Coin Profiles: 1776 Brass Continental Dollar

About 15 brass Continental Currency pieces are known in all grades, and they are only known from the original engraving or the first modification of Reverse A. Breen recorded an example of the EG FECIT variety in brass; however, that piece has never materialized.

Current rarity information indicates that there are three known examples of Hodder 1-A.1, and about 12 known of Hodder 1-A.2, the variety shown here. The rarity ratings for the two varieties are reversed in the Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins. Walter Breen recorded this piece as his Encyclopedia number 1087, and described it as a brass “prototype penny.” While it may have seemed logical to Breen that the brass pieces were trial pieces, additional study has shown that assumption to be incorrect. Hodder studied the die states of both brass and pewter examples, and determined that they were struck simultaneously.

This specimen is the only one of those known that has been described as Mint State or Uncirculated in auction offerings over the last 40 years. Both sides have bright yellow surfaces with a faint green tint. Some luster remains, although the brass pieces never had vibrant luster. The surfaces have a few minor flaws, including a tiny pit mark at the center of the reverse, and a small rough patch at the reverse border about 11:30. In 1967 the Stack’s cataloger wrote: “This specimen is Uncirculated with but one small corrosion spot on the left stand of the ‘R’ in ‘ARE’. If not the finest specimen extant, then surely equal to it.” Unmentioned in any of its past offerings, the reverse is prominently doubled.

Census of Brass Continental Dollars
Hodder 1-A.1
1. AU Spink & Son (London, 11/1910); Virgil M. Brand; Brand Estate (Bowers and Merena, 6/1984), lot 955. Illustrated in Scott’s Encyclopedia.
2. VF20 Virgil M. Brand Collection; B. Max Mehl (privately, 1/11/1937); Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena, 3/1988), lot 2450. Illustrated in Michael Hodder’s 1989 Anthology article.
3. Eric Newman Collection; Eric Newman Numismatic Education Foundation. Condition and past provenance unavailable.

Hodder 1-A.2
A Census of this variety is presented in order of condition, as best we are able to determine. The issue is somewhat complicated due to seemingly contradictory remarks by the cataloger of the Ford specimen. He wrote that the Ford specimen “is nicer than Roper’s, Laird Park’s and Robison’s, not quite as sharp as Taylor’s or Carter’s. The nicest two brass Continental Dollars the cataloguer has seen are the Brand II and Herdmann [sic] pieces.” That cataloger’s commentary indicates that the Ford specimen is finer than the Laird Park coin but not as nice as the Herdman coin. He apparently failed to recognize the two auction listings as the same coin. We list 12 different examples in our Census, and one or two others may exist.

1. MS63 NGC Charles Jay Collection (Stack’s, 10/1967), lot 39; Laird Park (Stack’s, 5/1976), lot 109; Herdman Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 12/1977), lot 5039. The present specimen.
2. AU55 Taylor Collection (Bowers and Merena, 3/1987), lot 2047; Bowers and Merena (5/1992), lot 1010; Stack’s (1/2007), lot 6439.
3. AU or finer (described as “Virtually Uncirculated” in the Carter catalog) B. Max Mehl (5/1950), lot 769; Amon Carter Collection (Stack’s, 1/1984), lot 204.
4. Choice XF Virgil Brand; F.C.C. Boyd; John J. Ford, Jr. (Stack’s, 10/2003), lot 1.
5. Choice XF Pine Tree “Promised Lands” Sale, lot 335; Gilbert Steinberg (Stack’s, 10/1989), lot 63.
6. XF45 PCGS 1999 ANA Sale (Heritage, 8/1999), lot 6465.
7. XF45 New Netherlands Coin Company (privately, 8/21/1955); Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena, 3/1988), lot 2452
8. XF Lermann Collection; Garrett Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 10/1980), lot 1489
9. XF John L. Roper, 2nd (Stack’s, 12/1983), lot 198; Stack’s (9/2006), lot 112
10. VF30 B. Max Mehl (privately, 1/11/1937); Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena, 3/1988), lot 2451
11. Fine Robison Collection (Stack’s, 2/1982), lot 87.
12. Eric Newman Collection; Eric Newman Numismatic Education Foundation. Condition and past provenance unavailable.

In The Early Coins of America, Sylvester Crosby wrote that William Sumner Appleton owned a brass example of this variety. No appearance of that piece is found in any sale of items from the Massachusetts Historical Society, so the Appleton specimen may represent a 13th known example if it remains in the MHS Collection.

Composition of the Continental Currency Coinage
Metrology of the Continental Currency coinage is simple. Examples are known in brass, pewter, and silver. The pewter pieces are common, those in brass are rare, and examples in silver are extremely rare. Some past authors have attempted to complicate a simple topic.

The earliest attempt at describing the composition of the pewter coins appeared in print within a decade of their production. Richard Watson was the author of Chemical Essays, first published in London in 1786. Watson wrote: “I estimated the weight of a cubic foot of this Continental currency: it was equal to 7440 ounces; this exceeds the weight of our best sort of pewter, and falls short of that of our worst; I conjecture that the metal of the Continental currency consisted of 12 parts of tin and one of lead.” His estimate yielded a proposed composition of 92.3% tin and 7.7% lead.

Sylvester S. Crosby published The Early Coins of America in 1875. To this day, Crosby’s work remains an integral part of any colonial coinage study. Crosby discussed specimens known in the various compositions:

One specimen of this variety [Hodder 1-A.3], found in the cabinet of Mr. [Lorin G.] Parmelee, is struck in silver: this has probably done service as a dollar, as it bears evidence of considerable wear from circulation. Impressions from these dies are usually found in tin. A specimen in the cabinet of Mr. [J. Carson] Brevoort, struck in brass, (size 23,) has the same reverse with that just described, but the rings upon the obverse are beaded, instead of plain as in all the others: Mr. [William Sumner] Appleton has another, in brass, from the same dies, with the beads partly cut into lines; both these have a comma under the N. This die was afterwards further altered, into the more common style described above.

Eric Newman correctly identified examples known in brass, pewter and silver in “The 1776 Continental Currency Coinage,” published as part of Wayte Raymond’s series, The Coin Collector’s Journal in 1952. His brief essay on these pieces remains standard today, with just one variety in pewter unknown to him at that time. The entire topic of metrology was understood in 1952; however, sometime since then, complications arose.
In his 1988 Complete Encyclopedia, Walter Breen recorded many Continental Currency varieties in various compositions. He recorded various pieces in brass, copper, tin [in place of pewter], and silver. To this day, some catalogers and disciples of Breen’s work will record Continental pieces in tin, “correcting” the old description that they are pewter when no correction is necessary. Breen based his listings on metallurgical testing from the early 1960s that indicated the coins were greater than 95% tin with nearly 5% trace elements.

At about the same time, the famous Norweb Collection came on the market in 1987 and 1988. During preparations for that sale, arrangements were made for two brass pieces and two pewter pieces, all from the collection of Eric Newman, to be tested through x-ray spectrographic analysis. One piece was found to be 75% copper, 15% zinc, and 10% trace elements, while the other piece was 74% copper, 21% zinc, and 5% trace elements. That analysis clearly shows that the brass pieces have always been properly described. One of the pewter pieces was found to contain 72% lead, 26% copper, and the balance trace elements, while the other piece contains 84% lead, 13% copper, and the balance trace elements. The analysis clearly shows that these pieces are pewter rather than tin. Only four examples are known in silver, and there is no record of any testing or analysis, but they are likely either coin silver (90%) or sterling silver (92.5%).

The analysis clearly shows that the majority of Continental Currency coins were made in pewter rather than tin, with others in brass or silver. Past descriptions of pieces in tin and copper can now be discounted. There are no surviving examples made in copper, although some of the brass pieces have a deep brown color and those are the coins sometimes described as copper.
From The Collection of a Patriotic American. (#792)

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