New technologies make numismatic research a team effort

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Published : 02/01/13
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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 Ivy Press.

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.

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