1650s), coins of the Confederation (all those state coppers struck before the ratification of the Constitution), and all the miscellaneous stuff that was intended to circulate in the United States, or references the United States, or sort of got adopted into the series over the years for one reason or another.

In short, anything struck for American circulation before the founding of the United States Mint is a "colonial" coin, a lot of stuff that circulated here but also circulated elsewhere has become a "colonial" coin, and plenty of random tokens and small-change coins struck up through the 1820s have been adopted as "colonial" coins. For my money, if you're going to collect things like Wood's Hibernia Coppers or Conder Tokens that reference America – and you should(!) – you should also collect the coins that would have been really familiar to the colonists, from Dutch Lion Dollars to Spanish Colonial Cobs to Irish and English coppers of all sorts.

Q. Is there a specific series that you personally find most interesting and exciting?

A. I love all of it, really and truly. I love Fugio coppers, since they were the first coins authorized and struck for circulation in the United States. I love Massachusetts silver, struck within the lifetime of the Pilgrims and the very first coins struck in what became the United States. I love regulated gold coins, foreign gold issues that were clipped and plugged and stamped by American silversmiths to show that they were the correct weight for circulation.

Q. I know that you have owned many impressive rarities over the years. Is there a “holy grail” coin, so to speak, that you hope to one day acquire?

A. One of the only colonial issues I've never owned or catalogued is the 1714 Gloucester Shilling, a super-rare (two known) brass token produced (probably locally) for use on the Virginia peninsula just north of Williamsburg. It's been decades since one even sold. They don't look like much, but it's the rarest of all the early colonial issues, struck even before Washington was born – and not far from where he was born, for that matter, either.

Q. There are several U.S. coins that, based on mintage and survival rates, should be far more valuable but, as they are not a part of a popular series, they are affordable. Does this hold true for any colonial coin series?

A. Oh my, practically all of them. The French colonial series is a good example. At one time, 18 of the 50 biggest American cities were held by the French (St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, you can name others). The 1721-1722 coppers were struck especially for the wide-ranging French lands in the St. Lawrence and Mississippi River valleys. I think they're fascinating, hard to find in nice shape, and cool to look at, but even a decent one is still just a couple hundred bucks.

Q. I personally own a Washington Funeral Medal and love to show it to friends and family. It has a unique way of connecting people with history. Are there any specific coins that you find have a similar effect on people?

(1781) Medal Libertas Americana Bronze PCGS MS65BN. Click image to enlarge.

A. There are few items more classically American than a Libertas Americana Medal. Every single one was once owned by Benjamin Franklin and was given to someone he thought was important. What could be better than that? But I like Chalmers Shillings, too. They were struck right down the street, literally a block away, from where Congress was meeting when the American Revolution ended. Thomas Jefferson was there. George Washington was there. What must they thought of this cool little cartoon warning Americans that, while they squabbled over small issues, a snake still lurked who wanted to eat them all?

Q. What advice would you give someone who is looking to collect colonial coins?

1783 Chalmers Shilng Long Worm PCGS AU58. Click image to enlarge.

A. Find a specialist dealer who can give you the lay of the land. Get all the auction catalogues from all the great collections sold over the last 40 years, from the Garrett Collection forward: Roper, Picker, Taylor, Norweb, the various Ford duplicate sales, the various Stack's Americana sales, the Ford Collection, the Patrick Collection, the Newman Collection, and more recent ones, too. Those catalogues contain all the scholarship, all the best estimates of rarity, all the insight into what is achievable (and not) within the specialty – far more so than any book (or any website). Read those catalogs and think… Which of these cabinets do I want mine to be like? A lean, mean, high-grade type set like Picker or Royce or Archangel? An expansive one-of-everything collection like Norweb or Ford? Or a specialty cabinet of New Jersey coppers like E Pluribus Unum or O'Donnell? All of these are scalable. If you don't have New England Shilling money, get the best Pine Tree Shilling you can afford. If you don't have the scratch for 90 New Jersey coppers, get three or four that you love. There is no such thing as a complete collection, so define it as you wish.

Colonials