All posts by Jesse Kraft

Cartagena MMXXI: The International Convention of Historians and Numismatists

This past week, between December 1 and 5, the Third International Convention of Historians and Numismatists (Cartagena MMXXI) gathered in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The official medal of Cartagena MMXXI, designed by Carlos Huatuco Nanzer. Bronze, 33 mm.

Hosted by the Colombian Numismatic Foundation, the event featured 28 in-person speakers and an additional 23 virtual presentations. The event included Latin American numismatic luminaries such as Jorge Baccera León of Colombia, Jorge Proctor of Panama/Florida, Hilton Lucio of Brazil, Eduardo Dargent of Perú, and so many more. There were representatives from Argentina, Aruba, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Similarly, the event was sponsored by many different organizations, several of whom are very well known even to those who may not be familiar with Latin American numismatics—such as Coin World, Heritage Auctions, PCGS, and Stack’s Bowers.

While there were a few pre-conference events (guided tours, etc.), for me, the conference opened on the evening of December 1 with a ceremony at the Palacio de la Proclamación, the freshly-restored palace where Cartagena’s independence from Spain was declared on November 11, 1811 (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The opening ceremonies at the Palacio de la Proclamación, as some of the delegates hold the newly-released commemorative postal issue.

The palace is located deep within the fortified walls of the old Spanish fort. After the ceremony, we wined, dined, and were entertained by traditional folkloric music and dance, witnessed the launching of a commemorative postal issue, as well as the donation of an important decoration to the Naval Museum of Cartagena by Richard Caccione. There were over 140 individuals in attendance that evening.

The following four days were filled with the most up-to-date research on Latin American numismatics. The conference itself was held in a beautiful downtown resort located along the shores of the Caribbean, the Intercontinental Cartagena de Indias. The large stage and dual screens allowed for all in attendance to see everything (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Daniel Oropeza Alba, who also acted as one of two conference organizers, delivers the inaugural presentation for Cartagena MMXXI.

Furthermore, for the few of us who are not absolutely fluent in Spanish, two professional translators provided their services through a set of headphones. The level of research, the willingness that everyone had to share their work (even unpublished material), and the overall familial feeling was something that should have come as no surprise, but still made me reflect on how we can all benefit from such incredible comradery.  

In the hallway just outside of the conference doors, Colombian artist Jorge Juan Osorio Orozco offered some of his pieces. His mixed-media works consist of genuine banknotes and colored pencil, where he would extend the vignette well beyond the confines of the original note with the original source of the design. For instance, Orozco used a lithograph of the Liberator, Simón Bolívar as published by the Ramírez Brothers in the late 19th century to extend the bust of a 2,000 Colombian peso note (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. A 2,000 Colombian peso note altered by Jorge Juan Osorio Orozco into a work of art, alongside the original 19th-century lithograph that inspired the banknote design.

The results are nothing short of impressive and intriguing, as each piece was beautifully framed and matted. Orozco must have had 50 works there at the beginning of the conference, and far fewer by the last day. For those interested, he can be found on all the major social media outlets and does ship internationally.

Cartagena, in particular, was chosen for this year’s conference to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first coinage struck in the city and, as a result, all of present-day Colombia (at the time, a part of the Nueva Reino de Granada). This fact itself is a recent discovery. For decades, researchers believed that the first coinage struck in Cartagena were cob coins (known as macuquinas in Latin America) struck in gold in 1622, though the earliest-known dated pieces were minted in 1625. Recent discoveries, however, revealed that Alonso Turrillo de Yebra struck 1,600 silver macuquinas dated 1621 and shipped them to Spain for inspection by King Philip III. As fate may have it, the coins were loaded onto what became one of the most famous Spanish galleon shipwrecks of all time, the Atocha, which sank off the coast of Florida in a hurricane in 1622. Since the discovery of the wreck in 1985, only nine (9) of these 1621 macuquinas from Cartagena have been excavated (Fig. 5). Some have readable dates, some don’t—but they all come from the same set of dies. The rest are still presumably at the bottom of the sea floor.

Figure 5. One of nine known 1621 8 reales coins struck in Cartagena that helped prove that coins were struck there at that time, not 1625 as was earlier known to be true.

Again, I cannot overstate the level of research at this conference, as well as everyone’s willingness to share both published and unpublished works. I am happy to have been invited not only to this conference, but also into this group. Furthermore, that the ANS is beginning to reinsert itself back into the mainstream of Latin American numismatics (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Myself and Jorge Proctor. Although the preeminent scholar in Latin American numismatics, Jorge is willing to have fun with his topic as he dressed up as a Spanish conquistador during his presentation.

Even without our presence over the past few decades, many from the region are already well acquainted with the ANS collection (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. A bronze half real of Santander, Colombia of 1813, a coin often misattributed to Cartagena. This was one of several ANS coins that coincidentally showed themselves throughout the course of the conference (ANS 1916.20.13, gift of Howland Wood).

While there are many people that I met over the past week—far too many to name in this post—I would like to especially thank Richard Caccione, a Bronx native who has spent a considerable amount of time in Latin America, currently lives in Perú, and is a noted expert on Peruvian banknotes. Without his unsolicited email to me and his insistence that the ANS have a representative present at the Congress, none of this would have been possible. I very much look forward to the next International Convention of Historians and Numismatists, wherever the organizers decide to hold it.

From Mound House to Manhattan, Part III

This is the third and final segment in the series to update ANS members and interested guests on the MACO Archives and the pending move of die shells and plasters from their present location in Mound House, Nevada to New York, New York.

I barely had time to recover from packing up the die shells and plasters in Nevada (see “From Mound House to Manhattan, Part II“) before it felt like the trucks were on their way. Back on the East Coast and less than a month to go before we hoped to have everything here, it was time to put the last piece of the puzzle in place: the trucks. In the initial stages of planning, we were told that a few months’ lead-time is far too long, and that a month or less is needed. I was to learn that even this amount of time is eonic in nature—as you, too, will learn below. After pricing out four different logistics companies, Schneider National seemed like the most competent and reasonably priced for our needs. I had initially scheduled the three tractor-trailers to be picked up in Mound House on June 21, 22, and 23, in order to arrive in succession on June 28, 29, and 30.

As the first day for pickup approached, however, I soon realized how the trucking industry operated. Many logistics companies, in fact, do not necessarily own their own trucks and instead act as brokers between the drivers and the customers. This is, perhaps, the main reason why they cannot plan so far in the future—it is not theirs to plan. Just like the customer (in this case, the ANS), logistics companies are largely at the whim of privately-owned trucking companies or independent drivers. If a trucker doesn’t decide to pick up the load, the load doesn’t get picked up. The 17th turned into the 18th before becoming the weekend, still without a quote. Finally, just before 11 a.m. on the morning of June 21, we received a bite from a private trucking company. I received the paperwork and everything seemed good to go. Meanwhile, Rob Vugteveen—my trusted colleague from Part II— and Josiah—our hired forklift operator—waited diligently for any sign of an 18-wheeler. They ate lunch, then waited some more. The day turned nearly into night without a trace.

Unfortunately, the driver arrived as the sun set. However, we were able to convince him to stay local for the night and pick up the material first thing in the morning. Here is a video of some of the first pallets being loaded onto the truck, shot by Rob:

In less than two hours, the first truck was loaded with 26 full pallets. Knowing that this was the heaviest of the loads that would traverse the country—and fearful that he might be over the legal weight limit—the driver immediately went to get weighed in. 65,000 pounds! (Just 15,000 pounds below the 80,000-pound maximum.)

The second truck gave us no time to regroup. Rob was barely through a celebratory snow cone when we received word that the second truck was nearly there! By 3 p.m., it had rolled into Mound House and within a few hours was also completely packed. Rob and Josiah were both home by dinner, while our two truckers began a slow and arduous journey across most of the United States.

At this point, you should be reading about the third truck picking up the last load in Mound House. However, as noted above, the trucking industry is rather unpredictable and this did not materialize in the order which we had hoped. Instead, silence. While the first two were seemingly quick and easy, no one wanted to touch the third load. Despite the nonchalance of our Schneider National representative, apparently, we were quite lucky to have found those first two trucks as easily as we had. From what I know understand, the upper Nevada area is somewhat of a desert for truck drivers (pun intended) and, of the few that are actually there, not that many want to come to Manhattan or Brooklyn. Go figure!

On the morning of Monday, July 28, at the break of dawn, I made contact with the first driver, who had been in the area since the early weekend…waiting. Much to our surprise, the first driver to arrive was the second driver to have picked up material in Mound House. Somehow, the second driver drove past the first! That, however, was not of concern (with the exception of where, exactly, was the first driver?). Our concern at that time was to get the truck into place and unload the 26 pallets in its trailer.

Getting the truck into place was my biggest worry from the start of this project. I, and I alone, knew how narrow the street was where the loading dock is located. It is very narrow—basically an alleyway. The only solace I had and kept telling myself was that there is a loading dock there, so a truck must be able to get to it. Meeting up with the driver, he requested I get into the cab with him to guide him around the block. Even these wider avenues proved difficult. With the time of reckoning literally around the corner, I knew that if the driver couldn’t get the truck into place that the day would get so much worse—essentially having to unload the truck entirely by hand.

We approached the street and the driver nearly coasted by it—true testament to the narrow nature of the street. By the time we came to a stop, we were directly adjacent to the street. The driver stared it down for what seemed like all morning, but was probably a solid minute—cigarette hanging from his lips. Plotting. Navigating in his mind where he wanted the truck to go. At one point, he literally had to jump out of the cab to yell certain expletives at the many annoyed commuters in cars that we were holding up. The driver did not care, and let them know it. In the end, he felt that he could make the turn.

He backed the truck up, to the further chagrin of those we held up. Some sped around us, but no matter. If words can explain how he maneuvered this turn: we essentially had to turn left the go right; at one point the cab was beyond the road was aimed for, but the trailer was whipping around into place; essentially converting the 90° turn into a complete 180°. The straighten out amidst a row of parked cars. By this time, John Thomassen, curatorial assistant at the ANS, had arrived to help unload. As we made the turn, I could see him near our destination, both hands on his head as he helplessly watched the driver pull off this incredible maneuver. I had respect for big-rig drivers before this, but watching it in action—literally in the passenger’s seat—brought my respect to new heights. The geometry involved in a simple turn is often counterintuitive.

That turn was only half the battle. Next, we had to back the truck up into the loading dock (Figs. 1 and 2).

Figure 1. ANS Curator, Jesse Kraft, hoping that the first truck of MACO die shells will fit into the loading dock.
Figure 2. Kraft guides the truck into place.

While the turn seemed like the hard part, perhaps the fact that it took him three attempts to pull this off—while only one to make the turn—shows how difficult this truly was. The truck was in place. Again, getting to this point, in my mind, was the hard part and gave an incredible sense of relief seeing the truck in place. More importantly, now that I knew that one driver could do it, the other two had no excuse not to pull of the same stunt.

Figure 3. Kraft unloads the very first pallets into Brooklyn.

Next was to unload several tons of numismatic material (Fig. 3). Just prior to the arrival of the material, the ANS purchased two pallet jacks and a hand truck for the occasion. I had plenty of recent experience with these whilst in Nevada, but John had never handled a pallet jack before—though he caught on quickly. Executive Director Gilles Bransbourg graciously offered his help this morning, and we quickly realized that we needed to keep him away from the pallet jacks if we wanted to unload the truck in a timely manner. Aside from minor elevator troubles—the closest freight elevator wasn’t working that day, and, at one point, the working elevator dropped a foot below the basement level and wouldn’t rise again—unloading went smoothly. About four hours later, we had the first third of the MACO die shells unloaded and in storage.

Two days later, June 30, the second truckload arrived and was nearly as eventful. The second driver, Sufyan, was an incredible help to us. Sufyan was much less sure of himself than the first driver. He didn’t think it could be done but, knowing that it was, in fact, accomplished just two days prior, I repeatedly had to remind him that it was possible. He, too, pulled off the turn with a wider-than-life turn and, more impressively, was able to back the truck up into a better position in only one attempt! In addition to Sufyan’s help and, instead of Gilles, Chief Curator Peter van Alfen offered his assistance. Furthermore, we had the luxury of using the closer elevator, which essentially opens up to the front door of the space we occupy in the building. This shaved several hundred feet of travel per pallet and, as a result, we were able to unload the truck in about three hours.

If you recall, we had three truckloads of material but only two trucks picked anything up. The first two trucks were completely picked up, delivered, and unloaded and we had yet to have heard from anyone who wanted to touch the third. Sufyan, as he was leaving, mentioned that he would be interested in going back to Nevada but he was either redirected by his dispatchers or wasn’t necessarily telling the truth. Either way, we had until July 17 to have the facilities at Mound House completely emptied.

As if out of nowhere, in the late morning of July 5, I received an email from my contact at Schneider National that a driver was, literally, on his way to pick up the material. As quickly as possible, we needed to get the contract signed and, perhaps most importantly, make sure that Rob and Josiah were available for a last-minute load (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. The last pallet being loaded onto the final truck in Mound House.

Long story, short: the third and final truck arrived on the morning of July 12. For several reasons, however, we decided to bring this load to our storage facility in Brooklyn, rather than to our headquarters in Manhattan as originally planned. That said, this series should have been titled “From Mound House to Brooklyn,” but we didn’t know—plus the alliteration of the current title is catchier. Either way….

By the end of it, we were pros at unloading tractor-trailers and whizzes with the pallet jacks. I would like to add that, since we couldn’t count on the third driver being anywhere near as much help as Sufyan was, Peter, John, and I recruited ANS Photographer Alan Roche to help as the fourth person. However, Alan didn’t show up until, most conveniently for him, mere minutes after the last pallet was put into place. His contributions for the day were to document the sweaty messes that the three of us were by the end of it all (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Peter van Alfen, John Thomassen, and Jesse Kraft recuperating after moving the final pallets into place.

Nonetheless, the MACO die shells were officially repatriated with the ANS in New York City! Many of the die shells were, in fact, created in the Big Apple prior to MACO’s move to Danbury, Connecticut in 1973! This momentous occasion will allow the Society to begin completely cataloging the die shells, to compare them to the struck medal, and be able to build a bigger picture into the production methods of the Medallic Art Co. While this is the final segment in this series, do stay tuned for further updates from the ANS regarding the MACO Archives.

From Mound House to Manhattan, Part II

This is the second segment of a three-part series to update ANS members and interested guests on the MACO Archives and the pending move of die shells and plasters from their present location in Mound House, Nevada to New York, New York.

After the immense amount of preparation that took place during “Mound House to Manhattan, Part I,” the time had come to put the plan into action. On May 22, with laptop, overly-detailed excel spreadsheet, and solid strategy in mind, I boarded a plane destined for Reno, Nevada. My fine Hyundai Santa Fe rental then took me half-an-hour south to Carson City (just 6.5 miles east of Mound House), to the hotel I would call home for the next 13 nights.

That first evening, I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Vugteveen, self-proclaimed “creative problem solver” and former Northwest Territorial Mint employee, and his family. Rob graciously offered his services to the project. Over dinner, we discussed the goals I had set for the following two weeks: (1) to prepare nearly 20,000 die shells for absorption by the ANS upon their arrival in New York City, and (2) to better pack the 5,000 of the more delicate pieces in order to survive the 2,700-mile journey. However, the magnitude of the collection (both in the vastness of the archive itself as well as the diameter of the individual pieces), proved challenging to these lofty goals.

The necessity of this trip to Nevada was evident early on. While compiling spreadsheets and estimating spatial requirements back in NYC, I had been under the impression that the boxes housing these die shells were all the same size: 24” x 24” x 18”. This was largely due to the lack of calibration target in the images or ability to compare box sizes to surrounding points of reference. In reality, five (5) different-sized boxes were used, and none of them were the aforementioned measurements. Fortunately, the adjusted space requirements were minimal, but this game of theoretical Tetris proved a point: that the ANS was not ready to simply ship this material to its new home without (at the very least) a basic visual inspection to fully prepare ourselves for what we were about to undertake.

If you recall from “Mound House to Manhattan, Part I,” I had gone through many, many images in order to make preliminary decisions of the die shells, entering my thoughts into an Excel spreadsheet by highlighting the cells either red or green. With this document, Rob and I began to go through the collection (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Jesse Kraft (r.) and Rob Vugteveen (l.) in Mound House, NV, beginning to prepare the MACO die shells for their journey across the country.

Pallet-by-pallet, we compared them to the MACO Spreadsheet and used red and green Sharpies to mark the individual item labels with their respective color. From there, we were essentially able to ditch the spreadsheet and work directly from the boxes. We now began on an item-by-item level—opening each box and separating the “reds” and the “greens” from one another—placing each category into a new box and sealing it when it reached its max weight (ca. 50 pounds), which left most boxes grossly (but necessarily) under-packed.

We had gone through 12 pallets (192 boxes) before suddenly realizing that, at this rate, we would run out of time without even starting on our second task. One achievement from the process, however, was that by the time we were through those 192 boxes, there were only 182 boxes left on the pallets, as we were able to condense those initial boxes by about 5%. Even greater efficiency was found in the fact that we were able to stack the boxes 5-high (as opposed to 4-high, as they previously were) due to information garnered from the shipping companies. This simple change saved an astounding 25% of space.

Though it was now clear that we could not work on an item-by-item basis, the savings we found by working on a box-by-box level proved significant. Perhaps if we worked with that in mind, we would be able to save time, but also continue to condense the material enough to be worthwhile. Instead of having pallets that contained all “greens” and others with all “reds,” we knew that some boxes would be what we called “orange”—those with both red and green pieces (art teachers need not comment).

With efficiency still in mind, the plan shifted to include a gradient of “oranges.” Essentially, we set up all the “reds” on one side of the room and all of the “greens” on the other then filled in the gap. Just after the “pure reds,” we began to place boxes that had all “reds” and only one “green.” Once we found all of those, we began to pallet boxes with all “reds” and two “greens,” followed by those with three “greens,” and so on. Eventually, the last remaining boxes were those which were all “green” but only had a single “red” piece. By the time we were through, we had an order of “red,” mostly-red “orange,” mostly-green “orange,” and “green” (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Pallets separated into their prospective groups.

Getting through this arduous task was a relief as, not only was this dusty and backbreaking labor, but in the end, it had also provided me with the order for which everything will be brought back to New York: as many “reds” as possible destined for our storage facility in Brooklyn and the “greens” to our headquarters in Manhattan. As I mentioned my relief of knowing this order, Rob joked, “Jesse can sleep easy tonight,” as if the grueling work we just completed wasn’t enough to knock a man out in its own right.

But I’m happy to report that it wasn’t all work and no play. Fortunately, halfway through this business trip, I was able to take a day off to explore…and what better way to spend the day in Carson City than at the Historic Carson City Mint and Nevada State Museum! Friend and ANS Member, Rob Rodriguez treated me to a tour of the facility and exhibits, followed by an afternoon in Virginia City. Rodriguez’s knowledge and love for the area is apparent. At the Mint, we were able to see “Coin Press No. 1” in action (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Jesse Kraft with Woodrow Davis, Coiner of Press No. 1 at the Carson City Mint. Jesse is holding the Nevada State Capitol Sesquicentennial Medallion, which was struck just moments before the photograph was taken.

This press was built in 1869 by Morgan & Orr and was the original press used at the Mint to strike many of the Carson City rarities; pieces that numismatists from all over now cherish. Still in operation today, the press strikes half-dollar-sized medals for visitors—currently in the process of creating the Nevada State Capitol Sesquicentennial Medallion. Virginia City is known as the epicenter of the Comstock Lode, where Samuel Clemens failed as a miner, began work with the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, and changed his name to Mark Twain. It was because of the Comstock Lode that the Carson City Mint existed. Seeing the geographic connections between the Lode, Carson, and even Reno and San Francisco was a very nice numismatic sidebar to the entire Nevada work-trip.

Other highlights included dinner at the fabulous Mangia Tutto Restaurante in Carson City with friends and ANS Members Howard and Kregg Herz, and a 0.6-mile hike up to the Kings Canyon Falls, one of the natural springs that regulates the height of nearby Lake Tahoe. Lastly, I acquired some authentic western attire from historic Virginia City (our office’s “Western Wear Wednesday” will never have looked so good) (Fig. 4). Refreshed, I was back to work.

Figure 4. Jesse Kraft with some authentic Virginia City Western wear, which he proudly wore for his homecoming that coincidentally fell on the weekly “Western Wear Wednesday” at the ANS Headquarters.

The next day’s focus was on task number two: repacking what truly needed to be repacked. Due to time constraints in 2018, only about 15,000 of 20,000-odd die shells were photographed, individually wrapped, and safely packed into boxes. At that time, the crew was unable to complete the final 5,000 objects of the collection, so (out of necessity) they were hastily stacked into boxes directly on the pallet. Packed for a quick 6-mile jaunt from Dayton to Mound House, they would not likely survive the 2,500-mile journey they are about to make. Sadly, even now, we found pieces that were clearly broken in their prior transit, not before.

Figure 5. Epoxy die shells for the 1986 ANS medal to commemorate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.

Most of these objects are epoxy die shells (Figs. 5 & 6). Epoxy die shells were introduced in 1975 as a cheaper and quicker alternative to copper galvano die shells. Unlike the hardy copper die shells made by MACO, the epoxy die shells are quite fragile and if one were dropped on the floor, it could easily shatter on impact. Not only were these most-fragile die shells in direct contact with each other, but each box weighed far beyond their intended capacity.

Figure 6. A box of epoxy die shells waiting to be packed up and shipped to New York City.

While I have gone through the MACO material numerous times on paper, digitally, and with the finished medals, the physical die shells are an entirely different beast. Navigating the added weight and cumbersome size and shape of each piece added an unexpected amount of time to the process and, in the end, the clock ran out. I am happy to report that Rob Vugteveen and I achieved 95% of what we had hoped to before the time came for me to leave. Thankfully, Rob lives nearby and is able to wrap everything up before the trucks arrive. All in all, the second phase of getting the MACO die shells from Mound House to Manhattan was a success.

Please stay tuned for “From Mound House to Manhattan Part III,” which will focus on the actual move of the die shells across the country! It will be an exciting few days!

From Mound House to Manhattan, Part I

As many of you know, the American Numismatic Society purchased the archives of the Medallic Art Company (MACO) at a bankruptcy auction in 2018. The sheer size of this purchase, however, did not allow for the tale to end so quickly. Within weeks of the landmark purchase, components of the collection were shipped to various corners of the country. The medals and paper archives from MACO moved to the ANS headquarters in New York City; the dies and hubs were transferred to Medalcraft Mint, Inc., in Wisconsin, who is generously storing them for the ANS at the moment; and the galvanos, die shells, and plasters took a short drive to Mound House, Nevada, less than five miles from Dayton—where MACO last operated.

By early 2020, with a good portion of the medals catalogued, the ANS began to think about the parts of the collection that remained out of reach. While we were headlong into making plans, however, the COVID-19 pandemic altered reality for most people and put a halt to everything that we hoped would happen. Along with the rest of the world, the ANS heeded to CDC guidelines, masked up, and waited for life to find some semblance of normalcy.

The time has come, however, for the next chapter in the MACO saga to begin! With the third and most recent wave behind us, vaccines becoming more-readily available, and infection rates dropping by the day, the ANS is in the planning stages to transfer all of the galvanos, die shells, and plasters from Mound House to Manhattan (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. This image only shows about one-third of the boxes with MACO material that are currently stored in Mound House, Nevada. The other two-thirds are on the other side of the wall to the left.

Unlike the galvanos that many numismatists are already familiar with, these were not meant to be sold to interested buyers, but are all production galvanos, made for the sole purpose of creating dies to strike medals. Nearly the entire run of MACO products is represented in production-galvano format. To put quantity of this portion of the collection into perspective, just the material in Mound House equates to about 17,000 objects that are stored in roughly 1,400 boxes, which are situated on about 90 pallets and will likely take four (4) tractor trailers to completely move across the country. Given the size, these early stages have been no easy undertaking and involved three major tasks: organizing what we know exist to efficiently absorb the collection as it arrives, finding a location to store the material, and locating a long-haul trucking company.

The first step in the process was to organize the pieces that we have records for. To do this, I had nothing else but to rely on more than 20,000 photographs that were taken as the collection was packed up in 2018. At the time, knowing that this would likely be the last that any of this material would be seen for at least a few years, the ANS hired Lou Manna Photography, of Reno, Nevada, to image as many as he could (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Lou Manna Photography and a dozen local college students helped photograph as much as they could in a less-than-favorable timespan.

Fully aware of the magnitude of the task at hand, Manna brought along a dozen college students to aid in streamlining the photography process, box the material, and load them onto pallets. Within the frame of each image, Manna included an individualized 5-digit barcode number to aid in keeping track of them. That same 5-digit barcode was then applied to the outside of the box in which they were stored, and a photograph of the outside of the box was also taken (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. One of the many images that show the pallets of boxes as they were loaded prior to their move to Mound House. There were 156 of these images to go through in order to begin to capture the contents of each box.

This was the only documentation that existed concerning the contents of each box—no paper records were kept during this process. While, unfortunately, time ran out and photographs for only about 10,000 galvanos were taken, they have proven indispensable in this early stage. All of the images were placed on a hard drive, handed over to the ANS, and sat quietly in New York City for the next three years.

The images were not taken in vain! With this triangulation, I was able to cross reference the photographs of each galvano with a box and a pallet. I made a gargantuan Excel spreadsheet and populated a single column with a list of boxes. The corresponding rows were then filled out with the 5-digit number unique to each piece. This painstaking process took several days to accomplish, but what was I going to do with the information? All I had was a list.

While I am not the final decision-maker on what pieces the ANS will ultimately keep forever and which we will not, we had already set some basic guidelines as to what we wanted. I knew that there are some obvious “keepers” and some obvious “non-keepers,” and knew that the list could be helpful in moving forward. For the following three weeks, I went through each of the 20,000 images, made a preliminary curatorial decision as to the fate of that piece, and highlighted the 5-digit number on my list either in green, for keep, or in red, for dispose of (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. A portion of the spreadsheet compiled to help organize the pieces prior to actual shipment. Those highlighted in green represent pieces that the ANS will potentially retain, while those highlighted in red are those the ANS may decide to not accession into the collection.

Basically, my opinion of the piece with the parameters in mind. Moving forward, this list will now be used for two purposes: (a.) to become the basis for how we present the collection committee with the objects the ANS would like to disperse, and (b.) to become the basis for the order in which each box is physically loaded into the truck for the 2,700-mile journey.

Some amazing pieces were uncovered during this process, too. Some important pieces included the galvanos for a series of medals that represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel as designed by Salvador Dalí; those for the 1940 medal of Clyde Trees—the manager of MACO who transformed the small company into an industrial medallic art factory—as sculpted by John Ray Sinnock; and nearly forty different galvanos that portray members of the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, Kikapoo, Oglala Sioux, Osage, Pawnee, and Wichita nations sculpted by Edward Sawyer between 1904 and 1912 (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. The raw photo files for three important galvanos—each important for very different reasons. (Top) A galvano designed by famed artist Salvador Dalí which represents the Tribe of Gad—one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, (middle) The galvano for the 1940 medal of Clyde Trees by John Ray Sinnock, and (bottom) the galvano for the Navajo Chief, Tja-Yo-Ni by Edward Sawyer in 1904.

This last group is among the most important groups of Native American ethnographic renderings in any medium, perhaps second only to the paintings by George Catlin in the 1830s. While many of the MACO galvanos are of extreme importance or artistic mastery, these truly are priceless American artifacts.

The second main task for the move from Mound House to Manhattan was to find adequate storage near the ANS headquarters so we can start to process the material. If you have ever visited the ANS, you will know that it would be impossible to fit a warehouse worth of material into our already-tight quarters. Truth be told, this was the phase of the move that I thought might give the biggest headaches, as space in New York City (storage or otherwise) is not cheap and we needed the material relatively close by in order to actively process it. Fortunately, a particular website that specializes in commercial properties, had hundreds of potential storage spaces listed. Aside from being close by, the ANS had at least two other requirements: a relatively-small space (ca. 2,000 square feet) combined with a relatively-low rate (ca. $20 per square foot per year). The site allows for potential renters to enter these parameters into search queries in order to narrow the results. This left just two (2) locations available! From the images alone, one location immediately proved inadequate from a security point of view which left just one potential location that met all of our needs (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. An interior view of about one-half of the location where the galvanos, die shells, and plasters from Mound House will reside and wait to be processed at the ANS headquarters in Manhattan.

After meeting with the landlord and viewing the space, the ANS decided that the undisclosed location was perfect for our needs. Although finding the location proved easy, the process certainly proved more difficult and drawn-out once the real estate brokers and lawyers became involved. In the end, we got a great deal!

Of course, all of this would be for nothing if the ANS could not physically move the items. Therefore, in addition to organizing tens of thousands of images and hunting down adequate storage, I have also been in regular communication with a series of commercial freight trucking companies and have narrowed it down to four potential companies. Through this last process, however, I found out that trucking companies do not necessarily need ample time to take an order. In fact, they don’t even offer quotes that are good for more than 30 days—largely due to the fluctuating cost of fuel. Furthermore, in most cases they can provide service with as little as 24 hours’ notice, unless the product is extremely hazardous or extremely fragile—neither of which pertain to the galvanos, die shells, or plasters.

This is the first of a three-part series. The next installment will highlight the trip to Mound House to actually implement what I had planned while sorting the images and creating the Excel spreadsheet. Please stay tuned for “From Mound House to Manhattan, Part II,” to be published here on Pocket Change ca. mid-June 2021.

The Medallic Art of Katharine Lane Weems

While people today may not recognize her name, the career of Katharine Lane Weems (née Katharine Ward Lane) paralleled those of many well-known sculptors of the 20th century (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Katharine Ward Lane (Weems), ca. 1915.

Born into a well-to-do Boston family in February 1899, she enjoyed a fine education. Her exposure to art no doubt originated through her father—Gardiner Martin Lane, president of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She was named after her aunt, the watercolorist Katharine Ward Lane (d. 1893). In the course of training, she worked under Charles Grafly, George Demetrios, and studied at the summer studios of Anna Hyatt Huntington in Connecticut. As a sculptor, she tended to focus on animal forms. Her work won her a bronze medal at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition in 1926, and the prestigious Widener Gold Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts the following year. In 1947, she married architect Fontaine Carrington “Canny” Weems. In 1985, she published her memoirs, Odds Were Against Me. If you travel to Boston, it would be difficult not to see Weems’ work, either in public or exhibited in the MFA Boston—where she donated her entire estate after her death in 1989, and endowed the position of Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture.

Figure 2. The 1930 silent film, From Clay to Bronze.

An incredible video exists of Katharine’s sculpting in action (Fig. 2). Made for the MFA Boston by the Harvard Film Service in 1930, From Clay to Bronze traced the entire process used to turn her model of a greyhound into a three-dimensional bronze statue. In addition to Weems, the video also shows master mold maker, Leonello “Leo” Toschi, of Caproni and Brother of Boston; and bronze caster, Anton Kunst, of Kunst Art Foundries in New York City. Similar in nature to The Medal Maker with Laura Gardin Fraser, this silent film has since been remastered with piano accompaniments of Erik Satie and the like, as played by Pascal Rogé.

Figure 3. Pelican friezes on the exterior of the Biological Laboratories of Harvard University.

The majority of Weems’ works are three-dimensional sculptures in bronze. Even still, she proved herself in the art of bas-relief as well. Her most well-known relief works are undoubtedly her animal friezes that decorate the exterior walls of several buildings of Harvard University from ca. 1931 (Fig. 3). Later in her career, Weems also produced three medals for the Medallic Art Company (MACO).

Figure 4. The Reginald Fincke Memorial Medal (MACO.1946-025). The obverse features the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor—the official emblem of the United States Marine Corps.—flanked by two stars. Below is the inscription, “Lt • REGINALD • FINCKE • Jr. \ MEMORIAL • MEDAL. The reverse features the heraldic shield of the Groton School with the inscription, “GROTON • SCHOOL \ AWARDED • TO,” a mentioning that the medal is “GIVEN BY • THE \ FORM OF • 1928,” and that it is awarded for “SPORTSMANSHIP \ CHARACTER.” The medal comes in bronze and measures 3 5/16” × 3”.

The first was the Reginald Fincke, Jr. Memorial Medal of 1946 (Fig. 4). Commissioned by the Groton School—a private Episcopal college-preparatory boarding school in Groton, Massachusetts—to honor 1st Lieutenant Reginald Fincke, Jr. A 1928 Sixth Form (graduate) of the school, Fincke was killed in action at the Battle of Okinawa on May 15, 1945. The example in the collection of the MFA Boston was donated by the Weems estate. To this day, the Groton School awards this medal to “a member of the Sixth Form who has shown in athletics qualities of perseverance, courage, and unselfish sportsmanship.”

Figure 5. The Goodwin Medal for Effective Teaching (MACO.1952-067). The obverse features a hand emerging from clouds while clutching three lightning bolts, clouds from above with rays of light shining through, and the inscription, “MASSACHVSETTS • INSTITVTE • OF • TECHNOLOGY.” The reverse displays an open book behind a lamp of knowledge and olive sprigs with the legend, “FOR • CONSPICVOVSLY • EFFECTIVE • TEACHING” and “GOODWIN MEDAL” in the exergue. The medal comes in bronze and measures 3”.

The second MACO medal that Weems designed was the Goodwin Medal for Effective Teaching (Fig. 5). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) commissioned the medal in 1952 to award the graduate student who clearly demonstrated “conspicuously effective teaching.” It was established in memory of Harry Manley Goodwin, the first dean of the graduate school at MIT, through a gift from his wife and son, Mary B. Goodwin and Richard H. Goodwin. Like the Fincke Medal, the Goodwin Medal is still given up through the present day.

Figure 6. The 60th Issue for the Society of Medalists, 1959 (MACO.1930-001-060). The obverse features a puma squatting in a tree with the inscription, “GOD \ MADE THE BEAST.” The reverse features three geese flying to the left with clouds in the background, with a continuation of the obverse inscription that reads, “AND \ EVERY WINGED FOWL.” (ANS 2011.54.3)

Weems’ third and final medal is an achievement in and of itself; a reflection of her long and distinguished career (Fig. 6). In November 1959, her designs became the 60th medal struck for the famous Society of Medalists series. Co-founded in 1929 by Clyde C. Trees (the owner of MACO) and George Dupont Pratt (medal collector and philanthropist), the Society of Medalists invited artists to submit designs for a chance to have them become the next in the respected series. Struck at the rate of two per year, legends of sculpture and the medallic arts had designed medals for the Society of Medalists: Laura Gardin Fraser, Paul Manship, and R. Tait McKenzie, just to name a few. While her Society of Medalists design was just one of many exquisite pieces produced by Katharine Lane Weems, the significance and prestige of the series helps maintain her importance as a 20th-century sculptor of the United States.

The Plastic Slides of William Guild

Every so often, something truly unique enters the American Numismatic Society’s collection. Thanks to a generous donation by Vicken Yegparian, Vice President of Numismatics for Stack’s Bowers Galleries, this took place once again. On the eve of this past Thanksgiving, Vicken reached out to see if the ANS had interest in receiving more than 2,000 plastic slides of various coins. While the basic description may not seem very appealing, both the physical slides and the coins they portrayed proved extremely interesting and quite important.

On the morning of January 7, I entered my office to find two rather large boxes on my desk. They each contained nine (9) double-row red boxes for storing coins in 2” × 2” holders—for a total of 18 boxes! After opening some, it was quickly apparent that the slides were not commercially manufactured. They were produced in the late 1940s by William Guild, of West Newton, Massachusetts, a real estate agent and relatively-unknown coin collector.

Figure 1: Three slides made by William Guild ca. 1947.

The slides are made of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), also known as lucite or by its trademarked name of Plexiglas (fig. 1). They are 2” × 2” with a thickness of roughly one-eighth of an inch. They are all completely transparent, except the depiction of the coin. After Guild pressed a coin into the heated lucite, the exact details transposed over in a translucent white, very similar in appearance to a soft cameo. The slides were made by pressing real coins into hot plastic for an exact replication of the design. Since the plastic was clear, a positive image was visible by simply looking through the other side, despite the fact that the initial impression technically created a negative. Most of the coins were from the United States, though included some foreign and ancient coins as well. The most-heavily represented of any single type, however, were of United States pattern coins—a specialty of Guild.

Figure 2: Cover of United States Pattern Coins, Experimental, and Trial Pieces. While credited to Judd, the work was largely written by Guild and Breen.

Guild was apparently an early mentor and collaborator of Walter Breen. It is believed that Guild and Breen co-authored United States Pattern Coins, Experimental, and Trial Pieces, despite the fact that the name of J. Hewitt Judd, M.D. graced the cover (fig. 2). Judd, it is now thought, was more of a financier for the project rather than a contributor of information. As such, the Guild collection of patterns (forever memorialized in these slides) played an important role in the completion of the project.

In addition to the slides of coins, the donation came with some supporting materials. These included a few pieces of correspondence between Guild and some local clubs, such as the Thursday Club of Brookline, which used some of Guild’s slides for presentation purposes in 1949. Perhaps the best piece of supporting material is Guild’s personal copy of The Coin Recorder—essentially a checklist. This contained many details into both Guild’s personal coin collection, as well as the production of the lucite slides.

Excitedly, I began to dive further into the production of these slides—both historically and physically. With minor research into the ANS archives, it became quickly apparent that Guild had a history with the Society, with most of his communications having occurred in 1947 and 1948—just when it was thought he produced the slides. To my surprise, I found that one of the very first individuals that Guild shared his slides with was none other than ANS Curator, Sydney P. Noe (1885–1969), who not only offered advice on how to perfect the slides, but also loaned coins from the ANS collection to Guild for this purpose!

As I unpacked more and more from the archives, it became clear that a much larger study is needed about William Guild, his plastic slides, and the role that the ANS played in their creation. Until then, please review the following list provided by Vicken, which breaks down the collection into major categories. If you have any interest in knowing what specific coins are represented in any of the groups, please do reach out to curatorial@numismatics.org. And do keep an eye out for any future publications on this fascinating collection. Thank you, again, Vicken!

The William Guild Archive of 2″ x 2″ Plastic Slides of US, World, Ancient Coins, etc. Donated to the American Numismatic Society by Vicken Yegparian, 12/30/2020

CategoryApproximate Quantity of Slides
Colonials157
Washington coins/medals/tokens53
Medals and tokens92
Half Cents105
Large Cents49
Small Cents69
Two Cents10
Three Cents (Nickel and Silver)12
Nickels71
Half Dimes43
Dimes68
Twenty Cents12
Quarters96
Half Dollars172
Silver Dollars92
Trade Dollars16
Gold Dollars18
Quarter Eagles32
Three Dollars22
Half Eagles40
Eagles40
Double Eagles32
Commemorative Gold Coins28
California Small Gold and Related44
Territorial Gold6
San Francisco Mint Silver Bar1
Confederate Coinage10
Hawaiian Coinage2
Commemorative Silver Coins138
Patterns672
Private Patterns and World Patterns38
Sing Sing Prison Tokens20
World Coins302
Ancient Coins73
Private photos and photos of numismatic literature163
Natural History19

Total:                                 2817

“The Right of Trial by Jury Shall be Preserved” . . . Thanks to Numismatics

While few people truly hope to find themselves before a court of law, most should be happy that a jury is present when on trial (fig. 1). In the midst of such tense scenarios, few individuals stop to think (let alone care) about the historical processes that led to that development. However, even fewer recognize that a specific numismatic incident helped secure this right to American citizens.

Figure 1: A trial by jury

In May of 1786, the General Assembly of Rhode Island authorized the printing of £100,000 in legal tender bills of credit (fig. 2). On its own, this was no strange occurrence. By this time, all the other newly-formed states of the Union had also issued paper currency, which was their legal right under the Articles of Confederation. Not unlike the paper currency of several other states, these notes were made a legal tender that “shall be received in all Payments” in the state. However, in August, the General Assembly further amended the legal tender status of the bills to be enforced by courts summarily without a jury trial or appeal.

Figure 2: A £3 note of Rhode Island, May 1786. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

By this time, 170,000 notes in 12 different denominations were released into circulation (6d, 9d, 1s, 2s6d, 3s, 5s, 6s, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and 3 pounds). Unlike present-day money, colonial and pre-federal currency was issued in payment for specific objectives, such as the compensation of troops for a particular war or the construction of a specific building or utility. The May 1786 Rhode Island notes were issued to amortize a group of 4% 7-year loans on realty and known as the Tenth Bank.

Quickly, the legal tender status of the notes and, particularly, the juryless trial that ensued if a note was refused became a hot topic in the state. By September of that year, the case of Trevett v. Weeden had worked its way up the Rhode Island Supreme Court and heard by Justice David Howell. Everyone saw the inconsistency in the law, especially since the Constitution of Rhode Island had already guaranteed a trial by jury. The senior counsel for the defense, General James M. Varnum (fig. 3), successfully made the case that the colonial constitution of Rhode Island, despite being nullified by the American Revolution and held no legal footing, “continued in vigor as a part of the unwritten constitution of the new State.” The Court agreed and, in turn, gave them the power to decide on the constitutionality of any piece of legislation presented to them.  On September 26, the May 1786 Currency Act has the distinction of being the first law in the United States to be declared unconstitutional and voided.

Figure 3: James M. Varnum, senior counsel for the defense of Trevett v. Weeden (1786).

By December of 1786, the illegal features of the original act were amended, though the notes still remained a tender. In September 1789, their legal tender status was officially repealed, as the bills had depreciated down to only 10% of their stated values. Between 1793 and 1803, more than 96% of the original notes were burned by the State. Today, the legal right of trial by jury is protected by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, which was adopted as one of the Bills of Rights on March 1, 1792. For this, we have the Rhode Island currency of May 1786 to thank.

John Gibbs: Stagecoach Operator Turned Token Innovator, Turned Counterfeiter

Opportunity often leads to innovation. Sometimes the events that contribute to an evolution of this nature are well-known and documented, while other times they are lost to history and only able to be speculated by present-day researchers. This is the case with the career of John Gibbs. In the course of the 1830s, his profession took a radical turn. While the exact details are currently unknown, the numismatic evidence of how his occupational path evolved creates a compelling story.

John Gibbs was born in Birmingham, England in 1809 and came to the United States as a young man with his father, William, having settled in Belleville, New Jersey. He proved to be very skillful and competent at a young age, and by 22 years old he owned and operated a stagecoach line that ran from Belleville to Newark (3 miles), and to New York City (8 miles). While little is known about the coach itself, Gibbs had a token struck for passengers to use. After purchasing a token, a passenger could simply exchange the piece for fare, and allowed Gibbs and other operators to not waste time waiting for customers to find the correct amount due or to have to provide change to customers. In 1831, this truly was an innovation and considered the first transportation token struck in the United States. On the obverse, the token reads “USM \ STAGE \ I. GIBBS | BELLEVILLE & NEW YORK,” while the reverse inscription states that the token was “GOOD FOR ONE RIDE \ TO \ THE \ BEARER” (fig. 1).

Figure 1. United States, transportation token of John Gibbs, ca. 1831. ANS 0000.999.2281.

It was also around this time that Gibbs and Joseph Gardner leased a building on the property of Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—a brass-rolling firm—under the name Gibbs, Gardner & Co. From their landlords, Gibbs and Gardner procured brass sheet stock to manufacture buttons. Like other button-manufactories (most notably those in Birmingham, England), their skills came in handy to produce base-metal coinages during times of coin shortages. As a result, Gibbs, Gardner & Co produced some of the earliest Hard Times tokens in the mid-to-late 1830s for a plethora of private firms. He even made one for himself that states “J. GIBBS MANUFACTURER \ OF \ MEDALS \ AND \ TOKEN \ &c. | BELLEVILLE \ NJ.” The reverse displays a brigantine with the inscription “AGRICULTURE AND COMMERCE” (fig. 2).

Figure 2. United States, store card token of John Gibbs, ca. 1833. ANS 0000.999.30590.

Soon, his business began to thrive. Locals began to call the establishment “The Belleville Mint,” and other orders came in, most notably from individuals in the Montreal, Quebec area beginning in 1836. These were in the form of the “bouquet sou” tokens of Lower Canada. The Belleville Mint was not the first to strike these pieces, as a mint in New York State struck 500,000 pieces for the Bank of Montreal the previous year. These tokens proved popular in fulfilling the need for small change, and other individuals began to speculate on the them. In 1836, exchange broker, Dexter Chapin, commissioned the Belleville Mint to strike bouquet sou tokens and imported them into Lower Canada. While the quantity is not currently known, the Belleville Mint used at least 13 sets of dies, so it was, by no means, a trifling amount. These are, essentially, imitations of the pieces commissioned by the Bank of Montreal. Ultimately, others in Birmingham, England and Montreal also created dies and struck coins for this issue (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Lower Canada, copper sou, ca. 1835. ANS 1949.65.17.

The Belleville Mint also struck a token for William Gibbs, the father of John. The obverse features a bull facing right with the inscription “A FRIEND TO THE CONSTITUTION.” The reverse, however, closely resembles that of a bouquet sou token, though with a legend that reads, “W. GIBBS. AGRICULTUREIST | N. YORK” (fig. 4). This was, perhaps, the earliest inclination that the Belleville Mint was involved with striking the pieces for Lower Canada.

Figure 4. United States, copper token of William Gibbs, ca. 1835.
Image Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

While the bouquet sou tokens that the Belleville Mint struck can be considered imitations and not counterfeits—since they were accepted by the public as one in the same series as the originals, were (for the most part) were of similar weight to the originals, and the originals were not authorized by a legal entity—true counterfeiting efforts was not above the Belleville Mint. As early as 1835, large amounts of counterfeit coins flowed from the presses of this establishment. In June of that year, the operation was raided, the equipment seized, and Joseph Gardner, his wife, and an individual named John Campbell were arrested. The police discovered dies for Spanish and Mexican dollars, 1831 French five-franc coins, and a bag of counterfeit Haitian coins. In August of 1835, another haul of counterfeit coinage from the Belleville Mint was discovered by officials, when the schooner Charles Denison, sailed by Captain Cox arrived in New York City with 380 boxes, each containing 1,200 counterfeit dollars of Brazil (a total of $456,000), albeit struck completely in copper. At the time, however, United States law did not criminalize the counterfeiting of foreign copper coinage (only gold and silver), and the ship and its cargo were set free. The coins were then transported to South America where they were silver plated and released into circulation in Brazil.

The Belleville Mint also purportedly struck copper coins for Liberia, Brazil, and Haiti (fig. 5). However, some sources note that Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—from whom Gibbs and Gardner purchased their metal—struck these coins. It is also possible that “the Belleville Mint” consisted of both Stevens, Thomas & Fuller and Gibbs, Gardner and Co.—the two companies simply merged as one in the mind of the public. Furthermore, the legality of these pieces is also in question. Were they officially commissioned from the local entities of these places (like the Hard Times tokens), or outright counterfeits? More research is needed to fully answer these questions.

Figure 5. Liberia, copper cent, 1833. ANS 1940.160.1599.

Later in life, Gibbs changed professions once again. By the early 1840s, the need for and popularity of Hard Times tokens subsided and orders stopped coming in. For Gibbs, perhaps this also led to the demise of his “front.” Without producing tokens for local merchants, how could he continue to cover up his clandestine operation of producing counterfeit coinage? By 1846, he left Belleville for New York City and set up shop on Forsyth Street. By 1856, he was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where he manufactured shade fixtures, buckles, lamp-burners, and other goods. Unfortunately, Gibbs did not leave behind any known written sources to help tell his story, and only the basics of his life are known through official documents, but the numismatic evidence that he produced allows for pieces of one man’s life, the history of metallic production in New Jersey, and the interconnectedness of this area to other, far-off places of the world in the 19th century to be better understood by present-day researchers.

The Free Silver Campaign of 1896 and its Influence on African-American Voters

In the latest issue of the ANS Magazine, Helena Kagan wrote an admirable article that articulated the nuances of the Free Silver campaign led by Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, during the Presidential race of 1896. Republicans, with William McKinley as their candidate, were in favor of keeping the gold standard as the sole basis for our nation’s currency. This group of monometallists was dubbed the “St. Louis platform.” Democrats on the other hand were for the free coinage of silver, allowing silver and gold to circulate together at a rate of 16:1—polymetallists known as the “Chicago platform.” Notably, as Kagan concludes, Bryan and the Free Silver campaign was not a mere blip in United States politics that was gone by the next election cycle, but one that had initiated a shift of progressive ideals towards the Democratic Party that culminated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt—who often receives credit for this turn. In fact, Kagan notes that much of the New Deal had incorporated much of the Democratic platform of 1896 and the basic motives for Bryan are now fully implemented into the national monetary system. While the United States uses neither gold nor silver coinage, the fiat currency now in circulation largely encapsulates the spirit of the Free Silver campaign.

In the 1890s, there was, perhaps, no other group of people where this shift was more apparent than with African-American voters. Despite being largely disenfranchised and driven from the political process in much of the United States, various African-American leaders voiced their opinion on the topic of the currency standards of the United States. A number of these leaders backed the Democrats on the free coinage of silver, even going as far as throwing their entire support behind the Democratic Party and against the Party of Lincoln, supporting the same Democrats who were the most active in keeping African-Americans voters from participating in the political processes. In May of 1895, for instance, the Daily Public Ledger commented that “the Democratic Party is always for something free. It has advocated free whisky and Free-trade, and of course it must next declare for free silver. The only thing which the Democrats did not want free was the Negro.”[1]

In his Advice to the Colored Voters of the United States (1896), John Duker, African-American author and proprietor argued two main reasons of why the usage of silver alongside gold would be beneficial to the economy, and why this would not reduce the national currency to “commercial demoralization,” as many monometallists had predicted. The first is that the usage of silver “will give this country the full benefit of its product of the white metal, which is more than one half of the output of the world.”[2] Under the gold standard, the Treasury Department clearly did not use silver to maximum capabilities. The millions of ounces of silver that the federal government was required to purchase—as stipulated in the Bland-Allison Act of 1878—were coined into silver dollars and placed into Treasury vaults, where they remained until the 1950s and 1960s, only to be melted or sold for face value. Duker also stated that the usage of silver would also “increase the circulation medium, or foster business enterprises and increase wages.”[3] With a bimetallic system, more money could circulate, which would result in more business, better wages, and an overall more efficient economy.

Figure 1. George E. Taylor, African-American journalist and politician, helped sway the decisions of voters towards the Free Silver campaign.

George Edwin Taylor (1857–1925), African-American journalist and politician, took the same stance, but related the issue to class struggles (fig. 1). In Why We Should Favor the Chicago Platform, Taylor stated “that the laboring classes enjoy some of the society of silver money, is a truth, and that the gold barons have cunningly garnered away the gold in such a manner as to actually hold the government upon her knees.” While asking rhetorical questions, Taylor used many words that his target audience could relate to. He asks, “Can you, my fellow Negro, reason out any objections that you should make to the remonetization, or the liberation of silver? Can you answer to your own satisfaction, ‘Why should gold be king and silver slave?’ Are you afraid that silver will drive from your pocket book the gold that you now possess?”[4] By using such words as “liberation” and “slave,” Taylor relates the struggle of silver to that of African-American identity. In 1904, Taylor became the first African-American to official run for President of the United States, under the National Negro Liberty Party.

This shift of support from Republican issues to those of the Democratic Party may not have roused the entire African-American community, but it was also not isolated to these two men. Several African-American organizations were created to attract others to this cause. On October 6, 1896, The Morning Times from Washington, D.C. stated that “a number of colored free silver Democrats met at the Interstate Democratic headquarters last evening. An organization was effected to be known as the Negro Free Silver League.” Not surprisingly, the elected vice chairman of the organization was none other than John Duker.[5] In addition to national Free Silver organizations for African-Americans, there were also more localized efforts. For instance, by late August of 1896, Topeka, Kansas had three distinct organizations for the cause. J. R. Lyttle, organizer of the Free Silver Negro League of Topeka, noted that “this fight is not so much a party fight, as it is one for Americanism.” The first meeting, held at 615 North Kansas Avenue, comprised of only eighteen members, who elected Alfred Kuykendall as President, B. Elder as Vice President, and P. Gibson as Secretary (fig. 2).[6]

Figure 2. Alfred Kuykendall was elected President of the Free Silver Negro League of Topeka in 1896—one of many local organizations that championed the cause.

Amongst white Americans, there was some pushback in the political shift by African-Americans. For instance, the Staunton Spectator reported that “Gold bug Democrats have found a new excuse for quitting the party. The last one is because the negroes are going for free silver.”[7] Other accounts focused on racist stereotypes of African-Americans to demean their political actions and ideologies. The Evening Times of Washington, D.C., for example, reported that when M. Hoke Smith—at the time, the United States Secretary of the Interior—was in Georgia, he asked an African-American voter whether or not he was for Free Silver, the man “scratched his woolly head and said: ‘Wal, Mars’ Smif, I did favor free silber, suah’s you’s b’n, leetle while ago. But since you’s been in de State, Mars’ Smif, de ‘taters am a-growin’ and de ‘possum getting’ plenty. An’ I tell you what ‘tis, Mars’ Smif, gib dis here niggah plenty ‘possum and ‘taters, and’ yum, yum! Get up, chile an’ sing halluyah! I doan’ want no free silber. ‘Possum an’ ‘taters an’ free gol am good nuff fer me.’”[8]

The Free Silver campaign resulted in hundreds of different of types of tokens and medals struck for the cause—many others against. Several of these were highlighted in Kagan’s ANS Magazine article. Perhaps one of the most glaring difference between Free Silver organizations led by white Americans and those founded by African-American is the lack of numismatic material. Despite the hundreds of tokens and medals, none were issued by any of the latter groups. The Free Silver campaign ended up failing. Although Bryan lost the election, it laid the groundwork for future shifts in the US political system. At the time, the issue aroused enough people to actually initiate a shift in African-American support towards the Democratic Party—something that was unheard of before the New Deal of the 1930s.


[1] Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, KY), May 14, 1895: 2.

[2] Duker, 11.

[3] Duker, 11.

[4] Taylor, 7–8.

[5] The Morning Times, October 6, 1896.

[6] “Another Free Silver Club: J. R. Lyttle Organizes a Third Colored Club of 18 Members,” The Topeka State Journal, August 26, 1896: 1.

[7] Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA), July 15, 1896: 2.

[8] “Sent from Washington,” The Evening Times (Washington, D.C.), August 16, 1895: 4.

Death of a Counterfeiter: A Reminder That All Aspects of Numismatics Are Subject to Fraud

Figure 1. Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio.
Figure 1. Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio.

Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio passed away in early July at the age of 78 (fig. 1). With a nickname like “The Coin,” one would think that most numismatists would have heard of him, though that’s likely not the case. As it turns out, Colavecchio might be considered one of the worst nightmares for a numismatist. He was a counterfeiter, and a good one too—the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest counterfeiter.” He had been released from Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina just weeks before he passed away in hospice care, suffering from a variety of medical conditions including dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension. Though sentenced to 15 months in prison for producing counterfeit $100 bills in August 2019, he had only served eight of those months. United States District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. agreed to free him on the time he had served in May, as a last gesture of compassion before his impending death.

This time, he was easy to prosecute. He had been bragging to an informant that he could effortlessly counterfeit $100 bills and was capable of besting even the latest security features. In December 2018, the Secret Service raided his home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and found presses able to produce counterfeit bills that accurately simulated the real deal (including their distinct reaction to ultraviolet light), as well as 2,400 counterfeit $100 bills. Having the damning conversations on recording, he had no choice but to plead guilty. But, this wasn’t the first time he was ever caught.

He earned the nickname “The Coin” from his ability to counterfeit nearly perfect slot-machine tokens for almost every casino in the country. Laboratories couldn’t even find any differences. His most notable arrest came in 1996 when he and his girlfriend were caught in Caesars Atlantic City with 800 pounds of fake tokens (fig. 2.).

Figure 2. Colavecchio and a set of counterfeit dies that he produced for $100 tokens for the Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.
Figure 2. Colavecchio and a set of counterfeit dies that he produced for $100 tokens for the Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.

It was the largest counterfeiting operation that had ever targeted an Atlantic City casino. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Meanwhile, he acted as a consultant for the federal government, having received $18,000 for explaining why his dies long outlasted those manufactured by the United States Mint. He was eventually banned from every casino in the country, but continued to gamble by wearing wigs and dressing as a woman. Authorities considered him an “old-time mobster.” Most of his exploits can be found in his 2015 autobiography, You Thought It Was More: Adventures of the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.

Figure 3. Note the different sized dots that surround the inscription “FOR USE BY PLAYER ONLY” on this genuine $1 gaming token from the Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.11.

While most numismatists identify counterfeiting with coins or paper currency, tokens and anything that had exchange value ran the risk of fraud. Unlike coins, casino tokens contain several types of anti-counterfeiting measures. These include dots that are of different sizes to separate words (fig. 3), a combination of dots and squares (fig. 4), letters that are intentionally filled in (fig. 5), or a set of tied reedings on the edges of tokens (fig. 6).

Figure 4. Note the large round dot and smaller square that surround the inscription “NOT LEGAL TENDER” on the reverse of this genuine $1 gaming token from Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.10.
Figure 4. Note the large round dot and smaller square that surround the inscription “NOT LEGAL TENDER” on the reverse of this genuine $1 gaming token from Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.10.

Figure 5. Note the filled in “O” in the inscription “TEN CENT GAMING TOKEN” on this genuine ten-cent gaming token from Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Courtesy Numista.com.
Figure 5. Note the filled in “O” in the inscription “TEN CENT GAMING TOKEN” on this genuine ten-cent gaming token from Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Courtesy Numista.com.

Figure 6. Note the set of reeding tied together to form one large reeding from the edge of this genuine $1 gaming token from The Claridge Hotel and Casino. Author’s collection.
Figure 6. Note the set of reeding tied together to form one large reeding from the edge of this genuine $1 gaming token from The Claridge Hotel and Casino. Author’s collection.

These would be known to casino employees, but not necessarily publicized in order to thwart counterfeiters. Today, the casinos no longer use metallic tokens, and most slot machines have replaced the use of tokens with printed vouchers that record the winnings which the player can redeem at the pay-out window.

As for Colavecchio, while those he cheated may not mourn his death, those who knew him are full of captivating stories—such as Andy Thibault, who befriended Colavecchio while working with him on his book and said, “I got to appreciate the good points. He was a lot of fun to be with.” A disarming, charming individual—and self-proclaimed “ladies’ man”—Rhode Island State Police Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell has said that “if he used the amount of ingenuity and knowledge he had for good, he could have been a millionaire and changed people’s lives.”