The First Coins Struck in The Original Thirteen Colonies: Massachusetts (‘NE’) Silver of 1652
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #225
A CoinWeek Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds….
The original thirteen States of the USA were colonies of Great Britain before the declaration of independence in 1776. Massachusetts was one of these thirteen, though its name and boundaries were different in the 1600s. In 1652, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law authorizing the establishment of a mint to produce silver coins. The topic here is the coins of the first design type; ‘NE’ type Massachusetts silver coins were produced ‘by hand’ for just a few months. ‘NE’ stood for New England. These were followed by Massachusetts Silver coins of other design types with intricate designs, the last of which was minted in 1682. The ‘NE’ type coins clearly came first!
The ‘NE’ type Massachusetts Silver coins struck were undated; they did not exhibit any indication as to the year in which they were made. Three denominations were authorized and struck in 1652: Twelvepence, Sixpence and Threepence coins. Twelve pence equaled a shilling and twelvepence silver coins were usually termed shillings.
It is certain that NE type coins were struck before Willow Tree type coins at the same mint in Massachusetts. Some researchers hypothesize that Willow Tree coins were minted from 1653 to 1660; Oak Tree type coins were minted from 1660 to 1667; and Pine Tree type coins were produced from 1667 to 1682. It may be true that only ‘Small Size’ Pine Tree Shillings were minted from 1675 to 1682.
Other than the presently discussed ‘NE’ coins, which are not dated, all Massachusetts Silver coins are dated “1652,” except the Oak Tree Twopence, which are dated “1662.” In May 1662, the Massachusetts government authorized Twopence coins for the first time.
While Willow Tree, Oak Tree and Pine Tree coinage had intricate designs, the NE coinage had the simplest design of any widely accepted, American or European coins of which I am aware. On the front (obverse), a small percentage of the surface is occupied by two raised letters, NE, inside an odd shaped indentation. On the back (reverse), a small percentage of the surface is occupied by Roman numerals indicating the face value of the respective coin in pence (‘pennies’).
On both sides, the vast majority of the surface is just blank metal. While these are not the most attractive of all North American coins, they are extremely rare and they have a great deal of historical significance. Also, many toned nicely, with creamy brown, russet, and especially blue-gray hues. In some cases, NE Shillings are much more attractive when viewed in actuality than they appear to be in published images.
The impressions with hammers and punches that brought about the ‘NE’ on the obverse and the Roman numerals indicating the denomination on the reverse can be accurately referred to as ‘stamps.’ Researcher Christopher J. Salmon, MD, found that the “NE and denomination stamps” very much like the “touchmarks used at the time by silversmiths, reflecting the fact that John Hull and Robert Sanderson, Sr. [directors of the Massachusetts Mint] were the first established silversmith partnership in the British colonies and that all of their prior experience was in making flatware and hollow-ware,” not tokens, medals or coins before 1652. “The stamps are in the style of 17th Century touchmarks, and the coins are particularly charming and attractive when viewed in this context,” Salmon declares.
I. First Coins of America?
Evidently, NE type, Massachusetts Silver coins were minted from June to October 1652. The NE coins were subject to valid criticism shortly after they were introduced. As these have minimal design elements and were struck ‘by hand’ with hammers, dishonest individuals could and did easily clip or shave the edges to obtain small amounts of silver. Furthermore, two letters “NE” on the obverse (front) and Roman numerals on the reverse (back) do not reveal much about the nature and origins of these coins. Some merchants and traders were suspicious of them.
The Willow Tree, Oak Tree and Pine Tree coinages featured the name of the colony and border design elements. Although these later Massachusetts Silver coin types have more of a traditional ‘coin appearance,’ the NE pieces are true coins, too; they are not bullion items. They are round. They were issued to circulate as money, and certainly served as a medium of exchange. Their face value was greater than their silver metal (bullion) value. NE coins are of sizes and denominations that were logical, familiar and practical in Massachusetts in the second half of the 17th century. They meet all sensible criteria to qualify as coins.
It is extremely likely that these NE silver pieces are the first coins that were struck in the British colonies in the continent of North America. Coins of the Spanish Empire were first struck in Mexico in the mid-1530s.
Historians generally agree that the coins of Lord Baltimore were not struck until 1658 or 1659 and probably did not reach Maryland before 1660. It is very likely that all of the Lord Baltimore coinage was minted in England. Even if Lord Baltimore coinage was struck in Maryland, Lord Baltimore coins could not possibly have been made before 1653.
Coins of Bermuda pre-date the Lord Baltimore coinage that circulated in Maryland, and were struck earlier than Massachusetts Silver coins. Bermuda was then called the Sommer Islands, and these Bermuda coins were probably struck in 1615 or 1616. A landmark group of them was just auctioned on May 16 in the sale of pre-1793 items from the Eric Newman Collection. These coins, however, were probably struck in England and brought to Bermuda (Sommer Islands). Even if coins were struck in Bermuda during or around 1615, the “Sommer Islands” coins would not have much significance in terms of the history of the United States.
Bermuda was not directly involved in the American Revolutionary War and never became part of the United States. Indeed, even now, Bermuda remains part of Great Britain. In a sense, it is the last remaining British colony in North America, though it is more than six hundred miles from the Atlantic Coast.
Massachusetts, in contrast, has been very much a part of the United States ever since the nation was founded. Plus, prominent residents of Massachusetts, including John Adams and John Hancock, played important roles in the American Revolution and the early years of the nation.
II. Massachusetts coins and the Civil War in England
In the 1600s, there was an acute shortage of coins in Massachusetts and business activities were harmed by circulating fake coins. A large number of fakes came from societies in the Caribbean, or from independent traders who obtained them at various locations. There were also many incoming silver coins that had been deceptively lightened in weight, especially cobs of the Spanish Empire. Boston was a major port; the colonists were importing and exporting goods to a startling extent, even in the mid 1600s! The decision to begin coinage in 1652, rather then earlier, related to the Civil War in England.
The so called “English Civil War” really involved all of the British Isles, not just England. Indeed, events in Scotland and Ireland were of great importance. This ‘war lasted, more or less, from 1642 to 1651. Before, the role of Parliament, which is the national legislature, in the system of English government was not well defined. The monarch could disband Parliament at will and many influential citizens maintained that they were not fairly represented. There were other also other issues that lead to much dissatisfaction with King Charles I.
Although historians divide the English Civil War into two to four distinct conflicts and emphasize that various political factions were involved, the primary conflict was between the Parliamentarians, who sought to increase the role of Parliament in the British government, and the Royalists, who emphasized the pre-eminent role of the king in the government.
After King Charles I was executed in 1649 and the Royalists lost major battles, the Royalists kept fighting and were not firmly defeated until late in 1651. Charles II, the son of Charles I, had been proclaimed king by the English Royalists and by the Scottish Parliament, which declared him to be “King of Great Britain, France and Ireland.”
On Sept. 3, 1651, the Royalists lost the final battle of the English Civil War, at Worcester. Charles II then began to escape, eventually landing at Normandy, France, on Oct. 16, 1651. It took time for colonists in Massachusetts to learn of these events.When there was no longer a recognized monarch on English soil, the colonial government of Massachusetts authorized a local mint.
Generally, the permission of the relevant, reigning monarch would have been needed for colonists to start a mint. As the idea of allowing colonists to strike their own coins was rarely even a consideration, colonists probably figured that there was usually no point in even asking. In Europe, the striking of gold or silver coins was associated with the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy. Monarchs typically figured that it was inappropriate, threatening, and/or costly to the ‘mother country,’ for colonies to produce their own gold or silver coins. The absence of a monarch, however, was an atypical situation.
From 1649 to 1653, the Parliamentarians were struggling to effectively operate the Parliament and to govern England. There was much disagreement among themselves. Furthermore, their forces were still battling Royalists and other opponents of the new regime, “The Commonwealth.” The Parliamentarians were thus not particularly concerned about whether colonists in Massachusetts struck coins. Indeed, they probably did not even think about this topic.
The “Commonwealth” was governed by a legislature (Parliament). On April 20, 1653, forces led by Oliver Cromwell forcibly dissolved this Parliament. Another new system of government was implemented in 1653 and 1654 that established Cromwell himself as the domineering ‘head of state.’ Cromwell was not very concerned about the affairs of the colonies.
Rather than ask Cromwell for permission to mint coins, which would have been an awkward request, the colonists in Massachusetts just continued to mint coins. They decided to continue to date all of them “1652.”
In a legendary reference book, which was published in 1875, Sylvester Crosby declares that there were no objections to the minting of coins in Massachusetts by the English “Parliament or by Cromwell; and having been thus indulged, there was a tacit allowance of it afterwards, even by King Charles II, for more than twenty years.” Crosby adds that, the minting of coins in Massachusetts “was made one of the charges against the colony when the [Massachusetts] charter was called in question, yet no great stress was laid upon” this topic by the English government (Crosby, 1875, p. 32).
The government of England became fragmented after Cromwell’s death in 1658. In 1660, Charles II returned and was proclaimed king without tremendous controversy. There was then a consensus, among influential political factions, that a king was needed and Charles II then had much support.
By the early 1680s, relations between the government of Massachusetts and the administration of King Charles II had worsened considerably. So, “on October 23, 1684 Charles II abolished the charter of Massachusetts [Colony], invalidating all of the laws of [Massachusetts] including the minting act of 1652,” historian Louis Jordan emphasizes.
Just one NE Threepence is currently known. “To my knowledge, the NE Threepence is unique,” John Kraljevich states. It has been in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society for many decades. Dr. Salmon remarks that he “does not know of any others” and has not heard credible rumors of another NE Threepence surviving. Christopher Salmon has written academic articles about Massachusetts Silver coins and his book on this topic was published by the ANS in 2010. Salmon does not receive any proceeds from sales of his book.
Separately, a ‘Northeast Collector.’ who has a comprehensive collection of Massachusetts Silver, has “not heard of another Threepence existing during the last thirty years.” There were, though, reports in the past of additional NE Threepence coins surviving. So, another genuine piece could be around. Forgeries have surfaced, especially in Great Britain.
In the recent catalogue of Eric Newman’s pre-1793 items, researchers at Heritage itemize seven NE Sixpence coins, all of which were struck from one pair of dies. There are non-genuine pieces struck from other pairs of dies.
The most famous NE Sixpence is the so-called ‘Potato Field’ coin. It was in the Jack Royse Collection and was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers in Nov. 2012 for $431,250. Earlier, in Nov. 1991, Sotheby’s auctioned it for $35,200. Evidently, it was unearthed with a metal detector by Lillian Rade in a Long Island potato field during the winter of 1990. For many decades, Long Island was known for substantial potato farms.
The already cited ‘Northeast Collector’ contacted Rade and interviewed her. This collector, who prefers that his name not be mentioned, says that “there is no doubt her story was true.” He had been researching the historical and circumstantial aspects of Massachusetts Silver and other colonial coins for a very long time. I have known this ‘Northeast Collector’ for more than twenty years.
For a non-gradable piece, the Royse-Rade-Potato Sixpence is somewhat pleasant. Though obviously better, the Newman NE Sixpence has plenty of hairlines and a few light scratches. John Kraljevich agrees and he notes that some of the scratches “did not come from normal circulation, but from mishandling when it was owned” as a collectible or keepsake.
The Newman Sixpence also has some very noticeable wear. I am puzzled by the assigned “AU-58” grade. I figure that it has the sharpness of an AU-53 grade and a few scratches bring its net grade down to “50.” Even so, 50 is a high grade for a coin from this era and the Newman NE Sixpence is impressive for an early colonial coin.
Dr. Salmon suggests that the Newman Sixpence is not the finest known. “The Roper NE Sixpence is a spectacular coin, better than the Newman coin,” states Salmon. Chris carefully examined the Roper NE Sixpence a few years ago. Stack’s auctioned the collection of John Roper in New York in 1983.
John Kraljevich remarks that the $646,250 result for the Newman Sixpence “is in line with what was expected. Though the NE Sixpence are much rarer, collectors tend to prefer NE Shillings, like they prefer Lord Baltimore Shillings to Sixpence.” In addition to being a noted researcher, Kraljevich is a dealer in colonial and other early American items.
Andy Lustig figures that the NE Sixpence “could easily have sold for more, though it was not cheap, not a bargain.” Lustig has been bidding on major rarities at coin auctions since the 1970s and he has owned many important pre-1793 American items.
V. NE Shillings
Twelvepence coins are Shillings. Expert estimates of the number of NE Shilling that survive range from forty to seventy-five. I suggest that there are around fifty-five. It is known that more than twenty are in museums or other institutional holdings.
Curiously, very few have appeared at auction over the last nine years. I can now account for seven different pieces.
A. Sundman-Newcomer-Boyd-Ford SBG 11/13 $440,625
In Nov. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned David Sundman’s collection. He is perhaps best known as CEO and principal of Littleton Coin Company of New Hampshire. The $440,625 result is an auction record for an NE Shilling. This same coin brought $253,000 in Oct. 2005.
B. Manley-Boyd-Ford-Madison HA 08/10 $416,875.00
In Aug. 2010, Heritage auctioned Dwight Manley’s collection of Massachusetts Silver at the ANA Convention in Boston, an appropriate location. This piece is PCGS graded “AU-50” and has a sticker of approval from the CAC.
In Oct. 2005, Stack’s (New York) auctioned this same item for $322,000, and Heritage sold it for $373,750 in Orlando on Jan. 10, 2008. It was then part of the Madison Collection.
The pre-2005 pedigree of this piece that was listed in 2005 does not seem to include a prior auction appearances, a specific private sale, or a mention of pictures of this piece being published in a reference work. Were pictures of this piece published before 2005?
C. Roach-Picker-Hain Stack’s 05/07 $414,000
This coin was auctioned by Stack’s in Jan. 2002 for $161,000, as lot #2 in the sale of Andy Hain’s collection. It was again auctioned by Stack’s in May 2007, for $414,000. It was catalogued as grading “Extremely Fine” in the 2002 sale and as “EF-40” for the 2007 sale.
In 2008, the firm that bought it in 2007 sold it privately to Denis Loring and Donna Levin, who still own it. In 2007 or early 2008, it was PCGS graded as “AU-50.”
D. Unknown Origin SBG 01/13 $352,500
This piece was consigned by a British dealer to a Stack’s-Bowers auction in New York. A source indicates that the consignor did not consign any other items to this sale and did not reveal who provided this piece to him. It is PCGS graded “EF-40” and has a CAC sticker.
E. Eric Newman HA 05/16/14 $352,500
The NE Shilling that was in the Eric Newman Collection is NGC graded as AU-55.“Frankly, I was surprised at the [certified] grade of Newman’s” NE Shilling, declares Denis Loring. He and I are surprised that it was certified at grading above 50.
This Shilling has really pleasing toning. Medium brown-russet blends well with the typical natural blue-gray ‘film’ that I have seen on several NE Shillings and on the Newman NE Sixpence.
The Newman NE Shilling is much more attractive when it is held in actuality than it appears to be in the catalogue. Even so, the planchet (prepared blank that was used to produce this coin) was very crude. There are inconsistencies in the metal and much natural roughness. While the Newman NE Shilling has more attractive color than the Newman NE Sixpence, the magnitude of the mint-caused imperfections of this shilling is noteworthy.
Andy Lustig “would rather have an NE Shilling that was better made, with a smoother planchet, one that has better rims. It brought less because it was more crudely made” than many of the other surviving NE Shillings, Lustig suggests.
If it is determined that this coin has the sharpness of an AU-50 and its net grade is EF-45 at best, due to mint-caused imperfections and scratches, then the $352,500 result is a moderate price, not a weak price.
I like this coin more than Lustig does. To me, it has more personality and color than a few of the other NE Shillings that I have seen. I much prefer it to the just mentioned piece of unknown pedigree and I like this coin more than the Manley-Boyd-Madison piece, which has irregularities, too.
As Dr. Salmon points out, NE Shillings “cannot be fairly evaluated in the ways 19th century silver coins are judged. The circumstances of their minting and their historical context must be considered.”
F. Hall-Wurtzbach-Clarke-Boyd-Ford Stack’s 10/05:2 $345,000
This is one of four that Stack’s auctioned in Oct. 2005. Two have already been listed here. It was then catalogued as “Choice Very Fine.”
G. Newcomer-Clarke-Boyd-Ford Stack’s 10/05:4 $276,000
This piece was graded “Extremely Fine” in 2005 by the cataloguer for Stack’s and later PCGS graded “AU-50.” It was offered by John Agre and Dave Wnuck in 2009 for “$335,000” and is still pictured on the CRO website.
Have any other NE Shillings been offered at auction since 2005?
©2014 Greg Reynolds