Let me tell you a story that will point out the importance of doing
your research before making any numismatic purchase. But first I must
give you a short history lesson.
With the Naval Act of 1794 Congress created the U.S. Navy and
authorized the construction of six frigates. The first one to put to
sea was the US Frigate Constellation in 1797; it was the first ship of
the U.S. Navy and the first U.S. ship to engage and defeat an enemy
vessel. It was decommissioned and broken up for scrap on June 25,
1853, at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Va.
In the same yard, construction was started on a new ship, a
sloop-of-war, which would bear the same name. This second ship was
named the USS Constellation and was launched on 26 August 1854. It was
the last sail-only warship built by the U.S. Navy. It was
decommissioned on Feb. 4, 1955, and taken to its permanent berth in
Baltimore’s inner harbor.
Now here is where the plot thickens. In 1955 the city of Baltimore
started promoting the second ship as a rebuild of the original 1797
frigate. The city issued medals and sold them for $1 each to raise
money to restore the ship and turn it into a museum.
On the reverse of the Constellation medal it states THIS COIN
STRUCK FROM PARTS OF THE FRIGATE CONSTELLATION THE FIRST SHIP OF THE
The promotion caught the attention of historians and a heated
debate began. The controversy continued until 1999, when evidence was
uncovered during the restoration that conclusively proved it was the
ship launched in 1854. What the city of Baltimore had was the
sloop-of-war that was a completely new design and built new from the
keel up. Its name was the only connection to the original frigate
launched in 1797.
Now begins the story of what happens when you don’t do the
research first. Recently, I stumbled upon one of the medals issued in
1955. After reading the notation on the reverse I was impressed with
the historical significance of the piece and bought it. Then I did the
research and found out the facts. I was very disappointed to say the
least. There may still be some parts of the 1797 frigate Constellation
that have survived in some form or another, but none of them are in
the medal that I purchased. Had I done the research first, I would not
have bought the item. But now that I have the medal, it does make an
The bottom line is I didn’t know what I had, but then, neither did
the city of Baltimore. The promotional claim was not an outright lie,
as that would imply intent to defraud. It was a case on not doing
research, the same thing I am guilty of.
The whole incident reminds me of the master of confusion,
Christopher Columbus. When he started sailing west across the
Atlantic, he didn’t know where he was going. When he got there, he
didn’t know where he was. And when he got back to Europe, he didn’t
know where he had been.
Richard Graff is a numismatist living in Oregon who has been
collecting coins for more than 50 years.