Monday, July 26, 2010

Coin Monday: The Quantum Pedigree

July 26, 2010
Written by John Dale

Schrödinger’s cat is dead. Schrödinger’s cat is not dead. Schrödinger’s cat is replaced by Schrödinger himself whenever I consider his thought experiment, because I could never do that to a kitty. (I skipped the AP Biology course in high school because I would have had to dissect a cat. To do that and then go home to Bootsie, Callie, and Tribble... it wasn’t happening.)

Quantum states, probability and uncertainty, the idea that the top card of a shuffled deck is 1/52 an ace of spades and just as much a deuce of clubs until the moment you turn it over… it’s rare that such concepts can be applied to numismatics. Most coin information is either treated as established fact or considered unknowable, lost in myriad possibilities. We know whether Schrödinger is dead or not dead… or we will never be able to open the box.

Yet I came across an instance recently with two well-defined and discrete possibilities, served up with a large side of uncertainty. There were two Plain Edge, Wire Rim Saint-Gaudens ten dollar pattern coins made in 1907. Heritage has one of them, the only one known to have survived, in its upcoming Official ANA U.S. Coin auction in Boston.

The known history of this particular coin goes back only a few years. Yet recent numismatic research has revealed what happened to the two Plain Edge, Wire Rim tens immediately after they were struck:

In mid-July 1907, one was sent to then-Secretary of the Treasury George B. Cortelyou, who forwarded the coin to President Theodore Roosevelt. The other was sent to the coins’ designer, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

One coin, two possible destinations… Roosevelt or Saint-Gaudens, president or artist… a quantum pedigree.

If the coin went to President Roosevelt, then it was seen by the man who made coin design reform his “pet crime,” whose drive and determination had brought the project this far and would see it through after the death of Saint-Gaudens. Impressive history, and yet this coin could be even more important.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens died on August 3, 1907. He did not live to see his designs on circulating coinage. In fact, he only ever saw his work in coin form once, just weeks before his death, when he was sent the Plain Edge, Wire Rim ten in mid-July. If this is the Saint-Gaudens coin, then it is the only Saint-Gaudens gold coin that the artist himself ever saw. The possibility is historically important and emotionally resonant.

Little is known about either coin in the time after distribution. The Saint-Gaudens coin fell completely off the radar, while archived Mint materials indicate that the Roosevelt specimen was sent back to the Mint. Just as there is no record of the Saint-Gaudens piece in the artist’s estate, there is no record of the Roosevelt piece in the National Numismatic Collection, successor to the Mint cabinet.

Assuming only one of the Plain Edge, Wire Rim tens survived, which environment would be more likely to produce a single coin in private hands: the Mint, where many patterns were saved for the Mint cabinet but many more were melted; or the estate of Saint-Gaudens, where family members and relations-in-art were grieving over his death?

The latter environment, with its reverence for all things Saint-Gaudens, seems far more likely to have preserved its Plain Edge, Wire Rim ten; thus, it gets the nod from Heritage’s perspective as the pattern’s more likely origin.

For now, uncertainty reigns… though not only uncertainty, but also probability and hope. Beyond the known lies the possible, and someday, a future researcher poring through Mint correspondence or the Saint-Gaudens archives may find the answer, the one key clue that opens the box and reveals the truth, attaching a single story to this singular pattern.

Until then, we can savor the possibilities.

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-John Dale Beety

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