America’s First Gold Coin Struck

“EB” Counterstamp on Breast

Following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the American economy began to thrive. Prior to the establishment of the official United States government in 1789, federal needs such as munitions, currency, and provisions were supplied by contractors. Before the establishment of the Philadelphia Mint in 1792, many private mints operated along the Atlantic seaboard producing copper and silver coinage. In addition, the state governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Vermont all authorized the issuance of various coins by private individuals.

In 1787, a prominent New York City silversmith and goldsmith, Ephraim Brasher (pronounced Bray-zher), produced a small number of gold coins. His exact reason for delving into the production of coinage is not entirely certain, but recent historians now believe that Brasher produced his coins for circulation, not as patterns, as was originally thought. In fact, all but one of the coins attributed to Brasher exhibit some amount of wear, indicating that the pieces spent time in the channels of commerce.

Many of the erroneous impressions about why Brasher made his gold coins may lie in his connection to George Washington. There is clear record that Washington was a customer – and possibly a friend – of Brasher. Washington was also Brasher’s neighbor in the well-to-do Cherry Hill district of New York. Because it was known at the time that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers reviewed pattern coinage for possible inclusion in the monetary system of the United States, there is conjecture that Brasher produced the coins as patterns to show his friend. If his designs impressed Washington enough, it might ensure Brasher the right to design the official gold coins for the new Republic. However, Washington did not live next door to Brasher until 1789, two years after Brasher produced his gold Doubloons!

Surviving documents show that on February 11, 1787, Ephraim Brasher, possibly with a business associate, John Bailey, petitioned the New York State Assembly to produce copper coins for the state. Several months after Brasher submitted his petition he was turned down, as were other competitors, when the state decided against minting copper coins. This, however, would not have deterred Brasher from producing his gold coins. With the new Republic in a state of flux, foreign coins circulating freely, and no federal currency yet issued, it would have been perfectly acceptable and logical for Brasher to produce his Doubloons. Their production resulted in America’s first circulating gold coins.

Ephraim Brasher, born in 1744, lived his entire life in New York City where he died in 1810. He married Anne Gilbert, the sister of New York silversmith William Gilbert in 1766. In 1797, sometime after Anne’s death, Brasher married Mary Austin. Records are unclear as to whether or not Ephraim had children. In any case, his legacy lives on in the form of America’s first and most famous gold coin.

The 1787 Brasher Doubloon is an impressive example of early American design. The debate continues as to which side of the coin is the obverse, but most numismatists now agree that the landscape side of the coin is the obverse. The coin features the radiant sun just behind the peak of a mountain with the sea in front. Brasher’s name is boldly engraved below the sea. The landscape is framed by a circle of beads. Along the periphery of the coin, separated by rosettes, are the legends “NOVA EBORAC,” which is the Latin name for New York, “COLUMBIA” and the state motto “EXCELSIOR.” Translated literally, the legend means New York, America, Ever Upward. “Excelsior” remains the New York State motto to this day.

The reverse depicts a proud, heraldic eagle with its wings displayed. The eagle is facing right and its head is surrounded by thirteen five-pointed stars, symbolizing the thirteen original states. Across the eagle’s breast is a shield. In the right talon, representing peace, are olive branches, and in the left talon are the arrows of war. The entire eagle is encircled by a wreath. At the bottom edge of the coin is the date with rosettes placed on either side. At the top edge is the inscription “UNUM E PLURIBUS” (One From Many) which is separated by two six-pointed stars. Unique Brasher Doubloon Reverse

The coin is called a Doubloon because it is approximately equal in weight to the Spanish Doubloon which circulated actively in colonial America. A value of $16 was initially attributed to the coin, but later research shows that this value was erroneously placed and the “Doubloon” was actually worth $15 at the time of issue. This value was first suggested in a comprehensive article about Brasher Doubloons written by numismatist William Swoger and published in the June 1, 1992 issue of Coin World magazine. Additional information about weights and measures of the era was published in the 1993 book, “Money of the American Colonies and Confederation,” by Phil Mossman.

David McCarthy, numismatic researcher for The Brasher Bulletin, the newsletter of the Society for Private and Pioneer Numismatics agrees. “The coinage standards of weight and value established by the Bank of New York in 1784 indicate that Doubloons weighing 17 pennyweights (about ¾ of an ounce) were valued at $15. Brasher’s Doubloons weigh 17 pennyweights, and would therefore have been $15 coins,” said McCarthy.

Ephraim Brasher’s first effort to produce gold coins for circulation appears to be in 1786 when he made the 1742-dated Lima-Style gold Doubloon (a stylistic copy of a coin of Philip V produced in Lima, Peru, 1742). There are two known 1742 Lima-Style Brasher Doubloons. Brasher also made a unique 1787 Half Doubloon which resides in the Smithsonian Collection. Of the 1787 Brasher Doubloons, there are seven examples known. Six examples bear Brasher’s initials in an oval cartouche on the eagle’s wing. A unique example bears the E.B hallmark across the shield on the eagle’s breast.

In the early days of the Republic, it was not unusual for silversmiths to stamp their hallmark on gold coins. In fact, evidence shows that Brasher also worked as a regulator, adjusting the weight of foreign gold coins to correspond to standards set by the New York Chamber of Commerce. After adjusting the weight of a gold coin, Brasher would stamp his initials on it, effectively guaranteeing the coin’s value. Brasher’s “E.B” hallmark was highly respected. Therefore, it is understandable that he would stamp his initials on his own coins.

That Brasher decided to prominently place the E.B hallmark on the eagle’s breast instead of the wing on only one of his Doubloons remains an issue of debate to this day. One theory suggests that the public felt that the initials should not be so prominently displayed on the center of the coin. Perhaps Brasher stamped the coin this way at a customer’s request? The answer, however, might be as simple as the artist’s sense of design.

“A careful examination of the Punch-on-Breast Doubloon reveals that it is of an earlier die state than the Punch-on-Wing specimens, indicating it was struck before these pieces. However, this fails to explain why Brasher changed the location of his countermark on these later pieces. The answer to the puzzle becomes quite obvious when viewing pictures of all the New York-style Doubloons side-by-side,” said David McCarthy.

“On most of the coins, an area of flatness is found on the side opposite the E.B counterstamp. On the Punch-on-Wing specimens, this shows up as a little weakness in the mountains to the left of the sun, while on the Punch-on-Breast Doubloon the sun and central mountains – the focal point of the coin’s design – are flattened. It seems that Brasher changed the position of his countermark for purely aesthetic reasons. If this is true, the Punch-on-Breast Doubloon is not only unique among Brasher’s New York-style pieces, it is also the earliest known specimen of this important and storied type.”

The pedigree for the unique Punch-on-Breast 1787 Brasher Doubloon is impressive. The coin was first mentioned by William Ewing DuBois, the first curator of the United States Mint’s collection, who described it as “a very remarkable gold coin, equal in value to a Doubloon, coined at New York in 1787.” How it was placed in the Mint’s collection and then surfaced in the notable collection of Charles Bushnell in 1864, is unclear. Bushnell died in 1880, whereupon collector, Lorin Parmelee, bought the entire collection for $8,000. After removing some of the coins, Parmelee then consigned the remaining collection, which included the Punch-on-Breast Doubloon, to Henry and Samuel Chapman of Philadelphia, who auctioned it in 1882. The Doubloon was purchased for a record $505 by New York coin dealer, Edouard Frossard, representing T. Harrison Garrett of Baltimore, who was assembling one of the greatest collections of all time.

After Garrett’s sudden death in 1888, the collection passed to his son Robert. In 1919, Robert traded the collection for artwork to his brother John, who had the same proclivity for collecting coins as his father. John died in 1942 and upon the death of his widow, Alice Garrett in 1952, the collection was bequeathed to Johns Hopkins University.

In 1981, the Garrett collection was sold in auction by Bowers and Ruddy. The unique 1787 Brasher Doubloon was bought by an anonymous buyer from Florida for $625,000. In 1994, well-respected California coin dealer Don Kagin purchased the coin through an agent and then sold half interest to Midwestern dealer Jay Parrino. Together Kagin and Parrino sold the Doubloon to a client. In February, 1998, Parrino brokered the coin for his client and sold it to the owner of the Gold Rush Collection, one of the South’s premier private collections managed by Georgia dealer, Al C. Adams.

On January 12, 2005, Heritage Galleries auctioned the Gold Rush Collection, containing the unique Punch-on-Breast Doubloon. Steven L. Contursi, President of Rare Coin Wholesalers of Dana Point, California, and Donald Kagin, President of Kagin’s of Tiburon, California, paid $2,990,000 for the legendary coin. At the time of purchase, this was the second highest price ever paid for any coin.

In the 1981 catalog for the sale of the unique Punch-on-Breast Doubloon (then owned by Johns Hopkins University as part of the Garrett Collection), Q. David Bowers described it as “the single most important coin in American numismatics.”

In a new article for The Brasher Bulletin, David McCarthy writes:

The Brasher Punch-on-Breast Doubloon is the first gold coin of a distinctly American design to be denominated in dollars and struck to the standard that would be adopted for all U.S. gold coins. It is the first truly American gold coin, and is the forbearer of all gold coins struck by the United States. No other U.S. Colonial or Federal coin can lay claim to such historical significance, placing Brasher’s first New York-style Doubloon in a class by itself. The history surrounding its origins, its distinction as the product of the first issuer of private gold coins in America and its status as the first gold coin depicting specific American themes make the Brasher Punch-on-Breast Doubloon the single most important coin in the canon of American numismatics.

References:

Bowers, Q. David. The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection.
Wolfeboro: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1979.

Bowers, Q. David. United States Gold Coins, An Illustrated History.
Wolfeboro: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1982.

McCarthy, David. Understanding Brasher’s Doubloons.
The Brasher Bulletin, 2006.

“The gold Brasher Doubloon is without doubt our country’s most famous and significant coin. It has every quality that anyone could desire in a rare and valuable coin. The few known pieces were made by a neighbor of George Washington; they are the only gold coins issued in pre-federal America; they are large and very attractive; and the piece with the maker’s touch-mark on the eagle’s breast is the only known example of that variety. No wonder this coin is one of the most valuable coins in the world.

Always a favorite with collectors, the Brasher Doubloon was popularized by a movie of that same name where such a coin was the subject of theft and intrigue. And in the real world, the history of how a mere seven of these coins have survived since 1787 is just as fascinating. One was found during an excavation in New York City, another stolen, and others hidden away for many years. They are a true part of America’s heritage, and keystone to our numismatic history.”
Kenneth Bressett, Former President, American Numismatic Association

“This may be the most important coin I have ever examined and graded. It is the first gold colonial coin and it most likely was held by George Washington! Truly a museum piece and the ultimate Americana.”
Mark Salzberg, Chairman, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)

“In 1787, Ephraim Brasher produced his pattern gold coins as proposed coinage for the new republic, the United States of America. The denomination, doubloon, is unusual to today’s populace, but normal for the time it was issued. Brasher’s association with George Washington (they were neighbors in New York City) helped make the Brasher Doubloons legendary issues of numismatics.

The Brasher Doubloons are incredibly significant parts of American history and numismatics. These impressive gold coins were seen by most of the early Americans who were responsible for the formation of our coinage system. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others likely viewed and considered these early patterns for our fledgling nation. Brasher was a respected silversmith and the “EB” hallmark punched into every Brasher doubloon insured that there was the full $14 worth of gold in each coin. By 1791, the decimal system had been adopted for the national currency, so today we view the doubloons of Ephraim Brasher as a quaint denomination. Nearly every American today has heard of a doubloon, but few realize it was the coin-of-the-realm in 1787; there were no United States gold coins and no eagle, half eagle, or quarter eagle denomination had even been proposed at that time.”
John Dannreuther, Co-Founder, Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS)

“The Brasher Doubloons have a mystique and aura all their own among American coins. The association of Ephraim Brasher with George Washington makes the coins significant in a way hard to achieve with most other coins, and this connection to history is only enhanced by the fact that these pieces are the first gold coins produced in Colonial America intended for circulation. The story behind the creation of these pieces is fascinating, highlighting a time when Americans did not have standardized money available to them and when private citizens could produce coinage, as Ephraim did with these pieces as well as the Nova Eborac coppers.

As the Collection Manager for the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection, I had the privilege to care for and handle the Smithsonian’s Brasher Doubloon and the unique ½ Doubloon. This exhibit represents a fantastic opportunity to inform the public about an important and highly interesting piece of American history, all the more exciting because this particular specimen is unique in the Brasher Doubloon series by virtue of having Ephraim Brasher’s hallmark placed on the breast of the eagle. This coin is the most famous of the series and can arguably be considered amongst the most important of American coins.”
Douglas Mudd, Curator/Director, American Numismatic Association Money Museum

“Beyond the factual and fabled histories of the coin, it is easily understood why Brasher and Washington found the design so attractive. This coin represents Americana at its finest. A proud eagle grasping olive branches in one claw, and clutching arrows in the other, along with our nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum, makes this coin the ‘Holy Grail’ of numismatics.
Todd Griffiths, President, Benchmark Ventures, LLP

“Gold Doubloons! The very phrase fires the imagination with images of intrigue and adventure. Yet few people today realize that America’s first gold coin was patterned after, and carries with it, just as much legend and mystique as does the Spanish gold doubloon of pirate treasure fame.

The 1787 Brasher Doubloon, the first gold coin specifically made for circulation in the United States, is now known from only seven examples. But this most important series contains a further rarity: the unique specimen with Ephraim Brasher’s hallmark counterpunched on the eagle’s breast, rather than on the wing, as with the other surviving specimens. Startlingly attractive, this unique Brasher Doubloon with the “EB” counterstamp on the breast is easily one of the most important American coins ever struck. It is the earliest American gold coin, made by a man who was a neighbor of George Washington and possessing an impressive pedigree of ownership ever since. I confirm and concur: the Brasher Doubloon stands as one of the most historic, impressive and valuable American coins ever made.”
Lawrence J. Lee, Former Director, American Numismatic Association Money Museum

“I feel this is the most significant United States gold coin, transcending numismatics. Being the first United States gold coin struck, the unique Brasher Doubloon with the “EB” counterstamp on the eagle’s breast is a national treasure with tremendous significance for American history, as well as numismatics. It underscores the beginnings of our economic system.”
Steven L. Contursi, President, Rare Coin Wholesalers

 

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