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The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 9, March 2, 2008, Article 18

BOB EVANS ON THE S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA J. L. POLHEMUS COUNTERSTAMPS

[Geologist, historian and curator Bob Evans is a longtime
E-Sylum reader, and this week he provides us with an
interesting submission on the J. L. Polhemus counterstamsps
(which I mistakenly described as "J. H. Polhemus" last week).
 -Editor]

The E-Sylum is always fascinating, and sometimes it drifts
into subjects with which I have personal experience. Such
was the case last week when Wayne’s Numismatic Diary (February
19) covered the recent meeting of his Northern Virginia
numismatic social group. I wish I could have been at that
meeting, particularly when Dave Schenkman and Joe Levine
shared their stories of the Polhemus counterstamped double-
eagle.  According to Wayne’s Diary, “The Sacramento, CA
pharmacist stamped a number of U. S. coins, but only one
gold piece.”

Although my own numismatic experience stretches only back
to 1988, when my crewmates and I discovered the shipwreck
site of the S.S. Central America, that experience has
encompassed the discovery of three pieces with Polhemus
counterstamps. While it is true that for years the only
such counterstamp on a gold coin was the one handled by
Joe and then Dave, the shipwreck yielded two more double-
eagles so stamped, as well as one half-dollar. Collectively,
the double-eagles may be the most impressive “store cards”
ever produced.

The stamp reads, “J. L. POLHEMUS / DRUGGIST / 190 J. ST.
COR. 7th / SACRAMENTO CAL.” The lines bearing the Polhemus
name and the city name are arranged in a slight arc and an
inverse arc respectively, creating an attractive “football-
shape” for the design. Perhaps the most charming aspect is
that beneath the man’s name is a tiny mortar and pestle
figure, the universal symbol of the pharmacy trade.

As the curator of the S.S. Central America treasure it was
a great privilege and honor to handle the contents of this
accidental time-capsule for the first time, and I made many
discoveries, if not for numismatics then certainly for myself.
I found the first Polhemus counterstamp in my shipboard
laboratory in 1989 while we were still at sea. After each
dive, before locking up the treasure I performed preliminary
cataloguing, and I tried to be as detailed as the encrusting
rust and mineral deposits on the coins and ingots would allow.

When I first saw the counterstamp there was something
incongruous about it. Through the rust I could see lettering
stamped around the stars and sunburst over the eagle’s head
on the reverse of an 1855-S double-eagle, making it somewhat
resemble a Type II or III to my novice’s eye. I immediately
knew something was unusual about this coin, so I fully
conserved it over the next few days to reveal the full
details and the wonderful counterstamp. I had previously
found a “W. W. LIGHT / DENTIST” counterstamp on a Wass Molitor
1852 $10 piece, so I was already familiar with the practice
of counterstamping.

Both the Polhemus and Light counterstamps were illustrated
in Walter Breen’s July 1990 article in The Numismatist (V.
103, No. 7) “The SS Central America: Tragedy and Treasure.”

The second Polhemus discovery came many years later. After a
decade of legal wrangling over rights, wrongs, ownership versus
salvage, and other aggravations, I commenced curating
(conserving if you prefer) the bulk of the treasure, in
cooperation with Dwight Manley and the California Gold Marketing
Group. One of the last groups of coins I tackled were what I
called “clusters,” coins firmly bound together by the rust and
minerals. As I separated the double-eagles so encased, out
popped an uncirculated 1856-S with a Polhemus counterstamp
on the obverse, slapped across Liberty’s shining face like a
bizarre tattoo. Coin World (June 25, 2001) quoted me as saying,
“Wow! That’s incredible!” at the moment of discovery, although
my actual words may have been a bit more colorful and unprintable
in a family publication.

That same issue of Coin World describes the earlier known coin
discussed at the meeting in northern Virginia as “an 1857-S
double eagle that was part of the Dr. Hudson Collection for
many years.” It also reports the price at auction, $48,300
for the counterstamped 1855-S first found in the treasure:
obviously a marvelous coin with many great stories.

[As I read Bob's email I realized that I had indeed seen
references to the Polhemus counterstamped gold coins from
the S.S. Central America, so my remark of the uniqueness of
the piece is question was indeed incorrect.  I'll blame it
on the wine.  Thanks for the correction, and the great story
of how these other pieces came to light from the wonderful
time capsule of the S.S. Central America recovery.

As for the Dr. Hudson piece, it is NOT the same one handled
by Joe Levine and Dave Schenkman - that one ended up in the
collection of Ray Byrne of Pittsburgh.  The Byrne specimen
was unique in gold at the time (although many Polhemus
counterstamps were already known on silver coins).

Dave Schenkman writes: "I knew about the other gold Polhemus
from the Numismatist story, where it was illustrated. Dr.
Hudson was also from Pittsburgh, and later moved to Texas.
He had some great tokens; Van Ormer and I bought some of
his Civil War tokens, and also his sutler collection. But,
he didn’t own the Polhemus counterstamp I bought from Joe."
 -Editor]

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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