Research can change a coin’s value and enrich one's knowledge of history

Civil War ‘dog tag’ from Seated Liberty half dollar might be a watch fob
By , Coin World
Published : 09/25/15
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If Hollywood had written the script, a highlight from Numismatic Auctions LLC’s summer auction would have turned out to be a Civil War “dog tag.”

But, Coin World is in Ohio, and the auction firm is in Michigan, and Hollywood is thousands of miles away from both of those states. 

As a collector and writer, I cling to the pieces that tell an amazing story. 

A most common idle thought among collectors is to wonder who held the coins that they now own. Where did this coin travel? What did it buy? Was it lost, to the dismay of the owner, or was it collected and protected with care, a special token of an event in life or death?

But sometimes stories are not to be as fantastic as you wish them to be. 

That was the case with an 1858-O Seated Liberty half dollar in the aforementioned auction.

The briefest of lot description teased for further exploration.

The holed coin bears the name J.L. Berch across the obverse. According to cataloger Steve Davis, the host coin is toned but in Very Good condition, while the countermark is Extremely Fine.

The only other line about the lot was pregnant with possibility. 

“A little research might yield the background of Berch,” it read.

Searching for a story

In search of a fantastic story, I began digging. 

Davis said the item was “a real beater, [found] at the bottom of the box of Civil War jewelry. It looks legit but I’m going to let the researchers sort it out.”

Examples of coins that served in a military capacity as a Civil War “dog tag” are real but extremely scarce and often misrepresented.

I was surprised that a New Orleans Mint struck coin would be associated with a Northerner. We know that, in general, circulation patterns suggest coins circulate predominantly nearest to the Mint that struck them.

It sure has been true for the 20th century but was even more so when the country wasn’t hyperconnected as it is today.

Could this item really have served as a “dog tag” for a Civil War soldier? What a story that would be! An artifact of the pivotal American conflict, traced to the soldier who owned it! 

I reached out to Nancy Dearing Rossbacher, editor of North South Trader’s Civil War Magazine, and author of a treatise about the abundance of questionable pieces that flood the market. 

She confirmed that there was a Civil War soldier (a quartermaster) by the name of Jesse L. Berch, the only name to match the countermarked name in all three initials.

My pulse quickened.

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