Extensive research conducted by David McCarthy — senior numismatist
for Kagin’s in
Tiburon, Calif. — concludes the 1783 Nova Constellatio, Plain Obverse
quint pattern is the first coin officially struck by authority of the
United States government.
Attributed as Breen 1102 in Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia
of U.S. and Colonial Coins, the pattern is known by a single example.
The pattern, graded and encapsulated Professional Coin Grading Service Secure About
Uncirculated 53, was scheduled to be on exhibit at Kagin’s booth #700
Aug. 1 to 5 on the bourse floor of the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of
Money at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.
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Insured for $5 million, the pattern is considered to be the historic
ancestor of the dollar as well as every coin in the Western world
using a decimal monetary system.
“This was the first use of the vital and enduring decimal system to
be established in the Western world,” stated Donald H. Kagin from Kagin’s.
Kagin’s acquired the coin for $1,175,000 at Heritage Auctions’ April
25, 2013, Platinum Night auction held in conjunction with the Central States
Numismatic Society Convention in Schaumburg, Illinois.
Beginning his research
Soon after, McCarthy began researching it through the writings of
Morris and Thomas Jefferson, Continental Congress documents, and
forensic evidence found on the coins themselves, and he consulted with
other noted experts in early American numismatics.
Results of McCarthy’s research on the unique, early American
experimental silver coin, which once was in the hands of one of the
nation’s Founding Fathers and first Treasury secretary, Alexander
Hamilton, will be published in the August 2017 edition of The
Numismatist, the official journal of the American Numismatic Association.
Connecting coins, the arts, and American
Another column in the August 7 monthly issue of Coin World
continues with the art theme, as the artists who’ve designed our
most gorgeous pieces of paper currency are profiled.
“Although the coin was discovered in 1870, it was misattributed,”
explains McCarthy. “We now have compelling evidence that it is, ‘the
first that has been struck as an American coin,’ as described in the
April 2, 1783 diary entry of Robert Morris, a signer of the
Declaration of Independence and the U.S. government’s first
Superintendent of Finance.
“The Quint and a subsequent set of coins were created in
Philadelphia in April of 1783 under authority of the Treasury some
nine years before the next coins would be struck by the U.S.
government. It would have been valued at 500-units in a proposed
system that would range from 5 to 1,000 units,” McCarthy said.
Only two examples of the 500-unit coin are known, and each is
distinctively different on the obverse.
One has the words, NOVA CONSTELLATIO, Latin for “a new
constellation,” while the other example, the Plain Obverse piece, is
absent the inscription.
McCarthy’s research demonstrates the coin without the words on the
obverse was struck first.
While several states and private individuals produced and issued
coins during the 1770s and 1780s, the 1783 Nova Constellatio, Plain
Obverse quint is identified as the first coin struck and paid for by
the U.S. government.
Before submitting his findings for publication, McCarthy shared his
results with a dozen numismatic experts on early American coinage who
agreed with his conclusions.
After examining McCarthy’s research, early American coins researcher
and writer John Dannreuther from Memphis, Tennessee, contributed his
“There is a first United States coin, as we have written evidence
(in the April 2, 1783 diary entry of Robert Morris, U.S.
Superintendent of Finance) that one was delivered,” according to Dannreuther.
“‘I sent for (metallurgist) Mr. (Benjamin) Dudley who delivered me a
Piece of Silver Coin being the first that has been struck as an
American Coin,” Morris wrote, according to Dannreuther. “The only coin
that logically could be this coin is the Plain Obverse Quint.”
Dannreuther says there is much evidence suggesting the Plain Obverse
quint is the first coin struck by the U.S. government, primarily the
absence of the inscription NOVA CONSTELLATIO.
“One does not remove legends, they are added,” Dannreuther says.
“Secondly, the number of dies noted in the literature can be made to
match only by having one die ground down and reengraved.
“After overlaying the two Quint types, it became obvious that the
Plain Obverse die’s eye matched the With Legend eye. Since this is the
highest point of the coin, it is the lowest part of the die, as well
as the center, it would be logical to leave a small amount of this
area as a starting point for the new die. The rest of the die’s detail
was removed by the grinding process, of course.”
Engraving of the two quint obverse dies, in Dannreuther’s
estimation, was executed by two different engravers.
“Since, we know that the With Legend coins match the other
denominations in style, as well as having the ‘Nova Constellatio’
legend, the Plain Obverse has to be the first one — thus, it is the
first United States coin,” Dannreuther says.
McCarthy received additional input from American Numismatic
Association President Jeff Garrett from Mid-American Rare Coin
Galleries in Lexington, Kentucky, after Garrett studied McCarthy’s
numismatic road map.
“David McCarthy’s research makes a compelling case for the 1783 Nova
Constellatio Quint being the ‘First American Coin,’ ” Garrett says.
“As such, the historical importance of his research, and the coin,
is one of the most exciting developments in modern numismatics!”
Comes to light
Surfacing in New York City nearly 150 years ago, the Plain Obverse
quint pattern was carefully preserved in several major collections,
including those of Lorin G. Parmelee, S.H. and H. Chapman and Wayte
Raymond, before becoming part of the Garrett Collection and passing
into the possession of Johns Hopkins University, where it resided for
much of the 20th century.
Chicago numismatist Walter Perschke paid $55,000 to acquire the
pattern in Bowers and Ruddy Galleries’ Nov. 28 to 29, 1979, auction of
selections from the Garrett Collection.
Perschke held on to the piece until consigning it
to Heritage’s 2013 sale.
Only now, though, has numismatic research brought together evidence
that it was the first federal coin made by authority of the U.S.
government, according to Kagin’s.
“While the 1783 Plain Obverse Nova Constellatio Quint is among the
most historically significant of all United States coins, it is also
one of the most important artifacts in the world,” says Don Kagin.
“Nothing defines a nation and its society more than its coinage. Just
like great documents such as The Magna Carta or The Declaration of
Independence established fundamental principles and tenets for Western
society, so does coinage reflect a nation’s most important ideals,
becoming a primary source of communication for a nation’s beliefs.”
“By examining the first coin of the United States and the new
decimal monetary system that it ushered in, we gain significant
insights to the thinking of America’s Founding Fathers concerning what
kind of nation they wished to establish,” Kagin said.
The inscriptions and symbols reflect the most important aspects of
our fledgling nation, according to Kagin.
➤ On the obverse, the Eye of Providence, symbolized the creator’s
approval of the new nation.
➤ A circle of 13 stars — a theme which has endured for 240 years —
is an obvious representation of the “new constellation” formed by the
original 13 colonies.
On the reverse:
➤ “U.S.” proclaims the name of the country for all the world to
acknowledge. This is followed by the denomination — in this case, 500
units or a Quint.
“Along with the date, two of the most fundamental and defining
issues for Americans then and today are prominently inscribed in Latin
so all nations could understand: LIBERTAS (Liberty) and JUSTITIA
(Justice)” according to Kagin.
“This coin, struck in the precious metal silver, was also the very
first artifact to present our nation’s new decimal system — in fact,
the first use of such a vital and enduring system to be established in
the Western world.”