US Coins

‘Strangeling’ dime’s tale not yet finished

In my long 34-year time as chief scientist and historian of the SS Central America shipwreck and treasure, no field has more exquisitely combined science and history than numismatics. Half a century ago when I was a budding teenage paleontologist (ultimately my academic specialty of geological study) I liked to dig up interesting stuff and show people. My job still lets me do that. I am a fortunate guy.

Curating the purser’s bag of dimes, sorting through and discovering the realities and mysteries embodied in $887.30 in 1857 “spending cash” from an American steamship, has been a special kind of journey for me these past nine months. The process is not yet complete, although it has advanced enough now for the coins and associated interesting information to enter the market. The Coin World article in the March 4 issue was part of recent news in this regard, an article for which I was happy to be interviewed and provide information. One of the unusual pieces discussed in the article is a truly bizarre 1838-O Seated Liberty, No Stars dime with the overstruck imprint of an 1842-O Seated Liberty, Large Date quarter dollar. Part of what I said about this little wonder was an overreach. I told Coin World that the coin had graded Very Good 10.

1827 Capped Bust half dollarsInside Coin World: Two date styles on 1827 half dollars: The March 18, 2019, issue of ‘Coin World’ offers more than a half dozen columns exclusive to the print and digital editions. Here’s a preview of three of them.

Professional Coin Grading Service has not finalized this piece at this grade, and I personally regret and retract any resulting implications. My only defense is that, as a scientist, I tend to think of grade more in terms of physical wear, without regard to business matters of certification.

On Dec. 4, 2018, two and a half months ago, progress in the curating lab had me at about 6,000 dimes through the purser’s bag of 8,873 pieces. The details of our finding and recovering this bag were covered in the previous Coin World article. When we recovered this bag of dimes at sea, we were due in port in two days. We had no time for a detailed inspection and inventory of vast multitudes of silver dimes, so they were merely counted, stabilized and packed. A couple of custodial steps along the way have preserved the safety of the material, with water changes and such. But the dimes arrived in the current lab in California (See another earlier Coin World article — Paul Gilkes’ visit last year) in essentially the same state as packed at sea. We only knew the number, not the identity of the coins or the stories they tell.

‘Smell the history’

The bag sat undisturbed for 157 years in completely dark, cold (38-degree F), briny, anaerobic stillness, encased in a degrading iron box. The results when opened were wondrous but very smelly, like a swamp. “Smell the history” was common parlance when we recovered the bags from the safe. Arriving from their long journey to the lab in California the dimes are still encased, coated, or otherwise enfolded in elements of the swamp they occupied for over a century and a half, the bacterial and mineral deposits and residues that result from such a history. I get to removed these deposits and reveal the wonders and realities. A multistage process ultimately results in the real coin, ready for appreciation and study.

You can think of my job at the moment as the ultimate “Search Through Rolls” coin hunt. Think of it! $887 of dimes from the ship’s bank, if you will.

I have found a few rarities among the thousands of dimes, but most of what I see is what would be expected. There are large percentages of “recent” Arrows dimes (recent from an 1857 perspective) and what seems like really large percentages of 1850, 1851 and 1852 Philadelphia Mint dimes. Perhaps when the steamship company was first supplying the ship (maiden voyage 1853) they went to the bank and got bags of dimes, and this population is somehow influenced by that act. These are the kinds of thoughts that wander through my mind as I curate thousands of dimes, finally resulting in individually examining them and putting them in flips for submission to the PCGS graders.

Discovery of a ‘strangeling’

Then, on Dec. 4, a really strange dime sat in my nitrile-gloved hand over the sink. I had an inkling that it was something unusual as I ushered it through the various curating stages. But now it sat it my hand, free of obscuring deposits, and presenting such a jumble of imagery as to leave me momentarily flabbergasted (not a word I often use for myself, maybe never).

As I walked around the lab gaping, gesticulating and remarking at the strangeling (I really did this — I remember), I knew I had something weird to show the world.

One of the benefits of working on the treasure in the lab where I do is the availability and proximity of PCGS experts and knowledge. The treasure lab is a separate entity, a room within the Collector’s Universe complex, thankfully within the protection of its security, and within fairly easy access for PCGS experts with decades of experience. I do not visit the grading room. Sometimes they visit me.

I first shared it with a PCGS expert with a lifetime of experience, who discovered that the overstruck design was that of a QUARTER, not a dime. You can discern the tops of the letters QUAL and DOL between the other edge elements like the olive leaves and the arrows.

It is honest to say that this is not the most classically beautiful coin. In addition to its mysterious genesis it is the veteran of 15 years of circulation and it is well worn. I showed the coin to Dwight Manley, manager of California Gold Marketing Group and the treasure. We agreed that it was truly unusual, very worn, and not very beautiful, except with careful study, where it becomes a fabulous puzzle.

Dwight asked that I submit the coin for grading. It left the confines of my lab into the custody of PCGS. Some time after that I heard it “made a ten.” VG-10 is about right, I thought, for the state of wear. Again, I tend to think of grade in terms of physical wear, not with regard to other considerations. The objects I work on are unquestionably, historically authentic. 

When we were preparing the press release about the remarkable trove of mid-19th century dimes, we naturally wanted to include the latest news about the newest finds, and my enthusiasm for the odd overstruck dime thrust it into full view.

Some new thoughts

PCGS experts share their opportunities to see unusual pieces with outside experts in the appropriate affiliated fields. Following our announcement of the piece’s existence (in the Coin World article and other press), these scholars raised doubts about the overstruck design, saying that it bore resemblance to certain contemporary counterfeits.

I undertook a study of the Mint mark position for the quarter design, measuring features on the coin against reference images, and determining that it matched a known reverse die paired with the 1842-O Seated Liberty, Large Date quarter dollar, the design of the overstrike impression.

My work is illustrated nearby (I’m pretty old school, paper, scaled ruler and calculator):

The experts responded with a discussion of transfer dies, which I now acknowledge could result in a design with a Mint mark (something that had previously puzzled me — why a counterfeit would have a Mint mark.) The treasure continues to draw me into areas, like contemporary counterfeits, in which I have limited experience, part of how it always challenges me.

But the experts and the references of known examples they cite failed to find a single example of counterfeit dies that presents an acceptable match for the piece seen on the mystery coin.

Status of the piece

For the moment, with an abundance of caution, the status of the identification is that it is an 1838-O Seated Liberty dime overstruck with false 1842-O Seated Liberty quarter dollar dies. I’m not completely convinced this is final. For me, the lack of a matching counterfeit example is a factor in the historical fog. Also, I cannot think of any rational reason why a mid-19th century counterfeiter would strike his quarter design on a dime. It boggles the mind, and is ultimately unknowable. I think some brief mechanical reason within the New Orleans Mint remains a plausible hypothesis.

And don’t get me wrong, I believe it is a wonderful piece, no matter what its curious origins. The fact is that it escaped into circulation to spend 15 years as 10 cents of American money in the 1840s and 1850s, only to wind up in the purser’s cash supply on a steamship, then a shipwreck, then a treasure recovery, then finally into my left hand on that December afternoon.

The treasure continues to reveal its stories. Certain pieces speak of their individual histories, sometimes obviously, and sometimes more inscrutably. Many mysteries abide.

Thanks to Coin World for this opportunity to share some of my experience as I explore through this remarkable numismatic time capsule. 

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