Finding It Is Only Half The Fun
By: Jim Bailey
Late last spring I decided to take my chances with the search of an old cellar hole. Dave, one of my hunting partners, and I made a return visit to a possible tavern site along an old turnpike in southern New England. Research provided only scant details, including a date that placed the occupation of the dwelling back at least to the first quarter of the 19th century. The ruins of a cellar hole, a well, and an apparent outbuilding were located in a wooded area along a modern road. My detecting results for the year thus far consisted of a few meager coins and relics. Exciting finds had been scarce over the past few years, so I decided to try my luck at bottle digging. I had not dug bottles since I was a kid, but internet videos of dug stoneware and 19th century bottles had sparked my interest. I first tried a metal probe. My past experience with probing was limited, mostly owing to poor results, and the outcome on this day was fast proving to be no different. I worked the probe up and down for an hour or so, as though I were handling a bicycle pump, but with little effect. My skills were greatly lacking, and I soon abandoned all hopes of probing further.
I joined with Dave in patiently metal detecting around the cellar hole. Hoping to locate the iron debris and other material from a trash pit, I listened carefully to the numerous low tones while making my way around the site. I usually null out such signals, so my confidence in deciphering all the chatter was lagging. I was also out of my element in the woods. I had no love for searching here, and I had my reasons: underbrush too thick to search, poison sumac, and generally dismal results. Hunting fields was my game. After digging several rusted cans out behind the cellar hole, I heard a higher tone and cut a plug, but no target was visible. Checking the sandy soil with my pinpointer revealed a large copper deep in the hole. It appeared to be a solid coin without the porous appearance of field-dug coppers. As the hunt was going rather slowly, I stopped to examine the coin closely with Dave, who provided a helpful toothbrush to lightly remove some of the dirt that covered the coin.
Dave exclaimed, “Dude, there’s a shield on that coin!”
I could also see the outline of a large central shield on the coin. I thought for only a few moments before realizing that I had dug a New Jersey copper. I described the coin series to Dave but resisted the temptation to clean the coin further; instead, I reached for a handful of soil and packed it like a snowball with the coin safe and secure at its core. This dirt ball-making ritual has provided a good deal of amusement and laughter for some of my metal detecting buddies, but I continue to rely on this technique. It’s been my experience that long-buried coppers badly react to the exposure of air soon after recovery, so I keep such coins packed in dirt until returning home. Most dug coppers are not worth the effort, but I do find exceptions. I left the coin with its dirt ball shell next to some of my digging gear and continued the search.
Except for a rough Flying Eagle cent dug by Dave, no other items of interest were found during our remaining time at the cellar hole. Any trash pits out there remained undiscovered. We even dug into the floor of the cellar hole, but the bottles and other items that we found were only modern trash. We briefly stopped at another cellar hole farther down the road, where oddly enough I also recovered a single Flying Eagle cent.
Upon arriving home, I had my 3-year-old son remove the coin from the tightly packed dirt ball. I had been eager for a closer look at the coin as I drove home, although I expected to see harsh corrosion that’s so typical of such finds. In addition to protecting the coin, the ball technique provides a nice surprise for my son, who enjoys finding coins in the clods of dirt. It’s like searching for the prize in a box of old-fashioned Cracker Jacks. He quickly found the greenish-brown coin, which I lightly swiped with a toothbrush. Amazed to see the clear design of a horse’s truncated head and a plow on the coin’s obverse, I eagerly brushed the reverse with the shield design, but it remained obscured by a stubborn layer of dirt bonded to the coin’s surface. I brushed the coin further to no effect. After a minute or so, I made a comparison with the coin’s better obverse side and noticed a worsening appearance. The coin’s copper was apparently reacting to a change of environment after a 200+ year dirt-nap, and this reaction was diminishing its condition. Fortunately, I was able to quickly place the copper in a small container of mineral oil, which I had prepared in advance.
After the coin soaked in mineral oil for a few hours, I examined it further in an attempt to identify its date and, with some luck, its variety as well. The Red Book is a well-known reference for most U.S. coins, but its section on Colonial coins is only a primer on the subject. The Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins by Q. David Bowers is essential for identifying the diverse coin types and numerous varieties from this early period. The book provides detailed descriptions and helpful photos to guide all readers, from beginners to the most knowledgeable collectors.
My teenaged daughter assisted me in attempting to identify the coin’s date and variety. She understood that this time I had not brought home a typical King George copper with heavy corrosion and barely recognizable features. We removed the coin from oil for a few moments to note any of the features helpful for identification, blotting it dry with a paper towel and then checking it closely with a magnifying glass. We did this again and again— and again. As an avid detectorist, I regarded our efforts as real family time, although my daughter would likely have another view! Hey, if the coin proved to be something less than a huge financial windfall, which was a near-certain outcome, at least my treasure hunting antics might provide some degree of entertainment for my daughter. I can recall a find from a few years ago. It appeared to be a Colonial coin based on its characteristics and, more so, my wild optimism, yet I couldn’t quite read its lettering even with a good magnifying glass. My daughter offered to take a look, and within a few moments she proclaimed, “Here it is, Dad! B-O-Y S-C-O-U-T! Boy Scout! Good job, Dad. I didn’t know they had Boy Scouts back in the Colonial days.”
Despite past disappointment with “would be” treasure, I was excited about the possibility of determining the coin’s exact variety; however, such determinations are often based on miniscule details that are sadly missing from most dug coppers. New Jersey coppers were minted for only three years, 1786-1788, but 140+ varieties were struck during that relatively short period of time, as a large number of individually cut obverse and reverse dies were used in varying combinations. We first noticed the coin’s date of 1786, which narrowed the number of possible varieties down to 52— a good start, but we still had a long way to go.
Determining the exact obverse variety requires detailed examination of the plow design and the location of the horse’s ears in relation to the inscription, NOVA CAESAREA (New Jersey) at the top of the coin. Fortunately, these details on my coin were sufficient to identify its obverse variety as a Maris 17. Dr. Edward Maris published the first major study of New Jersey coppers way back in 1881, and his classification scheme is still in use today, with a numerical designation for the obverse and an alphabetical designation for the reverse. We were now much closer to determining the coin’s variety, because the Maris 17 was combined with only three different reverse dies. The wide shape of the shield on my coin easily identified its full variety: Maris 17-J. Proper identification would have been extremely unlikely without the “Easy Finding Guide” provided in Bowers’ book.
Readers who are unfamiliar with die varieties of early coins might ask, “What’s this all about? I understand dates and mint marks, but horse ears? Why is it important?” Today the United States mints billions of pennies with thorough uniformity, accomplished through the use of master dies to produce the actual working dies, that strike the coins. However, New Jersey coppers and other Colonial coins were all produced from a number of individually engraved obverse and reverse dies. They did not utilize a master die. As a result, there is a lot of variation among New Jersey coppers, which was eventually studied and classified by Maris and others who determined the many varieties known today, along with estimates of known specimens for each variety.
Rarity scales with various ratings are also available for New Jersey coppers and other early coins. In his book, Bowers uses the Universal Rarity Scale, which ranges from a high of URS-16 (up to 31,999 coins) to a low of URS-1 (one known coin - unique). A coin’s value is determined by a number of factors, including its condition or degree of wear, toning (usually a problem for dug coins), and overall eye appeal. The rarity of a coin is a major factor in determining value, especially for those coins at the low end of the rarity scale. My daughter, who was keenly aware of the rarity factor, attempted a sneak peak at the values for various New Jersey copper varieties before we fully identified the coin. Although she assured me that her poker face would not reveal any of the possibilities in rarity and value, I wasn’t buying any of it. I wasn’t going to be distracted with considering possibilities. My focus was in determining the coin’s variety beyond all doubt.
After the Maris J-17 verdict, we looked at the variety’s estimated value and additional notes provided in Bowers’ book. It was listed as a URS-8 (65 to 124 known), with a range of values that included the following: Very Good - $500, Fine - $1,000, Very Fine - $3,000, and Extremely Fine - $5,000. Bowers notes also stated, “Usually found in low grades, and often struck over another coin, especially Connecticut coppers.” I gave very little notice to the variety’s estimated value, as my specimen was a dug coin with apparent corrosion on the reverse. I had accomplished my main goal of identifying the coin.
After allowing the coin to soak for several more days, I examined it closely. I lightly rubbed the dirt-coated reverse with my thumb and was surprised to see lettering revealed from the coin’s E PLURIBUS UNUM inscription. I was eager to remove more of the dirt and check for corrosion, but remained steadfast in my patience. I soaked the coin for nearly three months, waiting for the mineral oil to work its magic. I’ve been a longtime user of mineral oil for loosening dirt bonded to coins, and it was proving very effective in this particular case. I prefer mineral oil over olive oil, as the latter can lead to darkening of a coin’s patina. Mineral oil does not darken coins.
After the three-month soak, much of the surface dirt had softened considerably. I used a soft-bristle toothbrush to remove it, and more details emerged without a sign of corrosion. However, some dirt could not be removed, appearing hopelessly bonded and vulnerable only to an electric power sander, but I resisted the temptation to resort to such extreme measures. Summoning the patience that hardcore detectorists know all too well, I decided to soak the coin for another three months.
At last the time passed, and I discovered that the long process had been worth the wait. I again used a toothbrush to remove the remaining dirt, but ultimately a new secret weapon in my arsenal of cleaning tools proved far more effective. OK, it wasn’t much of a secret. A few treasure hunting websites had recommended the use of toothpicks soaked in mineral oil. Applied with slight pressure, the fine point of a toothpick removed the last miniscule deposits of oil-soaked dirt. Best of all, this delicate process did not result in any damage or wear to the coin. Even cement-like dirt that had defied heavy brushing several months ago could now be removed with ease. Any removal of the dirt without the long oil soak would likely have resulted in harm to the coin... especially if I had used that power sander! At any rate, I was happy with the end result. Over two centuries in New England’s rocky soil had not caused any damage to the coin, and the buildup of dirt during that long period was now successfully treated and removed without harm. The finished coin had a nice patina with only the slightest evidence of corrosion.
In the end, my New Jersey copper is still a dug coin. That’s of no matter to me, but it does play a big role in the coin’s value. The coin has Very Fine details, but it cannot earn that grade for condition because of its grainy surface, mild corrosion, etc. That’s all fine with me. Bowers’ book values the 1786 New Jersey copper at $3,000 in Very Fine condition for the Maris 17-J Variety. Perhaps my specimen is worth $1,000, although I won’t know for certain until it’s sold many years from now to an appreciative collector. For now, monetary value is a secondary concern. The thrill of the hunt for a long-lost coin is at the heart of my interest, and I have a great enthusiasm for learning the history of such coins. The Latin motto E Pluribus Unum is found on the Great Seal of the United States. It’s also been inscribed on coins throughout our nation’s history, and all U.S. coins minted today bear the same inscription. Yet the very first appearance of E Pluribus Unum on coinage occurred in 1786 with the New Jersey copper. As my coin is also dated 1786, I feel that it has a special place in history.
Prior to the New Jersey copper, my only noteworthy coin find for 2012 was an 1864 U.S. 2¢ piece. The coin’s date was the first year of issue for this series, which included the first-time use of the motto, In God We Trust. Like the E Pluribus Unum motto on the New Jersey copper, the motto for the 1864 2¢ piece has since become well identified with the coinage and history of the United States, and In God We Trust has continued to appear on all U.S. minted coins from 1864 to the present. It was made the official motto of the United States in 1956. The two-in-a-row recovery of coins with such unique histories is quite remarkable to me.
The primitive methods used in the minting of New Jersey coppers are also worthy of mention. A single automated stamping press from the United States Mint currently churns out 750 coins every minute, but the production of each and every New Jersey copper was a three-man operation, as vividly described in Bower’s book. One of the workmen sat near the floor, placing blank planchets one at a time between the two dies which produced the coin’s design. Coins are typically described as being “struck,” but in this instance the lower die was stationary, while pressure was applied from the upper die by a screw press. The force of the screw press was provided by the other two workmen, who toiled above, rotating an attached 10' horizontal bar in constant repetition, working back and forth, back and forth.
The coin that I found also has a story to tell. For a period of time, state-issued coppers were not maintaining their value, although New Jersey coppers still held their purchasing power. (New Jersey accepted their state-issued coinage for tax payments.) Thus, there was a demand for New Jersey coppers over other state-issued coppers. These coins were taken for use as planchets, and evidence of this can still be seen today when the old coins are closely studied. As mentioned, the Maris 17-J variety is known for overstrikes on Connecticut coppers, and you guessed it! I’ve got two coins in one. Upon close examination, I found unmistakable evidence of an overstrike on the obverse— likely a partial date from a Connecticut copper. Based on the overstrike, my coin was at first a Connecticut copper before being brought to New Jersey and given a new life as a completely different coin. Transformed, it then traveled back to New England, being exchanged from one person to the next in the fledging United States of America. It was then lost along a turnpike until I passed over it with a metal detector over 200 years later.
Studying, researching, and treating the coin was time consuming and difficult on occasion, but it was very rewarding. Retracing the coin’s journey has been fascinating for me, but for now that journey is on hold. I plan to keep it a long time, as it becomes part of my ever-expanding collection of recovered history.