Just Four Dalers

In 1921, Mr. Farren Zerbe’s photograph hit the news wires, holding what appears to be a large loaf of bread. Not so, says the caption:

Farren Zerbe, of Cincinnati, is holding the world’s largest coin, an old Swedish copper plate. Weight, 6 pounds. Worth $4.

There’s a bunch that’s not right about that caption, but it’s not Mr. Zerbe’s fault. In fact, Mr. Zerbe’s influence in the numismatic world is felt in the weight of his namesake, the Ferren Zerbe Award, the highest award given by the American Numismatic Association. This giant coin was one of 30,000 coins in Zerbe’s collection in 1921, and Zerbe wrote extensively regarding coins and coin collecting. Unfortunately, even with that much knowledge he couldn’t count on an AP writer, aiming for the fewest number of words possible, to correctly identify the gray lump Zerbe was holding in the photo. While the ‘Swedish’ part is right, the rest is a little off. The plate Mr. Zerbe is almost worth four dollars, but only due to a spelling error.

Sweden is a land of natural resources, and one of their greater assets is a vast storehouse of copper. Swedish copper mines have been producing large amounts of the semiprecious metal since the 10th century, and although copper didn’t have the high value of silver and gold, its malleability and usefulness for manufacturing did give the metal a significant value. But, as it has been for centuries until today, copper is only worth a tiny fraction of what the same weight in silver or gold is worth. The fledgling United States considered making one-cent coins out of copper, but found that to have a penny’s worth of copper the coin would be much too large to be useful, somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in size. Going a hundred times that to make a copper dollar would require a wheelbarrow just to buy lunch.

But Sweden was a copper-rich country, and they had wars to pay for, so they began issuing copper “dalers”, the monetary unit of the time. The copper was rolled out and formed into plates of up to 40lbs of copper worth 10 dalers. The plates were not the sort of thing you carried to the corner store to do your shopping; they were for larger-scale commerce, and as such they are less common than other coins from the same time. Sweden used these to keep their economy above water, and since they were put into use for a couple hundred of years they proved that Sweden could use its copper reserves to successfully maintain the nation’s coffers.

When it comes to the value of copper, the AP writer’s math doesn’t quite work out in the picture above. Six pounds of copper, even at $0.12 per pound in 1921 prices, is worth nowhere near the $4 claimed in the photo’s caption. And, the relative rarity of this kind of plate money means at the time it was worth more than $4 on the collector’s market. The intrepid reporter sent to document Mr. Zerbe’s massive money just heard wrong. The unit of money is the daler, which sounds about the same as the U.S. monetary unit over the phone, and this is a four-daler chunk, a simple mistake if you don’t have the benefit of a fact-checker. The value of the daler changed wildly, both due to the nation’s monetary system and the inherent value of the copper, so each plate is marked with its value at the corners and in the center. Like ‘pieces of eight’ and fictional wire-money, the Swedish plate money was designed to be cut into smaller denominations as needed.

Mr. Zerbe may have bent the truth just a little regarding the rarity of his plate of copper, though: the British Museum still has an intact 8-daler plate larger than the Zerbe example, and other similar coins have been pulled from shipwrecks. And then, if you adjust your definition of coin, the people of Yap have something to show Mr. Zerbe. Any which way you cut it, Mr. Zerbe’s large chunk of copper, marked with its value and the seal of the issuing king, is not the kind of thing you accidentally notice in the change bowl on your nightstand. As an interesting cul-de-sac in the history of sovereign money, it’s quite the unique piece, if only because it is a numismatic rarity that can be displayed nicely on the mantlepiece. This old plate money does show up in the market from time to time, and from what I’ve seen it’s mostly rather corroded examples from shipwrecks or buried in somebody’s back yards. The example held by Zerbe in his photo is a surprisingly nice, clean example of the coin, and despite the errors in the caption, he is right to be proud of his big coin.


Antique Odd Fellows: Native American Peace Medal On IOOF Collar

At a recent auction, we purchased a few Native American items from the former museum in Two Harbors, MN. Among them, this seemingly unusual combination: A Native American Peace Medal on an Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) collar.

This was not the only set; there were a total of three of these collar/medal sets. While one doesn’t normally think of Native Americans as Odd Fellows members, apparently it was a popular custom item in this area, anyway,  for Native Americans to wear and display all honors.

The IOOF collar is beautiful in and of itself, with it’s decorated red velvet trimmed in twisted-metal fringe and tassels (one tassel is missing). The collar is secured by three oval chain links. The shape and materials date the fraternal cerimonial collar to the end of the 19th century. But the medal which hangs from the collar’s links is even more rare than the collar.

The medal is an Indian Peace Medals, presentation pieces to Native American or Indian chiefs as a sign of friendship. The series began as an idea in 1786, but were first produced during President Jefferson’s administration in 1801, with Jefferson Peace Medals designed and created by John Reich. Because the medals were given to significant members of tribal parties, the medals became sought after symbols of power and influence within Native American tribes and are commonly seen in Native American portraiture.

Most of the genuine Indian Peace medals awarded by the U.S. Government were made in silver and were issued holed or looped at the top, so the medal could easily be worn. (If a medal is not holed, and shows no sign of being looped, it is most likely a modern copy.) However, the Peace Medals were also struck in other metals, including copper. Starting around 1860, some of these were struck from the same or similar dies, for collectors. These copper pieces are known as “bronzed copper” because they do not look like copper coins. But given the popularity of the medals and the respect they conveyed, the Native Americans and traders also made or commissioned copies, in copper or silver-plated copper, of the Peace Medals too. These pieces are still over a hundred years old, yet even when produced by the US Mint, these medals are not considered “originals” as they were not awarded by the U.S. Government.

This specific Peace Medal is a John Adams Peace Medal, but it was designed and struck after Adams’ presidency. This medal does not appear to be silver, but, based on dimensions and weight, pewter. According to the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Volume 1, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge (1907), a few of the Adams Peace Medals were struck in “soft metal” and these are “exceedingly rare.”

Our Peace Medal also appears to be the first design issued, as later variations do not have the fabric drape about the bust of the president, nor the year centered beneath the bust. The president’s bust on the obverse was designed by Moritz Furst, but the reverse is the same one the Jefferson medals. (This back design was used until the Millard Fillmore medals in 1850, when the reverse was changed. The reverse was changed again in 1862, during the Lincoln administration.) Interestingly, the Adams Peace Medal with the 1797 date was made later.

I’ve made some inquiries regarding this antique set and will update you as I learn more. Meanwhile, the set is in our case at Exit 55 Antiques.

UPDATE: In trying to find definitive information on this peace medal, I made multiple calls to auction houses and, per their recommendations, to companies which grade coins and other medals. Few seemed to know what I knew, or were willing to divulge what they did know about Native American Peace Medals. So I continued my research and then made a call to Rich Hartzog of AAA Historical Americana, World Exonumia. Rich seems to truly be one of the few people who knows — really knows — about Native American Peace Medals. I’d call him an expert.

During a phone conversation, Rich confirmed the “soft medal” version of this medal, but ours does not seem to be one of those. He clarified regarding the copper medals; while made for collectors, they are considered original peace medals — but are not presentation pieces given to chiefs and other leaders. And, finally, we determined that our peace medal is likely a more modern copy. It wasn’t just that the medal is made of pewter, but the fact that the medal is attached to the IOOF collar or baldric. Seems roughly five or six years ago someone began setting the copies of peace medals on these collars. Such medals still have a modest value; Rich says roughly $20-$40, compared to the hundreds and thousands of dollars originals bring.

While this may be a disappointment to hubby and I, I have learned a lot about peace medals — and learning is a huge part of why I love this business. I don’t mind admitting that I’m unsure of what I’ve found. In fact, I love researching, including asking people who specialize and know more than I do.

Soapy Money: Coupon Check Trade Tokens

Last week Wifey and I were hanging out at our local antique mall when a woman came in wanting to sell a Tupperware full of bits and baubles. Among the jewelry and silverware was a small jewelry-sized baggie full of tokens. Although I’m no help when it comes to jewelry, Wifey was glad I was around to evaluate the tokens. As you may have noticed, money and money-like things are one of the things I collect. The baggie held some generic arcade tokens, a nice Sioux City transit token that went into my collection, a few southeast Asia Playboy Club tokens went into Wifey’s collection, but the rest were a variety of trade tokens.

Today, some retailers have gotten all high-tech by distributing deals by texts and the internet, but even paper coupons are barely more than a hundred years old. Coca-Cola is considered the creator of the modern coupon, offering free drinks in hopes of hooking a lifelong customer, and once it proved effective for Coke other products followed suit.

Coca-Cola Coupon

Soap, of all types and uses, was a commonplace product that was just growing in demand in the early 20th century — regular washing and bathing was an uncommon experience until Victorian times — and each new entry into the market needed to elbow its way into people’s kitchens and washrooms. The reason people still watch ‘soap operas’ hails back to one of the most successful soap marketing methods, making Procter and Gamble one of the more successful television production companies today. Coupons for free products, like Coca-Cola’s successful plan, became one of the soap industry’s more successful efforts to get their products into the hands of customers.

The soap coupon tokens I have are also rooted in an earlier type of token: the trade token. Trade tokens were issued by a business, municipality, organization, or other group as a sort of fiat currency. Regular customers could earn a trade token through repeat patronage, or as an encouragement to shop at an institution. They were often marked with the business’ name, and a value in money or product. These were truly tokens, not just coupons, made of metal and sized to be similar to other currencies of the time. People carried them around in their changepurse and used them as currency when applicable. Quite often they were good for fifty or twenty-five cents — a couple dollars in today’s money — at a general store or specialty shop, but you can easily compare a saloon providing trade tokens good for one drink to Coca-Cola’s coupon plan. Trade tokens lasted through the end of the nineteenth century, but slowly faded out at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Coupon tokens did survive in some corners well into the twentieth century, particularly if you remember Sambo’s coffee tokens or Country Kitchen coins. Those soap companies, who offered all sorts of freebies and offers in many different forms, found the greatest value in making coin-shaped coupon tokens. One benefit the soap companies found was that the metal tokens could be easily included in the packages of soaps, which often lived in wet places, without running the risk of damage that a paper coupon might encounter. The tokens also found their way into customers’ hands via mail, and their portability and resilience made them easily pocketable and carried about.

The Palmolive company and James S Kirk Co were the biggest producers of these coupon tokens, mostly during the 1920s. The tokens were often called “coupon checks”, because they had an actual monetary value to the retailer that accepted the coin. Retailers were welcome to accept the tokens if they chose, and could get a banner to show off their participation, but a review of old newspaper ads showed that the attempt to redeem tokens was so common that retailers who didn’t participate said so in their ads, to avoid having to refuse the tokens in the checkout line.

These coupon tokens were mostly aluminum, and some bronze, and they came in a variety of shapes and formats. Some were circles, like their money counterparts, but soap tokens could also be square, rectangle, octagonal, or oblong ovals. Most were on the large side, an inch or more in diameter, and many even had a hole in the middle. The wide variety of shapes and sizes makes for a collection as varied and interesting as any foreign coin collection, and the tokens are surprisingly common. This makes soap coupon tokens a cheap introduction into the art of exonumia, from an antique and unique perspective, without breaking the bank.

Watch Your Change

As the world adapts to converting money into bits and bytes that fly across the internet, about the only time I handle cash these days is when doing business.  Yesterday we paid cash to a walk-in selling a Tupperware bin full of costume jewelry at the antique mall, two weeks ago we were sellers at Elkhorn, and all summer we visited rummage sales.   As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of real money, specie and fiat alike, so I keep my eye out for interesting things.  A wheatstraw penny here, a 1950s nickel there, but interesting paper money is rare.  This summer, however, two passed through my wallet.

The first is a bill that’s absurdly unknown to most people even though they’re still printing new ones every couple years.  The ubiquitous $2 bill has confused Taco Bell cashiers for years, and rich people make them into notepads,  but cash register drawers these days don’t even have room for them.  When I was younger I coached chess for a gradeschool and the local chess association charged $3 entry for tournaments — thus, since everything higher than a dollar is multiples of fives, the chessmasters just got $2 bills for change and no singles at all.  The kids always looked at the bill in wonder, and a few parents wondered if they were even legal.  Or extraordinary valuable, since they seem so rare.   One rummage sale this summer gave me this, working on the same principle:

1976 two-dollar billAbout the most unique thing about this bill is that it’s a Series 1976, the first year the modern $2 bill was issued, but half a billion of them were printed at that time.  The proprietor of the rummage sale came up with the idea to give $2s as change was because it reduced the amount of bills to have to count out if she had fewer ones and a bunch of twos.  Makes sense to me!   I should have thought of that when I got change for Elkhorn; the wad of $1 bills gets ungainly by the end of the day.  Which brings me to the other neat bill I received.

I had sold a nice old lady something for $9, and she handed me a well-worn $10 bill.  I made change, but as I began to shove the $10 in with the others, something didn’t seem quite right about it:

At first glance, it could pass for any $10 bill up through the 1990s, but the “Will Pay To The Bearer On Demand” was a clue that I wasn’t looking at your everyday sawbuck.   On closer inspection:

Yup, that says 1934, almost eighty years young and it probably paid for something just about as old from our flea market antique booth.  In this condition, it’s really not worth much more than $10, which is fine by me.   I’d like to think that this old lady had a big roll of threadbare antique money in her purse, paying everybody with bills more than 50 years old.

My guess is that the 1934 bill didn’t actually start out in her pocket — a flea market the size of Elkhorn is a place where lots of money passes hands.  She probably had a stack of $20s from the ATM in her wallet, and she got the 1934 $10 bill in change from one dealer, who received it in a transaction from somebody who got it in change from another booth, and so on, all the way back to the one guy who didn’t notice it in a stack of $10 bills he got from his bank.  When cash starts passing between hands, it moves fast, so be sure to keep an eye on the money in your pockets: you might just find something cool one day.

An Imp For A Centime

Many of my literary tastes were forged in an 8th grade English literature class. I find myself going back to many of those short stories, fond memories of classic and modern literature in little bits with some analysis and language learning involved. One particular tale blew my mind, and planted a seed that has lasted decades — regarding international money systems. I know, I tend to grab on to the boring parts, but bear with me a bit, here.

The story is The Bottle Imp, a short horror-thriller by Robert Louis Stevenson. Keawe, the main character, buys a ‘genie in a bottle,’ so to speak: a bottle imp, a trapped magical being who grants wishes, but with the trope of there being tragedy in the reward. One of the rules of the bottle imp is if you die with it in your posession, your soul is lost. The only way to part with the imp is to sell it, in coin, for less than it was purchased for. Its original purchase was an immeasurable fortune; by the time Keawe gets it, the price is down to $50. Through the story, the price drops and drops, a game of hot potato with the immortal soul as its prize, until Keawe buys back the bottle for a penny.

Here’s the twist: Keawe learns that there are French Polynesian coins worth less than a penny. A centime, he hears, is worth a fifth of a cent, so the hot-potato game goes on until an unlucky sailor ends up with the imp for a single centime, and resigns himself to Hell with nary a complaint.

I believe my teacher explained the centime like a pre-decimal British half-penny, part of a monetary system with many more subdivisions than the U.S. dollar, but she was incorrect: just as there are a hundred pennies to a dollar, there are a hundred centimes in a franc. The truth has more to do with my last article. Keawe exploits the difference in value of international currencies — let’s do the math here. If you’ll remember, the Stella was set at $4 because 20 francs was worth about $3.92. That makes a franc worth about nineteen-and-a-half cents. So, you divide a franc into a hundred parts, and what do you get? Each centime is worth slightly under a fifth of a penny, just as Keawe discovers.

So, you have to give Robert Louis Stevenson a bit of credit for defeating an ancient horror through the vagaries of international currency conversion. Once Keawe is down to a penny, he sells the imp for five centimes — which doesn’t break the rules, because five centimes is ever so slightly less than a U.S. penny in value. Unable to break the currency down even further, and with an odd number of transactions to be made, Keawe is guaranteed to end with a single centime in his pocket and the bottle in the hands of another.

If you want an idea of just how worthless the centime was, fast-forward to 1960 and the introduction of the “new franc”. The nouveau franc was worth 100 of the deprecated franc, making the pre-1960 centime worth 1/100th of a new centime. By the time the 1980s rolled around, even the new centime was removed from circulation due to further devaluation making the coin useless. That centime was worth 0.15 of a eurocent at the time of conversion, or even less than the centime-to-penny conversion of the late 19th century.

If you held on to your centimes since the 1890s, you’d actually make a tidy profit in the collector’s market. 19th century centimes sell for a few dollars at sites like eBay, and are less common than the ten- or fifty-centime coins of the early 20th century. The progressive devaluation of the franc from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century resulted in a variety of changes in designs and metal content, making for a much more interesting collection compared to a complete set of U.S. pennies or quarter-dollars of the same time period. Just make sure you keep a handful of centimes handy: you never know when your eternal soul might be on the line in your international currency exchanges.

Stella?!? STELLA!

This Friday, Stack’s Bowers Galleries will be selling a rare gold coin that invites a strong Stanley Kowalski imitation to say its name. The “Stella” was a ‘pattern coin’, a sample design minted in its intended form for the purpose of evaluating its monetary usage. The Stella came out in 1879, in the unusual $4 denomination, as a hope of improving international commerce.

Through the 19th century, currency had been slowly evolving from being valued by a coin’s weight in precious metals, to simply the denomination stamped on the front. Coins were still made of precious metals, of course, but as the ease of international travel shrunk the world, the wide variety of international currencies made it difficult to take your U.S. gold coins with to Europe and trust an easy or reliable exchange into the local funds.

The time was also one of other changes. The Metric Act of 1866 authorized the metric system as a legal system of measurement for transactions in the U.S., following the lead of many European countries. Ounces, rather than grams, were still how American money was measured, complicating things. About that same time, European countries were attempting to standardize their currencies in the proto-Euro Latin Monetary Union. Each country’s coins were close, but not quite a even trade, and some were silver, some gold, so the hopes were that a single common currency could help facilitate inter-country transactions.

The U.S. hoped to get in the game as well, by producing its own coins that overlap with the standardized European money. Through the 1860s and 1870s, a few varieties of coins were proposed, but in the mid 1870s Iowan John A Kasson, one of the promoters of the Metric Act of 1866, found a reasonable overlap between a European coin and the American dollar. The eight florin Austrian gold coin, the equivalent of twenty francs, was just under $4 U.S. in value. Kasson’s plan was to mint a $4 coin, whose value in precious metals would be listed on the coin’s face in metric weight, for the purpose of international trade.

Two designs were made of the Stella: a “flowing hair” version, like the one in the Stack’s Bowers auction, and the “coiled hair” design, which is rarer. The “flowing hair” Stella was designed by mint artist Charles E. Barber; the “coiled” by George T. Morgan. Both designs were quite similar, and both shared the same reverse. The reverse design is what gives the coin its name: the center of the coin is filled with a large star — a “stella” — thus giving the coin a casual name, like the “eagle” gold coins which came as portions of $10.  Being worth $4 means it could be divided in fourths into smaller denominations, like a dollar and the $10 gold eagle were.

The Stella started out as a small mint run to show the size and weight of the coin to the officials who would evaluate approving the coin. The Stella never made it into production, in either design, but as was the custom of the time it was possible to request the U.S. Mint to produce pretty much any design it had dies for, for the cost of precious metals and seignorage. The Flowing Hair Stella was used to produce about another four hundred coins at the request of various politicians, and those are the most commonly seen Stellas today.

Identifying the difference between the pattern Stellas and the collectible-run Stellas is difficult for the non-expert, but there are a few clues. The pattern Stellas are much more exact in weight, and are of a much higher quality striking than the second run of coins. The second run coins vary in weight a bit, and many have some visible striations, a ‘grain’ in the metal, left from the manufacturing process of the original planchette that was struck. The Flowing Hair Stellas also often have a bit more wear, because they were passed around by the politicians who purchased them (and legend has it that many of the coins found their way into the jewelry boxes of D.C. madames). The Stack’s Bowers coin is of very high quality, but they do not specifically say whether it was one of the original pattern strikes or a later minting.

Wire Money of Earth and Elsewhere

All I know of A Game of Thrones is that the series, which I cannot watch due to a lack of HBO and/or time to devote, looks totally awesome. As with most stories with a devoted set of followers, the replica-makers come up with some pretty amazing stuff. A small mint has produced a set of Game of Thrones money, and I was particularly taken by the Dothraki Puli. This is a “chain” of coins, minted from a single strip of precious metal and designed to be left together as one piece of money, or cut off smaller denominations as needed. I was surprised to see the note from the maker, which says these coins were based on a Russian coin style that was used for nearly a millennium.

The common method for minting a coin is to start with a planchet or flan. This is a disk of the right size and weight for the intended coin, punched from a rolled-flat sheet of precious metals or cast from a blank mold. The disk is then placed between two dies, and are pressed or pounded to leave an impression of the obverse and reverse on each side of the blank. This tends to be more accurate for creating uniform size and weight of coins, although sometimes in the past the coins were cast with their fronts and reverses from the start, but that varied and depended on the material. Bronze, for instance, was a bit too hard for die striking and were cast entirely.

Beginning around 980AD, minters in Russia came upon a novel method of minting coins. They found that it was easier to control the uniformity of thickness and quality by starting with a wire of the precious metal, then cut it into lengths of the right weight, and then strike the coin from those wire chunks. Although the wire was flattened before the die striking, it gave the ‘wire money’ a unique look, oblong with obvious blunt ends were the wire had been cut off. This unique shape earned these coins the name ‘fish scales’ in the Russian language. The simplicity of the process kept it in use until the 17th century and the introduction of modern minting processes, and the last of these coins were made in the early 1700s.

You’ll note that this is quite a bit different than the fanciful Game of Thrones coins above, which retained their wire-like form. Actual minters and financiers would realize a large flaw in the Thrones money quite readily if it were ever used in practice. The weight of a coin in precious metals is something that requires uniformity to ensure that the coin can be trusted to be an accurate payment. “Reeded” edges on coins are designed to foil coin-shavers, people who cut off small amounts off the edges of coins to collect the precious metal and then spend the now-smaller coins at face value. Now, take a look at the Game of Thrones coins. If you were to pull out your string of wire money, you could snip off the requested denomination slightly smaller than needed, and hope that the merchant doesn’t check the weight. Then, you take the extra-long end you just made, and trim it off a little smaller than it should be, too. Do that enough, you get to keep a bunch of the copper or silver while shortchanging the people you do business with. Even the ‘pieces of eight’ were not commonly actually cut into eight pieces, at least not in common money dealings. I suppose, on far-off Westeros, they may have a different way of dealing with these fancy currency, but here on Earth we’re less trusting of hand-cut coins. Although the Shire Post website doesn’t currently have any of their wire coins for sale, real antique Russian wire coins are actually quite plentiful, and can be purchased many places for just a few dollars each.

$7.4 Million Brasher Doubloon

18th Century US coins are quite difficult to find. The Mint wasn’t even established until the 1790s, and until that time coins were minted from precious metals by foreign countries or private mints, and valued based on weight. Ephraim Brasher was one of those early minters, and in 1787 he created what we call today the “Brasher Doubloon”. Weighing at about an ounce, just the gold in a Brasher Doubloon would be worth over a thousand dollars just by weight, but the rarity of coins from that era drives the value up. Just last month, one of Brasher’s Doubloons was sold by Blanchard & Co for a record-setting $7.4 million dollars.

This particular Brasher Doubloon is the rarest of the seven known to exist. The other six Doubloons are marked with Brasher’s ‘chop-mark’ on the wing, but this coin, known as the DuPont Specimen, was stamped in the center of the coin, over the eagle’s shield. Aside from being one of the rarest gold American coins know, this particular coin has had an adventurous life of its own. On October 6th, 1967, thieves stole the Doubloon, along with many other valuable coins, from the collection of millionaire Willis DuPont. Although many of the coins were not recovered for many years, the DuPont Brasher’s Doubloon was recovered only a year later during a sting operation in Miami.

Since then, this Brasher Doubloon has been living a quiet life, exchanging hands a few times, and increasing in value with each sale. It doesn’t make it the rarest or most valuable of Brasher’s coins, though: Brasher also made a Half-Doubloon, of which only one known example exists.