The Joys of Collecting column from the Dec. 12, 2016, issue of
Tokens are as popular as ever, more or less immune from market
cycles. This week I discuss a great rarity. I would estimate that
fewer than two dozen are known, and the number might even be less than
10. And yet an example is valued at only $200 to $400, certainly
affordable to most buyers.
Struck in late autumn 1858, it is the only American token of that
era related to the game of chess. The subject is Paul Morphy, famous champion of America and Europe.
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In the summer of 1858 a great craze for medalets measuring about 32
millimeters in diameter arose, after one celebrating the August
completion of the Atlantic Cable caused a sensation and was sold by
the thousands. This engendered a desire for more varieties to collect.
Robert Lovett Jr., a Philadelphia engraver, and George H. Lovett, who
had a token shop in New York City, turned out dozens of different
designs in that year and in 1859. These are highly desired by those
who know about them, but information is scarce.
As mentioned last week, Augustus B. Sage, a New York City dealer who was
also the founder of the American Numismatic Society (in March 1858),
jumped on the bandwagon. On Oct. 5, 1858, the elegant Crystal Palace
burned to the ground. News was spread nationwide. This was the ideal
subject to launch Sage’s Odds and Ends Series, as No. 1. My guess is
that somewhere between 500 and 1,000 tokens were minted and sold.
Rather than capitalizing on current news, No. 2 depicted the Old Sugar House, a New York City building that
was used by the British to house captive Yankees when they occupied
the city during the revolution. Bad move. The tokens did not sell well.
No. 3 endeavored to change that, showcasing Paul Morphy, whose name
was known to everyone. Chess was so popular that metropolitan papers
carried columns about it. Morphy was to chess in his day what Babe
Ruth was to baseball generations later.
Somehow, the momentum was lost, and relatively few Morphy tokens
were made and sold. The Odds and Ends Series expired.
Today the Morphy issue illustrates that many tokens have fascinating
stories to tell.
More than a dozen books about Morphy are currently available on the
Internet, expanding a world of interest if you are fortunate enough to
acquire one of Sage’s No. 3 tokens.