How An Unsolved Theft Created An Iconic Coin


The dollar and its predecessors (like the peso) have been a staple of trade and economics for years. Dollar coins go in and out of favor as consumer preferences change; sometimes it’s more convenient to carry bills than coins, and other times, coins are preferred.


s-l1600-5When the Canadian government decided to reissue their dollar coin in 1987, it seemed like a simple decision. Coins were in increasing demand, and the old dollar coin had been popular, at least at first (a later nickel version of the coin had proved less popular, leading to its demise.) In fact, they initially intended to use the same design. Known as the “voyageur dollar,” this coin had a design of a voyageur (an unlicensed fur trader) and a native man in a canoe on the reverse.


What happened next is a source of some debate. The Royal Canadian Mint insists that the dies for the coins were simply lost in transit on the way from Ottawa to Winnipeg. The dies were last seen when they were handed over to a courier on November 3, 1986. The use of a courier service was, in itself, a “breach of accepted security procedures.”


Many people believe the dies were actually stolen, some going so far as to insist that the courier was a plant, and that the dies were intercepted by a counterfeiting ring. This explanation is given more plausibility given that the courier was never asked for identification. To add insult to injury, both the obverse and reverse dies were sent in the same shipment, instead of being sent separately. Anyone who had the shipment had access to the entire official design.


While we will probably never know who ended up with the dies, or where they are, the government decided to err on the side of caution. The quickly adopted a new design, rendering the missing dies useless for counterfeiting. This new design still featured Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse, but the reverse had been changed to a scene of a loon on a placid lake.



That’s right: the iconic “loonie” only exists because of a massive mistake and a counterfeiting ring.


When you begin to pursue coin collecting (numismatics), you may find a lot of terms and expressions that are new to you. One of the first you’re likely to see is “exonumia.” What is that?

Exonumia is a branch of numismatics that is worthy of its own study and pursuit; in short, exonumia refers to currency-like items that are not currency. These can include tokens, badges, pressed/elongated coins, medallions, wooden nickels, and more.

The word “exonumia” itself is as recent as 1960, when Token and Medal Society founding member Russell Rulau coined the term; Webster’s accepted it to their dictionary in 1965. Exactly what constitutes exonumia is often up for debate, as are the lines between exonumismatic branches (if a token bears an advertisement, is it a token or a promotional piece?)

The Token and Medal Society states that “Strictly defined, a token is any substitute for the money issued by governments. The most common form of token is a metal disc, similar to a coin, on which is inscribed the value and the issuer. In theory, tokens were redeemable only by the issuer, but some were accepted widely and often circulated just as coins. In practice, many other items, such as advertising pieces, are also called tokens as opposed to medals… A medal is an object made to commemorate some person or event. Medals have been made by governments, organizations, or individuals.”

While the items classified as exonumia are practically endless, there are a few major areas that will interest both serious collectors and those with a passing interest in historical curiosities.


Wooden money: 

Wood is rarely used as currency, since it has no intrinsic value, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. In the financial crisis of the 1930’s, factories shut down, banks closed their doors, and people held on to as much money as they could. The result? A drop in the amount of money circulating. Local bank closures meant disaster for business in rural or rugged areas, as a trip to a neighboring town was simply not feasible.


Blaine, Washington, found itself in this very predicament. Local businessman Albert Balch had been promoting slicewood, a pressed wood product made locally. (One thing Washington state has in abundance: trees!) He realized that this could also be used for printing emergency money, and the idea caught on. The Chamber of Commerce in nearby Tenino backed the money with non-interest bearing warrants, creating legitimate currency. Merchants could redeem these pieces for US currency or gold. The town of Blaine also adopted the idea, cutting pressed wood into circles to make wooden nickels. These “coins” featured an image of the Peace Arch Monument, and made Blaine nationally known.

After the Depression ended, wood was outlawed as currency, but wooden nickels remained popular as tokens for promotions, advertising, and souvenirs.

Pressed or elongated coins: 

Coin-pressing machines can be found at almost any national park or other attraction. For the cost of a dollar or two and a sacrificial penny, you can watch the machine press your coin into a long oval, printed with an image to remind you of your destination.

While many pennies get lost quickly, quite a few are the subject of serious collectors. Disney parks are known for their collectible penny designs, with aficionados scrambling to get every design available at every park.

1893_Columbia_Exposition_pennyThe oldest method of elongating coins is both dangerous and unreliable: just stick the penny on a railroad track and hope the passing train squashes it properly (note: this is DANGEROUS and should not be done, for the safety of all.) The first modern penny press machine debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. These coins proved immensely popular, and spread across the country as travelers brought them back from the fair. Some can still be found today.


Hobo Nickels

“Buffalo nickels” by Danthomas – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Buffalo Nickel that was in circulation from 1913 to 1938 sparked a surprising art form: the hobo nickel. The Buffalo Nickel was thicker than other coins, and the head on the obverse was larger, allowing for the creation of fine details.

During the 1930’s, thousands of unemployed men traveled to find what work they could; commonly referred to as “hobos,” these men took available work (usually manual labor), and created these coins as a means of artistic expression, as well as to trade for necessities. Since these men were on the road, without means of proper tools for metalworking, each altered coin could take up to 100 hours for a finished piece. The variety of artists, combined with the wide range of rough tools used, resulted in coins that are completely unique: no two hobo nickels look alike.

Encased Stamps

us-encased_postage-0-01Have you ever wondered how many stamps you have lying around your house, and how much value might be caught up in them? This proved to come in handy during a time of financial crisis!

In 1862, America faced an intense shortage of coins. The government eased the situation temporarily by declaring that postage stamps could be used to pay off debts to the government, providing the debt was less than $5. This proved to be more difficult than initially anticipated, due to the fragile nature of stamps. A businessman named John Gault came up with an ingenious solution: Gault created metal cases for the stamps to protect them from damage while they served as currency.

Gault’s encased stamps were only circulated for a about a year, until the government issued fractional currency. The use of stamps as currency also created a shortage of stamps! The encased stamp didn’t last long in its original usage, but they make excellent exonumismatic collector’s pieces. Very few are still in existence, as most cases were opened to remove the stamp as soon as the crisis had passed.

Read more! For more interesting stories of exonumia and collector’s items, see our blog series!

The Scandalous Story of the 1891 $1,000 Silver Certificate

This $1,000 dollar silver certificate may look like an ordinary bill, but the woman on the left has drama surrounding her the likes of which you wouldn’t expect.

In June 2013, one of two existing bills sold for $2.6 million, a record price. The only other bill of this type known to exist is in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian.

The woman on the left looks like your typical Lady Liberty, but there’s more story to this woman who was the model for this patriotic purpose. Her real name was Josie Mansfield.

Josie was born in either 1842 or 1853, depending on the source. She started making a living in her teens by becoming an actress and showgirl in San Francisco. To make ends meet, she became a courtesan for the wealthy men of San Francisco through her beauty and charming personality.

She married an actor named James Lawler and soon after their marriage they moved to New York.

In New York, Josie met James Fisk. A brutal businessman, Fisk did such business dealings as betraying businessmen for control of the Erie Railroad and manipulating stocks. He also bought a theater to set up shows with scantily-clad women, which certainly created a reputation for him.

Josie had divorced James Lawler fairly quickly and Fisk himself supplied her with a nice house. Reportedly, the house had a walkway directly to Fisk’s office; Fisk had a wife at the time who lived away from him in Boston, so the affair between he and Josie had to be kept secret.

Here’s where the real scandal comes in. Josie had a number of affairs with both men and women, but eventually she fell in love with Edward Stokes, a business partner of James Fisk. Using Fisk’s love letters to Josie, she and Stokes tried to blackmail him for money. However, Fisk’s rather big connections helped him out when he took the pair to court. His judge friends rejected every lawsuit Josie and Stokes filed.

On January 6th, 1872 at the Grand Central Hotel, the broke and furious Stokes shot Fisk twice in the stomach. Fisk died within a few hours. Stokes served four years in prison.

Josie Mansfield, most likely sick of the drama, moved to Paris after the murder and married American lawyer Robert Livingston Reade, who was put into an asylum for alcohol and chloral hydrate addiction six years later. Josie lived the rest of her life in comfort on Reade’s enormous fortune.

You’re probably wondering where the $1,000 note comes in to all this. The engraver Charles Kennedy Burt designed the Lady Liberty based on a photo of Josie, putting a crown of stars on her head as embellishment.

So Josie Mansfield, a member of this infamous love triangle, found herself forever on the $1,000 bill. Her history and the history of the people surrounding her have been immortalized on this rare collectible.

Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design

We use coins constantly, even if half of them disappear into the couch cushions. But think about it — who designed the images on these coins that we’re so familiar with?

Sometimes coins are designed with the artistic qualities in mind – and sometimes not.

In the early 20th century, the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar all had the same bust design. But soon there was an effort to make coins just as pretty as they were useful.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a private letter in 1904, “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” He suggested an artist instead of a government employee to redesign the coins to add a little pizzazz.

The designer and sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had already designed the World’s Columbian Exposition Commemorative Presentation medal. From Roosevelt’s request he designed the $20 double Eagle and the $10 Indian Head gold coins. Many numismatists consider these some of the most beautiful coins produced by the U.S. Mint.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

The process for U.S. coins starts with an outline by Congress of what the coins should look like, as well as the metal they’ll be struck from. The Mint then asks its artists to create the described designs.

Some methods of designing look quite impressive to an outside observer.

The sculpted design, or galvano, for the Kennedy half dollar was over two feet in diameter!

In fact, much of coin designing involves a method of sculpting. Once a design is sketched out, it’s then transferred to a large scale model sculpted in layers of plaster or epoxy. The U.S. Mint in Philadelphia uses both clay and high-tech computers; designers often start out in clay then make small changes on their computers.

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden's eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden’s eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

Once the artist’s renderings have been sent in, they are reviewed for factors such as historical accuracy. A final design is chosen and tweaked by the artist. Although the Mint has been known to change the design immediately before putting it to production without the artist’s permission, usually everything goes smoothly. A new, shiny coin has been produced to add to the collection of coins under couch cushions.

Next time you rifle through your change, take a moment to appreciate the work a designer has gone through to make those coins pleasing to the eye.


A Visit to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia

Basic Steps of Coin Design

A Useful Summary of Coin Design History

“The Devil’s Hair” Canadian Banknote Controversy

Official currency printed by the government can be prone to mistakes – or, in the case of the 1954 ‘Devil’s Hair’ Canadian bank note, prone to accidental hidden images.

In 1952 the Bank of Canada asked George Gundersen from the British American Bank Note Company to design a bill featuring Queen Elizabeth II. Gundersen based his design on a photographic portrait of the Queen, only changing it slightly to remove her crown and add detail to the top of her hair.

Straightforward enough, right? But the illustration turned out a little different than expected.

All seemed fine until the government put the bill in circulation, when someone complained to the Bank of Canada that they could see the devil’s face in the Queen’s hair. Soon multiple complaints poured in.

Seeing patterns, especially faces, in random data is an almost universal human trait called ‘apophenia’.

They saw the image just over the Queen’s left ear: a grinning demon with horns embedded in the Queen’s hair, the threatening shape formed by the coiffed curls and highlights of her hair. Was this some kind of conspiracy?

The image in question, showing a grinning face with horns.

The image in question, showing a grinning face with horns.

Of course this alarmed the bank, and in 1956 they modified the design to NOT show a devilish grinning face, by darkening the highlights of the hair.

Though some looked for an explanation of the occurence, most attributed it to coincidence. Some suspected the bill designer of planting the face, but he denied any claims.

Years later, some claimed Her Majesty’s portrait photographer, Peter-Dirk Uys, (who took the offending ‘devil’s hair’ portrait) as a follower of Aleister Crowley, an acclaimed devil-worshipper. However, there is no concrete evidence to that claim, and so any conspiracies to that point cannot be proven.

The light probably just so happened to fall on the Queen’s hair in such a way in the original photo, which Gundersen engraved in exact detail for the note.

Now, thanks to a few citizens’ observant eyes and the resulting short issue period of the bill, the “Devil’s Face” banknote is a valued collector’s item. After all, it’s not every day that you find a demon grinning at you from royalty’s hair.


With a closer detail outlining the face

A more detailed account


How a Shipwreck Changed History: Part I

In 1784, a Spanish warship called El Cazador sank to the bottom of the ocean…

…And caused the United States to double in size, forever changing history.

It all concludes with coins at the bottom of the ocean, but let’s start at the beginning.

The Territory

In the 1700s, Spain won the battle over control of North American territories by gaining the biggest plot of land: almost a million square miles in North America, the Louisiana Territory.

It was a big prize, but the port of New Orlean’s economy started to fail in the 1760s and ’70s and paper currency began to lose its value.
It didn’t help that scheming New Orleans revolutionaries created counterfeit bills that were useless to the Spanish Crown.

A Spanish four dollar bill for "The United Colonies", issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

A Spanish four dollar bill for “The United Colonies”, issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

Spain had to come up with a plan to appease the colonists in Louisiana, especially those near the vital shipping port of New Orleans. Carolus III, Bourbon King of Spain, made a key decision to exchange paper bills for silver coins, which would provide actual value to their currency.

Carolus III would send the coins to the New World, supplying New Orleans with a solution for the troubled economy.

El Cazador means “The Hunter” in Spanish.

The Plan in Action

The ship El Cazador was sent off from Spain, destination Vera Cruz, Mexico. After stocking up on more than 400,000 Spanish Silver Reales in Mexico in January 1784, the ship left for the New Orleans port.

Who knows what happened next: maybe a strong storm or pirates took over, but either way El Cazador never reached the shore of the New World, instead finding itself at the bottom of the ocean.

The ship was declared missing in June of the next year.

The loss was devastating to Spain and Louisiana’s economy, and though Spain dispatched more coins, the Spanish Crown began to wonder at the value of the Louisiana territory. They were never able to stabilize its economy.

The Territory Changes Hands

In 1800, the king of Spain finally agreed to give up Louisiana to France. But France was also having economic trouble, and soon afterward, Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.

The shipwreck of El Cazador led the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty that doubled the size of the U.S. and changed the fate of the world forever.

There’s a Part II to this story, centuries later in 1993, when a vessel named “Mistake” found itself in the same waters as the shipwrecked El Cazador.

But that’s another tale to tell: don’t forget to check back for the story next week!


How Stuff Works

El Cazador

Hats off to you, Wikipedia

Top 5 Most Expensive Coins in the World

These top five coins are the most expensive coins out there.

Currency is a funny thing — sometimes, thanks to government mishaps or indecision or even rogue goldsmiths, currency turns out to be worth much more than its original value.

Here we present to you the five most valuable coins (as determined by public auctions) in the world.

FlowingHairObverse1. The Flowing Hair dollar
The Flowing Hair dollar was the first coin to be issued by the U.S. Federal government. At the time, the Spanish dollar was a popular piece used for trade in the Americas, and so the U.S. based the Flowing Hair dollar’s size and weight on the Spanish dollar. In 1795, five years after the Flowing Hair dollar had been started in production, the “Draped Bust” dollar replaced it.

Where’s the money?: In 2013 a 1794 coin sold for 10 million dollars.

Double Eagle Obverse2. 1933 Double Eagle
The 1933 double eagle is a 20-dollar coin, with the second-highest price paid at auction for one U.S. Coin. A 1933 act in the U.S. called for people to trade in their gold coins for other currency, as gold coins were declared to no longer be legal tender. Most of these 1933 Double Eagle coins were melted down in the same year.

Where’s the money?: A 1933 Double Eagle sold in 2002 for 7.5 million.

brasher doubloon3. The 1787 Brasher Doubloon EG on Breast
In 1787, a goldsmith and silversmith named Ephraim Brasher petitioned New York State to mint copper coins. New York did not want to get into minting copper coinage, but Brasher himself had the skills to strike his own copper coins. He made his own copper and gold coins over the next few years.

Where’s the money?: A 1787 Brasher Doubloon sold for 7.4 million.

doubleleopard4. Edward III Gold Florin
In the 1340s, the English Parliament petitioned Edward III for the creation of gold coins for international trade. The new coins were florins of fine gold, worth six shillings, with designs of French influence.
The coin’s face value was higher than the value of its gold weight, and the six shillings value was not a good fit for England’s currency system. Soon the gold florin was replaced by the noble, worth a third of a pound and half of a mark – a much more useful ratio. Only three coins of this type have been known to survive the centuries, making them extremely valuable.

Where’s the money?: A 1343 Gold Florin sold for 6.8 million.


5. 1804 Class I Silver Dollar
The 1804 Silver Dollar (also known as the Bowed Liberty Dollar) had limited production in the 1830s and 1860s, long after its face date. It was not uncommon at the time to mint coins from older dates. Only fifteen genuine 1804 Silver Dollars exist.
There are many replicas and counterfeits of this coin, some made to trick collectors, some made as cheap substitutes.
According to legend, King Rama IV of Siam gave a 1804 silver dollar (produced in 1834) to Anna Leonowens as seen in the film The King and I. Anna’s family kept the coin for several generations until a pair of British ladies claiming to be her descendants sold the coin, where it found its way to the “King of Siam” collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

Where’s the money?: An 1804 Silver Dollar sold in 1999 for 4.14 million.

What You Should Know About Women on Currency

How many women have appeared on American banknotes?


Pocahontas banknote.

While Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, and Sacajawea all have had their moments on coinage, paper money is unsurprisingly full of the faces of dead white dudes. But female contributors to American history do make appearances on dollar bills — or at least they have historically. The Baptism of Pocahontas, a John G. Chapman painting, was reproduced on a $20 banknote in the middle of the 19th century. And in 1886, 1891, and 1896, First Lady Martha Washington appeared on silver certificates (representative money printed from 1878 to 1964, redeemable at the face value of silver dollar coins).military payment cert

Military payment certificates, a retired form of currency that only military and authorized civilians used overseas, have featured far more women. From 1946 to 1973, the lithographed bills featured idealized versions of Lady Liberty, American women, and the helpless victims of foreign powers. These images were not only created and selected for monetary purposes; they reminded soldiers what they were fighting for, and their beauty made who they represented all the more valuable.

The Bank of England announced this year that Jane Austen would be put on a 10-pound note – which sparked enormous controversy with the public.

In the United States, bank notes have not been updated since 1929. People whose faces have “permanent familiarity” to the American public were chosen for the notes. There is no requirement that one has to be a president before being printed on a bill, as Benjamin Franklin’s face on the $100 note proves. In fact, the only real requirements for one to be featured on paper currency are to be American and dead.

What women would be prime candidates for being put on banknotes? Just a few worthy options include Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and famous writers and abolitionists. The list could go on.

military payment certifiicate 25c

As for choosing faces with “permanent familiarity,” aren’t the faces of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin instantly recognizable at least in part because they appear on banknotes in the first place?

So what do you say: is there room for a woman on future American banknotes?

The US Penny Debate

When Canada discontinued their penny last year, the news seemed both trivial and obvious. For years, there has been a debate in the States to do the same. While many people advocate to put the sparest of spare change out of its misery, the penny also has strong supporters demanding its survival.

When the half-cent was discontinued a hundred and fifty years ago, it had the spending power of a modern-day dime and was deemed irrelevant due to inflation. Had the penny been ended when it reached the worth of a modern-day dime, it would have been gone by 1950.

How does Canada make the transition of phasing out pennies easier? Rumor has it that they just use US Pennies for change!

For the last six years, the cost of minting a penny has been more than its actual worth, coming out to over two cents per coin in 2012. When Canada discontinued their penny, it cost them 1.6 cents to mint each one. The US Mint has been researching cheaper metal alternatives to comparatively expensive zinc, which constitutes 97.5% of every penny minted since 1982.

There is also the question of the everyday usefulness of pennies. You can’t exactly use them in vending machines, parking meters, or toll booths (except in Illinois, where support for the Lincoln-faced coin is especially strong). Counting them out to make exact change when paying in cash can be cumbersome and, according to some, wasteful of time.

Not only Canada has dropped its lowest-denominated coins. Countries that smoothly made similar transitions with their low-value coins include Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Brazil, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain. In fact, in the states, military bases eliminated pennies over thirty years ago.

Whether the penny could be discontinued anytime soon remains to be seen. Two bills since 1990 have been proposed to end the penny, and both failed. Supporters of the penny, including the organization Americans for Common Cents, argue that if they are discontinued and prices are rounded to the nearest five cents, the government will actually lose money because nickel production will increase. A nickel costs eleven cents to mint — yet another coin that costs more to mint than its own worth.

Penny supporters also point out that drives for charities, which thrive on people donating their extra loose change, would be in danger of suffering. It can also be argued that elimination would not end the loss of money from minting, but actually increase it with the higher demand for nickels, as well as add to inflation as businesses would likely put a “rounding tax” on goods that have prices that don’t end in zero or five. It’s even possible the Denver Mint, the main supplier of pennies, would have to downsize and people would lose their jobs.

There are a lot of factors to be considered in this debate over the penny. Opinions, comments, and questions are welcome.