In the young United States, before there was a U.S. Mint, currency was a mish-mosh of foreign monies, but because the value was in the amount of valuable metal in the coin, an ounce of silver was an ounce of silver whether it was minted in Spain or in England. Transactions in specie, however, were risky unless you were certain what you were getting was truly valuable. Counterfeit coins were a significant threat, and the “shaving” of coins — the archaic reason for coin edge ridges — could mean that trusting what looks like a doubloon to be a true doubloon was difficult. The best-equipped industries of the time to detect forgeries or verify a coin’s true weight were jewelers and silversmiths.
Just a few doors down from George Washington himself lived Ephraim Brasher, a silversmith and jeweler of some renown. Brasher had served in the Revolution, and after the U.S.’ independence established himself as an expert on foreign coins and valuable metals. Businesses, banks, and the average citizen could (for a fee, presumably) have their coins weighed and measured by Brasher. Once Brasher confirmed the coin’s value, he counter-stamped his initials into the surface of the coin for the same ends as Oriental chop-marks a century later. In the case of the coin on the left, Brasher added a small plug of gold, just enough to make the weight accurate, and placed his seal over the added gold. This particular coin was sold at auction last year for $57,500. Coins with Brasher’s seal are exceedingly rare; most were likely melted and re-minted as official U.S. coins or re-cast into jewelry.
Some of this gold went into the rarest of U.S. gold coins, also at the hands of Ephiram Brasher. The infant United States had made provisions to regulate currency in the Articles of Confederation, but passed the task of minting coins on to the individual states, who themselves weren’t exactly equipped to start creating money. Brasher was among the first people who signed up to mint the fledgling nation’s first currency. In 1787 the state of New York was planning its initial foray into minting its own coinage, and that February, before the plan was finalized, Brasher filed his request to perform minting duties on behalf of the state. He wasn’t the only interested party, but the record is inconsistent and there is a possibility that other petitioners at the same time were actually working with Brasher. New York never actually produced any coins of its own before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, which established a national Mint, and it looked like Brasher would never produce U.S. coins.
Brasher, however, did mint several coins for unknown purposes. In 1838, among coins sent to the U.S. Mint to be assayed, melted, and re-minted, a gold coin was caught by a sharp-eyed worker who recognized its unique character. The coin matched the Spanish doubloon in size and weight, but bore the image of a Federal-style eagle, clutching arrows and an olive branch, surrounded by the words “Unum E Pluribus,” and dated 1787. The obverse declared it a coin of the state of New York, with the coin’s originator’s name near the center: Brasher. The reverse was also stamped with Brasher’s “EB” seal of quality. Nobody knows for certain why Brasher produced any coins, let alone a highly valuable gold coin, but the most likely answer is that the Brasher’s Doubloons were minted as examples of his handiwork for review by the state of New York, to prove his expert capability to produce coins within the requirements of the state and the nation. After the first of Brasher’s Doubloons was discovered, only a literal handful of others have been discovered. Of the seven known examples, six have the “EB” counterstamp on the eagle’s upper-left wing, but one has the counterstamp dead-center on the eagle’s chest, making it more rare than its sisters.
The center-stamped doubloon, surprisingly, is not the rarest of Brasher’s gold coins. In the Smithsonian’s Numismatic Collection lives the rarest of U.S. gold coins: Brasher’s Half-Doubloon. At first glance, the edges which bear the “Unum E Pluribus” and the New York text appear cut off, as though the coin had once been a regular Doubloon but shaved for its gold. Experts have examined this coin and believe no shaving occurred. It was struck using the same Doubloon dies as the other five, but using a planchet disk of gold equal in value to a half-doubloon, like the quarter/dime planchet error, but was done intentionally to produce a fractional coin similar to the full doubloon. The half-doubloon has not been sold during modern times, and on account of its extreme rarity could be considered priceless. The rarest of the seven Doubloons, the “EB-on-breast”, was sold in 2005 for $2.99 million — at the same time as one of the six “EB-on-wing” doubloons, which took $2.415 million. Prices like that make people pretty excited when they think they’ve found the eighth Brasher’s Doubloon. Sadly, Brasher’s Doubloon replicas have been produced since the 1860s as collectible souvenirs, and most are not worth much. Don’t completely discount a replica, though; some have been minted in real gold, making them worth thousands, and the 19th-century replicas have a certain value of their own due to their age and rarity. None of the replicas are rare enough to make them worth millions, though — that takes a special coin, one of precious metals and minted for uncertain purposes during the formative years of our country by Ephraim Brasher.