Nearly 34 years after buying the unique 1783 Nova Constellatio, Type II quint pattern at auction from the Garrett Collection, Chicago numismatist Walter Perschke is ready to relinquish ownership.
Also known as the 500-unit piece, the pattern was one of four silver 1783 Nova Constellatio patterns offered at the Nov. 28 to 29, 1979, sale conducted by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries.
The Type II quint was the only one of the four patterns that the celebrated New York numismatist John J. Ford Jr. was unable to buy at the 1979 sale.
In his 1875 reference, Early Coins of America, Sylvester S. Crosby considered the Nova Constellatio patterns to represent the first patterns for United States coinage.
Perschke purchased the Type II quint for $55,000 from the 1979 sale where it was graded as “Choice AU-55, with prooflike surface.”
The sale was the first of four auctions of the Garrett Collection conducted by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries between 1979 and 1981.
Currently graded Professional Coin Grading Service Secure About Uncirculated 53, the Type II quint pattern is scheduled to cross the auction block April 25 during Platinum Night of Heritage Auctions’ Signature Sale April 24 to 28. The auction is being held in conjunction with the Central States Numismatic Society 74th Anniversary Convention in Schaumburg, Ill.
Perschke placed bids on all four Nova Constellatio patterns in the 1979 Garrett auction — the 100-unit bit, or cent; the Type I 500-unit quint; the Type II quint; and the 1,000-unit mark — but was successful only with his bid for the Type II quint.
It was serendipitous that he walked away with any of the four patterns, considering his formidable opponent in Ford.
“In buying the quint, I was in the right place at the right time,” Perschke said April 3, 2013. “Ford was the only other bidder over $50,000 on any of the four. To conceal his interest in buying the complete group, he retained two agents to bid for him with instructions to not bid against each other and which specific coins to bid on.
“Fortunately for me, the two agents got their signals crossed, or more likely, received conflicting instructions from Ford, and neither bid on the Type II quint, which I was able to buy for $55,000. I did not know this during the sale, but it was told to me by one of the agents long afterwards.”
Perschke recalls Ford later tried to buy the Type II quint from him on several occasions over the years, always through an agent, which was usually Harvey Stack from Stack’s.
“Ford never wanted to make an offer, but I did quote a price to him on more than one occasion, and he did me an enormous favor by turning down my asking price,” Perschke said.
When he purchased the quint, Perschke said it would be a “long-term hold.”
“It was never my intention to [‘flip’ the] coin,” Perschke said. “At the time of purchase, I don’t think I envisioned holding [the] coin for this long. It just worked out that way.”
Perschke labeled the quint an extraordinary example of American history. He said: “As a history teacher and student of economics, I can tell you that the quint is a foundation for the economic and monetary system we have today in America. It was the first decimal coin in a Colonial economy based on pounds sterling and Spanish eight reales.
“It is one of the unprecedented turning points in American history that we developed a decimal system of money and coinage. It was with great foresight that the [founding] fathers envisioned and commissioned the decimal system still in use today.
“The quint was a forerunner and pattern for that system. America was making a declaration to the world that it was taking its place among sovereign nations and minting its own coinage in a decimal system that was uniquely American and that would one day be the reserve currency of the world.”
Perschke has exhibited the Type II quint pattern at numismatic events over the years, including a showing at the 2011 American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Rosemont, Ill., when Ford’s former coins were on display at another bourse table.
A suggested currency
The Nova Constellatio patterns were conceived in 1781 by Gouverneur Morris, assistant superintendent of commerce for the Confederation of American States, as the first proposed monetary system for the newly independent country.
At the time, each of the original 13 Colonies functioned with independent monetary systems using foreign coinage, with differing rates of exchange in each Colony.
Morris’ plan was an effort toward standardization. He determined that by making his basic unit, or mill, equal to 1/1,440th of a Spanish milled dollar, he could express prices for any item in terms of the monetary units then employed by 12 of the 13 states in a corresponding number of federal units without resorting to fractions.
Using his basic monetary unit, Morris devised a monetary plan that envisioned a copper 5-unit piece, a copper 8-unit coin, a silver 100-unit piece (known as the cent or bit), a silver 500-unit quint, a silver 1,000-unit mark, and a gold 10,000-unit piece.
According to the Heritage auction lot description, seven examples of the Nova Constellatio patterns survive today — one mark, one Type I quint, one Type II quint, three 100-unit cents, one of which has a plain edge rather than the edge device the majority share, and a single copper 5-unit piece.
No examples of the proposed gold 10,000-unit piece or the copper 8-unit piece have ever been found, and it seems unlikely that any were ever struck.
Of the seven surviving coins, six exhibit the same devices, but one of the quints has a unique obverse design.
The obverse common to six pieces features the All-Seeing Eye in a glory of rays at the center with 13 stars and NOVA CONSTELLATIO around.
The common reverse features U.S (with no period after the S) and the denomination, both at the center. An olive wreath encircles the center inscriptions, with LIBERTAS JUSTITIA and the date 1783 around.
The edge device is a twin olive leaf design, except on the copper 5-unit piece and one of the known bits, which have plain edges.
The unique Type II quint features the same reverse as the Type One, but the obverse is unique, having the All-Seeing Eye encircled by 13 stars, but without the inscription NOVA CONSTELLATIO.
The papers of Robert Morris — superintendent for finance for the Confederation, Gouverneur Morris’ boss, but having no familial relationship — record minute details of the work done to execute the pattern production, including payments to coiner John Jacob Eckfeldt and to an engraver named David Tew for forging and sinking two pairs of dies in April 1783.
Benjamin Dudley, an experienced metallurgist and diesinker who had recently emigrated from England in mid-1781, was hired by Robert Morris to supervise the establishment of a Mint and to make dies and coins for the new coinage system.
Dudley arrived in Philadelphia on October 23, 1781.
Robert Morris submitted his and Gouverneur Morris’ collaborative coinage proposal to Congress on Jan. 15, 1782.
Dudley constructed a screw press and other necessary machinery for the formation of the Mint. He began the work of implementing the coinage plan even before Congress approved it.
Robert Morris recorded in a diary entry dated April 2, 1783, that Dudley had delivered to him a piece of silver that had been struck into the first American coin.
Heritage, in the firm’s auction lot description for the Type II quint pattern, surmises that although the diary entry did not mention the denomination of the newly struck piece, “it has always been assumed that the coin was the largest silver denomination, the mark.”
The dies for the mark were produced from device punches in the usual manner of the time. A few weeks later, on April 16, Morris wrote the following entry in his diary, “Sent for Mr. Dudley and urged him to produce the Coins to lay before Congress to establish a Mint.”
An undocumented number of Nova Constellatio patterns accompanied a May 1, 1784, letter that Robert Morris sent to Thomas Jefferson, who was then preparing for a multi-year assignment as minister to France. The struck pieces Robert Morris sent to Jefferson apparently did not include the Type II quint, according to the Heritage auction lot description.
The catalog indicates Jefferson left the coins with Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress. The auction lot description contributes an extensive accounting of the circuitous paths specific Nova Constellatio patterns traveled after being delivered to Jefferson and held for safekeeping by Thomson.
The Type II quint surfaced in October 1870 when New York City coin dealer William P. Brown published a description of the pattern in an article in Volume 1, Number 2 of The Curiosity Cabinet. Brown disclosed that the Type II quint came from a young New York City coin collector who claimed to have inherited the piece from his grandfather. Crosby purchased the pattern from Brown and described it, along with the Type I quint and the mark, in Early Coins of America.
Baltimore’s John Work Garrett obtained the four Nova Constellatio patterns in a private treaty transaction from collector Col. James W. Ellsworth and retained the pieces in his famous collection from their 1923 acquisition until his death in 1942, when the collection was bequeathed to Johns Hopkins University.
According to Stack’s, the four patterns were among 2,000 coins purchased from Ellsworth on March 7, 1923, by New York dealer Wayte Raymond and Garrett through Knoedler & Co., for $100,000.
The bit, Type I quint and mark sold in the 1979 sale for $97,500, $165,000 and $190,000, respectively, to Ford. The unique Type II quint eluded him.
Ford died July 7, 2005, still not having reunited the four patterns.
Larry Stack, formerly a principal with Stack’s, and currently a senior numismatic consultant with Stack’s Bowers Galleries, confirmed April 3 that the three Nova Constellatio patterns Ford purchased in 1979 were sold seven or eight years ago, by private treaty for an undisclosed sum.
Although the three patterns were originally scheduled to be offered in one of the auctions, the private treaty sale offered the guaranty the three patterns would remain together, Larry Stack said. The buyer(s) wish to remain anonymous, according to Stack.
Visit Heritage Auctions online at www.ha.com. Perschke, at Numisco Rare Coin Inc., can be reached by email at email@example.com.