Ephraim Brasher – the Assayer

The money supply in the fledgling United States consisted of a bewildering hodge-podge of foreign coins, private issues, and state sponsored copper coinage, all mixed with counterfeits and coins of reduced weight. During this time in America, gold coins were primarily used only in large transactions by banks or merchants in the larger cities and most of the people of the time never handled gold coins. Almost all of the gold coins in circulation were from Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain, or one of the many mints in Spanish colonies in the New World.

ebThe banks routinely employed gold and silversmiths who had the requisite skills to test the coins that came into the banks. These men were known as “Regulators” and they would weigh each coin as it was deposited.  Underweight coins had a plug of gold added to any that were found to be outside the allowable tolerances established. Overweight coins were “clipped”, removing a portion of the coin to again bring the coin into acceptable and established standards, and then when done, each regulator would counter-mark the coin with their stamp to indicate that the coin was of proper weight and consistency.

The necessity for these assays and the use of regulators was widespread in the later part of the 18th century. In 1789, the Bank of North America advertised the values of various foreign gold coins and tables were published by other institutions to help merchants conduct the everyday business of commerce.

Before the Mint was established, private individuals and banking institutions carried out these assays on circulating coins and, although there is some doubt about this, it is believed that Brasher performed this service for many of his customers as well.

Once the US Mint was established, Congress mandated the assay of foreign coins as a yearly requirement,  and the results were reported for many years in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint.  However the Mint was unable to legally conduct any assay between 1792 and 1794 because Chief Assayer Albion Cox was unable to pay the $10,000 bond required by Congress to perform precious metal coinage operations. Sort of a colonial era Catch 22.

While Mint Director David Rittenhouse tried to sort this out, the assays had to be outsourced,  and George Washington’s old neighbor, Ephraim Brasher, was a natural choice for the job.

There is evidence from an article in the July 1892  American Journal of Numismatics that states that Ephraim Brasher was employed to assay a number of foreign gold coins received by the new United States Mint in 1792. This is again confirmed in the American State Papers under “Estimated Expenditures for the Year 1796” in which a $27 Treasury Warrant was recorded:

“… in favor of John Shield, assignee of Ephraim Brasher, being for assays made by said Brasher, in the year 1792, for the Mint of sundry coins of gold and silver, pursuant to the instructions from the then Secretary of the Treasury.”

Brasher’s reputation as an assayer was apparently well-established by the late 1780s, and his counter-stamp was widely accepted as a guaranty of value. Experts have also been able to recognize patterns in the way that Brasher “Regulated” coins. Brasher seems to have accomplished a lot more reduction of full-weight coins than plugging of underweight specimens. His clips tended to be straight across the lower right or lower left of specimens he regulated, thus making the clipping obvious rather than the well-hidden circumferential clipping of those with criminal intent.

In the upcoming Stacks Bowers Rarities Sale on May 25th, there is a run of Regulated Gold Coins by Brasher ( Lots 3-8 ) which represent a most interesting opportunity to both view, and to a lucky few own, some of these Brasher counter-stamped Gold Coins.  CoinWeek reported on the discovery of these coins and the subsequent grading of them earlier this year.  But one coin  in particular caught our attention and is presented here as a Coin Profile……


The 1726 Five Moidore of Brazil
the Largest Known Gold Coin Regulated by Ephraim Brasher

LOT # 8  (ca. 1784) Ephraim Brasher regulated Brazilian 1726 Minas Gerais 20,000 reis ($30). 52.4 grams. XF-45 (NGC). Countermarked once, no clip. No plug. Formerly mounted at 12:00.

A remarkable new discovery and perhaps the most impressive of all Ephraim Brasher regulated coins known, this specimen’s title as the largest Brasher regulated gold coin will never be taken from it, as no larger gold coin ever circulated in the American colonies and early United States. The 1842 Manual of Gold and Silver Coins of All Nations by Jacob Eckfeldt and William DuBois of the United States Mint called this denomination “the heaviest coin of modern times” noting that “the five-moidore piece of Portugal [was] struck about a century ago, weighing 828 grains and worth $32.70.” In 1846, William DuBois published Pledges of History: A Brief Account of the Collection of Coins Belonging to the United States Mint, where he called this denomination “the largest of gold coins.” In 1784, a five moidore such as this was worth $30, nearly twice as large as the Double Joe of 12,800 reis and exactly twice as valuable as a Spanish 8 escudos. The 20,000 reis denomination was coined from only 1724 to 1727, exclusively at the mint in the Brazilian gold-mining district of Minas Gerais. The 4000 reis or moidore, which was coined throughout the 18th century, was so common that its name — moidore — literally means “gold coin,” from the Portuguese moeda d’ouro. Its value in Federal money was $6, making this coin worth an even $30.

Brazilian 1726 Minas Gerais 20,000 reis ($30)The all-important Brasher mark is placed directly at the center of the cross, deeply punched though not perfectly even. The placement evokes that seen on the moidore regulated by the Tory goldsmith Lewis Feuter in British-occupied New York, later sold in the Roehrs sale and still the only regulated moidore ever sold at auction. No plug or clip is seen, as this coin’s level of wear placed it within a tolerable allowance of the 1784 New York standard without Brasher needing to effect any further addition or subtraction.

While few colonial or Confederation-era laws explicitly defined the proper weight of a five moidore piece, as these enormous coins were rare in circulation, the June 1763 act of the Rhode Island General Assembly defined a “Five-Moidore piece” as 1 ounce, 14 pennyweights, and 15 grains, equal to 836 grains or 54.17 grams. By 1784, Rhode Island defined the proper weight of a five moidore at 812 grains or 52.6 grams. The 1784 New York standard was slightly lower. Extrapolating the required 6 pennyweight, 18 grains weight of a moidore to the five moidore denomination, New York required a coin of this denomination to weigh 810 grains or 52.48 grams, nearly precisely the modern weight of this specimen.

If every five moidore coin Ephraim Brasher ever saw had survived the gold melts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this would still be an extremely rare coin of triumphant size and majestic heft. References to this denomination in contemporary documents and publications are exceedingly sparse, and it appears likely that very few ever made it to the United States. It is hard to imagine that another Brasher regulated 20,000 reis exists anywhere, and before this coin’s recent discovery it would have been nearly unimaginable that one would have been made, let alone survived. This is the ultimate coin to bear Ephraim Brasher’s famous mark. Though the 1787 Brasher doubloon will always be worth more to the marketplace, it will never be this rare or this substantial. This coin should set a record for any early American regulated gold coin to ever sell at auction.





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