A Primer on Early Coins and Collecting
A history lesson that never rang true to me was the one about our Colonial Dutch forefathers buying Manhattan Island from the Indians for $24. What would a Mohican warrior do with 60 guilders, the equivalent of $24 in 1626, buy a yacht?
Ancient currency was in a form that had either had some kind of intrinsic value or at least was symbolic of such. We know livestock was once commonly exchanged for services because, in many languages, the word for fee or money is derived from the archaic expressions for cattle. Around 700 BC, when archeologists believe currency was first introduced, Chinese exchanged bronze "Taos" forged and cast in the shape of straight-razor like knives. The Aztecs bartered with cocoa beans and "Xigui" ax blade shaped tokens forged from copper. Many native American tribes used Wampum; strands of beautifully colored shells ground to the size of a grain of corn or less, then center-drilled and strung on leather thongs as their currency. Pelts, tobacco and corn were also accepted in some areas as means of exchange.
Finely detailed ornament impressed by the screw-press was introduced to coins around 1550. In earlier times coin design was die-stamped by blacksmith hammer onto copper, bronze, silver, and gold "planchets" (round coin blanks). In addition to chariots, city symbols, and rulers of the day like Darius and Alexander the Great, mythological figures are displayed on Western coins beginning around 650 BC. The goddess of love Aphrodite is represented by a sea tortoise. The great winged horse was known as Pegasus made its way onto a silver stater from Corinth around 350 BC. Images of Greek goddess of wisdom-Athena, the king of gods-Zeus, the Queen of gods-Hera, god of the arts-Apollo, god of wine Dionusius, god of trade-Mercury, and Poseidon's dolphin riding son-Taras all made their way onto coins.
Early numismatic study and collecting is more interesting when you consider that these striking images were not mythological to the people of their day. They were real gods.
Appraisers assign value to coins based on scarcity, condition, demand, and where applicable-precious metal weight. Patience, a lighted magnifying glass, and an assortment of up-to-date price guides and references are indispensable.
The first American coins were produced by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1652. Thin silver wafers were stamped "NE" for New England on the "obverse" or face side and Roman numeral marked "XII(shilling), XI(sixpence), or III(threepenny) for value on the "reverse" or back. When lawbreakers began to clipping these coins, pocketing the snips and passing off their coins as full weight, the colony began minting coins with willow, oak, and pine tree designs that covered the entire planchet. Although tree coins were produced for 30 years, almost every example found today will be dated 1652-the only year American was legally tolerated by the throne to mint her own coins. Amazingly, Greco/Roman 17th century American coins are still available today for collectors with a few hundred dollars to spend.
For several years following the American revolution, states produced their own coins. In the 1790's America established a regulated National Mint in Philadelphia authorizing gold eagles ($10), half eagles ($5), quarter eagles ($2.50), silver dollars, half dollars, quarters, dismes (that's the way dime was spelled back then), half dismes, copper cents, and half cents. Regulations ordained that Lady Liberty would be featured on the obverse and an American eagle or wreaths of peace on reverse. This tradition continued until 1909 when Presidents, Indians, buffaloes, and buildings, were gradually introduced as design elements.
We will talk about evaluating those old coins your mom tied up in socks in a future article. Until then, next time you visit a large museum, take time to peruse the currency collection. More than money, old coins are an artistic window into history.