The Brasher Doubloon is one of the most enigmatic coins in American numismatic history. We know when it was minted, who minted it, and approximately how many pieces were minted. But why was the coin minted? What were the intentions of its creator, Ephraim Brasher? Did he seek to render a public service, providing a new gold coin based on an old model: the onza, or doubloon of Spanish America?
Ephraim Brasher was a prominent New York City gold and silversmith who was often asked to weigh and verify the authenticity of foreign gold coins for customers. Several examples of foreign gold have been discovered counter-stamped with the initials EB in an oval. Apparently his stamp on a coin was taken as proof the item was of the proper weight and fineness. Brasher’s address in 1789-1790 was listed as number five Cherry Street in New York City, which was next door to George Washington’s residence. It has been reported that in Washington’s now lost household accounts there was an entry under April 17, 1790 stating Washington purchased four silver skewers from Brasher for £8 8s6d in New York currency. In November of 1792 with the assistance of David Ott he assayed several varieties if gold coins for the new federal government, thereafter we know Brasher assisted assaying gold for the U.S. Mint.
In 1787 Brasher appears to have joined with the New York silversmith and noted swordmaker, John Bailey in requesting a franchise to produce copper coins for the State of New York. The legislative record for February 12, 1787 stated, “the several petitions” of Brasher and Bailey were filed with the state. Because of the ambiguous wording it is not know if the petitions were joint ventures or simply individual petitions that just happened to have been submitted on the same day. Their petitions, along with the petition of their competitors, were denied a few months later when state decided to refrain from the minting of coppers. Soon after the unfavorable judgment Ephraim Brasher turned his attention from coppers back to designing and minting a few pattern gold doubloons. Apparently he had been working on a Lima style gold piece the preceding year.
The obverse of the gold doubloon displayed the state seal, depicting the sun rising over a mountain with the sea in the foreground surrounded with the legends: “NOVA EBORACA,” “COLUMBIA” and the state motto “EXCELSIOR” (Higher). Brasher also signed the coins by added his name below the scene. The obverse displayed the US eagle with shield and the unusually worded national motto “UNUM E PLURIBUS” (One from many) as well as the date 1787. After making the coins Brasher counterstamped his initials on the reverse, six examples survive with the stamp on the wing and one survives with the stamp on the shield. The example long held by Yale University was offered at auction but went unsold (with an $800,000 reserve) during a January 1998 Stack’s auction.
The first documentation of the doubloons was when a deposit of foreign gold pieces was made to the Philadelphia Mint in 1838. The depositor simply wished to have his metal restruck into federal coins or ingots, and it was the sharp eye of Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt that spotted the significance of the unknown gold piece. For some years, Eckfeldt had taken it upon himself to set aside interesting coins which came into the Mint for re-coining, paying for them from his own pocket. To this assemblage he added proof coins of the current year’s federal coinage, and these items formed the nucleus of the U. S. Mint’s own coin collection, since relocated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
The first mention of the Mint Collection’s Brasher Doubloon appeared in 1846, when the Mint’s unofficial historian and numismatist, W. E. DuBois, described it as “a very remarkable gold coin, equal in value to a doubloon, coined at New York in 1787.” When published in 1858, J. H. Hickcox’s seminal book An Historical Account of American Coinage included a written description of this coin’s distinctive design. An even more influential and widely disseminated work was Professor Montroville W. Dickeson’s The American Numismatic Manual, and it too made reference to this curious rarity, tentatively labeling it a pattern. This coin was finally illustrated in Sylvester S. Crosby’s classic The Early Coins of America, which remains today the primary source of information about colonial and confederation coinage.
Collectors eagerly anticipated their first opportunity to bid on a Brasher doubloon in 1873, when one was cataloged by W. H. Strobridge as part of the George F. Seavey Collection. Unfortunately for collectors, the Seavey Collection was purchased all together by Boston bean tycoon Lorin G. Parmelee, and the public sale never occurred.
Only four examples were then known, of which one was unique from the others with Brasher’s EB hallmark stamped into the eagle’s breast. Its existence within the enormous collection of Charles Bushnell was revealed to the numismatic fraternity in 1864. This coin was the first of the Brasher’s to be sold to the public; the year was 1882, and the prize of securing the Bushnell Collection for auction had gone to the young upstart partnership of Philadelphia brothers Henry and Samuel Chapman. The unique Bushnell coin sold for the then very impressive sum of $505. Its purchaser was the prominent New York dealer Edouard Frossard, who quickly placed the doubloon with one of the greatest collectors of that or any time, T. Harrison Garrett of Baltimore.
Garrett’s enjoyment of his treasure was brief, however, as he perished in a boating accident on Chesapeake Bay in 1888. His collection of coins remained at his family’s home, Evergreen House, and it passed to his son Robert. More than 30 years later, Robert, who had added only a few recent pieces to the collection, traded his coins to brother John Work Garrett in exchange for artworks, which were more to his liking. John Work, on the other hand, possessed a deep passion for numismatics, and he filled countless gaps in the family coin collection, making it one of the greatest ever assembled.
Following the death of John Work Garrett in 1942 and that of his wife some years later, the immense Garrett Collection of coins was willed to the Johns Hopkins University, along with Evergreen House in which to store the coins, books and other valuables it contained. As the years passed, the growing value of the coin collection made it an insurance liability, and it was removed from public display during the 1970s. In 1976, a portion was sold at auction, while the core of the collection remained inside a vault. Shortly thereafter, the University determined that having a valuable coin collection did not contribute to its primary mission, and the decision was made to sell the remaining items.
A monumental, four-part sale was staged at the height of the coin market in 1979-81, and Sale 1 witnessed the offering of the finest known example of the “EB on wing” variety. Sale 4 was even more memorable, for it provided what was only the second opportunity since 1787 for collectors to bid on the unique “EB on breast” variety of the Brasher doubloon.
There are seven Brasher Doubloon’s known to be gracing numismatic collections across the nation. With it’s widely unknown history, it is the rarity and beauty of the coin that makes it so desirable to collect.