By Kyle Knapp for PCGS ……
The Stack’s Bowers Galleries sale of the E Pluribus Unum Collection of New Jersey Coppers in Baltimore in November 2019 offered collectors the rare opportunity to examine a cabinet carefully assembled and improved upon for years by a dedicated specialist of the series. As on many such occasions, new price records were set, famous pieces had their pedigrees lengthened, and interest in the series as a whole was heightened. The selection of highlights from the sale given here has been chosen to illustrate the series’ expansive stylistic range.
What is a New Jersey Copper?
The Confederation-era New Jersey copper series begins in late 1786, when the state sought to address the severe shortage of small change in circulation. Not having the resources to undertake the production of coinage itself, the legislature accepted the proposal of a private firm to complete the task. The subsequent history of the enterprise is in itself a fascinating episode, with many dramatic components: a business partnership nearly immediately dissolved, directors in and out of colonial debtor’s prison, and a courtroom battle between young barristers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr 20 years before their infamous morning duel at Weehawken in 1804.
Roughly four million pieces would be struck in the subsequent few years, many illicitly (or at least in blatant violation of the original contract), until an economic recession in 1789 significantly reduced their intrinsic value and led to their demonetization in 1790, just two years before the United States Mint opened its doors.
What is a Torse?
The design of the coppers, left by the legislature to be determined by the justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court, is derived from the state’s coat of arms, the work of colonial numismatic advocate extraordinaire Pierre Eugene du Simitiere in the preceding decade. The “torse” is the braided twist of fabric attaching the equine crest to the top of the knight’s helmet. Introduced in the 1300s, it serves the useful technicality of smoothing the vertical transition between its adjoining elements and was carried along with the horse to the coinage motif.
Selections from the E Pluribus Unum Collection
A collection of New Jersey coppers has no obvious singular plan.
A “date set” would be comprised of only three coins, and as with many coins of this era, dates often have more to do with ensuring the pieces appear to have been struck during the contractually permitted period than denoting the specific year of their production.
A “complete set” of all known die marriages would be a lifelong and nearly impossible endeavor. Individual marriages are cataloged via a system begun in 1881 by Dr. Edward Maris in the series’ foundational numismatic text, A Historic Sketch of the Coins of New Jersey, wherein obverse dies are numbered and reverses lettered, such that “Maris 7-C” and “Maris 7-E” would describe two varieties with a common obverse and differing reverses (it should be noted that reverse “C” and reverse “c” are distinct).
One satisfying compromise would be to collect by stylistic type, as each piece included would differ in an immediately obvious way. The selection below could represent the theoretical backbone of such a set.
1786 New Jersy No Coulter
The “coulterless” varieties dated 1786 (the coulter being the presently absent downward protrusion from the center of the plow beam) are among the most coveted because of their stylistic similarity to the famous “date below plow” pieces thought to be possible patterns or prototypes struck at the very outset of the enterprise. The illustrated example is a famous rarity, Maris 8 ½-C, with a provenance to at least 1961, and the best of just three known from this die pair. Certified F15 by PCGS, it realized $78,000. Somewhat more affordable was the superb Maris 10-G, a pleasing milk-chocolate PCGS VF30 at $12,600.
1786 New Jersy “Protruding Tongue”
This variety’s namesake is a prominent die imperfection emanating from the horse’s mouth. The pictured example, a spectacularly sharp and attractive condition-census Maris 16-L, PCGS AU58 with a pedigree dating back to 1973, realized $10,200, while a tempting duplicate, PCGS U55 brought $2,880.
1786 New Jersy “Wide Shield”
Another famous die break among 1786 issues, the “bridle” descends downward from the horse’s snout to the base of the figure. The imaged example, a choice PCGS AU55 Maris 18-M pedigreed to 1975, sold at $4,800. A Very Fine specimen of the same die pair realized $576.
1787 New Jersy “Goiter”
Another arresting die anomaly in the New Jersey series is the unfortunately placed “goiter” die-break, the pictured example of which, a Maris 37-f graded VF25 by PCGS, changed hands at the sale for $5,040. This easily identifiable obverse die is known to be paired with four different reverses, and the E Pluribus Unum Collection included one of each along with some interesting duplicates, with the extremely rare 37-X, a coin owned by Maris, Garrett, and Picker, bringing $19,200.
1787 New Jersy “Deer Head”
Examples of the “deer head” variety have small, distinctively shaped horses and are usually overstruck on contemporary coppers. Of the 11 deer head offerings in the E Pluribus Unum Collection, 10 showed visible undertypes. The coin pictured here, a strikingly crisp Maris 34-V struck over a 35-J and PCGS-certified XF40, realized $28,800.
1787 New Jersy “Camel Head”
The “camel head” varieties have a bulbous nose and are also usually found overstruck on other contemporary coppers. The type includes three different obverse dies, Maris 56, 57, and 58, all paired with a single reverse, n. While the 56-n is one of the most common types of the entire New Jersey series, the 57-n is a famously coveted rarity.
The 57-n pictured above, an attractive PCGS VF25 overstruck on a Machin’s Mills copper, realized $22,800, while a beautifully smooth 56-n graded PCGS XF45 sold for $960.
1787 New Jersy “Serpent Head”
The unmistakable long, curved neck of the “serpent head” has made it one of the most popular types of the series. Known officially as Maris 54-k, its differing aesthetic style and typically underweight planchet has led many to consider it a contemporary counterfeit cut by a different, if exceptionally skilled, hand. The smooth, glossy PCGS AU55+ pictured above brought $7,800, while a solid extremely fine could be had for $720.
1788 New Jersy “Head Facing Left”
One of the most charismatic faces in the series is that of the “head facing left” pieces of 1788. The plated example, a remarkably well-rendered and evenly worn Maris 49-f graded PCGS XF45, has a provenance stretching back to the Matthew A. Stickney Collection, which was largely assembled prior to the Civil War and sold by Henry Chapman in 1907. Bringing $3.25 at its initial auction appearance, it realized $45,600 in Baltimore. A pleasing PCGS VF25 example of Maris 51-g, a somewhat scarcer variety, brought $7,800.
1788 New Jersy “Running Fox
The “running fox” varieties of 1788 are so named because of the small fox appearing mid-stride at the lower left of the reverse. The Maris 74-bb imaged above first appeared at public auction in 1890 as part of the famed Parmelee Collection, passing through the holdings of both Virgil Brand and John J. Ford, Jr. before selling for $18,000 this year, PCGS VF35. A Maris 77-dd with even color and an impressively large planchet, PCGS F12, brought $900.
Beautifully Crude Contemporary Counterfeit
One of the highest recorded prices at the E Pluribus Unum sale was, in fact, for a contemporary counterfeit. One of just three known examples of Maris 81-ii, this darkly hued and dramatically engraved piece can be traced to the Jacob Spiro sale of 1955. It brought $50,400 after spirited bidding, PCGS-certified VG10.
While the notion of a “counterfeit” being so desirable may be foreign to collectors of more modern federal coinage, it is important to keep in mind the circumstances of colonial minting.
New Jersey coppers, like most issues of the time, were struck by private entities under contract to a state legislature, and these entities and their directors were susceptible to the same temptations present in any profit-focused venture. Many known varieties are thought to have likely been struck either by authorized parties outside the quantitative or temporal bounds of the contract or by other persons altogether. The dearth of small change in circulation created sufficient demand for all of these, and most would have been gladly accepted in colonial commerce alongside their “official” cousins.
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Great article, Kyle, well-written and super informative!