As a consummate wise-guy, I enjoy bucking conventional wisdom and
presenting a different way of appreciating things. By the standards of
the old-school gurus who coached me in numismatics as a young’un, the
stuff I now voraciously seek would be condemned to the junk bins as
“why the heck would you want that” coins. We’ve all been taught to go
for that perfect “10” and bypass the obviously flawed. Good thing my
wife isn’t a numismatist.
But I love ugly coins! Not just any battered dog, but the
exceptional ugly coins of pre-federal America. Countless were simply
created that way. The Connecticut copper shown, and its many
equally-hideous siblings, proves that. Before the U.S. Mint began
cranking out Mint State 70 beauties, quality control was lax, and
these pre-striking flaws have much to teach about American planchet
manufacture in the late 1780s. Understanding coin-making technology is
one of the golden keys to the enjoyment of the hobby!
One couldn’t fling a rotten tomato at a Colonial Coin Collectors
Club show without hitting an Uncirculated 1773 Virginia halfpenny,
thanks to a now dispersed hoard. These brown and red gems are as
ho-hum as frozen pizza to me. Any day of the week I’d prefer the “no
grade” example illustrated here, with its unmistakable wear and
damage. The illustrated sad halfpenny, found in the 1920s, was inside
the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Va., when it burned to the
ground on the night of Dec. 22, 1781. Good historical provenance
trumps all as the pinnacle of cool in my book.
Imagine this: You’re trapped in a 1940s horror movie and need to
dispatch a werewolf that’s raiding your coin collection. You brush
aside the wooden stake in your monster-slaying kit, grab the revolver
loaded with silver bullets and fire at the hirsute beast. You miss and
“Wolfie” escapes. Mortified, you discover that you just shot your
prize 1677 Potosi 4-real cob, and the projectile is still lodged in
the victim. Surely a plausible explanation for the little piggy
illustrated here, but the truth is just as extraordinary. Salvaged
from the wreck of a British man-o-war that had just left Manhattan in
late 1711, this coin was previously repaired with a silver plug — in
New York City — to bring it back up to proper weight!
The coins circulating in early America will often bear the scars
of their creation and brutal lives as useful items. Thus, even the
worst of the bunch are deserving of our attention and respect.
Want to learn more about our imperfect numismatic ancestors and
have a hankering for a historical adventure with coins? Why not
register for the American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar
(Session I) and enroll in “The Coins of Pre-Federal America,”
instructed by John Kraljevich and yours truly? Do so and I guarantee
you’ll add greatly to your arsenal of knowledge, have loads of fun and
get to handle hundreds of wonderful colonial era pieces. Heck, some of
them might even be problem free!
Erik Goldstein is curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics at
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.