Pair of Charleston slave badges highlights Dec. 1 sale by Numismatic Auctions LLC

1840, 1856 pieces were licenses for slaves to work in city
By , Coin World
Published : 11/06/14
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A pair of Charleston, S.C., slave badges highlights Numismatic Auctions LLC’s Dec. 1 sale.

Both badges are for servants, with one issued in 1840 and the other in 1856. 

Slave-for-hire badges harken to an era when enslaved African-Americans who were rented out for their skill were required to carry badges. Each badge represented a license to ply a trade, and each license was valid for one year only. Once expired, the license number became invalid and the badge were “nothing more than a small piece of copper or brass,” according to an auction catalog from a Jan. 16, 2006, sale by Stack’s.

That auction of 65 pieces has been declared the “single most important collection ever auctioned,” the Stack’s catalog said. 

Though slaves-for-hire were regulated in New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston (and the Charleston Neck area adjacent), badges survive for only Charleston and Charleston Neck. 

According to the 2006 catalog, “Charleston’s system of slavery for hire represented the most institutionalized form of this ‘peculiar institution.’ ”

Both pieces in the Dec. 1 auction were purchased from the 2006 sale. In that sale, Paul West’s collection of Charleston and Charleston Neck, S.C., included slave badges for all but five years from 1800 to 1865, and include multiple rarities.

The badges also identified the slaves’ occupation, like porter, carpenter, or servant, and the role often dictated the size of the badge, according to the 2006 auction catalog.

“The Porter’s badge seems to have been the largest, perhaps because the occupation took the wearer onto the city’s streets where his unsupervised presence might otherwise have been contested,” according to the catalog.

West discovered most of his badges through metal detecting, and these pieces exhibit the roughness and patina indicative of many years in the ground.

The 1840 badge, with the serial No. 1502 on the obverse or face, is graded Very Fine, and has a dark olive green and brown patina. It is diamond-shaped but has clipped corners.  

The 1856 badge, also diamond-shaped but with complete corners, carries serial No. 781.

Both badges are estimated to realize between $1,500 and $2,000 in the Dec. 1 sale. When they sold in 2006, the 1840 badge realized $1,495, and the 1856 badge sold for $1,725, with both prices including a 15 percent buyer’s fee.

To learn more about the sale, telephone the firm at 517-394-4443 or visit its website.

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