Winter's New Book Reviewed

A review of my book “Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909” was recently featured in the on-line publication “The Esylum” dated October 1, 2006 and listed as Volume 9, Issue #40. The Esylum is the online weekly publication of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society and I very highly recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for numismatics as it is a really exceptional publication made all the more wonderful by the fact that it appears, like clockwork, every Sunday night in the in box of my email. To subscribe, contact Wayne Homren (the newsletter’s editor) at his email address which is BOOK REVIEW: GOLD COINS OF THE NEW ORLEANS MINT 1839-1909

One new book I've had the pleasure to review recently is the second edition of Doug Winter's "Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909." The 237-page paperback is published by Zyrus Press ($34.95). From the publisher's web site: "In 1989, the first edition of Doug Winter's book Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909 was published. It popularized these under-appreciated coins and introduced many new collectors to the field.

In the ensuing two decades, much has changed in the New Orleans gold market. Newly discovered hoards have changed the rarity levels of certain dates while others remain very difficult to locate."

Well, it hasn't quite been two decades since 1989, and the book wasn't published in 1989, it was published in 1992. Still, fourteen years between editions is a long time. But it's been worth the wait. The new edition is much improved, starting with the all-new enlarged color images of each coin. But this new edition is more than just an update - it is essentially a new book with completely updated information encompassing all that has been learned about the series in the past fourteen years.

One of the biggest changes, acknowledged by the author in his preface, is the number of post-1880 eagles that are now known. He writes: "Substantial quantities of these coins have been found in Europe since 1992. In some cases, total populations have doubled or even tripled and I don't doubt that the numbers will continue to rise in the coming years."

For example, I turned randomly to the entry for 1894-O Eagles and compared it with the corresponding entry in my copy of the first edition. Of the original mintage (still believed to be 107,500), the total number known is now 550-750+, whereas at the time of the first edition only 140-160 were known.

The layout of each entry follows a common format and is very easy to read, another great improvement over the first edition. Mintage, Rarity Rankings, Strike, Surfaces, Luster, Coloration, Eye Appeal, Die Characteristics, Major Varieties, Significant Pieces Known, Auction Records, and Total Known (with a breakdown by grade) are listed for each coin.

To address what he felt were two major shortcomings of the first edition, the author included research articles which in my opinion, are worth the price of the book alone. In his Preface, Winter writes "[in the first book] ... there was virtually no information about the history of the New Orleans Mint. I am not a historian and I felt that my contributions about this topic would be unoriginal at best. I commissioned Greg Lambousy, the Director of Collections of the Louisiana State Museum, who wrote what I feel is a simply brilliant concise history of the Mint. Also, David Ginsberg has written an article about how gold coins of this era circulated; a study that will explain exactly why so many of these coins are so rare today.”

Lambousy's article draws on many of the known sources in numismatic literature such as the 1862 Harper's New Monthly Magazine article "Making Money" and writings by and about Mint official John Leonard Riddell, but it also references a number of much lesser known sources. The bibliography is quite complete to my knowledge, although I didn't see a reference to the 1846 Merchants Magazine and Commercial Review article by Freeman Hunt titled "United States Branch Mint at New Orleans." The thirteen-page article includes two pages of photos of the interior of the New Orleans Mint and its workers, courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum.

I have to agree with Winter that Lambousy's article is a very valuable concise history of the Mint, and well worth reading. There are some great tidbits of history here, numismatic and otherwise, such as Riddell's invention of the rotary ingot machine, and brothers Rufus and Philos Tyler's invention and patenting of the silver dollar counting table. Along the way there are interesting diversions into Riddell's conflicts with fellow workers, structural problems of the Mint building, control of the Mint under the Confederacy, and story of William Mumford who was hanged by Union forces in front of the Mint of June 7th, 1862.

David Ginsberg's article is equally original, well-researched, and interesting to read. In addition to consulting some of my own favorite references on this era (Carothers' "Fractional Money" and Gibbons' "The Banks of New York, Their Dealers, The Clearing House, and the Panic of 1857," Ginsburg uncovered a number of valuable other sources including an 1843 publication, "The Letters of Lowndes, Addressed to the Hon. John C. Calhoun." The book has a priceless account, reprinted here, of a traveler's maddeningly difficult cross-country journey while attempting to conduct commerce with a mishmash of different paper money issues. Such difficulties make it easy to understand how having gold coinage could greatly ease the problem of traveling to distant parts of the country in those days.

On page 88 Winter reprints a delightful account by David Akers of "Debunking the Myth of the '1841-O Half Eagle,' taken from the October 1997 Pittman I catalog. It's the story of John J. Pittman's 1841-C Half Eagle, which he purchased in the Farouk sale. The coin had earlier been part of the Col. E.H.R. Green collection. The New York firm Stack's had a beautiful album of photographs of the Green Half Eagle collection in their research library, and Walter Breen reviewed it while researching his monograph on U.S. Half Eagles.

"Because of the shadows on the photo, the C mintmark looked like an O to him, so Breen mistook it for an example of the legendary (but non- existent) 1841-O." Breen's mistake was taken as fact and carried on through the decades while the grinning Pittman would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the coin, saying only coyly, "It pays to look at every lot!" Pittman later admitted "I always knew there was no such thing as an 1841-O Half Eagle, but I had so much fun going along with Breen's story."