ULTIMATE RARITIES: The Single Most Important Coin in American Numismatics
From $505 in June, 1882 to $7,395,000 in December, 2011
This rare gold coin has been called, “the single most important coin in American numismatics.” It’s the unique 1787 Brasher Doubloon with an “EB” hallmark stamped on the eagle’s breast, representing Ephraim Brasher, the coin’s designer. Six similar gold doubloons by Brasher are known to exist, but all of those have the “EB” hallmark punched on the eagle’s wing.
This example, with the punch on the eagle’s breast, is believed to have been the first piece to have been coined out of all seven known examples. It is speculated that the breast punch caused wear over the central part of the coin on its opposite side, so the punch was moved to the wing, causing wear in a less obvious position. Brasher’s name was also incorporated into the design of the coin.
The history of this great rarity is found in many places, and I’ll touch on some of its historic highlights in this article. But, as I’ve known most of the major players who’ve bought, sold and owned this coin during the past three decades, I’ll also talk about some of the people and dealings behind the changes in ownership of this important gold coin during those years. It’s a fun story!…
To put things into perspective…on April 30, 1789 George Washington was elected President of the United States and subsequently established the judicial and executive branches of government, his cabinet and the executive offices of Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Postmaster General, and Attorney General. The United States Mint was established three years later, in 1792.
Prior to the creation of the Mint, foreign coins were used for commerce. French, English, German, Dutch and Spanish coins were the most popular, including Spanish milled dollars, “pieces of eight” and Spanish gold doubloons. Ephraim Brasher was a respected “regulator” of coinage, adjusting the weight of those gold coins to correspond to standards set by the New York Chamber of Commerce. He stamped his initials into the coins after making his adjustments, effectively guaranteeing the coins’ values. Brasher was a prominent silver and goldsmith in New York City where he lived his entire life, from 1744 to 1797. His “EB” hallmark is also found stamped into dinnerware – some of these items were used by George and Martha Washington, who were later Brasher’s neighbors.
During February, 1787 Brasher petitioned the New York State Assembly to produce copper coins for the state but was turned down, as were other petitioners, because the state decided not to mint copper coins. Subsequently, Brasher began producing gold doubloons, which became America’s first circulating gold coins. They carried a value of about $15 each and were struck to the same standard that was later adopted for U.S. gold coinage. Researcher Bill Swoger states that Brasher Doubloons were America’s first legal tender gold coins.
From Mint Cabinet to Private Collections
The gold doubloon with the “EB” hallmark on the eagle’s breast shows light circulation wear, and it was once part of the Mint’s coin collection, which is now housed at the Smithsonian. But in 1864 it was known to have been a part of the Charles I. Bushnell Collection. It is unknown how Bushnell acquired it. After Bushnell’s death in 1880 his collection was sold intact to another collector, Lorin Parmelee, who retained the pieces he wanted and then the remainder of the collection was sold at auction through coin dealers S.H. and H. Chapman of Philadelphia over several days during June, 1882 in New York City.
At that sale, the Brasher doubloon with the punch on the breast was bought by numismatist Edourd Frossard for $505. The following year he sold the coin to T. Harrison Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, where it remained for the next century, as his collection passed between family members and then to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The collection was finally sold in several auctions between 1976 and 1981 in which this unique gold doubloon was sold by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries in the Garrett Collection’s final sale for $625,000.
An anonymous collector from Florida purchased the coin, with whom it resided until 1994, when it was purchased by coin dealer Don Kagin, who then sold a half interest to coin dealer Jay Parrino. According to Kagin, they held it about three months and then sold it to another anonymous collector/investor.
Early in 1998 coin dealer Al Adams, owner of Gold Rush Gallery, Inc. of Dahlonega, Georgia, learned this Brasher Doubloon was available. He researched it and discussed it with a major collector he represented. They were building a complete design type set of U.S. gold coins in Mint State and Proof strikes and worked together on the collection for more than a decade.
During this same time period I sold some coins into this collection through Al and remember Al describing this gentleman as a “Quintessential Collector,” who also collected several other areas outside of numismatics, including classic automobiles and high-end firearms. This man sincerely appreciated the significance of what this Brasher Doubloon, with the “EB” hallmark on its breast, represents historically. He was also the only collector, other than the Garretts, to own two Brasher doubloons, one with the “EB” hallmark stamped on the eagle’s breast, and another with the “EB” hallmark punched into the eagle’s wing.
Back then I spent a couple of days in Georgia with Al discussing this collection and we also made a memorable visit to the site of the Dahlonega Mint. Al and his client were serious about the collecting aspect of the Gold Rush Collection and, even though significant sums of money were involved, they weren’t just focusing their efforts on this endeavor as an investment – they truly appreciated the historic and numismatic aspects of their mission. However, as time went on, acceptable pieces lacking for the collection were seldom offered. Therefore, the owner of the Gold Rush Collection decided to move on and the collection was sold by Heritage Auctions at the Florida United Numismatists convention sale in January, 2005.
Coin dealer Steve Contursi, of Rare Coin Wholesalers in Irvine, California, decided he’d like to buy the coin at that sale if it went for under $3.5 million. He teamed up with Don Kagin, and was ready to pounce on the coin at the Heritage sale if it was in their price range. They ended up competing against Laura Sperber, of Legend Numismatics, along with Bruce Morelan, her client and partner on many other coin deals. Bruce is a well-known collector who’s owned several other famous rarities.
Laura bid $2,350,000, but was bumped by Contursi who won the coin for $2,600,000. After paying Heritage’s 15 percent buyer’s fee, the final price he paid was $2,990,000. Contursi remarked, “That one bump cost me $250,000!” But he added, “It went too cheap.” Contursi retained a two-thirds ownership position in the coin while Kagin took one-third, owning a piece of the coin for the second time. They had no buyer in mind for the coin.
The duo planned to share the coin with the public and they built a display case which Steve said cost them about $10,000. They first loaned the coin to the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Subsequently, the coin was also exhibited at several other venues around the country. Kagin said, “We were very happy and pleased to share the coin with the public. This is an iconic legacy coin with a proven history of rarity and demand. It’s got history, art, design and mystery.”
During the time Kagin and Contursi owned and displayed the piece John Albanese, founder of CAC (Certified Acceptance Corporation), took an interest in the coin thinking, “This is the greatest gold coin.” He approached Contursi about the coin and they continued to discuss it on and off for about two years. During that time, according to Albanese, the price kept going up as he recognized that values of other top rarities were rising. Finally, during December, 2011, CAC bought and sold the coin for somewhere in “the low 7s” ($7,000,000+), as John told me.
The coin was subsequently placed with a Wall Street executive, according to Albanese, with the assistance of Blanchard and Company, Inc., for a reported $7.395 million. The coin is now part of a world-class collection with other major rarities. Steve Contursi said this coin is one of the “unique rarities, especially with historical significance, that are the backbone of the hobby.” He believes it will be one of those coins that continue to rise in price, selling for tens of millions of dollars in the future.
Amazing Price Appreciation!
Looking back at the sales history of this coin, from its first recorded sale in 1882 for $505, to its December, 2011 sale for $7,395,000, we obviously see an incredible price rise! I found two websites that adjust dollar amounts for inflation and both calculated $505 in 1882 to be less than $15,000 in 2012 dollars! Wow!
While three anonymous collectors owned this coin for undisclosed prices since it came back on the market after its century-long stay in the Garrett Collection, we can track the sale of the coin by prices realized at the public auctions in which it sold, up to its latest, private transaction. A summation of the history of all the known sales prices of this famous gold doubloon were: 1882 – $505; 1981 – $625,000; 2005 – $2,990,000; and 2011 – $7,395,000.
Clearly, Steve Contursi was proven right when he remarked that the coin “went too cheap” back in 2005 when he and Don Kagin purchased it. Adjusted for inflation, the $7.395 million that the coin sold for in 2011 was worth about $6.5 million in 2005! However, even though the economy was in recession during half of those years, that time period also saw many great numismatic rarities appreciate substantially, as the wealthy have sought to expand the diversification of their assets.
But why does Contursi say it should sell for tens of millions of dollars in future years? And he’s not alone. It’s a common comparison to look at the prices top paintings are selling for in the international art market. While the coin market is smaller than the fine art market, the later is a proven benchmark to use in comparing the two markets.
The Brasher Doubloon with the “EB” punch on the eagle’s breast is one of the best candidates to be the first coin to break the $10 million level – if it ever comes back on the market in the near future. Once that milestone is broken, like when the $1 million mark was broken for the finest known 1913 Liberty nickel in 1996, numerous other coins are likely to cross the $10 million mark as well. And indeed another Brasher Doubloon has recently been touted as a $10 million coin – one of the examples with the “EB” punch on the eagle’s wing, which was graded by NGC during June, 2012 as Mint State 63, the highest grade ever given to a Brasher Doubloon.
But again, in comparison to the fine art market, on May 2, 2012, a painting by Edvard Munch, entitled “The Scream,” brought a record $119,900,000 in a New York fine art auction by Sotheby’s! That’s more than 16 times the price brought by the recent December, 2011 sale of the Brasher Doubloon with the “EB” hallmark on the eagle’s breast – showing potential for great rare coins!
But in comparing the historical significance of these two objects, “The Scream” was painted in 1895, which is more than a century after the Brasher Doubloon was coined in 1787. What is the significance of “The Scream?” It represents little more than the artist’s emotions at the time – but we’re all emotional creatures, what’s new! However, “The Scream” is an iconic image that has been used on merchandise from neckties to shower curtains.
In contrast, the Brasher Doubloon has real historical significance. It’s part of the history of the United States of America – a national treasure. It’s also been the subject of movies, such as “The Brasher Doubloon,” released in 1947. Additionally, “doubloon” has also become a cultural term, and it too has been used in merchandising, such as in connection with pirates and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations and its famous French Quarter, for example. Doubloons are known world-wide.
The importance of this coin in American numismatics cannot be overstated! It’s an iconic object that some have compared to George Washington’s false teeth, the gold spike that joined the east and west railroads across the American continent, or the famous Gutenberg bible, of which there are 48 known copies. A nation’s coinage helps give the country an identity, and Brasher’s gold doubloons did just that. They were the first coins to use a depiction of the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1782. Brasher Doubloons also depict the Latin phrase, “Unum E Pluribus,” meaning “one from many,” which was later changed to the familiar “E Pluribus Unum.” This phrase is still used on our nation’s coinage today!
(Thank you to all my friends who gave me information and quotes for this article!)
Mark Ferguson has been dealing in high-end rare coins and precious metals since 1969. He has graded coins professionally for PCGS and was the Market Analyst for Coin World’s Coin Values magazine between 2002 and 2009. He has written feature articles and regular columns for Coin World, Coin Values magazine, The Coin Dealer Newsletter, Numismatic News, The Numismatist, ANA Journal, Coin News – a British publication, and currently writes a weekly column for CoinWeek. He is a recognized authority in appraising rare coins and a recognized expert on the 1804 silver dollar, which is known as “The King of American Coins.” Mark can be reached at Mark Ferguson Rare Coins, LLC (www.MFRareCoins.com).