Dr. Samuel Higley, the Granby, Conn., physician who minted coins in Colonial Connecticut, struck one piece in 1737 with the motto, "Value Me as you Please." When that copper coin came up for sale recently in New York, the buyer made that motto specific with his bid. The piece sold for $45,000.
The coin was part of the vast Garrett Collection that has been parceled up into four sale groups. This was the third sale, and it brought some near record prices for the early American coins that made up a large part of the selections.
Those Higley coppers were among the stars of the sale, and their popularity was in direct contrast with their original value. Dr. Higley had the good luck to own land containing quality copper ore. He refined his own metal and, without authority, began to strike his own coins. He riled his neighbors by insisting on paying for groceries and ale with his own three-pence, which were smaller and lighter than the Britsh half-pennies of the time.
In response, Dr. Higley designed a coin that said "Value Me as you Please," but took care to engrave "III" under the image of a deer on the obverse. That probably drove his tavern owner to a frenzy, and Dr. Higley compounded that by engraving on the reverse the image of an ax with the legend "I Cut My Way Through." He seemed to be challenging the locals to refuse his coins.
Nonetheless, the price affixed to the originally valueless coin shows -- to despairing collectors -- that there are still rewards for the patient. The value of these Higley pieces is in their rarity. Scarcely a handful remains of these nuisance coins, but for the prescient who held on to them, and to the perceptive collectors who later bought them, they represent a bonanza.
Collectors moan at conventions that prices are driving out collectors while the coins are being swept up by investors. All that is true, but for the curious, there are opportunities. Persons who are patiently filling out sets of cents, or nickels, those who canvass coins for errors and overstrikes, those who comb the auctions and flea markets are not only pleasing themselves with the search, but may be forming the nucleus of collections that will catch the fancy of another generation.
The Garrett Sale saw one bidder take a Higley copper with the legend, "The Wheel Goes Round," with a $75,000 offer. Scholars say the coin is unique, and was discovered, covered with dirt, in a casual collection of old copper coins.
The Garrett Sale included several New Jersey coppers that also brought prices to surprise even the jaded. A 1787 copper, bearing the motto, "E pluribus unum" was sold for $77,500. Its condition was decidedly worn, but its rarity insured its sale value.
Another rarity, a 1652 New England silver six pence, sold for $75,000. Garrett owned two examples which may be the sole survivors of a flourishing mining business carried on in Massachusetts. A willow tree shilling from 1652 drew a $35,000 bid. Oddly, an oak tree shilling in splendid condition brought $3,000.
Maryland coinage did not bring the same kind of bidding excitement, despite the presence of ornate, well-struck silver pieces from the 1659 minting.
The bidding at this auction was clearly for investors, but the material sold had been gathered by a perceptive and knowledgeable collector. Convention moaners can take heart.