An Egyptian King and Augustus Saint-Gaudens Walk into a Bar…

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One of America’s most beautiful coins ever produced owes its creation to Augustus Saint-Gaudens and President Theodore Roosevelt. Minted from 1907 to 1933, the Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle is sought-after by collectors and for a time, even the Secret Service.

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Shaw Memorial, Boston Massachusettes. Image by debaird™

A preeminent sculptor of the American Renaissance, the Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens was a mover and shaker in the American art world. From the late 1870s until his death in 1907 at the age of 59, he remained one of the most acclaimed artists of his time. His bronze works were both privately and publicly commissioned and are featured throughout the country; arguably the most notable of which is the Shaw Memorial in Boston — and for the taphophile with discerning taste, the Adams Memorial located in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington D.C.

In 1905, Saint-Gaudens was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to design his inaugural Presidential medal. An avid art collector, Roosevelt was pleased by Saint-Gaudens’ efforts. Roosevelt thought circulating American coinage was unattractive and did not reflect the success of America as a democratic, emerging world power. Saint-Gaudens earned himself another commission, one that would redesign the Liberty Head $10 gold eagle and $20 double eagle.

Saint-Gaudens’ golden numismatic masterpiece featured the beautiful figure of Liberty, clad in a gown that skillfully suggested motion, striding purposefully forward clutching an olive branch in one hand and torch held aloft in the other. Its reverse bore a proud eagle, soaring above the rays of a rising sun. His original design was for an ultra-high relief coin in emulation of ancient Greek and Roman coinage, but minting such a design proved to be difficult and only 24 of these experimental coins were ever produced. The relief was lowered twice more before minting began in large quantities. Augustus Saint-Gaudens died before the new double eagles were ready for circulation.

The Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints chugged along, minting double eagles until 1933. Recorded mintages ranged from as few as 22,000 in 1908 to as high as almost 9 million in 1928. When the Great Depression began in 1929, many Americans began to hoard as much gold and silver coinage as they could.

 

Forbidden Fruit

The disappearance of gold from circulation was seen as a hindrance to economic growth as by 1933, the Federal Reserve had issued nearly as many Reserve Notes as it had gold to back them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102, which forbade citizens to hoard gold in any form; however an exception was made for rare coins, jewelers, dentists and the like. While the average American was forced to turn in their gold, Executive Order 6102 also halted all production of gold coins. In 1933, the Philadelphia Mint had already minted 445,000 double eagles. All were ordered to be destroyed, but unbeknownst to Uncle Sam, ten managed to slip through the cracks.

 

Pilfered and Plundered

Legend has it that a sticky-fingered U.S. Mint cashier was responsible for spiriting the ten double eagles away. Somehow, the never-officially-issued-and-thereby-illegal coins ended up in the possession of Philadelphia jeweler and coin dealer, Israel Switt. As years passed, all ten 1933 double eagles were quietly sold to Switt’s patrons.

The United States government was unaware of the missing coins — that is until 1944, when an export license was applied for and erroneously granted to collector extraordinaire, Egyptian King Farouk for the sale of a 1933 double eagle. At the time the export license was granted, the significance of the coin’s date had not yet dawned on officials within the U.S. Treasury. When the blunder was discovered, the Secret Service sent agents to ferret out the remaining coins. Eventually, nine coins were found and destroyed.

Ten years later, the massive coin collection of the deposed King Farouk went to auction in Cairo. Amongst the nearly 8,500 gold coins was the lone imported 1933 double eagle. Upon learning that the auction contained the purloined double eagle, the U.S. government demanded that the coin be withdrawn from the sale and returned. The Egyptian government complied, however, the coin disappeared without a trace.

2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle Gold Coin Obverse

In a display of technological minting prowress, in 2009 the U.S. Mint unveiled the Ultra High Relief double eagle as Saint-Gaudens originally intended. Image by United States Mint 

Exhibit A

Decades later, the notorious coin resurfaced. In 1996, Secret Service agents set up a sting operation to purchase the illustrious double eagle from a British coin dealer. The handcuffs came out, the dealer was arrested and the coin was once again in possession of the United States government… but this was not the end of the story. In a lengthy court battle, it was argued that the United States had given written permission (in the form of the export license) for the coin to go into private collection. Ultimately, a settlement was reached and the U.S. Mint agreed that this was the only 1933 double eagle allowed to be privately owned.

 

On the Auction Block Once More

In 2002, the little coin found its way to auction once more. After the highest bid was placed, an additional $20 fee (for its face value) was added to officially monetize and issue the coin for private ownership. The once illegal coin sold for a tremendous $7.6 million dollars– making it the second most expensive coin to ever have been sold.

 

Squirreled Away for a Rainy Day

Perhaps you remember the coin dealer from Philadelphia? Turns out he had a safe-deposit box that lay untouched for more than fifty years. When his heirs opened it, voilà! Inside were TEN more 1933 double eagles! Suffice it to say, Israel Switt’s heirs ended up with the short end of the stick, because there’s one and only one 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle that is legal to own.

Sources:
Bowers, David Q. The History of United States Coinage. Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Inc. 1979. 283-84.
Brother, Eric. “The 1933 Double Eagle: America’s Most Notorious Coin.” CoinWeek. 10 May 2018, https://coinweek.com/us-coins/the-1933-double-eagle-americas-most-notorious-coin/.
Gibbs, William. “Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt: the inaugural medal that spawned a renaissance.” Coin World, 2 Aug. 2017, https://www.coinworld.com/news/us-coins/2017/08/saint-gaudens-and-roosevelt-the-inaugural-medal.all.html/.
Wikipedia contributors. “Augustus Saint-Gaudens.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Nov. 2018. Web. 19 Nov. 2018.
https://www.usmint.gov/news/press-releases/20020207-the-united-states-government-to-sell-the-famed-1933-double-eagle-the-most-valuable-gold-coin-in-the-world
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Like Potato Chips, One Mint is Never Enough

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Most readers are familiar with P, D, and S coins, but did you know that before there was a CC mintmark, there was just a C? And that the D mintmark used by Denver was used before the Civil War by a mint located in the Old South?

Prior to the first circulating coins of the Philadelphia Mint in 1793, the fledgling nation was a free-for-all when it came to acceptable forms of currency. Colonial and foreign currency was used widely, as well as coins minted privately by states. Even trade of livestock was considered an adequate form of monetary transaction.

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Spanish 2-reales would have been commonly seen in colonial America. They remained legal tender in the U.S. until 1857.

Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1792 which established parameters and regulations for producing currency and for the creation of the first minting facility of the United States in Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital). Before its passage, the U.S. did not have a standard for its unit of money, let alone regulations to instill standard weight, content or purity of the precious metals used for coinage. As Americans continued to travel ever-westward building cities and towns, federal minting facilities sprang up in their wake.

 

One Mint is Never Enough

As the years passed, the Philadelphia Mint continued to produce coinage. In the early part of the 19th century, America saw the first of two gold rushes originate from its south. The discovery of the Carolina and Georgia Gold Belt placed immense pressure on Philadelphia’s facility to melt, refine and produce coins from the golden boon.

As a response to the increase of available gold, in 1835 an act of Congress required that three new branch mints must be opened. Located in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia and New Orleans, Louisiana; these facilities opened their doors and began minting coinage in 1838.

 

The Newest Members of the U.S. Mint

The Charlotte and Dahlonega branch mints eased the demand on Philadelphia’s gold coin production as well as the expenses of the gold miners. Their proximity to these minting facilities meant that they no longer had the risks and expenses of transporting their gold on the long journey to far-off Philadelphia.

The Charlotte Mint was the first of the three facilities to open; in 1837 it began receiving gold from the public for assay (a fancy name for determining the content and quality of the metal) and refining. The following year, it produced its first coinage bearing the C mintmark. During its operation, the Charlotte Mint struck over $5 million worth of gold dollars, quarter eagles and half eagles.

Like Charlotte, the Dahlonega Mint produced only gold coins in a variety of denominations. The $3 Indian Princess Head was struck for just one year at Dahlonega; the inaugural 1854-D issue had a mintage of just 1,120. Of the three southern branch mints, New Orleans was the only other to produce the $3 gold piece for just a single year.

From the early 1800s until the Civil War, New Orleans was the fifth largest city in America. Its location along the Mississippi River was vital to import and export of goods, including gold. The New Orleans Mint produced both gold and silver coinage bearing the O mintmark and in greater quantities than its southern neighbors.

 

Westward Ho!

In 1849 as news of the California gold rush traveled back to the east coast, thousands of Americans journeyed westward. Born of this expansion were three additional minting facilities. The San Francisco Mint opened in 1854 to process and transform new-found gold. Although intended to produce gold coinage, the Denver Mint in Colorado was initially used as an assay office and didn’t actually produce any coins until 1906. In Nevada, the Carson City Mint produced silver coinage starting in 1870, which was mined from the famous Comstock Silver Lode.

 

Occupied Territory

The three southern mints continued operations until their occupation by the Confederate government at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Dahlonega stands apart; it’s 1861-D Indian Princess gold dollar is considered the rarest of the series. While under control of the Confederacy, an estimated 1,200 or so gold dollars were struck with the facility’s remaining gold. No minting had begun prior to its occupation by the Confederacy and no federal records exist to verify the number of coins produced. Today, approximately 60-75 or so of these coins are known to exist. According to PCGS Auction Prices, an auction record of $149,500 was set in 2008 for an NGC MS-65 1861-D Indian Princess gold dollar. As recently as September of this year, a lesser-grade MS-60 sold for $80,000. Just imagine owning either of those gold pieces in 1861 and being told that in 150 years or so, they would be worth five to six figures!

After Confederate occupation, Dahlonega never reopened its doors. Although Charlotte reopened after the Reconstruction period, it functioned only as an assay office until 1919; while New Orleans would continue to produce coinage until its last Morgan silver dollar was struck in 1904.

 

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Of these seven pre-20th century U.S. Mints, only three remain in operation today. Carson City became defunct after the supply of western silver dwindled. Although arguably most famous for its Morgan dollars, Carson City also produced a number of other denominations, including a dime and the oddly-valued, unpopular 20 cent piece.

Low mintage numbers, the passage of time and rarity of specific gold and silver issues makes obtaining coins minted at Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans and Carson City the Holy Grail for many collectors today.

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What Does P.T. Barnum, Christopher Columbus and George Washington Have in Common?

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The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago introduced the American public to not only the first U.S. commemorative coin, but also to the first Ferris wheel.

Commemorative coins were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to record important events and pass along news of the time; they often recorded the victors of battles and new rulers. For example, large denomination decadrachms are thought to have been issued for significant events; particularly of Greece’s victory over Persia in 480-479 B.C. Today, commemorative coins are issued by many nations and nearly always chronicle important people, places or historical events.

U.S. commemorative coins fall into two time periods: Classic (1892-1954) and Modern (1982-present). Authorized by the U.S. Mint, some of America’s finest artists and sculptors designed unique coins not found in circulation. Profits generated from sales of these coins generally funded specific events and interests related to the theme. Early on, commemoratives had a narrow scope of appeal; they were often regionally specific and low mintage numbers made them difficult to obtain. When the U.S. Mint hit its commemorative stride in the 1980s, a greater variance of themes and availability led to universal interest.

Not So Popular First Attempt

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ inadvertent discovery of the New World. To mark the event, the United States issued the first commemorative coin, the silver 1892-1893 Columbian half dollar. It was sold for $1 and was engraved by both artistic powerhouses of the day, Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan. The obverse, engraved by Barber, depicted a bust of Columbus; while the reverse displayed the work of Morgan: Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria and earth’s two hemispheres.

1893IsabellaQuarterAlso issued at the fair was a souvenir that sold for $1; the 1893 Isabella quarter, commissioned by the Board of Lady Managers at Exposition. The quarter represented women’s contributions to industry in the time of Columbus. Engraved by Barber, its obverse depicted Columbus’ financier, the Spanish Queen Isabella and an idealized figure of a woman spinner. Just over 24,000 were minted.

Both early American commemoratives proved unpopular with the general public, presumably patrons of the fair balked at paying three times face value for a quarter. Many ended up in the melting pot, or in the case of the Isabellas, the majority were bought back by the Board of Lady Managers. Just 110 years later in 2013, a Certified MS-68 Queen Isabella quarter sold at auction for over $64,000!

Stalled Out

Although the U.S. mint kept plugging away, commemoratives took a while to catch on in popularity. Many classic commemoratives celebrated states or even cities, but outside of those geographical areas, they did not have broad appeal. Did you know that P.T. Barnum appeared on an official U.S. coin? In 1936, Bridgeport, Connecticut posthumously honored one of its most famous residents, the greatest showman – P.T. Barnum.

1982WashingtonHalfProofAfter the last Carver/Washington coin was struck in 1954, commemoratives were not minted again until 1982. By this time, all silver content had been removed from American Coinage. In 1982, the George Washington commemorative silver half dollar emerged and was the first coin to contain 90% silver since 1964.

 

Something for Everyone

Today, the broad range of subjects and themes of commemorative coins appeals to a wide range of collectors. With the exception of 1985, the U.S. Mint has released at least one commemorative coin every year since Washington’s debut.

Many modern issues have more than one denomination. Half dollars are typically clad, while dollars are 90% silver and some are even minted as $5 or $10 gold pieces. Most designs also have a proof version. Regardless of their face value, all commemorative coins have limited mintages. Once the U.S. mint reaches its quota for a particular design, it will never be produced again. Some earlier modern commemoratives had mintages of over 2 million, while 2017’s Boys Town silver dollar had a mintage of just over 12,000.

 

Where to Go From Here

Really, they sky’s the limit. Some collectors are up for the challenge of obtaining every release since 1982 (or from 1892!). Others only collect commemoratives relating to America’s military history. There are many different coins celebrating Olympic events. With 35 years of production, there truly is a modern commemorative coin for everyone. Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” And yes, there’s even a commemorative coin in his honor.

 

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Cornelius “Con” Hogan

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This week started here at International Coins & Currency with some sad news. The untimely passing of Cornelius “Con” Hogan, a current member of our board of directors and a past president. Con had been affiliated with ICC almost since the beginning and assumed the role of President in the early 1980s. He successfully guided our company through some of our most difficult times. I can say without reservation that Con was instrumental in our longevity and continued success.

Con left the daily operations at ICC to continue what was already a distinguished career in state government, working for several governors here in Vermont in many capacities including Health and Human Services Commissioner.

During my tenure here, now fast approaching 39 years, Con has been a dynamic figure that commanded respect simply by entering a room, and when he spoke it was in your best interest to listen.

Con was a mentor and a friend whom I will sadly miss. I feel blessed to simply have been affiliated with such an individual.

Rest in Peace.

Rick Thurston,
President,
International Coins & Currency Inc.

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“Fake” Pennies

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Can you imagine running a business or managing your personal purchases without coins? As we move into the digital age that might be our future. But back in the day when cash was king, it was almost impossible.

The difficulties of that situation were felt intensely over 150 years ago during the American Civil War. Scarcity and hoarding led to severe coin shortages during that long and difficult conflict.

Civil War Currency Challenges:

Early in the 1860s, with coins in such short supply commerce was becoming difficult and merchants began to make change with credit slips or even postage stamps. In 1862 the U.S. government did provide small paper notes in denominations of 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents and 50 cents. But few trusted paper money at that time; “fractional currency” did not solve the crisis.

Private Tokens:

Another solution was the private minting of tokens. Produced mostly from 1861 to 1864 these issues, now called “Civil War tokens” were generally copper pieces the size and shape of the standard cent. These tokens can be divided into tradesmen’s tokens or store cards and pieces with political or patriotic themes.

The tradesmen’s tokens were purchased by merchants and included advertising messages, presumably to be redeemable for goods in the store. Tokens with political or patriotic themes were produced anonymously and put into circulation unconnected to specific consigners.

Being privately issued, these tokens carry a multitude of messages and designs. Creators had to be careful not to mimic actual coinage too closely, but otherwise were free to express themselves ad libitum.

Legal Status:

Were these “fake” coins legal?  At the time, Mint Director James Pollock thought not, but there was no counterfeiting law prohibiting the issue of tradesmen’s tokens or private coins that did not imitate United States coinage. Civil War tokens did become illegal after April 22, 1864 when Congress passed a law prohibiting the private issue of any one or two-cent coins, tokens or devices for use as currency. On June 8, 1864 an additional law was passed that forbade all private coinage.

Where to Go From Here:

Luckly for today’s collectors, many of these interesting and historic treasures were saved. Although not U.S. issued coinage, these pieces are often found with other numismatic items. Approximately 10,000 different varieties of Civil War tokens have been identified. The huge assortment of types and designs make the category a wonderful area for focus. It’s an almost never-ending treasure hunt for the next find to add to your stash.

 

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How Much Silver is in a Silver Dollar?

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Romance and mystery surround America’s big silver dollars: The cowboy sliding one across the bar in the western movie, a shiny holiday gift from Grandpa, a magician pulling one from behind your ear. Collectors love these historic treasures both for their collectible value as well as their silver content.  Continue reading

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The Lincoln Cent: The Perfect Collectible Coin

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The Lincoln cent may be the most collected coin in U.S. history. Millions of Americans have at one time or another amassed Lincoln pennies. For many, the lowly one cent coin was their entry into the hobby.

Today the Lincoln cent remains a mainstay of the numismatic world and is still a wonderful way for new collectors to enter the fascinating world of coin collecting.

In fact, not only do our current pennies have a new “Shield” reverse engraving, but just recently a surprise issue was released.

Without fanfare, a very important numismatic treasure entered circulation in 2017. The 2017-P Lincoln cent is the very first U.S. penny to bear Philadelphia’s “P” mintmark. Since 1793, cents produced in Philadelphia have carried no mintmark. This unique, one-year-only type was quietly output in recognition of the principal Mint’s 225th anniversary.

Why Lincoln Cents are the Perfect Collectible:

In its over 100 year run, the Lincoln cent has had a number of design changes making the series especially interesting for numismatists. And since all four of the reverse engravings can be found, at least occasionally in pocket change, it makes for an easy collection for beginners.

On the Lincoln penny’s 50th anniversary in 1959, the Lincoln Memorial reverse replaced the long-standing “Wheatie” design. In 2009, to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and 100 years of the Lincoln cent, four one-year-only engravings were released to honor the famous president’s birthplace, formative years, professional life and presidency. Since 2010, the Lincoln penny has featured a “Shield” reverse design.

Although you can’t find too many early dates in circulation, there are still a wonderful variety of affordable coins to get new collectors started.

Collectible From the Very First Issue:

Continuously minted since 1909, the Lincoln cent is the oldest type of U.S. currency still in everyday use. Introduced on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, it is the first circulating U.S. coin to bear the portrait of a president.

While the Lincoln image won universal acclaim, there were strenuous objections to the designer’s initials appearing too prominently on the reverse (or back) side. It was a long-standing tradition for the designer’s initials to appear on coins, but most were inconspicuous. However, the “VDB” was as visible as a mintmark, appearing in the open space below the wheat sheaves of the reverse. Three days after the Lincoln cent’s triumphant release, the Secretary of the Treasury insisted that new dies be made without the initials. The Philadelphia Mint had already released 27 million “VDB” pennies and the San Francisco Mint an incredibly small number of 484,000.

Ever since, the 1909-S VDB issue has remained the key rarity in the circulation Lincoln penny series.

Where to Go From Here:

You can start your Lincoln cent collection right now! I’ll bet you have a penny or two in your pocket, your desk drawer or under your couch cushions. Start with those and work toward a full collection. Penny folders are a great help to keep you organized.

Watch your change and continually replace pieces when you find the same issue in better condition. You’ll want to be sure to watch for mintmarks as well as dates. The mintmark is below the date on the obverse (or front) of the coin. This tells you what U.S. minting facility produced the coin. A complete collection will include not just one coin from each year of issue, but one from each mint that produced coins that year.

Once you’ve gone through your own penny stash you can ask friends to exchange their pennies for paper money or you can go to a local bank and ask for rolls of pennies to search. Once you get started you’ll never look at a penny the same way again!

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