1783 Nova Constellatio Pattern Quint, Silver, Type Two AU53 PCGS Secure.
Breen-1102, W-1830, Unique.
Some coins are so important that they transcend all collecting boundaries and become cherished treasures to numismatists, connoisseurs of art, and students of history alike. The 1783 Nova Constellatio patterns are such coins. As Q. David Bowers stated when the four-piece denominational set, ex: John Ford was displayed at the Whitman table at the 2011 ANA Convention: "In my opinion -- and I have no vested interest of any kind -- the 1783 Nova Constellatio patterns are candidates for the very most important (and I won't even mention value) American coins."
Heritage Auctions is pleased to offer the unique Type Two 1783 quint from the collection of Walter Perschke, the first time this coin has been offered at public auction since its appearance in the Garrett Collection sale 34 years ago.
As Bowers implies, the value of any Nova Constellatio pattern is almost impossible to calculate. There are no meaningful prices realized to go by, since none of the coins has been auctioned since the Garrett sale. They are essentially priceless as, once the opportunity to purchase one of them passes; no amount of money can secure a replacement. John Ford, an expert on pre-federal American coinage, considered his set of Nova Constellatio patterns the most important items in his famous collection. When the previously unknown copper "five" first surfaced in the late 1970s, it was offered to a wealthy collector who asked Ford for advice, because the price seemed so high. Caught in an agonizing conflict of interest, between his desire to own the coin himself and his obligation to give his client an honest assessment, Ford replied, "Just buy it -- whatever it takes -- buy it!"
The Patterns Are Conceived
Gouverneur Morris, assistant superintendent of commerce for the Confederation of American States, conceived the Nova Constellatio patterns in 1781 as 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." At that time, each of the 13 original Colonies acted as an independent economic entity, and rates of exchange differed from place to place. A Spanish milled dollar, or piece of eight, was valued at five shillings in Georgia and at eight shillings in New York and North Carolina, for example. To complicate matters, the only coins available to the Colonists up until that time were a motley mix of English, Spanish, and French issues, with an equally confusing mix of paper money issued by various banks and government entities. This made interstate commerce extremely complicated. The need for a standard federal medium of exchange was obvious to everyone involved in commerce and government.
Gouverneur Morris discovered that 1,440 was a magic number for 12 of the 13 different monetary systems in use throughout the country. By making his basic unit, or mill, equal to 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 decided that 48 units would equal 13 pence in South Carolina units, close enough for his purposes.
Accordingly, Morris decided to make his basic monetary unit equivalent to 1/1,440th of a Spanish milled dollar. Of course, even if the coin were made of base metal, a coin that contained only that tiny intrinsic value would be too small for practical use, so Morris kept the unit 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 Mint Project
The Revolutionary War was not officially over until 1783, and the demands of conducting the conflict and other cares prevented the government from taking much action on the monetary system before that time, although a committee on matters pertaining to the Treasury had recommended the establishment of a mint as early as February 20, 1777. The man most involved with pursuing this project was Robert Morris, superintendent for finance for the Confederation, and Gouverneur Morris' boss (the two men were unrelated). On July 9, 1781, 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. Bradford assured Morris that Dudley was capable of assaying metal and rolling it into strips of desired thickness. He was also able to construct a screw press and other necessary machinery for the formation of the mint. Morris enthusiastically hired Dudley to supervise the establishment of a mint and to make dies and coins for the new coinage system, which was submitted to Congress on January 15, 1782. Dudley arrived in Philadelphia on October 23, 1781, and began the work of implementing the coinage plan before Congress approved it.
According to Walter Breen, Morris brought with him several workmen whose families were associated with the mint for generations, John Jacob Eckfeldt and Abraham Dubois. Dudley found several prospective sites for a mint and hired a blacksmith to make the rollers and other machinery. Final approval from Congress was not forthcoming, however, and expenditures were only approved piecemeal; progress was limited. The papers of Robert Morris record many minute details of the work done, including payments to Eckfeldt and an engraver named David Tew for forging and sinking two pairs of dies in April 1783.
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." The denomination of the coin was not mentioned, but it has always been assumed that the coin was the largest silver denomination, the mark. The dies for the mark were produced from device punches in the usual manner of the time. 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." Apparently, Morris was feeling some time pressure at this point, probably because there were competing offers from private firms to provide coinage for the government on a contract basis. Dudley must have felt there was no time to make punches for the smaller denominations, as the dies for the quint and bit were cut by hand.
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 has a plain edge, and a single copper five. 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 would presumably be the denominational set of four coins, all with the same devices, although no definitive documentation 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 just a little bit ahead of its time in 1783. Neither a suitable mint building nor a reliable source of silver could be located at the time, and many competing proposals for contractual private coinage seemed more practical and cost-effective than pursuing a national mint. By the end of 1783, the mint project ground to a halt, and the idea was only finally realized in 1792, under the auspices of the new Constitutional government. Benjamin Dudley was paid for his work in January 1784 and went on to do much of the work on the later New Jersey copper coinage.
The Coins in the 19th Century
Robert Morris sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson on May 1, 1784, including an undocumented number of Nova Constellatio patterns. Jefferson was preparing for a four-and-a-half-year assignment abroad (he was U.S. minister to France from 1785 to 1789) and hurriedly noted in his account book on May 11, "Left with C. Thomson as specimen of coins 1.8D." Charles Thomson was the secretary of the Continental Congress, and his name figures prominently in the history of the coins. Jefferson's cryptic note is thought to mean that he left 1.8 dollars or 1,800 units of Nova Constellatio patterns with Thomson -- probably the mark, the Type One quint, and the three bits. These coins vanished from the stage for more than 50 years, but they would return in spectacular fashion later. Morris apparently did not forward the Type Two quint, and it followed a much different path from the other coins in its future history.
The next mention of the Nova Constellatio patterns was not until 1859, when Montroville W. Dickeson published his American Numismatical Manual. Dickeson, possibly in conjunction with Joseph Mickley, came into contact with a man who had acquired both the mark and the Type One quint from a descendant of Charles Thomson. Dickeson did not get the details exactly right, but he did convey the central fact that the coins were found in an old desk after Thomson's death by his nephew. Joseph Mickley had several soft-metal casts made of the coins, and an example of each replica was offered in lots 2338 and 2339 of his collection, which he sold through W. Elliot Woodward in October 1867.
Captain John W. Haseltine became active in numismatics in the late 1860s and, after reading Dickeson's work, the story of the Nova Constellatio patterns seems to have had a special interest for him. According to Breen, Haseltine conducted an extensive search for the coins, contacting every descendant of Charles Thomson that he could locate. His efforts were rewarded when he located a Mr. Rathmel Wilson, of Wilmington, Delaware, in May 1872. Haseltine secured an example of both the mark and the Type One quint from Wilson, which he offered in lots 345 and 346 of his December 18, 1872, auction. In addition to the physical description of the coins, Haseltine offered the following discussion (see Figure 1):
"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 S. Adams of Massachusetts, for $540. Soon after, Sylvester Sage Crosby, who wrote the standard reference on Colonial coins in 1875, purchased them from Adams. Crosby was able to reunite these pieces with the Type Two quint, which had traveled a different path since being coined by Benjamin Dudley.
The Type Two quint was not forwarded to Thomas Jefferson and Charles Thomson with the other coins and did not surface until October 1870, when New York City coin dealer William P. Brown published a description of the coin in The Curiosity Cabinet, volume 1, number 2. The article was reprinted inMason's Coin and Stamp Collector's Magazine in November (see Figure 2). Brown revealed that the quint came from a young coin collector in New York City, who had inherited it from his grandfather as a family relic. Brown mentioned the account of the patterns in Dickeson and the cast pieces in the Mickley sale, but noted that the Type Two featured a different design and gave his fanciful idea of its history. Sylvester Crosby purchased the coin from Brown and described it, along with the Type One quint and the mark, in his 1875 masterpiece Early Coins of America, on pages 307-312.
The millionaire Boston bean magnate and coin collector, Lorin G. Parmelee, acquired all three of Crosby's coins and topped off this accomplishment by purchasing a specimen of the long-missing 100-unit silver coins, which surfaced in Scotland sometime around 1885. Curiously, all three of the 100-unit coins, or bits, surfaced in the United Kingdom, the last not being recovered until Richard Picker's specimen turned up in a London pawn shop in the 1980s.
Celebrity in the 20th Century
The four coins from Parmelee's collection, including the Type Two quint, stayed together for most of the next century, passing through the hands of H.P. Smith, the Chapman brothers, George Earle, and Col. James Ellsworth before being purchased by Wayte Raymond and John Work Garrett in 1923. Garrett retained all four coins in his famous collection until his death in 1942, when the collection was bequeathed to Johns Hopkins University.
Thanks to the work of numismatic scholars like John Ford and Walter Breen, much was learned about the Nova Constellatio patterns in the 20th century and, despite being off the market for most of this period, the pieces were universally recognized for their historic importance and rarity. When Johns Hopkins sold the Garrett Collection in a series of four auction sales cataloged by Bowers and Ruddy from 1979-1981, it was one of the greatest events in numismatic history, and the Nova Constellatio patterns were among the biggest stars of the event, along with two Brasher doubloons and an 1804 dollar. John Ford succeeded in purchasing the mark, the Type One quint, and the bit for around $450,000, a staggering amount at the time, but the Type Two quint escaped him and found a long-term home in the collection of prominent numismatist Walter Perschke, where it has resided to the present day. Perschke has generously exhibited the coin at numismatic events over the years, including a showing at the 2011 ANA Convention, when John Ford's coins were on display at another table. Despite several attractive offers, Walter never parted with the Type Two quint until now.
Historical and Economic Significance of the Patterns
One thing that should never be forgotten when studying the quint and the other Nova Constellatio patterns is how very "American" they are. The period from 1781-1783, when Robert Morris and Benjamin Dudley struggled to build a national mint and strike these coins coincides with the climactic period of the American Revolution, and the coins' story is inextricably linked to those events. Dudley arrived in Philadelphia to begin his work on the mint only four days after Washington won his decisive victory at Yorktown. Dudley had narrowly escaped from England a few months before, as a strict policy was in force there prohibiting the emigration of skilled craftsmen.
Gouverneur Morris submitted his innovative plan for the new monetary system in early 1782, by which time the first peace negotiations were being considered. The quint represents the basis of a new monetary system, not only in America, but also in the world. Morris sent his "patterns" to the central government to begin the process of instituting an entirely new coinage and monetary system. His design was not ultimately adopted but, more importantly, the decimal system that he advocated was -- a new system for the New World. Morris was making a statement to the world that things were different in this new country called America.
It is one of the turning points in American history that we adopted an abstruse decimal system of money and coinage that had few precedents (Peter the Great of Russia instituted a system of 100 kopecks to the ruble beginning in the early 1700s). The quint was the forerunner for the decimal system of American dollars and all subsequent American coinage. America was making a declaration to the world that it was taking its place among sovereign nations and minting its own coinage in a decimal system that was uniquely American.
The minting of the quint was a milestone and turning point from which there was no return. It became the basis of a new currency which would evolve into the use of the dollar in the New World. America could have easily adopted the system of the French, our allies, or the system of the British to help heal the wounds of the war and appease remaining loyalists. The wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the impact on our economic system of a decimal monetary system is ultimately more important than the specific design of that coinage.
Most of the rest of the world would follow suit with a decimal-based monetary system, if only centuries later. The quint and the other Nova Constellatio patterns remain as tangible reminders of the most important period in the history of our country.
The Present Coin
The coin offered here is a delightful example of 18th century coinage. The prooflike surfaces show only minor signs of contact. The moderately reflective surfaces are blanketed in attractive shades of lavender and golden-tan toning that adds considerably to the strong visual appeal. The design elements are sharply defined throughout, and the devices retain almost all original design detail, despite the slightest touch of wear on the high points. A few stray surface marks are evident, none unduly distracting. Some barely visible pinscratches above US were interpreted by Walter Breen to read 2 Dec, but they are indecipherable to the present cataloger. The reverse shows full dentilation around but the obverse is slightly off-center, the dentils merging with the rim in some areas. There is a planchet fissure from the dentils through I of LIBERTAS and the wreath to U. A tiny surface flaw shows above the stop before the date, giving it the appearance of a colon rather than a period. Another, smaller planchet fissure runs from this defect to the top of the 1 in the date. A short die scratch connects the bottom of L and I in LIBERTAS. Few coins of the 18th century were as well-made and fewer still have been so well-preserved.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this lot. Walter Breen, an acknowledged expert on early proof coinage, believed this coin was struck in proof format, one of the earliest U.S. proofs on record and an attractive specimen of the coiner's art in any context. The Nova Constellatio patterns were struck by personnel hired by the U.S. government, acting on instructions from Congressional representatives. The coins represent the prototypes for the first system of American coinage ever conceived. They have serious claims to being the first U.S. pattern coins although they were struck under the authority of the Articles of Confederation, before the Constitution was written. This Type Two quint is unique, the ultimate in absolute rarity. It has been off the market for 34 years. Its combination of historic importance, high quality, and absolute rarity can be matched by few issues in any category of American numismatics. The discerning collector will heed the advice of John Ford and acquire this coin at any cost.
Ex: Benjamin Dudley and Robert Morris in 1783; unidentified New York City collector as a family heirloom until 1870; coin dealer William P. Brown; Sylvester Sage Crosby; Lorin G. Parmelee; Lorin G. Parmelee Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 6/1890), lot 582; Harlan Page Smith; S.H. & H. Chapman; George Earle, Jr.; Henry Chapman; Col. James W. Ellsworth; Knoedler Galleries; Wayte Raymond; John Work Garrett; Johns Hopkins University; Garrett Collection, Part I (Bowers and Ruddy, 11/1979), lot 621; Walter Perschke. (PCGS# 821)
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