Despite striving to acquire superlative coins, sometimes collectors
just plain have to settle for something that’s second best. We can’t
all have the nicest coins, the rarest coins or the prettiest coins.
For one thing, there aren’t enough to go around. Secondly, we can’t
all afford them. As any economist would tell you, the second fact is
directly related to the first.
The same economist would tell you that when you settle for
something — when you want filet mignon but you end up with hamburger —
you’re acquiring what is called a “substitute good,” something that
stands in for another instead of complementing it.
This phenomenon is why struck copies and electrotypes find such a
ready market among Colonial coin collectors. Most collectors can’t
afford a New England shilling. This has been the case for as long as
New England shillings have been collected, and before 1860 their price
had already crossed the $20 mark.
Into this marketplace a numismatist named Thomas Wyatt offered
struck copies, replicas that resembled the illustrations he found of
New England shillings in Joseph Felt’s An Historical Account of the
Massachusetts Currency, published in 1839. Collectors snapped up the
Wyatt copies, and they quickly became collectibles themselves. Today,
a nice Wyatt copy of an NE shilling will sell for well over a thousand
dollars; an example in a 2006 John J. Ford Jr. auction brought $2,645.
Electrotypes, a kind of replica made through an electroplating
process, more precisely duplicate the fine details of the original
coins. In the 19th century, electrotypes were extremely popular with
collectors who sought to include examples of unobtainable rarities in
their collections. Even the U.S. Mint made electrotypes of pieces in
its cabinet to sell to collectors.
Today, finely made electrotypes are avidly sought after, and they
can sell for thousands of dollars.
The U.S. Mint wasn’t just in the electrotype business in the 19th century.
When rare historical medals became all the rage, the Mint actually
had copy dies produced imitating the designs of rare Comitia Americana
medals and other early medal types.
Today, these copy medals are rare, and they are often more
beautiful than the originals they imitate. In fact, the prices of some
of these copies now approach the prices of the originals. Perhaps in
the near future they will become what economists call “perfect
substitutes” and collectors would just as soon have the rare and
beautiful copy as the rare and somewhat beat up original. We may think
it’s crazy today, but what would Thomas Wyatt say about one of his
knock-offs bringing two grand?
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.