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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (05/2006) Headlines (02/2006) Headlines (06/2007)   Vol. 40 May 2006 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the May 2006 edition of W&ET Magazine


Steven L. Contursi dropped the $8.5 million check onto the counter before handing it over- just to make sure it wouldn't bounce.

It didn't. And just like that, Contursi became the owner of 10 gold, silver and copper coins- a gift to the King of Siam from President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and, he says, the most expensive coin set sold in U.S. history.

The face value of the coins: $20.

"I feel like it's a coup we own this thing," Contursi said, chuckling during a telephone interview from his Laguna Beach, CA, home. "The last few times it became available, I didn't have the wherewithal to buy it. The historical significance of the coins- it's very exciting."

The 19th-century coins were purchased from an anonymous California collector, who bought the set in 2001 for more than $4 million, said Contursi, president of Rare Coin Wholesalers. A Beverly Hills, CA, collectors firm brokered the deal.

The highlight of the collection is a U.S. silver dollar marked with the year 1804 - one of eight known "Class I" U.S. silver dollars. They were dated 1804 but actually made in 1834. Contursi values that one coin at $7 million.

"The history is so rich and the reason why the coin was made is so valuable that it definitely is the Holy Grail of coin collection," said Contursi, 53.

Rare-coin historian Kenneth E. Bressett knows its importance.

"Because of its pedigree, we can trace it back to the very day it was made. It's very unusual to trace back a coin. Most are sold and spent," said Bressett, 77.

The set also includes a copper half-cent, a $10 gold Eagle and an 1833 gold medal depicting Andrew Jackson.

The coins were made as a diplomatic gift for King Ph'ra Nang Klao (Rama III) and were presented in 1836 during a trade mission to Siam, now Thailand. The king's son, Rama IV, who was depicted in the Broadway musical "The King and I," was among those who inherited the coins.

They likely make up the first set of proof coins made in the United States, Contursi said.

This purchase represents the largest single coin transaction in U.S. history, he said. The previous record was a 1933 $20 gold piece that sold for $7.6 million in 2002.

Contursi's collections haven't always been so pricey. He began collecting coins when he was about 10, filling up cardboard collectors' folders with coins he earned on his paper route in the Bronx. In high school, he discovered that he could buy coins from one New York coin broker and sell them at a profit to another across town.

He sold his childhood coin collection after graduating from college. He got about $8,000, which became half of a down payment on his first house. He then opened a coin kiosk in Columbia Heights, MN, on Jan. 1, 1974.

"I never looked back," Contursi said.

His collection includes the first U.S. silver dollar, struck by the U.S. Mint in 1794, and the first gold coin made in the U.S. - the 1787 Brasher Doubloon.

So what compels Contursi to collect?

"The hunt. The chase. Always looking," Contursi said. "It's kind of like an Indiana Jones thing - always looking for something new you haven't seen yet and that you haven't been able to acquire."

Contursi's latest acquisition had its first public viewing at Coin, Stamp & Collectibles Expo in Long Beach, CA, in February.

And after that?

"It will definitely be a money-making venture," he said.

From the Walton Sun, submitted by Doug Amundson, Cambridge, MN.


Cairo - An American team has found what appears to be an intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the first found in the valley since that of Tutankhamun in 1922, one of the archaeologists said recently.

The tomb contains five or six mummies in intact sarcophagi from the late 18th Dynasty, about the same period as Tutankhamun, but the archaeologists have not yet had the time or the access to identify them, the archaeologist added.

The 18th Dynasty ruled Egypt from 1567 B.C. to 1320 B.C., a period during which the country's power reached a peak.

From the Associated Press, submitted by Barry Wainwright, Forked River, NJ.


Greensburg, KS- A rare 1,400-pound meteorite was discovered 7 feet underground by a collector in an area long known for prized space rocks.

Using a metal detector mounted on a three-wheel vehicle, Steve Arnold of Kingston, Arkansas, found the huge meteorite recently in Kiowa County in southern Kansas.

The meteorite is an oriented pallasite, noted for a conical shape with crystals embedded in iron-nickel alloy. Only two larger ones of that type are known: a 3,100-pounder in Australia and a 1,500-pounder in Argentina.

The Kansas rock was found in the same area that in 1949 produced a 1,000-pound meteorite now at the Celestial Museum in Greensburg.

From the Associated Press, submitted by David M. Wolan, Ron Paul Smith, and Don Schuler.


A rare $5 Oregon gold coin minted in 1849 has fetched $125,000 from a collector who now has a link to a time when people in the Oregon Territory began to end a life of bartering with gold dust, beaver pelts, wheat, salmon and horses.

The gold coin dates back a decade before Oregon became a state, to a time when it could have passed through the hands of mountain man Joe Meek, who later became the Oregon Territory's first U.S. Marshal. Or Dr. John D. McLoughlin, head of the powerful Hudson's Bay Co. and Oregon's most prominent figure for decades.

Or maybe it once belonged to flamboyant, big-spending horse thief and gunfighter Hank Vaughan, who raised wheat near Pendleton.

"If this coin could talk, what would it say?" said Rick Gately, a rare-coin dealer in La Grande who made the sale this month between the owner in Rouge River and a buyer from La Grande. The new owner has asked to remain anonymous.

Weighing a quarter of an ounce, the coin was authenticated by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. of America in Sarasota, Florida, a top coin-grading service that compares a coin's current condition to when it was minted, Gately said.

At the time the coin was minted, Oregon Territory merchants, hunters, trappers, sailors and Indian tribes numbered about 13,000 and needed a better medium of exchange than barter, said Donald H. Kagin of Tiburon, California, author of "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States."

So in February 1849, the territorial legislature ordered the establishment of a mint.

But the plan quickly went awry. Gen. Joseph Lane, the new territorial governor appointed by President Polk, arrived in Oregon City less than a month later and immediately halted the preparations.

But Kagin said the declaration did not stop eight "men of affairs" from immediately forming the Oregon Exchange Company and building their own private, illegal mint in Oregon City. They began stamping out $5 Oregon Beaver coins, 6,000 in all, using yellow metal from the California gold fields.

From The Observer, submitted by Judy Hauser and Randy N. Simmons.


Tokyo- A Japanese coin worth 2 yen more than a century ago sold for 17 million yen ($150,400) recently in a public auction organized by the country's finance ministry, Japanese media reported.

The 0.105-ounce gold coin, minted in 1877, was one of the most sought-after items because just 39 of them were produced.

From the Honolulu Star Bulletin, submitted by Ron Paul Smith, Honolulu, HI.


A $20 bill mysteriously printed with an ordinary fruit sticker sold recently for $25,300, an auction company official said.

The flawed note bears a red, green and yellow Del Monte sticker next to Andrew Jackson's portrait.

The buyer at the auction in Orlando did not want to be identified, said Dustin Johnston, director of auctions for Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers of Dallas.

The 1996 bill originated at a U.S. Treasury Department printing facility in Fort Worth, Texas, but how the fruit tag found its way onto the paper of the greenback is unknown.

"I've collected for probably seven years now and nothing comes close to the way people react to it- their eyes pop out," said Daniel Wishnatsky, a Phoenix currency collector who bought the bill online in 2003 for $10,100.

Jason Bradford, president of PCGS Currency in Newport Beach, California, authenticated that the error was genuine and not faked outside the printing plant.

Currency goes through three printing stages, Bradford said. The first stage the back is printed, the second the face, and third the bill receives serial number and treasury seal stamps.

In the case of the Del Monte note, the seal and serial number are both printed on top of the sticker, meaning the fruit tag must have found its way onto the bill midway through the process, he said.

The note, in nearly perfect condition, has achieved celebrity status among currency collectors, appearing on the covers of the Bank Note Reporter and Numismatic News.

From The Associated Press, submitted by Doug Amundson and Jeffrey L. Hauenstein.


New dollar coins featuring each of the nation's dead presidents will begin rolling out of the U.S. Mint in 2007 under a bill President Bush signed into law. The coins, and an accompanying $10 gold piece for collectors that features former first ladies, are intended to be a big money raiser like the state quarters program.

The front of the new dollar coin will depict a former president; the back will show the Statue of Liberty. Four coins a year will be issued, beginning in 2007, in the presidents' order of service.

From USA Today, submitted by Doug Amundson, Cambridge, MN.


NEW YORK - But for the building of a subway tunnel, the old wall of square-cut stones 10 feet underground probably would never have been found. And but for its location - at historic Battery Park, on Manhattan's southernmost tip - it would not have attracted much attention.

But location is said to be everything in New York City, which explains why officials were throwing around superlatives like "incredibly exciting" and "astounding" to describe the wall, a remnant of early harbor defenses. One even called it Gotham's archaeological equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "Just when you think you've discovered everything in this city, you come across something like this," said Robert Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said at a news conference Thursday that the site was "literally the birthplace of New York City?"

"This is where history was born," he said, "and this is the most important archaeological discovery in New York City in many, many years."

At least, Benepe added, since the finding a decade ago of the African Burial Ground, a revolutionary period graveyard of slaves and free blacks, a half-mile to the north.

During Manhattan's early history, various ramparts in Battery Park were the island's last line of defense against attack from the sea. As far as is known, none of its cannons ever saw action. The only recorded firing of a harbor gun in anger was a "good riddance" shot from Staten Island at departing British warships after the American Revolution.

So far what is known about the 46-foot-long section of wall is that it once was part of the harbor fortifications that existed for nearly two centuries before the revolution.

What's not yet known includes which part - whether an actual fort or a related gun battery, and who built it, the Dutch East India Co., which founded, the colony of New Amsterdam in 1623, or the British, who renamed it New York in 1665.

The wall's survival is more remarkable, Benepe said, considering that the 23-acre park has other tunnels, an underground highway underpass, air shafts and landfills that repeatedly altered and extended its original shoreline over many years.

Uncovered by subway diggers around Thanksgiving and only partly visible from the surface, the mortared blocks are set at a right angle, suggesting the corner of a large structure - perhaps a star-shaped fort, or its foundation, that shows on maps dated circa 1744.

While construction on the subway tunnel is at least delayed by the find, the wall and its attendant mysteries were referred to archaeologists.

Possible clues lie in some artifacts found at the site, the most interesting being a 1744 British halfpenny bearing the likeness of King George and a silver or pewter medallion dated 1755 with a figure and the name "Admiral Buscar." (An archaeologist familiar with the site noted, however, that coins are not considered reliable guides to dating ancient sites unless their location rules out any doubt.)

Warrie Price, founder-president of the Battery Park Conservancy, a private group devoted to protecting the historic site, carried a map showing Battery Park as it was in 1772-74, the same era as the British coin. She said she bought the map years ago, "knowing that our history was going to tell great stories. This is a thrilling moment." Conservancy, chairman Bill Rudin compared the find to the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the time of Christ; which were found hidden in caves in Israel several decades ago.

City officials said the discovery would not significantly affect the $400 million subway project, the extension of a tunnel connecting the rail system to the Staten Island ferry terminal. And they denied a published report that a construction backhoe had damaged the wall. But Benepe said it was "of the greatest importance to assess what's down there and get it out of the way of the construction."

A tentative plan, he said, is to recover the entire 46-foot section that stands in the way of the tunnel, bring it to the surface and locate it near the site, "where it can be seen, experienced and interpreted by the millions of visitors who come to the Battery every year." From The Associated Press, submitted by Charles A. Cummins, Schenectady, NY.

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