Shady stories for U.S. coins add collector interest
- Published: Aug 26, 2015, 4 AM
This is the third and final segment in a series about the "shady stories" behind some of the greatest U.S. coins:
What about the Continental Currency coins? The general belief is that they were coined to replace the paper dollars in the emissions of late 1776 through 1778. There is no disputing that Congress authorized dollar notes for emissions earlier and later than that period, and it seems logical to suspect that Congress intended something to replace the paper dollars. The tin Continental Currency pieces would seem to fit the bill. But what does that prove? No contemporary documentation of such coins has ever been reported. Lacking that, what might the pieces be, and what does what we actually know about their history tell us?
Read more 'Shady stories of U.S. coins':
- The mysteries of the 1804 Draped Bust dollar
- Confederate cent and half dollar emerge after Civil War
Eric Newman is a numismatic researcher of the very first rank, and when he writes: “[t]he foregoing facts put to rest any claims that the Continental Currency coins dated 1776 had no official connection [to Congress,] and we can conclude that the date of preparation of the coins was about July, 1776,” we have to take notice. The facts on which he based the claim (paraphrased from Newman’s article in The Coin Collector’s Journal, 1952) are (1) Congress authorized dollar notes from May 10, 1775, through May 9, 1776, but not from July 22, 1776 through 1777, (2) there was no excess of dollar notes in circulation at the time, and (3) Continental Currency had not depreciated enough by the end of 1776 to justify elimination of the dollar note. All of this can be taken as evidence, but it is very indirect — the kind of secondary evidence you can use in support of an idea that has more direct evidence for it. The problem is that there is no direct evidence for it. Consider for a moment that there is another plausible explanation.
One argument against these coins having been an official congressional issue is that nobody has ever found a reference to them either in the records of Congress or letters from delegates, including when Congress regulated the value of then-circulating coinage in 1782. Even worse, no contemporary references to their existence have been found in the press. Paper money was one thing, but “hard money” was something quite different in the minds of people. If such a truly audacious (and treasonous to the crown) coinage actually did circulate during the War for Independence, can we believe that no Tory or pro-independence newspaper or broadside ever reported it? Can we believe that the British army never got their hands on any examples and never reported such acts of treason back to London?
There was a rumor, presumably originating in New York, reported in the Pennsylvania Gazette of July 3, 1776, that all circulating coppers were to be called in and possibly replaced by a copper coinage produced by Congress, but that was just a rumor, and no copper strikings of the Continental Currency coins are known.
The earliest known reports of Continental Currency coins are being pushed back in time. In 1875 S.S. Crosby reported a 1791 reference to them; by 1952 Newman had found a reference dating to 1786, and in 2014 he reported a German almanac, almost certainly published in December 1783, that illustrates the Libertas Americana medal and a Continental Currency coin. Oddly, the latter has its inscriptions in German. I will not reiterate the evidence, but refer the reader to the article by Newman and Levine in The Numismatist, July 2014. Newman and Levine also report a vague satirical reference to “pewter dollars” from 1779, but what this refers to is unknown. No earlier references to a Continental Currency coin have ever been discovered. This does not prove that no earlier references exist, but there is no evidence that they do, and we must be skeptical of conclusions based on supposition rather than evidence.
A second reason to be skeptical that this was a circulating coinage is that nearly all examples are in very high grades. Professional Coin Grading Service reports having graded 249 examples, 169 of which are in Mint State or About Uncirculated. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has graded 102, 85 of which are MS or AU. Between the two services, over 70 percent are slabbed as AU or better. Because of the coins’ value, it is unlikely that a massive pool of heavily circulated raw examples exists that would dramatically change the grade distribution. We have to conclude that few if any of these saw actual circulation. If they were, indeed, supposed to circulate in lieu of dollar notes, they failed miserably.
A third issue that might concern us is the fact that the great majority were struck in tin, making them more expensive to produce but of no more intrinsic value than paper dollars. Would Congress willingly incur such costs when money was so tight and then keep the entire enterprise a secret? Again, this is hard to believe.
The earliest states of obverse 1 were struck in brass, which suggests that they were test strikes or patterns (or maybe that the intent was to strike them all in brass).
That silver strikes are extremely rare has been attributed to problems Congress had acquiring silver. While Congress certainly had that problem, it continued to have the same problem for years after the Mint was established, so this by no means provides any evidence that Congress intended a silver “dollar” coinage or that the coins in any of the metals were struck under Congress’ authority. Correlation is not evidence of causality. Rather, it is equally plausible that the few silver strikes were intended as special presentation pieces or souvenirs.
When did they first appear?
If they didn’t circulate in the 1770s, when did they appear on the scene? I believe Newman’s discovery of the images in the German almanac provides what is, if not a true smoking gun, then at least a flintlock with a suspiciously warm barrel. We know from Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence that the Libertas dies were completed around March 17, 1783, and that medals were struck from them before April 15 of the same year. Thus the Libertas can be securely dated to the first few months of 1783. His letters show that he was very excited by the medal. Yet the Continental Currency coins are also based on his ideas.
If this truly was the first coinage of the same newly independent United States, which he celebrated in medal form, why did he not show the coinage just as excitedly? I believe that only three explanations can be given: (1) he did not know it existed, (2) he knew it existed but considered it unimportant, or (3) it did not exist. It is hard to imagine that if such a coin existed, Franklin wouldn’t know about it or would consider it unimportant, so we are left with the conclusion that the coin did not exist until some time between March and December of 1783.
Further evidence for their 1783 (or later) manufacture comes from the fact that records prove that Congress did consider a coinage proposal, but it was not for Continental Currency coins. Rather, it was the proposal of 1781 from Robert Morris to produce the Nova Constellatio coins. That project eventually produced a famous set of patterns, the first of which was described by Benjamin Dudley in early April of 1783 as “the first that has been struck as an American coin.” This certainly tells us that Continental Currency coins were not known to Congress, either, in early April of 1783.
A bit of speculation
If they date to 1783 or later, for what purpose, where and by whom were they made? Lacking any evidence, we can only speculate on their purpose. Since the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, perhaps they were medals or tokens struck to commemorate the independence of the United States. Because they were first reported in Europe as the evidence says, and they were first reported along with the Libertas Americana, a medal of known European creation, why might they not also be medals or tokens of European origin? Their attributions to Elbridge Gerry or Elisha Gallaudet as the “EG” who “fecit” are based on the assumption that they were created in the United States in 1776.
However, there were undoubtedly metalsmiths in Europe capable of engraving the simple design of the Continental Currency coin dies and whose initials were “EG.” The two different major misspellings on two of the obverses (CURENCY [Obverse 1] and CURRENCEY [Obverse 4]) suggest that the engraver was not a native English speaker.
It has been pointed out that the CURRENCEY error also occurs on a fractional paper note produced by Gallaudet. However, this is also only a correlation and does not prove they were by the same hand or that even if they were, that they were produced at the same time. We can add that the “EG FECIT” obverse has CURRENCY spelled correctly!
Finally, a late 18th or early 19th century advertisement offering them has recently come to light. They were offered by Sarah Sophia Banks, a British collector of the time who left her collection to the British Museum. Ms. Banks apparently believed that they were struck after 1776 and in Europe.
If original Continental Currency coins are out of your budget, you can certainly get a “restrike.” Facsimiles of these pieces have been produced a number of times. Those made by the same Robert Bashlow who produced the restrike Confederate cents are the most familiar to collectors, were made in the thousands, and can be found on eBay for less than $100. However, they have a modern, machine-produced look to them. If you want something more authentic-looking and less common, but still in the same price range, Gallery Mint Museum copies are available. These dies were hand-engraved and struck using the same technologies in common use in the late 18th century when the originals were produced.
A final summary
In summary, the Confederate cent has no basis to be considered a pattern and should be considered a fantasy piece. The 1804 dollars and Confederate half dollars can only be thought of as souvenirs, as there never were plans for them to be produced and used in commerce as money. Though the Confederacy struck half dollars for circulation, all were of the U.S. design.
Similarly, the supposed manufacture of Continental Currency coins in the United States, under the authority of Congress in 1776, is by no means proved, and there are excellent reasons to doubt it. They are just as likely to be either medals or tokens, produced in 1783 and possibly even of European manufacture. I point out that my hypothesis could be easily disproved should contemporary (1776) evidence for their existence be discovered. Still, unless that evidence directly tied them to Congress, that link would still not be proved. By contrast, should anyone uncover direct evidence for their manufacture in the 1780s, the more familiar hypothesis about their origin would be disproved.
While the simplest explanation for these coins’ existence is that they are fantasy pieces, souvenirs or tokens, some of the issues are not fully resolved, and they may remain so forever. Does it really matter? It would seem that the numismatic marketplace has long since assumed their historical importance. Well-heeled (and more poorly heeled) collectors have coveted them for over 100 years and aren’t likely to stop now. Old ideas die hard, and numerous wealthy collectors have paid a lot of money to powerful coin dealers for these pieces over the years, so there is a lot of entrenched desire for them to be real coins. My point in this little study is to show that much of what we think we know is either wrong or not really knowable, and thereby to introduce a little healthy skepticism into the discussion of some rare “coins” that are thought to be historically important but may well be far less so. In the future, as our investments in fact increase, our returns of conjecture will diminish.
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