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British Halfpenny Imitations Minted and Circulated in New York Before 1800

Manchin's Mills Copper Halfpennies

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #385

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Imitation British halfpennies were made in New York State during the 1780s and widely circulated as money. The purpose here is to introduce this series and to provide guidelines for collecting them. A set of these could be assembled while spending from $300 to $3,000 per coin. Before values are mentioned again, historical circumstances and implications are discussed here.

Imitation British halfpennies and patterns for proposed copper coinage issues that were struck in New York City in 1785 and maybe in 1786 as well. It is believed that Ephraim Brasher and John Bailey were responsible parties.

There is strong evidence that James Atlee was cutting dies in New York City in 1785 for patterns and for imitation British halfpennies. Furthermore, historical documents demonstrate that Atlee was involved with the private mint in Rahway, New Jersey. He was probably working there from November 1786 to June 1787.

I am not aware of evidence that imitation British halfpennies were struck in New Jersey, though this is very plausible. Among imitation British halfpennies that were struck and widely accepted in the U.S., were the vast majority struck in the State of New York, in New York City or at Machin’s Mills?

Thomas Machin and partners (including James Atlee) established a mint near Newburgh, New York in 1787, which continued to operate until late 1789 or early 1790. While this mint was active, the Articles of Confederation were the highest law in the U.S. In December 1787, Delaware was the first State to ratify the U.S. Constitution. In May 1790, Rhode Island became the last of the original 13 states to ratify.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress could not just enact laws to produce coins or regulate coins in circulation. For a coinage act, ‘The Articles’ required the assent of nine states in addition to sufficient votes in the U.S. Continental Congress. The necessary conditions were impractical, and no official U.S. coins were struck before the Constitution was ratified.

Until May 1790, any state could produce, contract to produce, or regulate the value of coins without the permission or involvement of the national government. Under the U.S. Constitution, however, state governments were not permitted to become involved in the production of coins or the regulation of them unless enabled to do so by federal law. Section 8 of the United States Constitution includes the provision that “Congress shall have the power …. To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures.”

But even after the Constitution was ratified, it was probably feasible for private mints to continue to produce imitations of British halfpennies. The value of copper and of copper coins, however, fell dramatically around 1790. Additionally, there were then serious proposals for the United States to establish a national mint.

Although the mint act was not passed until 1792, advocates of a U.S. Mint had made clear that they favored the introduction of U.S. copper coins, which should be minted in accordance with yet-to-be-developed federal standards. It is understandable that U.S. citizens who were striking imitations of British halfpennies voluntarily ceased production by early 1790 and left the coining business.

Researcher Gary Trudgen maintains that imitation British halfpennies were struck at the Machin’s Mills Mint from the middle of 1787 until the end of 1788. His chart on page 871 of The Colonial Newsletter of July 1984 is fascinating.

In this same chart, Trudgen indicates that Vermont Coppers and Connecticut Coppers were minted at Machin’s Mills from the middle of 1788 until late 1789. Furthermore, Trudgen suggests that New Jersey Coppers were minted there from the middle of 1789 to very early in 1790, when the mint at Machin’s Mills closed. If so, some Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey coins were struck in New York, which never had an official state coinage.

“As the mints in Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont failed, their equipment ended up at Machin’s Mills. Along with imitation British halfpence Machin’s Mills also produced illegal Connecticut Coppers and some legal Vermont Coppers,” states Louis Jordan in an online ‘book’ on the University of Notre Dame website.

Importantly, imitation British halfpennies are not counterfeits in the sense that criminals have made counterfeit coins for millennia. Most of the merchants who accepted them in commerce were aware that they were not genuine British halfpennies. A substantial percentage of consumers were aware as well, or suspected that many were not British products. Regardless, they were glad to have small denomination coins to spend. Most people then were not extremely concerned about the intrinsic value of small quantities of copper.

While the coinage of the Spanish Empire was the primary currency in North, Central and South America from the 1600s or earlier to the early 1800s, the smallest Spanish silver coin–the Quarter-Real–was worth 1/32 of a dollar, or 3.125 cents. Coins of denominations below three cents (three percent of a Spanish Milled Dollar) typically were struck in copper. There was an ongoing shortage of these.

British halfpennies (halfpence) were widely used in North America and very familiar to most consumers. They were among a variety of copper coins circulating in the U.S. from 1776 to 1800.

Did genuine and imitation British halfpennies together constitute a large percentage of the copper coins circulating in the U.S. during this period? I do not know.

Sellers and buyers of goods during the 1770s and ’80s were generally flexible concerning very small amounts and did not obsess about the precise metal value of the copper in each coin, which was likely to be well-worn anyway. Sharp fluctuations in the market value of copper and of the supply of copper coins were serious concerns for businesses.

The fact that an imitation British halfpenny usually weighed less than a true British halfpenny made little difference to most consumers, though it tended to arouse the ire of pertinent large businesses and state legislators. Besides, the British were then enemies who would be battled again in the War of 1812. The United States and Great Britain did not develop a very close relationship until after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s.

Soon after the mint at Machin’s Mills was founded in 1787, an alliance was formed with a mint in Vermont that had an exclusive contract to produce official Vermont Coppers. The Vermont State legislature had passed legislation authorizing official Vermont Coppers.

Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut also contracted with mints to produce official coppers. Not only were imitation British halfpennies made in the U.S., but similar imitations also were imported from England where private mints produced them.

George Clinton
George Clinton

Thomas Machin had figured that he had an excellent chance of receiving a contract from the State of New York to produce official copper coins. New York Governor George Clinton was a close personal friend of Machin’s and one of the most powerful politicians of the era.

Clinton and Machin were both distinguished Revolutionary War veterans. Clinton later served as Vice President of the U.S. for more than seven years, from March 4, 1805 to April 20, 1812.

Although the New York State legislature regulated copper coins in circulation in the State of New York, or attempted to do so, there never was an official New York State coinage. It is strongly believed that many of the New York Coppers that survive were patterns orchestrated by Thomas Machin, some of which circulated as coins.

The prevailing theory is that, for Machin, James Atlee made some patterns in New York and/or in Rahway, New Jersey. This theory holds that Atlee brought the dies with him when he became a partner in Machin’s firm, and that additional patterns were struck at Machin’s Mills, including some mulings.

Importantly, an assortment of numismatic items struck at the Machin’s Mills Mint, including imitation British halfpennies, were accepted by the public as coins. Imitation British halfpennies circulated widely in the U.S.

Collecting Approaches

Collecting these ‘by date’ is practical. While imitation British halfpennies of New York are sometimes categorized in relation to styles and identified device-punches, these categories are confusing and ambiguous.

Specialists collect imitation British halfpennies by die pairing, and sometimes use a die variety identification system developed long ago by Robert Vlack. Effectively collecting these by die pairing could be a lifelong quest and would be extremely difficult. I strongly suggest collecting ‘by date’.

As imitation British halfpennies were crudely made and most survivors are very heavily worn, identifying die pairings is especially difficult and many surviving pieces have serious problems. Finding a relatively original representative of most dates is not too difficult, and collecting ‘by date’ is much simpler than alternate approaches. Beginners should not pay significant premiums for scarcer die varieties.

A set by date need include just nine pieces: 1747, 1771, 1772, 1774, 1775, 1776, 1778, 1787 and 1788. Other than the 1787 and 1788 pieces, none of them were struck in the year indicated on the respective halfpenny. All productions of imitation British halfpennies being discussed here are extremely likely to have occurred in the 1780s, except that a few may possibly have been struck very early in 1790. It is doubtful that any of the pieces in this series were struck before 1785, regardless of the dates on the pieces.

Date By Date

The ‘1747’ pieces are especially distinct as they depict King George II, rather than George III. Some researchers maintain that the ‘1747’ pieces were not struck at Machin’s Mills. It is possible that they were struck in New York City and/or in Rahway, New Jersey, during one or more time periods from 1785 to 1787.

In November 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded Fine-15 ‘1747’ piece for $1,067.50. In January 2015, a different PCGS-graded Fine-15 ‘1747,’ which is not nearly as appealing, sold for $587.50.

Curiously, these American-made imitation 1747 British halfpennies are worth far more than true 1747 British halfpennies, those that were struck at the Tower Mint in London. This month, at the Long Beach Expo, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-62 1747 halfpenny, an official Royal Mint product, for $336.

Also this month, Heritage sold a PCGS-certified ‘MS-64-Brown’ official Royal Mint 1771 halfpenny for $372. A New York made “1771” British halfpenny of the same quality might be worth 100 times as much.

Pre-1793 American items tend to be much rarer than relevant British coins that were struck in the 18th century. There were then many coin collectors in Britain.

In contrast, during the 1780s, there were not many people in North America who had both the time and money to seriously collect coins. Besides, Americans were struggling to make their young nation succeed and had minimal time for hobbies. During the 18th century, Englishmen lived in one of the three wealthiest societies in the world and, on average, had much less to worry about than did U.S. citizens.

I am unaware of New York-made imitations of British halfpennies dating from ‘1748’ to ‘1770’. The next date in this series of circulating imitations is ‘1771’.

In November 2015, Stack’s-Bowers sold a raw 1771 that has some damage. Most of the design elements, especially those on the reverse, are fairly clear. This could be a desirable coin. The price paid of $211.50 is modest for an imitation British halfpenny that was minted in the State of New York.

In November 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-25 1771 for $2,115. It was from the rather famous Jack Royse Collection.

The 1772 pieces are relatively rare. Total numbers of auction appearances and some price guides, in addition to PCGS and NGC data, give the impression that the 1771 and the 1772 are in the same category of rarity. Nonetheless, I maintain that the 1772 is significantly rarer.

There are many more 1771 pieces that have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC than 1772 pieces that have not been submitted. Corroded 1771 pieces can be found at small-to-medium-size coin shows around the nation, with some patience. These are much less difficult to locate than 1772 imitation British halfpennies.

In June 2014, GreatCollections sold a corroded 1771 in an NGC ‘VG Details’ holder for $41. In October 2014, Stack’s-Bowers sold an uncertified 1772 that is extremely corroded and very notably scratched, which is said to grade “Fine-12”. It brought $411.25 – more than 10 times as much as the just mentioned 1771.

Indeed, a 1772 of any die variety is a key date. In September 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VG-10 1772, with a CAC sticker, for $2,585. The obverse legends are not discernible, though the bust is fairly clear. In March 2015, the PCGS-graded EF-40 Kendall Collection 1772 realized $5,875, a good deal.

There are no ‘1773’ pieces in this series. A substantial number of 1774 pieces have sold at auction for less than $100 each, and more than a few for less than $250! An inexpensive 1774 is a logical choice for a beginner on a budget.

Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the Jack Royse coin for $2,055 in November 2012. It was PCGS-graded VF-35.

1776 Machin's MillsAs for 1775 pieces, these tend to sell at auction for prices ranging from $150 to $1,000 in Internet sales. In November 2014, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded Fine-12 1775 for $211.50.

Someone interested in just one imitation British halfpenny made in New York, for some kind of a relatively high-grade type set of colonials, should consider seeking a 1776. These tend to survive in relatively high grades.

A Very Fine grade piece may retail for a price anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000, depending upon surface quality, technical factors and eye appeal. A lower-grade piece, perhaps one that failed to receive a numerical grade at PCGS or NGC, could be found for less than $500, probably even for less than $250.

In contrast to other New York-made imitation British halfpennies, an astonishing number of 1776 pieces are said to grade in the Very Fine to AU range. More than a few of these have sold for less than $1,500 each over the last five years. Prospective buyers can view a few Very Fine to Extremely Fine grade 1776 pieces before chasing one.

The extremely few 1777 imitation British halfpennies around are controversial. I am not aware of evidence that any of these were made in the State of New York during the 1780s, and I do not consider them to be part of this series.

The relevant 1784 and 1786 imitation British halfpennies, if made during the 1780s, were probably minted in Massachusetts or privately in England. In January 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VG-08 1784 for $1,703.25. Was this piece minted in Massachusetts? During the 1780s, there were mints in Massachusetts that made imitations of various coppers that circulated in the U.S., not just imitations of British halfpennies. They were often referred to as “Bungtown Mints”.

The operators of these mints did not have the best of intentions and did not have wonderful reputations. Their products are beside the present topic. The imitation British halfpennies struck in New York were often welcomed by the general public and small businesses, which desperately demanded small change.

The 1778 is a relatively less scarce date, but all dates may be rare in that fewer than 500 of each survive. It is really hard to estimate the number of clearly non-gradable pieces around, many of which have never been sent to PCGS or NGC. Maybe 350 1778 pieces exist in all states of preservation?

In January 2017, Heritage sold a damaged 1778, with “VF Details” in a PCGS Genuine holder for $211.50. A gradable or almost-gradable VF-25 to EF-40 piece would cost from $700 to $1,700.

There are none dated from 1779 to 1785. In April 2016, a PCGS-graded Fine-15 1787 was sold by Heritage for $376. In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1787 for $646.25.

The 1788 is rarer than the 1787, though not really hard to obtain. A few are sold every year. In October 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded Fine-12 1788 for $411.25.

As for grading imitation British halfpennies, it should be assumed that most of them were very poorly made and have corroded some since the 1700s! In cases where a large premium is being paid for a relatively high grade, like a certified VF-30 or EF-40 piece, collectors should examine the respective piece carefully before committing to a purchase or hire someone to do so.

Generally, collectors should study coins and ask questions of experts. There are factors relating to quality and preservation that are impossible to fully explain here. Usually, collectors of imitation British halfpennies are more interested in historical aspects and working on sets than they are in the quality of the pieces.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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