A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #161 …..
In some instances, very low quality coins are worth substantial sums, especially when such coins are very rare and very popular. Higley Coppers are legends among collectors of colonials (and other pre-federal items). Moreover, these are fascinating as an early and private issue of coinage in a British-American colony. Higley Coppers truly circulated and relate to the lives of settlers in Connecticut in the 1730s.
On Wed, March 13, at a convention center in Baltimore, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned two Higley Coppers, both of which were in the Ted Craige Collection. Prior to that auction, I discussed the Craige Collection and covered some of the rarities that were auctioned in March. (Clickable links are in blue.) I did not then discuss the two Higley Coppers in the Craige Collection, as these require more of an explanation than other colonial coins. In terms of their role in history and their physical characteristics, Higley Coppers are very interesting, important and entertaining.
I. Historical Background
Probably from 1737 to 1739, these copper pieces were minted in Connecticut. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Samuel Higley was very much involved, though claims in standard coin references regarding his role are misleading. He did not singlehandedly mine copper, craft dies and mint coins. The Higley family was prominent in the area and there is historical evidence that two of Samuel’s associates were geared towards producing coins.
Some researchers have classified Higley Coppers as “tokens.” In my view, these are true coins, not tokens. Circumstantial evidence and logic dictate that these circulated to a large extent as a general medium of exchange. Thousands must have been minted. There was a perennial shortage of coins, especially small denominations, in the British colonies of North America. Besides, there is no reason to believe that Higley Coppers were used in just one neighborhood or for just one kind of transaction. It is likely that a large number and a variety of sellers accepted Higley Coppers in transactions for goods and services.
They had a face value of three pence. The fact that they were probably each worth less than three pence of colonial paper money or three pence in British coins is not a reason to doubt their status as coins. The same term, pence, had different meanings and values in different contexts. In my column last week, I note that a “dollar” had vastly different values in different States in 1782, as did a “penny.”
Also, it follows logically that each Higley Copper would be valued above its intrinsic (‘melt’) value so that people did not have a motive to melt them for their copper content. Coins cannot circulate if they are all melted. Undoubtedly, different sellers of goods and services accepted them at varying rates at first and later an equilibrium value was reached, more or less. This was often true of particular issues of colonial paper money as well.
Higley Coppers probably had more stable values than some, widely used colonial paper money. Besides, the reputation of Samuel Higley contributed to the acceptance of Higley Coppers as circulating coins.
Samuel Higley was a leading citizen of the Simsbury-Granby area and was known beyond its borders. He died on a ship traveling to England that was carrying copper, which he was exporting.
Higley was a graduate of Yale. Curiously, Samuel was a medical doctor, a metallurgist and a general school teacher, in addition to managing his own (or his family’s) copper mine.
Noah Phelps wrote a History of Simsbury, Granby and Canton [Connecticut], which was published in 1845. Current accounts of the Higley coinage often rely on secondhand interpretations of the material in this book. When I read (a digital form of) the original book, I realized how little is known about this coinage and how some statements in standard coin references are misleading. For example, there is no evidence that any consumer complained about the stated denomination of three pence.
Noah Phelps points out that copper was discovered by 1705 in a “mountain” on a site that became part of Granby, which “was set off from the north part of Simsbury, and incorporated in 1786” (p. 103). Mining commenced around 1707. This “mountain” became known as “Copper Hill.” Later in the 18th century, a famous prison was built on this site, Newgate.
“After 1721, when a division of the mining lands took place among the lessees, each company worked at separate mines, all situated upon Copper Hill, and, excepting Higley’s [mine], within the compass of less than one mile. … At Higley’s mine, which lies about a mile and a half south of [Copper Hill], Mr. Edmund Quincy, of Boston, had a company of miners working [during the] breaking out of the war of the revolution [in 1775]; soon after which the [mining] works were abandoned ” (p. 116). So, the copper mines in the Simsbury-Granby area operated from around 1707 to around 1776.
“The manufacture of steel was commenced in this town on a small scale in 1727, and this, it is believed, was the first attempt to make [steel] in” North America, states Phelps (on p. 87). “In 1728, Samuel Higley, who was a son of John Higley, one of the early settlers of this town, presented a petition to the General Court … His request was granted, and he with his associates were vested with the exclusive privilege of making steel for the term of ten years, on condition, that they, during that term, should [operate] the business, and ‘bring it to a good and reasonable perfection,’ within the period of two years.”
Noah Phelps specifically mentions “Higley’s Coppers” on page 118. These were “in some circulation in the vicinity of the mines. [Each] is said to have passed for two and sixpence, forty-two cents, in paper currency … One of these coins, dated 1737, is in the cabinet of the Connecticut Historical Society. Its inscription on one side is, ‘I am good copper’ [and] on the other, ‘Value me as you please’… The inventor and maker, is supposed to have been Doct. Samuel Higley,” Noah Phelps adds.
A later book by Richard Harvey Phelps, presumably one of Noah’s relatives, discusses the history of these mines and of Newgate prison, which was built on Copper Hill. Sylvester Crosby, in his epic reference, The Early Coins of America (1875), does not clearly distinguish between the two Phelps and their respective writings. This could be partly because Richard sometimes copied material from Noah without identifying such materials as being cited, and Richard seems to have carelessly interpreted some of Noah’s passages.
Crosby’s work, in turn, became the basis for the understanding of Higley’s Coppers attained by many collectors from 1875 to the present. My impression is that Crosby relied heavily on Richard’s writings.
Richard Phelps’s book is rather poorly written and the research involved was sloppy. For example, Richard Phelps repeatedly mentions a “Mr. Higley,” without noting which member of a large family to which he is referring. It is often assumed that John Higley, Jr., Samuel’s brother, continued the coinage project after Samuel died, though though this should be a hypothesis, not an assumption.
Higley family members may have been involved in planning Higley’s Coppers before Samuel’s death during the spring of 1837, and probably were involved afterwards. The Higleys were wealthy landowners in the greater Simsbury-Granby area, and were very influential members of the community.
Also, Richard Phelps, or an editor of the 1901 edition of Richard’s book, seems to have illicitly copied material from Montroville Dickeson’s book, American Numismatical Manual, which was published in 1859. Here is one such sentence that seems to have been plagiarized; “These coins grace but few cabinets, having been generally so impaired by wear, from being stamped upon unalloyed copper, as to be rarely found sufficiently perfect” (Richard Phelps, 1901, p. 20; Dickeson, 1859, p. 80). Phelps or an editor deleted the phrase “at this time,” which Dickeson used in the middle of this sentence. It is otherwise the exact same sentence.
In regard to Higley Coppers, Dickeson’s book is of extraordinary importance. It demonstrates that five of the seven subtypes that are now known were identified before 1859. One of the other two subtypes was not discovered until the 20th century and only a single coin is known.
While interest in coin collecting was steadily increasing in the 1850s, a boom in coin collecting was just beginning. Indeed, the period from 1860 to 1915 or so was a marvelous era of coin collecting in the U.S., which was characterized by innumerable auctions including many epic events, the building and dispersal of phenomenal collections, a few very knowledgeable dealers, a large number of collectors, and prices that seemed exorbitant to most U.S. citizens, plus considerable publication of books and journals about rare coins.
Indeed, there were many sophisticated collectors active during the second half of the 19th century. This is one reason why many North American coins from the 1700s, which were minted and/or circulated under primitive conditions, are around now. As an aside, I note that many high quality U.S. coins from the 1800s survive. In other societies, the survival rates of high quality, nineteenth century coins are usually much lower.
Unfortunately, there were few people in North America collecting coins before 1750. More than a century later, by the 1850s, active markets for rare American coins had emerged, though were still in their infancy. As the vast majority of Higley Coppers are very heavily worn and/or have serious problems, particularly corrosion, it is unlikely that any forger, before 1859, would have fabricated a whole series of such peculiar, somewhat illogical coins and then deliberately worn and/or seriously harmed his own forgeries.
Therefore, the Higley Coppers known to Dickeson in 1859, including those of five subtypes, are extremely likely to be genuine. After all, the costs then of fabricating such pieces would have far outweighed expected benefits. Forgeries produced during the 1850s typically relate to rare coins or other objects that vast numbers of collectors then strongly demanded, like 1794 silver dollars and 1793 Chain Cents. Before Dickeson’s book was published in 1859, few collectors had heard of Higley’s Coppers, which were (and still are) very rare.
II. Types of Higley Coppers
In Breen’s encyclopedia of 1988, seven subtypes of Higley Coppers are listed, #238 to #244. Although each of these could be termed a “type,” the term subtype is more applicable. Breen follows Russell Rulau, who numbered these one to seven. Breen notes, however, that six of the seven subtypes are pictured in Crosby’s book of 1875, which I already mentioned here and cited last week, too.
The seventh subtype was discovered by ANS curator Howland Wood and revealed in 1913. Just that one is known, with the spokes of a wheel on the obverse (front). Since it appears so much different from all other Higley Coppers, I wonder about it, though I admit that I have never examined it. It was in the Garrett Collection and is rumored to now be in a private collection on Long Island.
The PCGS CoinFacts site lists the same seven Rulau-Breen subtypes. My guess is that most collectors find this standard list of seven to be confusing and discouraging. As I just noted, the ‘wheel’ one is unique. Plus, two are just slight variants of each other, ‘VALVE’ versus ‘VALUE!
Higley Coppers should be categorized as two general types, (H) Hammers and (X) Axe. Four of the seven subtypes are of a design that features three hammers on the reverse (back of the coin) and the other three subtypes features a broad axe on the reverse.
The purpose of my classifications is to make it easier for people to remember and understand Higley Coppers. My system for identifying two categories and five subtypes can easily be memorized. In another words, with an identification of mine, a reader can envision the subtype in his mind.
Breen, PCGS or Freidus numbers for Higley Coppers cannot practically be memorized, and require reference materials to be useful. The adoption of my system would, I hope, encourage education about and appreciation of Higley Coppers.
All of the Hammers pieces are dated 1737. On some Higley Coppers, the word ‘value’ appears as ‘VALVE,’ though does appear as ‘VALUE’ on one variety. These should fall into the category of die varieties, and not be regarded as separate types or subtypes. One of the standard seven subtypes differs from another by the difference in this one letter. So, I argue that these two subtypes should really amount to just one subtype. In past centuries, it was not unusual for a capital ‘U’ to appear, in current terms, as a capital ‘V’!
Except for the unique ‘wheel’ Higley, all feature a deer and a Roman numeral III on the obverse (front). On Higley Coppers, all letters are capitalized.
H) Hammers – 1737
— ‘THE VALVE OF THREE PENCE’ [3P] on the obverse and ‘CONNECTICVT’’ [CT] on the reverse. [PCGS 201; Breen 238]
— The same ‘THREE PENCE’ obverse design matched with a reverse that says ‘I AM GOOD COPPER’ [IAGC] rather than ‘CONNECTICVT’.
— The obverse features a cute legend, ‘VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE’! It does not explicitly mention ‘THREE PENCE.’ The difference between ‘VALUE’ and ‘VALVE’ is trivial. Both such varieties are of the H-Please-IAGC subtype.
X) Axe — No Date or 1739
The ‘axe’ reverse is apparent enough. There is not a need to mention that the three subtypes with an axe all feature the same motto, ‘J. CUT MY WAY THROUGH.’
This subtype has no date [ND], meaning no mention of a year, the deer with the ‘VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE’ obverse, and the ‘axe’ reverse.
This has same general design as X-Please-ND, except that the date, 1739, appears on the reverse.
— This is the unique piece that features the spokes of a wheel on the obverse, along with a novel legend, ‘THE WHEELE GOES ROUND’. All ‘H’ varieties, X-Please-ND and X-Please-1739 feature a deer on the obverse. This obverse design looks much different from the other obverse designs and the slogan sounds very childish. The reverse design is the same as that of X-Please-ND.
If I ever have an opportunity to see this piece, I may comment on it. How was it authenticated? Perhaps a set should be considered complete without it, a set of just the two categorical types or a set of the five subtypes just listed.
III. Higley Coppers ‘In The News’
On March 13, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned two Higley Coppers from the the Ted Craige Collection. One is of my category ‘H’ (Hammers) and one of category ‘X’ (Axe).
The first Higley Copper in the Craige Collection is of subtype H-Please-IAGC. The fair request, VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE,’ is on the obverse. Three hammers along with an announcement, ‘I AM GOOD COPPER,’ are on the reverse.
It is dated 1737 and is PCGS graded “Good-06,” which is not a low state of preservation for a Higley Copper. Some collectors may presume that this coin does not have enough surviving detail for a Good-06 grade. Because Higley Coppers were so poorly made, however, detail was missing from the onset. Plus, by tradition, 18th century copper coins are graded much more liberally than 19th century copper coins.
Undoubtedly, experts at the PCGS figured that much of the possible detail was missing or very faint when the coin was struck. Moreover, the color and surface quality of this piece place it in a class above most surviving Higley Coppers. Indeed, this H-Please-IAGC exhibits a really pleasing brown color.
It looks much better in actuality than it does in images. The relative originality and appeal of the color of this Higley Copper are excellent, in comparative terms, and were, too, probably factors that PCGS graders incorporated into their assignment of a Good-06 grade, which does seem to call for an explanation.
The second Craige Collection Higley Copper, X-Please-ND, has been determined to be non-gradable by the experts at the PCGS and to have the details of a Fine grade coin. It has corroded to a substantial extent, though not terribly. There is more corrosion on the reverse than on the obverse.
Perhaps the obverse has the details of a Very Good or Fine grade Higley Copper. The reverse is harder to interpret.
There is no doubt about the fact that this coin is non-gradable. Even so, its color is a standard black-brown blend, which often characterizes moderately corroded, early copper coins.
In 1918, this same piece was in the fairly important, though largely forgotten, auction of the collection of Allison Jackman, by the firm of Henry Chapman. Although this piece is tolerable, superior X-Please-ND Higley Coppers exist. Indeed, the Stack’s-Bowers cataloger notes that three better representatives of this same die variety have been auctioned over the last ten years.
This Craige Collection X-Please-ND sold for $19,975, less than others of the same subtype. After considering the extent of corrosion on the reverse, I regard this price as moderate to strong. On Jan. 26, 2010, Stack’s (New York) auctioned a X-Please-ND, which was PCGS graded AG-03, for $37,375. I have not seen it.
At FUN Conventions in Jan. 2010 and Jan. 2011, Heritage auctioned the Ryder-Hall-Boyd-Ford X-Please-ND. It is PCGS graded Fine-15. In 2010, it brought $48,875. One year later, it realized $51,750.
The already mentioned, Craige Collection H-Please-IAGC brought $64,625. In terms of past auction records and current market conditions, this amount would seem to be a very strong price. (IAGC = “I AM GOOD COPPER” on the reverse)
In March 2010, Stack’s auctioned a PCGS graded AG-03 H-Please-IAGC for $27,600. While the surface quality of the Craige piece is vastly superior to that of this PCGS graded AG-03 grade piece, that one has a much more sharply defined portrait of a deer. Furthermore, the obverse letters are a little more readable. Is it surprising that the Craige H-Please-IAGC brought more than twice as much?
IV. Collecting Higley Coppers
Those who cannot afford to collect genuine Higley Coppers may consider obtaining a “Bolen Restrike,” a replica struck in the 19th century. These look similar to real Higley Coppers and tend to only cost a fraction as much. Even less expensive replicas were produced during later times, though the Bolen pieces command more attention among collectors than other replicas.
In Nov. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers sold a “MS-63RB” Bolen “copy” of an H-3P-CT for $646. There are other famous replicas that can be purchased for less than $500 each. Relatively recent copies could be found for less than $50 each.
A real, 1737 H-3P-CT that is PCGS graded VG-08 was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers for $47,725 in March 2010. In May 2008, Heritage auctioned the PCGS graded VF-25, Boyd-Ford-Wiseman H-3P-CT for $57,500.
Recently, in Feb. 2013, Heritage sold the Norweb Collection X-Please-ND. It is very much non-gradable. There are deep pricks in the coin, among other issues. It is curious that it garnered $49,937.50.
Researcher Dan Freidus has identified Higley Coppers from a total of fifteen different die pairings. So, according to him, there are fifteen such die varieties among survivors. Would it make sense for anyone to collect Higley Coppers by die variety?
The most productive aspect of Freidus’s research relates to tracing pedigrees. For some such varieties, there are only one to three Higley Coppers known.
Higley Copper enthusiasts who are very wealthy and have a great deal of patience probably enjoy or would enjoy collecting a few subtypes. For other interested collectors, the most sensible way to collect genuine Higley Coppers may be to obtain one in category ‘H- Hammers’ and one in category ‘X – Axe.’ It is important to consider only pieces that have a traceable pedigree or some kind of widely recognized history.
After all, as Higley Coppers were crudely made and tend not to be of high quality, they are not easy to authenticate. For more than a century, they have been valuable. In addition to many apparent replicas, deceptive forgeries exist.
Although true new discoveries have occurred, it may not be a great idea to buy one that is purported to be a new discovery. An interested wealthy collector may seek a Higley with a famous pedigree; a not so wealthy collector may enjoy owning a replica, such as a “Bolen Restrike.” In regards to the history of American coinage, Higley Coppers are important artifacts.
©2013 Greg Reynolds
Cited Printed References:
Crosby, Sylvester S. “The Early Coins of America” (Boston: The Author, 1875).
Dickeson, Montroville Wilson, “The American Numismatical Manual” (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1859).
Freidus, Daniel, “The History and Die Varieties of the Higley Coppers” in The Token: America’s Other Money, ed. by Richard G. Doty, Coinage of the Americas Conference, October 29, 1994 (New York: American Numismatic Society, 1995).
Phelps, Noah A., “History of Simsbury, Granby and Canton” (Hartford: Press of Case, Tiffany And Burnham, 1845)
Phelps, Richard H., “Newgate of Connecticut” (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1876; 1901 edition, edited? by Roswell H. Phelps).