Monday, January 4, 2010

Coin Monday: The Big Bickford

Jan. 4, 2009
Written by John Dale

A slightly surreal slice-of-life from Heritage, a recent e-mail exchange:

From John Dale to Noah – Still trying to come up with ideas for next Monday’s blog…would a digression into 19th century European monetary unions be interesting at all, do you think?

Reply from Noah to John Dale – As long as you can work in a reference to, or a quote from, The Dude in The Big Lebowski, I think it would be fine…

Reply from John Dale to Noah – In that case, forget it, dude. Let’s go bowling.

… and that’s why today’s topic is the Bickford international coinage proposal, which is well-represented in the January 2010 FUN U.S. Coin Auction, but which is only tangentially related to 19th century European monetary unions.

What the two topics have in common is a nebulous “international coin” movement that saw its 19th century heyday in the 1870s. The Latin Monetary Union, which aligned the values of national currencies of member nations, began with four countries: Belgium, France, Italy, and Switzerland. By 1870, Greece and Spain were also members. Many other countries remained unaligned, however, and currency conversion between, say, Great Britain and France remained frustrating, particularly for occasional travelers.

One such traveler was Dana Bickford, an inventor known in his time for creating an “automatic knitting machine,” but today best known among numismatists for his attempts to create a working international coinage. The Bickford pattern $10 coin lays out its value seven ways: there are six denominations and values in boxes that surround a center listing the weight and metal content.

The proposed gold coins would have been valued at 10 United States dollars; 51.81 French francs; two pounds, one shilling, one penny in British sterling, etc. The center, applicable UBIQUE (or “everywhere” in Latin—thanks, Mrs. Killion!) lists the coin’s weight at 16.72 grams (of gold), 900 fine (or 9/10ths pure).

It’s an utterly delightful and charming idea — until one realizes that as soon as any one country changed the value of its currency relative to the rest, the coin is suddenly wrong. This fatal flaw is why the Bickford $10 trade coin never made it past the pattern stage.

Most of the Bickford $10 patterns produced were made out of copper, like this example. Two precious representatives, however, were made out of gold, and these rarities are among the most prized patterns available to collectors today. One of them, formerly owned by numismatic legends such as Waldo Newcomer, F.C.C. Boyd, and Dr. J. Hewitt Judd (who literally “wrote the book” on patterns), is a highlight of the auction’s Platinum Night session.

In fact, it’s right there on the Platinum Night cover, next to the 1913 Liberty nickel and the 1927-D double eagle. While it may not have the instant recognition of the other two (pattern collectors excluded, of course), the Bickford $10 pattern in gold is actually the rarest of the three. Bidding is up to $725,000 as I type this…where will it end? Nobody will know until the bidding ends on January 7. Heritage’s January 2010 FUN event will be the first great numismatic auction of the new decade. Join us in Florida or on Heritage LIVE!™ to join in all the excitement!

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-John Dale Beety

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