Bits & Pieces... by David Sundman

Famous New England Sixpence
from the Royse Collection

[photo: Obverse and reverse of my New England Sixpence COPY]

Rare 1652 New England Sixpence
Photo courtesy of Stack's-Bowers Galleries

Few collectors ever get to see, let alone hold, an example of New England Coinage of the 1652 issue of Massachusetts Bay Colony. A New England sixpence is a major American rarity. Only the threepence is scarcer, of which just a single example can be accounted for today, in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection.

Found in a Long Island potato field, this NE sixpence last sold at a Sotheby's auction sale in 1991 for $35,000. At the time, it was the most valuable coin ever found by a metal detectorist in America. The find and subsequent sale received huge newspaper coverage around the world.

I was at the Whitman Expo in Baltimore in mid-November 2012 to do some coin buying for Littleton, and I was able to carefully examine this Lot 6002 from the Stack's-Bowers auction on the day before the auction. There are only eight known examples, and it is one of the rarest early American coins. Until that moment, I had never held a genuine NE sixpence.

While it has several deep scrapes and scratches, you can see from the photo that it has a pleasing gray tone and looks exactly the way a 360-year-old American antique coin should look. Of the eight known examples, four are permanently impounded in museums, leaving only four coins for collectors to enjoy.

The auction of Lot 6002 was eagerly anticipated. Everyone who is serious about colonial U.S. coins was in Baltimore for the Colonial Coin Collectors Club (C4) annual convention, as well as the sale of the John Royse Collection of U.S. Colonial Coinage by the Whitman Expo's official auction company, Stack's-Bowers Galleries.

On the day of the auction, experienced dealers and collectors were telling me Lot 6002 would probably go for $90,000-$100,000 – a lot of money. At the end of the day, at least two well-heeled and very serious collectors wanted the coin very badly. The winner paid a $375,000 hammer price, which with auction fees, came to a total of $431,250. I'm sure that everyone was surprised, as it's an amazing result for an early American rarity.

You may be wondering how a banged-up example of a coin can bring so much money? The answer is, "Where could you get another?" With only eight known and four of these permanently secured in museums, the chance to buy such a rarity may only come up once in a lifetime. I feel sorry for the underbidder – he or she really stretched to get the prize. Maybe another chance will turn up someday.

[photo: Obverse and reverse of my New England Sixpence COPY]

Obverse and reverse of my New England Sixpence COPY

The second example of a NE sixpence shown above has a very curious story. Beginning in the 1850s, coin collecting in the United States grew greatly in popularity. Rarities could only be owned by a few collectors. So it was not surprising that several enterprising individuals decided to create their own imitations of rarities for sale to collectors. Some were sold as copies at reasonable prices, and some no doubt were fraudulently offered to collectors as genuine pieces. With only a couple of numismatic references of any note published, and with few illustrations and no photographs, it was easy pickings for the fraudulently inclined. The best-known examples today were those copies made in New York City by Thomas Wyatt and later by Edwin Bolen – to whom Wyatt sold the dies. These activities happened long before today's Hobby Protection Act, enacted in 1973 and requiring the word COPY to be placed on all imitation pieces.

If you compare the Wyatt copy to the photo of the genuine coin, you'll note the curious horizontal lines on the copy. What are they, and why would a person making a copy put them on the copy when they aren't on the original? As mentioned above, there were no photos of coins in books during these early days of U.S. numismatics. With very few examples of the rare New England coinage known, the copyist likely did not have access to the genuine article. The next best thing were the facsimile images of "Pine Tree Money" and New England coinage published in An Historical Account of Massachusetts Currency by Joseph B. Felt [1839]. The line images were roughly modeled after the images from Plate XXX in the 1745 book, A Table of English Silver Coins, by Martin Folkes of the Society of Antiquaries of London [January, 1745].

[photo: Images from a portion of the plate in Joseph B. Felt's 1839 book]

Images from a portion of the plate in Joseph B. Felt's 1839 book

The Thomas Wyatt copies do not resemble the NE coinage images in Martin Folkes' earlier 1745 work published in London. Thomas Wyatt's copies are known to have existed as early as June 1856. He reportedly made a dozen copies of eight different early colonials and marketed them as sets of 8 different denominations of Massachusetts currency. These included some "copies" of coins that are really fantasies – for which genuine coins are non-existent. Newspaper accounts from Boston as early as 1856 mention their "discovery" in an old bottle, and their subsequent purchase "by a gentleman to be presented to the British Museum."

In 1943, Sidney P. Noe wrote:

As for the NE shilling and sixpence, both of which were rare, it is unlikely that Wyatt saw either denomination. He probably relied on Felt's plate, and copied the horizontal lines used by the engraver as a convention to indicate that the surface was without any device. [emphasis added]

Personally I feel that Thomas Wyatt, or whoever produced the copy dies for him, likely thought the actual coins had the lines. In any case, the horizontal lines and particularly the shape of the sixpence and shilling in Felt's book make it easy to spot the Wyatt copies today. In 2012, this circa 1850s copy or imitation of a NE sixpence is collectible in its own right. I am happy to own the Wyatt/Bishop copy shown, which is untrimmed and shows the same outline as in the Felt book plates. Even though I paid $1,750 for the piece, it's a lot cheaper than the $431,250 mentioned above and it has its own interesting story.

While looking down on modern facsimile copies frequently sold in museum souvenir shops as "weeds" – as they often find their way to online Internet offerings such as eBay and similar sites and some are then sold to unsuspecting novice collectors – present-day dealers and collectors of early American colonial coinage think these antique copies made circa 1850-1870 are fascinating. Scarce in their own right, today they command significant sums from knowledgeable collectors. But caution is advised – if you desire to own an antique copy, you must buy only from very knowledgeable dealer sources (always good advice). There are even copies of copies around!

Not shown here but worth noting: the most expensive collectable copies of the NE coinage are contemporary counterfeits made in the 1650s. A few do exist, and when sold today, they can bring tens of thousands of dollars at auction from knowledgeable collectors.