Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #269
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
The original 13 States of the USA were earlier colonies of Great Britain. Massachusetts was the first of the colonies, which later became States, to mint coins. As I explained last year, ‘NE’ type Massachusetts Silver coins were produced for a few months in 1652. These were soon replaced by coins of the Willow Tree type, which were struck for several years, probably until at least 1658, possibly as late as 1662.
The Kendall Collection, which will be auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers on March 26th in Baltimore, contains a landmark group of Willow Tree coins, as part of one of the all-time greatest, overall collections of Massachusetts Silver coins. The Kendall Collection also features other pre-1793 coins and Civil War era American numismatic items.
Three denominations of coins were authorized and struck in Massachusetts, starting in 1652: twelvepence, sixpence and threepence coins. Twelve pence equaled one shilling and twelvepence silver coins were typically termed shillings.
It may be true 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 1683. Although some illuminating documents survive, the exact time-line will never be known to researchers now.
The first type, ‘NE’ coins were not dated. All other Massachusetts Silver coins are dated “1652,” except the Oak Tree Twopence coins, which are dated “1662.” In May 1662, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorized Twopence coins for the first time. So, coins dated “1652” were minted for decades. The reasons why coins made later than 1652 were dated 1652 relates to the political situation in England, which was discussed in my article on Massachusetts ‘NE’ coinage. (Please click to read.)
Willows Were Hammered
In the past, there was debate among researchers as to how Willow Tree coins were minted. It seems clear that a screw press was not used. American colonial coins during the 1700s and U.S. coins from 1793 to the mid-1830s were typically produced with a screw press. From the 1820s to the early 1890s, however, it was the norm for Proof U.S. coins to be produced on screw presses. The mint in Massachusetts did acquire a screw press, probably in the 1660s.
Christopher Salmon, MD, recently authored a landmark reference on Massachusetts Silver coinage. Salmon is a collector and a member of the board of trustees of the American Numismatic Society (ANS). He is also the chairman of the committee that oversees the coin collection of the ANS museum.
Dr. Salmon concludes that Willow Tree coins “were definitely hammered and cold-struck.” The circular blanks were not heated before being struck.
Salmon’s research indicates that “all of the finishing work done by silversmiths of the time period was done cold, including the striking of touch-marks,” which are often called hallmarks. In contrast, throughout history (from ancient times until the 1600s), the vast majority of ‘hammered coins’ were struck after the blanks were heated. A planchet is a circular blank that is prepared for coinage. The preparation typically involves heating so that the design elements on the dies may be firmly impressed onto the blank (planchet).
Willow Tree shillings were usually struck more than once, three or four times in many cases. In Dr. Salmon’s view, the multiple strikings are very consistent with his theory that they were ‘cold-struck,’ as it was difficult to impart details into the ‘cold’ silver blanks.
In the past, some leading researchers figured that a rocker press or a roller press was used to strike Willow Tree coins and a screw press was used for later issues. Salmon theorizes, however, that “all the Oak Tree coinage and all of the Pine Tree varieties, except for the small planchet Pine Tree Shillings, were struck with a rocker press.” A roller press was not used.
Roller presses were used in several German-speaking societies in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s. Researchers have suggested that the Sommer Islands (Bermuda) coins of 1615-16 may have been made with a roller press. I have examined many of those and they do not have the slight arc-shape and stretched design elements, that characterize some German coins that were struck on roller presses that I have also examined. I theorize that the Sommer Islands (Bermuda) coins were hammered.
Although screw presses were used to a minimal extent to strike coins by the British and the French during the mid-1500s, it was not until the 1660s that screw presses entirely replaced the ‘hammer’ method in England. Roller presses were more widely used in Europe than rocker presses. Starting in the mid-1500s, roller presses were tried at several mints, including projects by Nicolas Briot in France and England. The technology was rejected.
My tentative impression had been that rocker presses were also rejected by mintmasters. Rocker presses at the English Royal Mint in the early 1600s, during the reign of Charles I, failed to perform adequately. I have come across vague, unsubstantiated references, that mints in a few German-speaking societies tried and rejected rocker presses as well. Dr. Salmon informs, however, that rocker presses were more “widely used in England and Scotland” than I realized. He may be right.
In the E-Sylum, Michael Schmidt stated in 2004 that each “rocker press used a pair of dies with curved oval faces and the planchet was squeezed between them with a rolling motion as they were rocked back and forth using a lever and gear arrangement.”
Rocker presses are briefly discussed in a publication by the British Museum in 1990, Fake!: The Art of Deception, edited by Mark Jones, Paul Craddock and Nicolas Barker. “Blanks were inserted between a pair of dies with curved faces which were rocked against each other to impress the coins” (249). It is said in this work that a rocker press could have been operated by one person and that such presses were often used to produce counterfeits.
The dies for Willow Tree coins were crudely engraved and they were often struck with incomplete details. Even so, these coins have an unusual appeal, charming products of colonists struggling to survive. As colonization efforts often failed, and people were thousands of miles from their origins, a great deal of courage was required to start and maintain such colonies. Adequate food, medical care, and conditions for raising children were tremendous concerns.
These coins are relics of an important part of history. Boston soon became the leading port in the region and the greater Boston area became one of the most dynamic communities in North America. In addition to being a center of trade and commerce, this area was a center of philosophical thought, radical religious practices, and rebel activity. The colonists in Massachusetts were independent in mind and spirit. Indeed, the people of Massachusetts were later very much instrumental in starting the Revolutionary War.
Rarity of Willow Tree Coinage
As Willow Tree coins were made for a relatively short time, mostly or entirely during the 1650s, it is unsurprising that they are extremely rare. Coins of the Pine Tree type are much more plentiful and it is easy for a collector to obtain a genuine Pine Tree Shilling at a modest cost. According to Chris Salmon, all genuine Pine Tree silver coins were minted “by 1683.”
The shilling was the standard monetary unit. Each Massachusetts Shilling was specified to weigh 72 grains, which equals 0.15 Troy ounces (about 4.66 grams). As struck, shillings tended to be from an inch to nine-eighths (1.125) inch in diameter. Although I am aware of just limited data regarding the fineness of Massachusetts silver coins, my working hypothesis is that they were deliberately struck in 23-carat (about 95.8%) silver, a logical standard in England during the 1600s.
Around fifteen Willow Tree sixpence coins survive. In January 2015, the NGC graded AU-50, Partrick Collection, Willow Tree sixpence brought $105,750.
In Nov. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers sold the Sundman-Ford-Boyd Willow Tree sixpence for $270,250, an auction record. That piece is PCGS graded AU-53. The Kendall Collection, Willow Tree sixpence is PCGS graded AU-58 and CAC approved. I have not yet seen it.
The Willow Tree threepence could be the centerpiece of the Kendall Collection. It is one of just three that survive. In Oct. 2005, Stack’s (New York) sold this same threepence for $632,500, which was then an auction record for a Massachusetts Silver coin. The NE sixpence in the Eric Newman Collection sold for $646,250 in May 2014.
There are probably 40 Willow Tree Shillings in existence. Five obverse dies and five reverse dies have been identified. Examples of six pairings are known, all of which are explained in Dr. Salmon’s book. Amazingly, the Kendall Collection has representatives of five of the six different die pairings (1A, 2B, 3C, 3D, 3E). It is missing only the 2A, of which only two are known.
Numbers here refer to obverse dies and letters to reverse dies. For Willow Tree Shillings, identifications of die pairings in the Noe and Salmon references are consistent.
This is certainly one of the all-time best offerings of Willow Tree Shillings. Just one Willow Tree Shilling of any variety is often a highlight of a significant collection of American colonial coins.
A though the ways in which colonial collectors grade coins and the manner in which PCGS grades these are very different, the PCGS certifications of the Kendall Willow Tree Shillings are as follows:: 1A-62, 2B- AU details, 3C-55, 3D-20, and 3E-35. The PCGS grades of 1A (MS-62) and 3C (AU-55) are CAC approved, though CAC announced at the end of 2014 that CAC will no longer evaluate colonials.
PCGS has graded ten Willow Tree Shillings and NGC has graded six, for perhaps a total of 14 different coins. The PCGS graded MS-62, Kendall 1-A is the highest certified Willow Tree Shilling.
The sole PCGS graded AU-58 Willow Tree Shilling, a representative of the 2B pairing, was auctioned by Heritage in Jan. 2007 for $230,000, when coin markets were booming, and then by Spectrum-B&M in Sept. 2009, after coin markets dropped considerably, for $106,375.
The only PCGS graded AU-55 Willow Tree Shilling is the 3C die pairing in the Kendall Collection. An NGC graded AU-50 Willow Tree Shilling (3D) was was in the Partrick, Ford, and Brand Collections. On Jan. 8, 2015, it realized $129,250.
The next highest certified to have been auctioned in recent years is the Partrick-Hain-Oeschner coin (1A). It is NGC graded Extremely Fine-45 and CAC approved. On Jan. 8, 2015, it brought $188,000, a weak to moderate price.
The Bushnell-Parmelee-Earle-Newcomer, Willow Tree Shilling (1A) is PCGS graded Very Fine-35. In Nov. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned it for a rather substantial amount, $282,000.
I wonder if the illustrious pedigree played a role in generating enthusiasm among leading bidders. Charles Bushnell formed an epic collection of pre-1793 items and a Bushnell pedigree commands attention more than 130 years after his collection was auctioned. Parmelee had one of the 15 all-time greatest collections of classic U.S.coins and had an excellent assortment of pre-1793 items, too.
Parmelee’s collection was auctioned in 1890 and George Earle’s collection in 1912. Earle’s collection was even better than that of Parmelee, in my view. It was just incredible.
As Waldo Newcomer’s collection was distributed privately, it is hard to gauge the quality of the coins included, though clearly it was almost complete and contained many wonderful rarities. Much information relating to the contents of the Newcomer Collection has surfaced over the last twenty-five years. There is no doubt about it being one of the fifteen all-time greatest collections in both the classic U.S. and pre-1793 categories.
Dwight Manley, a famous collector in our own time, had a Willow Tree Shilling (3E) that is also PCGS graded VF-35. Manley’s coin was CAC approved. Dwight’s collection of Massachusetts Silver was, appropriately enough, auctioned in Boston, at the summer 2010 ANA Convention. This Willow Tree Shilling went for $230,000. It is hard to tell the extent to which bidders are willing to pay substantial premiums for rarer die varieties. For most interested collectors, one Willow Tree Shilling would be enough.
The Partrick-Hawn-Jackman Willow Tree Shilling (2B) is NGC graded VF-30 and CAC approved. On Jan. 8, 2015, in Orlando, it brought $105,750.
Although Reed Hawn is best known as a collector of quarters and half dollars, sets which Stack’s (New York) auctioned during the 1970s, he went on to form major collections in other realms. In 1993, Stack’s (New York) sold Reed’s 1913 Liberty Nickel, which Heritage auctioned in January 2010 and again in January 2014 at FUN Conventions.
Though not quite in the same league as some of the sets already mentioned here, Hawn’s collection of Massachusetts Silver was extensive and noteworthy. When sold in May 1998, it did not receive as much attention as it deserved.
In May 2014, Eric Newman’s Willow Tree Shilling (1A) sold for $164,500. It was NGC graded VF-25 and CAC approved. The sole Willow Tree Shilling that is PCGS graded VF-25 is not the Newman piece.
In January 2007, Heritage auctioned the NGC graded Good-06, ‘Jones Beach Collection’ Willow Tree Shilling (2B) for $25,300. The Jones Beach Collection will be best remembered as an epic collection of patterns, though it did contain a few coins. Last week, I discussed the Jones Beach Shield Earring quarter pattern.
In the ANA auction of August 2011, Stack’s-Bowers sold a Willow Tree Shilling (3D) in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder for $37,375. It was said by the cataloguer to have the details of an Extremely Fine grade coin, and to have been “located in the summer of 2010 [by someone] planting squash and zucchini in a backyard in downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts, less than a mile from the site of Plymouth Rock.”
In May 2008, the Goldbergs offered an NGC authenticated, though not graded, Willow Tree Shilling (3D), which did not sell. This coin has severe problems. Also, over the last ten years, Heritage has offered a few Willow Tree Shillings that failed to receive numerical grades.
Quite a few Willow Tree Shillings have been available during this time period, as an unusually large number of sets of Massachusetts Silver coins have been auctioned during the last ten years or are currently being offered, including those of Sundman, Manley, Ford, Newman, Partrick and now Kendall.
The current era represents an opportune time to start a collection of Massachusetts Silver. A type set is less costly and much more practical than a collection of die varieties. Besides, a collector who remains enthused may pursue a set of die varieties after a limited type set, perhaps one of just shillings, is finished.
©2015 Greg Reynolds