Numismatic research has evolved in many exciting ways over the past
20 years, making it possible to re-examine what we know about some of
the most important coins in the U.S. series.
Using new technologies and an unprecedented shared knowledge base
composed of numismatists and curators from around the world, scholars
have unearthed a surprising amount of new information in recent years
about coins that were diligently studied by earlier collectors. A case
in point is the recent study titled The 1815 Half Eagle: New
Discoveries, written by Mark Van Winkle and me and published by
The 1815 Capped Head half eagle was one of the most famous
rarities of the 19th century, an issue that had been studied by the
best numismatic minds of the past 150 years. Earlier researchers had
advanced the collective knowledge about the 1815 half eagle as far as
it was practical for them to go, and many felt that the questions
about this issue that were still outstanding might never be answered.
Using the internet, digital photography and the exceptional networking
capabilities of web publications like the E-Sylum, we were able to add
substantially to the fund of knowledge about this landmark coin.
Research in earlier times often involved physically traveling to
different centers of knowledge, like the American Numismatic Society,
the American Numismatic Association Library and the Smithsonian
Institution. When Walter Breen did his early work in the National
Archives, he needed a wealthy patron, Wayte Raymond, to finance his studies.
Today a group of knowledgeable curators and librarians, like
Elizabeth Hahn, Amanda Harvey and Dr. Richard Doty, graciously answer
questions via email, and make it possible to examine coins and
documents through digital images when it is impractical to actually
visit these facilities. Some limits apply to photographing fragile
documents and respecting copyrights, but a great deal of information
can be obtained through these channels.
One of the most interesting questions about the 1815 half eagle
was the status of the coin that Joseph Mickley reported seeing in
Stockholm in 1871. The obvious physical, financial and linguistic
difficulties involved in researching this find prevented any American
numismatist from confirming Mickley’s discovery for more than 140
years. Early in our study, Mark Van Winkle emailed Scandinavian
E-Sylum reader and numismatist Morten Eske Mortensen about contact
information for Sweden’s Royal Coin Cabinet, where Mickley reported
seeing the coin. Morten put us in touch with Director Ian Wiséhn, of
the Kungliga Myntkabinettet, where the coin resides today. Dr. Wiséhn
provided an excellent digital image of the coin, which had never been
photographed before, and a never-before-documented history of the coin
going back to 1844.
Similarly, David Corrigan, curator of the Mitchelson Collection in
the Connecticut State Library, sent us a good digital photograph of
the coin in that collection, which had never been photographed before.
Finally, David Calhoun contributed an image of the 1815 half eagle
in the core collection of the Harry W. Bass Jr. Research Foundation.
Private individuals and auction firms also provided generous
support for the project. Heritage Auctions, Ira and Larry Goldberg,
Stack’s Bowers Galleries, Jeff Garrett, Ron Guth and Tom Mulvaney all
generously provided images of the coins that appeared in their
publications over the years.
Roger W. Burdette provided scans of letters he unearthed in his
research at the National Archives that detailed the surprising first
appearance of the 1815 half eagle in this country.
Wayne Burt and Saul Teichman shared their findings in the Brand
journals at the ANS and provided pedigree information from their
extensive studies conducted over the last 20 years.
Karl Moulton offered his insights in many long discussions and
provided scans of documents from his voluminous library.
Our Heritage colleague Mark Borckardt did several analytical
studies on the images of the coins to check for authenticity and
offered many valuable insights from his years of studying early U.S.
gold. Mark confirmed Saul Teichman’s identification of the counterfeit
coin in the Connecticut State Library as an altered-date 1813 half
eagle of a specific variety.
The new techniques and the spirit of cooperation that exists in
the numismatic community today give the present-day researcher a
tremendous advantage over the lone scholar who sought numismatic
knowledge in previous years. My thanks go out to everyone who made
this study possible, and I hope others will be encouraged to explore
the new possibilities in numismatic research.
David Stone is a numismatic researcher at Heritage Auctions and
co-author of the recent study about the 1815 Capped Head gold half eagle.