Unique 1783 Nova Constellatio Plain Edge Bit, W-1820, AU55
1783 '100' Unique Plain Edge Nova Constellatio 100 Units,
Silver, AU55 NGC. W-1820. To quote Heritage Auctions'
Co-Chairman Jim Halperin, "The 1783 Nova Constellatio patterns are,
quite simply, national treasures. Not only are they the first
pattern coins issued by the newly independent United States, they
are also the forerunners of the decimal coinage's acceptance, first
in America, then eventually by most monetary systems throughout the
world. From a historical perspective, I believe that no more
important coinage exists from any country on earth." These coins
are of the utmost interest to students of history, economics, and
art, as well as coin collectors of all disciplines. Heritage
Auctions is privileged to offer the discovery example of the 1783
Nova Constellatio bit, the unique plain edge example from the
fabulous collection of Eric P. Newman, in just its third auction
appearance. This coin's last public offering was in 1903, over 100
Extremely Important Pattern for First Proposed U.S. Coinage
Ex: Garrett, Newcomer, Green
The Need for a Unified Monetary System
In 1781, the newly independent United States found itself in a nearly untenable financial situation. The country was operating as a loose affiliation of states under the weak central authority of the Articles of Confederation. Each of the original 13 colonies functioned as a separate economic entity and official rates of exchange varied widely from one state to another. To quote Gouverneur Morris:
"The various coins, which have circulated in America, have undergone different changes in their value, so that there is hardly any which can be considered as a general standard, unless it be Spanish dollars. These pass in Georgia at five shillings, in North Carolina and New York at eight shillings, in Virginia and the four Eastern States at six shillings, and in all other states, excepting South Carolina, at seven shillings and sixpence, and in South Carolina at thirty two shillings and sixpence."
To make the situation even worse, the money supply of the new country consisted of a confusing mix of Spanish, French, and English coins and an equally varied mix of paper money issued by various banks and government entities. Interstate commerce required a bewildering number of financial calculations that were quite challenging for the parties involved and often resulted in suspicion and mistrust on all sides. It was clear to everyone in government and business circles that a unified monetary system was needed for the infant economy to grow.
Gouverneur Morris' Plan
Acting on the instructions of Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris (no relation), Assistant Superintendent of Finance for the Confederation of American States, conceived the Nova Constellatio patterns in 1781 as representatives of the first proposed monetary system for the newly independent country. As Walter Breen said, it was "at once the most ingenious and the most cumbersome coinage system ever devised in Western Civilization." Morris discovered that 1,440 was a significant number for the majority of monetary systems in use throughout the country. By making his basic unit, or mill, equal to ¼ of a grain of silver, or 1/1,440th of a Spanish milled dollar, Morris could express prices for any item in terms of the monetary units currently employed by 12 of the 13 states in a corresponding number of federal units without resorting to fractions. Ten federal units would equal one penny in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland; 15 units would equal one penny in Georgia; 24 units would equal one penny in New York and North Carolina; and 32 units would equal one penny in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia. Only South Carolina remained unreconciled, where slightly more than 3.6973 units would equal one penny. Morris determined that 48 units would equal 13 pence in South Carolina, close enough for business purposes.
Accordingly, Morris decided to make his basic monetary unit, the mill, equivalent to 1/1,440th of a Spanish milled dollar. Of course, a coin that contained only ¼ grain of silver would be much too small for practical use, so Morris kept the unit, or mill, as an abstract concept. The smallest coin actually envisioned in his system was a copper five-unit piece; other denominations included an eight-unit copper coin, a 100-unit silver piece (known as the cent or bit), a 500-unit silver quint, a 1,000-unit silver mark, and, eventually, a 10,000-unit gold piece.
Robert Morris and the Proposed United States Mint
At the same time that Gouverneur Morris was formulating a plan for the new country's monetary system, another closely related project was under development in Congress. As early as February 20, 1777, a Congressional committee on matters pertaining to the Treasury recommended the establishment of a United States Mint to issue coinage for the new country. Little action was taken at first, because the Revolutionary War had not officially concluded until 1783: The government was too deeply involved in resolving that conflict and handling the resulting military and diplomatic affairs of the country to accomplish much on the financial side. The man most involved with the financial affairs of the new country was Robert Morris, Superintendent for Finance for the Confederation, and Gouverneur Morris' supervisor. Robert Morris was keenly interested in the establishment of a federal mint and the implementation of a unified monetary system. Accordingly, Morris had directed his assistant to develop the plan that resulted in the Nova Constellatio patterns while he commenced the practical steps of setting up the mint. On July 9, 1781, Robert Morris received a letter from John Bradford of Boston, recommending an experienced metallurgist and die sinker named Benjamin Dudley, who had recently emigrated from England. Dudley was a skilled craftsman, capable of assaying metal and rolling it into strips of desired thickness for coin planchets. He also had the skills to construct a screw press and other necessary machinery for the functioning of the mint. Without waiting for Congressional approval, Morris enthusiastically hired Dudley to supervise the establishment of the mint and to make dies and coins for the proposed coinage system. Dudley arrived in Philadelphia on October 23, 1781, and began the work of setting up the mint. Morris submitted the plans for the new monetary system to Congress on January 15, 1782.
Walter Breen notes Morris also hired several workmen whose families were later associated with the mint for generations, John Jacob Eckfeldt and Abraham Dubois. Dudley worked diligently, finding several prospective sites for a mint and hiring a blacksmith to make the rollers and other machinery. However, final approval from Congress was not forthcoming, and expenditures were approved only on a piecemeal basis; progress was limited. The papers of Robert Morris are a rich source of information, recording many minute details of the work done. In his diary entry for April 2, 1783, Robert Morris noted, "I sent for Mr. Dudley who delivered me a Piece of Silver Coin being the first that has been struck as an American Coin." Morris did not specify the denomination of this coin, but John Ford speculated that it must have been the largest silver denomination, the mark, because of a difference in the manufacture of the dies for the various coins. (No proof exists. It could just as easily have been a quint or bit that was delivered to Morris.)
The dies for the mark were produced from device punches in the usual manner of the time, while the dies for the quint and the bit were cut by hand. Morris and Dudley recognized the need to act quickly, as there were several competing plans submitted to produce government coinage by private contract, rather than their hoped-for mint. Dudley may have decided that making punches for the smaller denominations would be too time-consuming, so the dies for the quint and bit were cut by hand. A few weeks later, on April 16, Morris wrote the following entry in his diary, "Sent for Mr. Dudley and urged him to produce the Coins to lay before Congress to establish a Mint."
Seven examples of the Nova Constellatio patterns survive today: one mark, one Type One quint, one Type Two quint, three 100-unit cents, or bits, one of which (the present coin) has a plain edge, and a single copper five-unit piece. No specimens of the proposed gold 10,000-unit piece or the copper eight have ever been found, and it seems unlikely that any were ever struck. Of the seven surviving coins, six of them exhibit the same devices:
Obverse: The All-Seeing Eye in a glory of rays at the center with 13 stars and NOVA CONSTELLATIO around.
Reverse: U.S (no stop after S) and denomination enclosed by an olive wreath at the center with LIBERTAS JUSTITIA and the date 1783 around.
Edge: Twin olive leaf design, except for the copper five and one of the bits, which have plain edges.
The Type Two quint features the same reverse as the Type One, but the obverse is unique with the all-seeing eye encircled by 13 stars and no inscription.
On April 22, 1783, Morris recorded the following in his diary, "Mr. Dudley sent several Pieces of Money as Patterns of the intended American Coins." This group may have been the denominational set of four coins, all with the same devices, although no definitive documentation on this point has come to light. Morris sent the coins to Elias Boudinot, President of the Congress, the next day.
Unfortunately, the idea of a national mint was clearly ahead of its time in 1783. The lack of a suitable facility and a reliable source of silver bullion were significant stumbling blocks to the establishment of a mint, and many competing proposals for contractual private coinage were deemed more practical and cost-effective at the time. By the end of 1783, the mint project ground to a halt, only to be revived and ultimately realized in 1792, under the auspices of the new Constitutional government. The talented Benjamin Dudley was finally paid for his work in January 1784. He went on to perform much of the work in producing the later New Jersey copper coinage.
The Nova Constellatio coinage system was likewise never adopted. The proposed monetary system met with considerable opposition from Thomas Jefferson when he entered Congress in 1783. As Jefferson wrote in 1784:
"The general views of the financier were sound, and the principle was ingenious on which he proposed to found his Unit. But it was too minute for practical use, too laborious for computation either by the head or in figures. The price of a loaf of bread 1/20 of a dollar would be 72. Units; a pound of butter 1/5 of a dollar 288. Units; a horse or bullock of 80. D. value would require a notation of 6 figures, to wit 115,200 and the public debt, suppose of 80. millions, would require 12 figures, to wit 115,200,000,000. Such a system of money-arithmetic would be entirely unmanageable for the common purpose of society."
Jefferson's objections were eminently practical and hard to refute. Robert Morris made a final attempt to convince him that the proposed monetary system should be adopted, reasoning that it would result in less disruption of the various monetary systems in use throughout the states than any other suggested plan. Jefferson remained adamant that it was better for the national economy to endure the temporary inconvenience of learning a new universal system than to settle for an impractical, but familiar system, which would complicate financial dealings far into the future.
The Patterns are Dispersed
After the mint project was abandoned, the Nova Constellatio patterns were returned to Robert Morris. The small copper five-unit piece was separated from the silver coins at an early date. It surfaced in England in the possession of exiled loyalist Samuel Curwen in May of 1784, having been taken there by his friend Josiah Bartlett, of New Hampshire. After a disappearance of almost 200 years, it finally resurfaced in Paris in 1977.
On May 1, 1784, Robert Morris sent Thomas Jefferson a number of documents, including the original presentation of his plan to Congress; an answer to Jefferson's Notes on Coinage, in which Jefferson had recorded his opposition to the plan; and a package containing an undocumented number of Nova Constellatio patterns, asking Jefferson to deliver them "...to the Secretary of Congress after you have done with them." Morris hoped to convince Jefferson to reconsider his opposition to the plan, but Jefferson was undoubtedly correct in his objections and too busy to consider the matter any further. He was leaving on a four-year assignment as U.S. Minister to France, a position he held from 1785-1789. A hurried note in his account book on May 11, 1784 records, "Left with C. Thomson as specimens of coins 1.8 D." This refers to Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress with whom Morris had asked Jefferson to leave the coins. From the amount of the coinage, we deduce that Jefferson left the mark, or dollar, one quint (.5 dollars), and three bits (3x.1 dollars = .3 dollars) for a total of 1.8 dollars with Thomson. Later evidence confirms that the quint in this group was the Type One variety. It seems that Morris did not send Jefferson the Type Two quint, and that coin traveled a much different path than the other silver coins. Its next appearance was in 1870, when a young man in New York sold the piece to coin dealer William P. Brown, noting that it had been a family heirloom for many years.
Of the coins entrusted to Thomson, the mark and Type One quint were faithfully stored for many years, but the three bits were dispersed in some unknown fashion shortly after he received them. The mark and quint were both known to Montroville W. Dickeson when he published his American Numismatical Manual in 1859. Apparently he contacted a man who had acquired the two coins from a nephew of Charles Thomson, who found the coins in a compartment in Thomson's desk after his death, circa 1842. Joseph Mickley, who consulted closely with Dickeson on his book, had several soft-metal casts of the coins made, and an example of each of these replicas was offered in his collection when he sold it through W. Elliot Woodward in October of 1867. Other copies turned up throughout the 19th century, causing some confusion among contemporary numismatists about their origin.
Captain John W. Haseltine was fascinated by Dickeson's story of the mark and quint when he became active in numismatics after the Civil War. In a speech at the 1908 ANA Convention, Haseltine revealed that he contacted every descendant of Charles Thomson that he could locate in a systematic effort to find these coins. His hopes were realized when he communicated with Mr. Rathmel Wilson, of Wilmington, Delaware, in May of 1872. He was able to secure both the mark and the Type One quint from Wilson, and offered them as lots 345 and 346 of his December 18, 1872 coin auction. Haseltine provided a physical description of the coins and the following discussion in his catalog:
"The two preceding pieces are, without doubt, the most interesting of the Confederation series, being the first known designs for a dollar and half dollar. They were found about thirty years ago, in a desk formerly the property of the Hon. Charles Thomson, Secretary of the first United States Congress. They are in remarkably fine condition, having a beautiful proof surface, and are as sharp as when they were struck. They will be sold together, and are limited to five hundred dollars for the pair.
"The following is a copy of a letter from Mr. Rathmel Wilson, the original of which will be sold with the pieces:
'John W. Haseltine, Esq.
PHILADELPHIA, May 28, 1872
'The history of the two coins which you obtained from me, viz.: Nova Constellatio, 1783, U.S. 1000, and Nova Constellatio, 1783, U.S. 500, is as follows:
'They were the property of the Hon. Charles Thomson, Secretary of the first Congress. At his death his property was left by will to his nephew, John Thomson, of Newark, State of Delaware. These two coins were found in the desk of the said deceased, Charles Thomson, and preserved by his nephew during his life; at his death they came into the possession of his son, Samuel E. Thomson, of Newark, Delaware, from whom I received them. So you will perceive that their genuineness cannot be questioned, as they were never out of the possession of the Thomson family until I received them.
'Rathmel Wilson' "
The coins sold to Henry Adams, of Massachusetts, for $540. Sylvester Sage Crosby, who published the standard work on colonial coins three years later, acquired the mark and Type One quint shortly afterward. He also purchased the Type Two quint sometime during this time frame. These three coins passed through several important collections over the next century, and they remained together until the sale of the Garrett Collection in 1979. For more on the pedigrees of the mark and quint, please see our description of the Type Two quint in lot 4107 of the Central States Signature (4/2013) http://coins.ha.com/c/item.zx?saleNo=1184&lotNo=4107 .
The Nova Constellatio patterns were one of the hottest topics in American numismatics during the 1870s. After the fanfare surrounding their first auction appearance in Haseltine's sale of December 18, 1872, and the publication of The Early Coins of America, by Sylvester Sage Crosby in 1875, the story of the Nova Constellatio patterns was well-documented and known to all serious numismatists in this country. Still, no example of the smallest silver denomination, the cent, or bit, had come to light, and its existence remained theoretical.
The Bit Surfaces
Surprisingly, the discovery of the 1783 Nova Constellatio bit took place, not in this country, but in Scotland, when the Edinburgh firm of T. Chapman & Son offered the present coin in lot 131 of the collection of William Taap, and others, beginning on October 21, 1884:
"Nova Constellatio, Pattern Dime or Piece of 100 Mills, obv. A wreath surrounding the inscription 'U.S. 100'; legend 'Libertas Institia, 1783'; Rev. an eye, surrounded by rays, forming a sun, between the rays thirteen stars, NOVA CONSTELLATIO.
'This is the earliest pattern of an American dime, and is probably unique.
'In the Mickley sale, 1867, a dollar and a half dollar were sold, exactly of the same type, but struck in white metal, this piece being of silver.'
"In brilliant condition, and of the highest rarity, - 1."
The lot realized 15 pounds, 15 shillings ($78.75) to Scottish collector John G. Murdoch or, more likely, a dealer representing him at the sale. The Taap catalog seems to have had a limited circulation and copies are extremely rare today. When Manville and Robertson published their masterful study British Numismatic Auction Catalogs 1710-1984, they could locate only one copy of this sale, in the Coin and Medals Department of the British Museum. Another copy surfaced in 1991, when Richard Margolis discovered it in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (see The Colonial Newsletter, July 1992 edition, for an image of the title page and lot description). Douglas Saville, the dean of British numismatic literature dealers, knows of no other copies today. The Taap sale was probably not well-attended or widely known outside the United Kingdom, giving Scottish collectors, like Murdoch, a home-field advantage at the sale.
A Second Example
Sometime before the Taap Collection was sold, between 1881 and 1884, another example of the 1783 Nova Constellatio bit was acquired by Edward Shorthouse, a collector from Birmingham, England. He purchased the bit as an "unknown coin" from the shop window of T.F. Cloud, Pawnbroker, 207, High Holborn, London, for 2 shillings, 3 pence (55 cents). These facts were disclosed by Shorthouse himself in the catalog of his collection, sold by Ludlow, Roberts & Weller in Birmingham on November 29, 1886 (see The Asylum, volume 29, number 2, April-June 2011 for a discussion of the catalog). What happened next is not entirely clear, but it seems likely that Shorthouse heard about the bit and the high price it brought in the Taap sale, and realized that his "welcome little stranger" was actually a coin of great importance and high value. He consigned the bit to prominent American coin dealer W. Elliot Woodward, who issued the following account in the April 1885 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics:
April 1885 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics
Click for larger image
Woodward's account is somewhat confused. He seems to have combined the story of Shorthouse buying the "unknown coin" at the pawnshop with a secondhand account of the auction sale of the Taap collection piece. The Taap lot description is remarkably detailed and accurate, aside from substituting INSTITIA for JUSTITIA in the inscription. Far from buying an unknown coin, the winner of lot 131 knew exactly what he was getting. The dealer he mentions at the Taap sale was probably representing Murdoch, and the "ten percent added" was the standard dealer commission at the time. The "prominent collector in England" who consigned the coin to Woodward was actually Shorthouse (who did not attend the sale), and the "American dealer" he consulted was Woodward himself. The venue of the Taap sale was also incorrect in Woodward's account, as the auction took place in Edinburgh, not Glasgow. These inaccuracies caused much confusion in later years, when numismatists like Carl Carlson and others tried to untangle the pedigrees of the Nova Constellatio bits. This second example of the bit, along with some other rare pieces, was offered in a four-page addendum to the Clark Collection (W. Elliot Woodward, 4/1885), with a description that required a page and a half of text. Woodward's lot description was the first to mention the "leaf work" design on the edge of the bit, as the piece in the Taap Collection (the present coin) has a plain edge. The obverse of the coin was also plated in the catalog, probably the first photographic representation of the bit. Unfortunately, the extremely high reserve of $550 discouraged bidders, and the lot failed to sell. The coin was offered again in lot 1064 of the Twining Collection (Woodward, 4/1886), where it sold to Boston collector Lorin G. Parmelee for $272. This coin later passed through the famous collections of James W. Ellsworth, John Work Garrett, and John Ford (see roster below for details).
The Taap and Shorthouse examples of the bit both surfaced in the United Kingdom, causing many numismatists to speculate that Gouverneur Morris took them to Birmingham circa 1785, to serve as models for the Nova Constellatio coppers, which he sponsored and produced in large numbers. The truth may never be known for certain but, since the bits were all separated from the mark and quint that were entrusted to Charles Thomson at an early date, this explanation seems a likely one.
The Present Coin in the 20th Century
After John G. Murdoch died in 1902, his massive collection was offered by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge in a series of eight auctions held in 1903 and 1904. The 1783 Nova Constellatio bit was featured in lot 905 of the July 1903 catalog:
"An eye in the center of radiations, within a circle of stars, NOVA CONSTELLATIO; rev. U.S. 100 within a wreath LIBERTAS JUSTITIA 1783, very fine and extremely rare [Plate VII]
** 'One of the rarest American coins.'-J.G.M."
The lot was purchased by S.H. Chapman, for 26 pounds ($126.66). The Chapman brothers later sold the bit to Robert Garrett, youngest son of T. Harrison Garrett, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad magnate. The elder Garrett had assembled one of the greatest numismatic collections of the 19th century before his untimely death in 1888. Robert inherited his father's collection and took pains to preserve it, but lacked interest in buying coins; the bit was one of the few major additions he made during his long stewardship. He either sold or traded the collection to his older brother, John Work Garrett, in 1919.
Unlike his brother, John Work Garrett was an avid collector and he steadily built the collection over the years, until his death in 1942. He entered into partnership with New York coin dealer Wayte Raymond in 1923 to buy the marvelous collection of Colonel James W. Ellsworth, through Knoedler Galleries. The asking price for the collection was $100,000, the largest numismatic purchase on record up to that time. Garrett and Raymond split the collection between them, with Raymond keeping most of the federal issues and Garrett retaining the Territorial and colonial coins, including a complete set of the Nova Constellatio silver patterns. Garrett then had two examples of the bit in his collection. Evidently not realizing that the edge designs were different (plain verses leaf design), or not considering the difference important, Garrett sold the plain edge piece through Wayte Raymond for $2,200 shortly after their deal for the Ellsworth Collection was completed. Raymond apparently sold the plain edge bit to the Guttag brothers, New York coin dealers, who offered it at an undisclosed fixed price in a circular dated May 2, 1923. The coin was purchased by Baltimore financier Waldo Newcomer, who held it until 1931.
The plain edge bit passed to eccentric millionaire "Colonel" Edward Howland Robinson Green when Newcomer sold his front line collection through Fort Worth coin dealer B. Max Mehl. Green kept the coin in his fabulous collection until his death in 1936, when it passed to his estate. The numismatic collection was stored and curated by the Chase-Manhattan Bank. Green's collection remained intact until Eric P. Newman established a rapport with the administrators of his estate and succeeded in buying some Missouri currency he was studying in the early 1940s. After this initial foray, Newman partnered with his mentor, St. Louis coin dealer Burdette G. Johnson, to acquire many more items from Green's collection. Johnson's financial resources allowed him to purchase many items, including the plain edge bit, on his own account, and Newman purchased the coins he wanted from Johnson afterward, as soon as he could afford to buy them. Most of Newman's purchases were made at bargain prices, but he paid a substantial $1,500 for the unique plain edge bit. The coin has remained a centerpiece of his celebrated collection for more than 70 years.
The Eric P. Newman bit is a well-preserved Choice AU piece, with sharply defined design elements that show just a trace of friction on the high points. The lettering, stars, and dentils all show evidence of multiple strikes. We believe this coin received at least three blows from the screw press. At least one of the leaf-edge bits shows evidence of multiple strikings as well, consistent with the idea that these coins were struck as proofs, as suggested by Walter Breen and PCGS. The surfaces display pleasing shades of silver-gray, pale green, and amber toning. The planchet is well-formed and there is no sign of die rust or corrosion. A few minor abrasions are scattered over the surfaces of both sides and, although reflectivity is minimal, traces of prooflike luster show when the coin is tilted in the light. Some faint planchet adjustment marks are seen on the plain edge. A metallurgical analysis of the coin reveals the following composition: 93.65% silver, 6.19% copper, 0.16% trace elements, total weight: 26.39 grams.
As arguably the first official United States coins, the Nova Constellatio patterns are among the most interesting and historically significant coins in the world. They are even more important as an early example of a decimal coinage system, a precursor of the systems that have been almost universally adopted by Western countries today. These coins are greatly sought after by pattern enthusiasts, colonial and early U.S. collectors, and aficionados of art and history. This coin is a unique example of the 100-unit bit, the only one of the three known examples to feature a plain edge. It is remarkably well preserved for a coin of this era, and it has been off the market for more than 70 years. This is only the third public offering of this piece in its 231-year history, making this lot a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the discerning collector.
Roster of 1783 Nova Constellatio Bits
1. AU55 NGC, unique plain edge variety. Benjamin Dudley; Robert Morris; Thomas Jefferson; Charles Thomson, possibly Gouverneur Morris; unknown intermediaries; William Taap; Taap Collection (T. Chapman & Son, 10/1884), lot 131; John G. Murdoch; Murdoch Collection (Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 7/1903), lot 905; S.H. Chapman; Robert Garrett; John Work Garrett; Wayte Raymond; Guttag brothers FPL in 1923; Waldo Newcomer, purchased for $3,000; "Col." E.H.R. Green, via B. Max Mehl in 1931; Green Estate; Eric P. Newman, via B.G. Johnson in the early 1940s for $1,500; Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society. The present coin.
2. PR66 PCGS, twin olive leaf design on edge. Benjamin Dudley; Robert Morris; Thomas Jefferson; Charles Thomson; possibly Gouverneur Morris; unknown intermediaries; T.F. Cloud, London pawnbroker; Edward Shorthouse; Clark Collection (W. Elliot Woodward, 4/1885), lot 1 in the Addenda, not sold; Twining Collection (Woodward, 4/1886), lot 1064; Lorin G. Parmelee; Parmelee Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 6/1890) lot 583, bought in by H.P. Smith, for Parmelee's account; Colonel James W. Ellsworth, via the Chapman brothers in 1902, exhibited at the 1914 ANS Exhibition; Knoedler Galleries; purchased by John Work Garrett as part of a blockbuster transaction involving the entire Ellsworth Collection, in partnership with Wayte Raymond in 1923; Johns Hopkins University, after Garrett's death in 1942; Garrett Collection, Part I (Bowers and Ruddy, 11/1979), lot 619; John Ford; private collection, via Stack's circa 2007.
3. Very Fine or better, twin olive leaf design on edge. Scratches, particularly on the reverse. Acquired by an Italian collector in the 1920s while visiting the Philadelphia area, per Stack's; Italian collector's descendants; Picker, Benedict and Rising Collections (Stack's, 5/1991), lot 112; New York collection.
Provenance of the Unique 1783 Nova Constellatio Plain Edge Bit (dates of ownership in parenthesis)
William Taap (early times-1884). Little is known of William Taap, except that he was "a Scotch collector recently deceased" when his collection was sold at auction by T. Chapman & Son on October 21-22, 1884. W. Elliott Woodward believed the present coin was acquired at an early date and remained in the Taap family for 100 years before being sold in Chapman's sale.
John Gloag Murdoch, Sr. (1884-1903) was born in 1830 at Huntingtower, Perthshire, Scotland. In his early years he was apprenticed in the printing trade and later joined the firm of Messrs., Collins & Co. of Glasgow, publishers of Family Bibles. In 1871 he set up his own business in London, publishing Family Bibles, which were very popular at the time, in Welsh and Dutch, as well as English. Later on, he branched out into photograph albums and music boxes, which led in turn to the manufacture of musical instruments like pianofortes and organs. He was one of the founders of Spencer & Co., pianoforte makers to HRH the Prince of Wales, and Malcolm & Co., organ makers, Regent's Park. Murdoch had a large business reproducing works of art by the greatest artists of the time in the best style of color printing, gaining the patronage of Queen Victoria and many other influential personages. His sons continued his business enterprises after his death, and the firm of John G. Murdoch & Co. survived until 1970.
Murdoch began collecting coins in the 1880s, joining the Numismatic Society of London in 1885. He collected coins from all over the world, buying liberally at auction and private treaty until his death in 1902. Among the many American coins in his collection were the 1783 Nova Constellatio bit, which he acquired at the Taap sale, and the Uncirculated 1794 Flowing Hair dollar that was later owned by George Earle and Harry Bass. His collection was sold by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge in a series of eight auctions in 1903-1904. The collection comprised 5,386 lots and the eight different auctions required a total of 39 days to complete. Sotheby's described the collection in the preface to the first auction catalog as:
"...second only to the late Mr. Montagu's. The two collections are probably the most important, valuable and extensive ever formed in England. Mr. Murdoch did not collect Greek and Roman coins. If these series are eliminated from the Montagu Collection, we think Mr. Murdoch's will be found to be the most important numismatic collection ever sold in this country."
Robert Garrett (circa 1903-circa 1919) was the youngest son of T. Harrison Garrett and he inherited the family coin collection after his father's death. Garrett graduated from Princeton in 1897. A star athlete, he represented the United States at the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, becoming the first American to win a gold medal for his performance in the discus throw. He preserved the collection well, but he was a cautious buyer and made relatively few additions to his father's collection. Perhaps his most important acquisition was the coin offered here, which he obtained through the Chapman brothers after they purchased it at the Murdoch sale. He sold or traded the collection to his brother, John Work Garrett, in 1919.
John Work Garrett (circa 1919-1923) was born in Baltimore, Maryland on May 19, 1872. He was the oldest son of T. Harrison Garrett, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century. Garrett graduated from Princeton in 1895 and served as a diplomat until he retired in 1933. He was posted in secretarial and ministerial positions at The Hague, Berlin, Venezuela, and Argentina, and as ambassador to Rome. His brother, Robert, inherited their father's coin collection after the senior Garrett's death, but sold or traded it to John Work in 1919. Garrett was a serious numismatist and continued to build the collection until his death on June 26, 1942. Childless, he left his collection to Johns Hopkins University. The collection was eventually deaccessioned and sold in a series of four auctions by Bowers and Ruddy from 1979-1981. Garrett sold the plain edge bit through Wayte Raymond, after acquiring the colonial portion of the marvelous collection of Col. James Ellsworth in 1923. Ellsworth's collection included an example of the Nova Constellatio bit with a twin olive leaf design on the edge, and Garrett possibly considered his plain edge bit a duplicate.
Waldo Newcomer (circa 1923-circa 1931) was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 14, 1867. He married Margaret Vanderpoel in 1897 and they had three children. He served in many positions at different financial institutions over the years, including president of the National Exchange Bank, chairman of the board of the Atlantic Exchange Bank & Trust Co., and CEO of Baltimore Trust Company. Newcomer was also President of the Atlantic Coast Line Co. and Northern Central Railroad. He assembled one of the greatest collections of all time, buying the collections of H.O. Granberg and Augustus Heaton outright and buying many patterns and half eagles from William Woodin. His acquisition of the 1783 Nova Constellatio bit was via Wayte Raymond, who either purchased it from John Work Garrett, or was acting as his agent.
Like many financiers, Granberg's interests were hit hard by the Great Depression, and he sold the main body of his collection through B. Max Mehl in 1931. Many of his coins, including the Nova Constellatio bit, were purchased by "Col." E.H.R. Green. Newcomer died of heart failure in Honolulu, Hawaii on June 29, 1934.
"Col." Edward Howland Robinson Green (circa 1931-1936) was born on August 22, 1868 in London, England. Edward (Ned) was the son of the famous Hetty Green, called "the Witch of Wall Street" because of her ruthless (and highly successful) business dealings. Newspaper accounts claim she was so miserly that she refused to hire a doctor to treat her son's injured leg, which later had to be amputated. (In actuality, she was a believer in homeopathic remedies; after her attempts to cure him failed, she and Ned visited a number of renowned specialists.) Green inherited a fabulous fortune after her death, and spent the money with reckless abandon for the rest of his life. A shrewd businessman, he pursued many enterprises throughout the country, but his primary residence was a mansion he had built at Round Hill, Massachusetts. He was an executive of several railroads and active in Republican politics in Texas. His business ventures and political activities made it desirable for him to maintain residence in Texas, which he did by renting an apartment in Dallas and keeping one suit of clothes and one of his wooden legs there. His title of "Colonel" was an honorary one, bestowed by the governor of Texas. Green was justly famous for his numismatic collection, which some sources valued at $5 million at the time of his death. Among his more famous coins were the unique 1783 Nova Constellatio bit and the unique 1870-S three dollar gold piece, both acquired from the Newcomer Collection via B. Max Mehl. At one time, Green owned all five known specimens of the 1913 Liberty nickel, as did Eric P. Newman in partnership with B.G. Johnson.
"Col." Green Estate (1936- early 1940s).
Eric P. Newman (early 1940s-present day) was born on May 25, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, where he resides today. When he was seven years old, he received a gift of an 1859 U.S. cent from his grandfather. Thus began his lifelong interest in numismatics. As a child, he would ride the streetcar to his local coin shop, St. Louis Stamp and Coin Company, and use his allowance to purchase an interesting piece within his means. Owner Burdette G. Johnson gave him a book, with the caveat that he could not buy any coin until he studied about it. B.G. Johnson proved to be mentor, friend, and later on, a partner in the acquisition of numismatic material from the magnificent collection of "Colonel" Green. Eric P. Newman purchased the present coin from the Green Estate in the early 1940s via Burdette G. Johnson for $1,500.
Since 1949, Eric has researched and written about coins and currency, making numismatics his avocation throughout his long career in real estate law. At present, he is working on the 6th edition of his essential reference work, The Early Paper Money of America. In 1958, he founded the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society; he also established the Newman Money Museum, located on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.
Eric has been married for 74 years to the dynamic Evelyn E. Newman, who is well known in St. Louis for her numerous innovative, and highly successful, fund-raising projects. Many institutions throughout the United States, including universities and medical facilities, have benefited from their philanthropy. (NGC ID# 2AZ8, PCGS# 45409)
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