Collecting colonial coins holds historic value

January 20, 2012 chris
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By Mike Goodson

Coin collecting is a fascinating way to teach history to young and old alike. The stories behind United States coins are intriguing, and many of the early United States coins are some of the most beautiful the world has ever known. 

Over the past several years, I have been given the opportunity to do many programs in different schools in the Gadsden area. These programs have dealt with local history, fossils, sharks and coins. One of my favorite programs deals with coins and the evolution of our coinage.

One of the questions that is always asked is, “Do you have any coins minted during the Revolutionary War?” The answer always seems to disappoint younger students. While the answer is “yes,” the disappointment comes when they learn that these coins are foreign coins. The United States Mint began minting coins in 1793, 10 years after the end of the American Revolution.

Foreign coins were accepted as legal tender in the colonies and the United States until the mid-19th century. Many coins were widely circulated here from Spain, Brittan, Mexico, Germany, Holland and even Russia. These coins turn up occasionally and most people think they have a rarity because of the early date. The truth is many colonial-era coins are easily affordable and an impressive collection can be acquired for a nominal investment.

Searching the internet is an easy way to find many early coins with significant dates. One coin that proves to be very interesting is a small coin that is known as a “Ferdinand and Isabella cob.” These coins were minted in Spain from 1490-1516 and were made of vellon, an alloy of copper and silver. These small coins did not have dates and are identified by the crest of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. These coins have been referred to as “Columbus pocket change,” and are popular among coin collectors. Although more than 500 years old, these coins are easily obtained for around $20.

Another popular coin that was circulated in the colonies was the Spanish reales and escudos. The reales were silver coins in a variety of denominations, from one-half reale to the large silver dollar size 8 reale. Spain operated several mints in the new world in the silver rich countries of Mexico and South America. The Spanish reale was such a popular coin that Thomas Jefferson proposed using this monetary system in the United States before the dollar was chosen as a unit of coinage.

These Spanish silver coins in the smaller denominations of one-half to two reale coins can be acquired for $10 to $15. The larger silver dollar size eight reale coins can sell for as much as $50 to $75. The gold escudo coins can sell for several hundred dollars. A large cache of the coins was discovered in 1993 when the Spanish brigantine of war, the El Cazador, was found off the coast of Louisiana. Carrying 400,000 Spanish reales, the ship sank in the winter of 1784. Shipwreck coins such as these are very popular among collectors and usually bring a premium price. Depending on the condition, one reale coin from the El Cazador will sell from $10 to $25.

Other shipwrecks are being discovered often in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, which produces beautiful early Spanish coins. The famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher spent much of his life hunting the Atocha, a ship that produced a fortune in gold, silver and jewels. Gold and silver bars were also found weighing several pounds. These artifacts are valued at a greater premium because of their historical value. The Atocha sank in 1715, and the coins recovered from this site are very popular.

Other colonial era coins that are popular with collectors are the large British pennies and half pennies from the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. These coins from the early-to-mid 18th century are very affordable, and depending on the condition can be purchased at flea markets and from coin dealers for as little as $10 to $15. Many of these English coins depict the famous monarchs of the early British Empire.

Over the years, many large bronze coins have been found that cause a great deal of excitement because of their early dates. These coins are actually Russian in origin and are large five kopek coins. 

While these coins do not depict any particular Russian monarch, most were minted during the reign of Catherine the Great. These coins minted in the late 1700s are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at coin shows for only around $10 each.

Several coins minted in the New England colonies in the days around the American Revolution are quite rare and expensive. Many coins, however, are very plentiful, and an interesting collection of colonial coins can be obtained for a nominal investment. Any coin dated 1776 does command a premium because of the date.