Early in my career at Coin World, one of my assigned tasks in the 1970s was to go through the “clip files” we received from a “clipping service” that we hired, looking for news tips. In this pre-Internet era, clipping services subscribed to newspapers from around the country and hired a staff to go through issues and clip articles that met certain parameters for specific clients. For Coin World, we wanted to see clippings related to coins, paper money, and similar things; I’m assuming that these clippers had a list of clients and their interests. Once a bunch of these newspaper clippings had been accumulated, they would be bundled up in a mailing envelope and mailed to clients.
For Coin World, the clippings served as news tips for all kinds of stories that we might want to cover: local thefts of coins, medals being issued by a local civic organization — that sort of thing. Sure, many of the clippings may have referenced “coins” or “paper money” in reference to stories with no hobby significance, but some led to real leads. Each clipping had a date-stamped tag that identified the newspaper it had been clipped from. For those articles that warranted coverage in Coin World, we would follow up in our usual manner depending on what the article reported.
One clipping in particular caught my attention because of the nature of the article. This must have been about 1979, when a 1787 Brasher doubloon not only made headlines in Coin World but also in daily newspapers world-wide.
The coin was offered in the Rarcoa session of Auction ’79, the first in a series of “Apostrophe Auctions” that four firms held jointly for a number of years. All four auction houses were prominent in the field and their joint auctions featured some classic rarities. The other firms were Paramount, Stack’s and Superior; of those, only Stack’s remains in business in today, as part of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.
Lot 1433 in the auction, conducted July 27, was a 1787 Brasher doubloon whose pedigree of ownership included collectors Virgil Brand, James Ten Eyck, John G. Mills, and R. Coulton Davis. At the time of the auction, the coin had not been offered at public auction in 57 years. In fact, of the seven pieces known, five were in public collections, and the only other piece in collector hands had also been off the market for decades. The appearance in the marketplace of one these gold coins — the first gold coin struck in what had been the 13 Colonies — was a major story.
When the auction was conducted, bidding was strong and the coin was hammered down at $430,000, which was a record for any coin sold at public auction. Wire service reports on the astounding price were published in newspapers everywhere, making the story national news. And then we started hearing from people who claimed they also had one of these rare coins. All of them had modern cast replicas, though; the hobby was flooded with tens of thousands of cheap cast replicas of Brasher doubloons and other similar pieces.
During this period of national excitement and widespread hopes that others had struck it rich, one man contacted a local newspaper (out west, as I recall) and told a reporter how he had once owned one of the coins, then left it behind when his family moved from the house, and then how he had just recovered the coin.
According to the story he had told the reporter, as a child he had a Brasher doubloon that he had hidden in the crawlspace of the family house. When the family moved, the coin was left behind in its hiding place. Now, all those years later, the subject of the reporter’s interview had read of the recent auction and remembered that he once had a coin just like the one that sold for big bucks. He had to retrieve it somehow so he could also become rich.
The man told the reporter that he went to his former house and introduced himself to the present owners, explaining that he had once lived there and that since he was in the area again, he just wanted to see what the place looked like. No mention of any coin. The family invited him in and even extended an invitation for him to stay for a few days, which he accepted. After a few days with the family, the trusting owners said they had to run an errand if he didn’t mind staying there by himself for a bit. The family left and the man seized his chance. He got into the crawlspace, found the coin where he had left it, and then left the place with his purloined property. And then he contacted the newspaper in the town he then lived in to brag about his action. The reporter’s article about the deed was printed in the newspaper and a copy of it eventually arrived at my desk via the clipping service.
I found the article disturbing for reasons I think all of you understand. What I knew, that the story’s subject and the reporter didn’t know, was that the Brasher doubloon he had “retrieved” was one of the thousands of replicas in the wild. Coin World used to get these replicas from readers all the time; their owners wanted to know whether they were genuine. They weren’t.
I wrote the reporter and suggested to her that she contact the interviewee and pass along my recommendations that he contact a knowledgeable dealer or one of the fledging authentication services in an effort to have it authenticated, though I refrained from commenting too much on the man’s tactics despite my personal outrage. She did, but the man did not like the advice. He wrote me a rather scathing letter blasting me for suggesting that the coin might be a copy and not the real thing. In the years since, no new specimen of a 1787 Brasher doubloon has ever surfaced, so I am confident in assuming that I was correct and that the Brasher doubloon that the man had lifted from the house was one of those cast replicas.
This experience was by far one of the most interesting to come out of an envelope stuffed full of newspaper clippings.