US Coins

Bowers: Considering all that token-collecting offers

The Joys of Collecting column from the Dec. 12, 2016, issue of Coin World:

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.

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