A silver spoon in a coin auction?
- Published: Dec 8, 2017, 7 AM
Heritage’s Nov. 1 offering of Part IX from the Eric P. Newman Collection featured something that one probably wouldn’t expect to find in a numismatic auction: a silver spoon. But, of course, this was not just any silver spoon, but one produced by New York silversmith Ephraim Brasher, creator of the famed gold “Brasher doubloon,” widely considered to be the most impressive and desirable early American numismatic issue.
Brasher’s famed gold doubloons are dated 1787 and feature the silversmith’s distinctive oval punch with his EB initials in either of two places: on the eagle’s breast or the eagle’s wing. Seven examples of these are known, and all are expensive. An “EB on Breast” example sold for $2,990,000 at Heritage’s January 2005 Florida United Numismatists auction, and an “EB on Wing” example sold for $4,582,500 at Heritage’s 2014 FUN auction.
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Brasher, along with his contemporaries manufacturing silver products for domestic use (including Paul Revere), would mark his products with a distinctive hallmark as a form of branding.
Brasher’s EB hallmark also can be found on various contemporary gold coins with the punch used to verify the gold content and confirm a coin’s value. Brasher regulated gold and silver coins struck from various world mints that traded in early America for the Bank of New York, and as regulator he would check a coin’s weight and fineness and countermark it with his EB hallmark if it met certain standards. Bank tellers would then be able to accept the regulated coins without having to check their weight. The Brasher doubloons were valued at $15 by contemporary merchants, alongside other contemporary circulating gold coins produced by mints around the world.
One of the most exceptional of these “regulated” coins is a gold 1774 Mexican 8-escudo piece struck at the Mexico City Mint, graded About Uncirculated 55 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., with Brasher’s EB mark prominently stamped at the center of the obverse. It sold for $117,500 at this summer’s American Numismatic Association auctions.
As Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ description observed in that summer auction, these pieces provide evidence of the broad trade taking place in early America, since the coin was just a decade old when Brasher stamped it in New York City, nearly 2,000 miles away from its place of production. The cataloger added, “His unmistakable EB touchmark is now associated with an exclusive and mythical realm of numismatics, and the present piece is among the most incredible representatives bearing the Brasher mark.”
The Mexican gold coin was slightly trimmed to bring the weight down to the 408-grain standard, and as Stack’s Bowers explained, “it is effectively an American coin. Worth $15 at the time of Brasher’s adjustment, these regulated doubloons were of the same value as his legendary 1787 New York doubloons struck from proprietary dies.” These Brasher-marked gold coins would let local merchants know that the coin could be valued at a certain level for use in commerce, an especially useful trait since the Philadelphia Mint would not produce gold coins until 1795.
Brasher was born to Dutch parents on April 18, 1744, and spent most of his life working in New York City until his death in 1810. He served in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant in Col. John Lasher’s Regiment in New York, and his close ties with George Washington and local merchants made him one of the most well-known coin regulators of the era.
The “bread and butter” of a silversmith’s livelihood in 18th century America came from the production of household silver products for domestic use, like the subject spoon, which Brasher produced in New York City around 1780. The spoon, measuring 9 inches long and weighing 1.91 troy ounces, has some errant nicking and scratching consistent with use, but survives in otherwise good condition. A previous owner’s monogram HF is engraved on the handle and the reverse is double stamped with the EB cartouche, which is distinctive because of its use of a serif with a triangular point to the lowest arm of the E.
As Heritage wrote, “Preceding Ephraim Brasher’s well-documented foray into coinage production was his equally respected business of producing silver flatware and hollowware. Patrons including George Washington, the Van Rensselaer family, and other prominent early American families decorated their tables with his high-quality wares.” Brasher was once Washington’s next-door neighbor.
The size and heft of the spoon would make an impression on those using it, because silver was not easy to acquire in the new American colonies. This large spoon was part of a larger table service and is thicker than many contemporary spoons. Heritage explains, “The bullion value of 1.91 troy ounces in coin silver was a little over $2.00 when this spoon was produced, not including any additional cost for craftsmanship. That represented nearly one-week’s wages for the common laborer at the time who earned 44 cents per day, according to an 1885 Massachusetts wage report.”
The spoon sold for $840.
The Newman IX auction offered multiple lots featuring spoons. One was a six-piece lot of Brasher-made and -marked silver spoons, each also measuring 9 inches long, but lighter at around 1.7 troy ounces each. The lot sold for $5,040. Another group of Brasher spoons, totaling 11, brought $9,000.
On his larger silver pieces, Brasher would use a various marks, as seen on a silver punch bowl weighing 17 ounces in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
Here, Brasher uses four punches — the full name BRASHER, a separate punch with N-YORK and two additional oval EB punches as used on his coins and smaller pieces like spoons. Other pieces by Brasher in the Met’s collection include a marrow scoop, marked BRASHER on the back of the handle, tongs, which include two of the oval EB punches on the inside, and an ornate coffee pot with the full rectangular BRASHER punch and the N-YORK punch.
A silversmith working in late 18th century New York had to be ready to make anything his clients demanded. Diversification of one’s practice through tasks like regulating gold and silver circulating coins only increased a skilled silversmith’s local reputation and marketability.
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