The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 41, October 11, 2009, Article 10


Readers may recall that when the Stack's sales of the John J. Ford collection ended, I said "What the heck? Where's the Nova Constellatio Pattern Set ???" This set is (in my opinion) THE most important set of American coins ever made - far more so than even the famous King of Siam set.

These coins were the original prototypes for the national coinage of the United States. Ford considered them a highlight of his collection, and re-assembling them after 200 years was a considerable numismatic feat. So where was it? As a subscriber to the hardbound Ford sale catalogs, I felt cheated - without the Nova Constellatio set, there was a huge hole in the record of Ford's collection.

I'd heard some rumors of what happened to the set, most of which turned out to be incorrect. But Stack's was mum and I had no official word to publish. Well, I wish I'd been able to make the recent Whitman Philadelphia Expo, because the set was there, on display for all to see. -Editor

An E-Sylum reader writes:

I recently attended the Philadelphia convention, and I saw something there that stunned me.

What first caught my eye was a Plexiglas housing containing some very valuable paper money rarities, including the famous 'Grand Watermelon' $1,000 Treasury note. After looking at that display, I noticed some coins in a neighboring display case. Unless I'm mistaken (and I easily could be), the coins in this Plexiglas housing were the Nova Constellatio patterns that John Ford bought at one of the Garrett sales.

After viewing what I thought to be the Garrett/Ford patterns, I asked a security guard who was minding the exhibit who owned them. He said a Southern collector who wished to remain anonymous owned them. He then volunteered that the coins were owned by the same person who owned the paper money rarities in the adjacent display.

Not being an expert in coins, and particularly unknowledgeable in colonial era numismatics, I thought I would lay back and wait for someone else to contribute this story to The E-Sylum. But The E-Sylum Philadelphia show coverage had nothing about the display of the patterns.

Since I no longer subscribe to Coin World, I have no idea if the mainstream numismatic media picked up on this.

P.S.: I'm enclosing an article from the web about these coins written by some hack in 1994.

The latest issue of Coin World has a very brief mention of the Nova Constellatio pattern display in an article about the Whitman show.

The "hack" our writer jokingly refers to was Yours Truly, writing on July 21, 1994, over three years before The E-Sylum came to be. Here's what I wrote. Forgive the repetition, but these comments were made over a span of 15 years, so at least I'm consistent...

NovaCopper5unit NovaSilverQuint500units

This week's Numismatic News announced that John Ford's unique 1783 Nova Constellatio pattern set will be on display at Stack's table at the ANA Convention next week. Wow! To me, this set is the ultimate U.S. numismatic treasure, far more important historically than the King of Siam set (of 1804 Dollar fame).

The coins were struck in April 1783 for Robert Morris, and were the first attempt to create a national coinage for the new government. The denominations were based on a unit equal to 1/440th of a Spanish Milled Dollar. The silver "mark" was 100 units, the "quint" 500, the "bit" 100. The smallest was a copper "5".

The following is the story of Ford's acquisition of the set, as near as I can remember it. I have a tape recording of a talk he gave one time, and spoke to him in person about it once. He had a lot of explaining to do to his wife when he needed to liquidate other assets to come up with some cash after the Garrett sale.

Ford bought the copper "five" in 1977. It was found in a Paris collection and was sold to a U.S coin dealer who thought it was a pattern for the later Nova Constellatio copper coinage--he didn't realize it was the missing link in the Morris set (the other three silver pieces resided in the Garrett collection at Johns Hopkins University). The dealer offered it to a wealthy collector who in turn asked John Ford for his advice. The collector met Ford in midtown Manhattan while on the way to a fishing trip. As the two shared a cab, the collector pulled the piece from his shirt pocket and showed it to Ford.

"How much should I pay for it" he asked. "Just buy it," Ford said, recognizing the significance of the piece. "But how much is it worth?" "Just buy it--whatever it takes--buy it!" The collector put the piece back in the pocket of his fishing shirt, and left for the woods. When he later contacted the dealer, the asking price was $20,000, and the collector balked. He sent the coin back to the dealer.

Before long John Ford got a call himself from the dealer, and later bought the piece for his own collection. Two years later, Ford bought the remaining three pieces at the Garrett sale for $425,000. The set of four coins that passed through the hands of Morris and Thomas Jefferson was united again after nearly 200 years.

After holding the set for 15 years, Ford is apparently putting it up for sale. "The price is available on request." Those of us who'd have to ask, can't afford it. But this collector will make sure he takes the opportunity to see the coins before they disappear for another 15 years or more.

To read the complete article, see: The 1783 Nova Constellatio Set (

When Ford passed away I published a special issue of The E-Sylum the next day (July 8, 2005). I wrote:

I recall sitting with him at the Stack's table at the Detroit ANA, where I had been viewing his Nova Constellatio silver pattern set, which he was offering for sale through them. I was transfixed as I examined what I still feel is one of the most important sets of U.S. coinage ever made. John had told me about how he bid on the pieces he bought from the Garrett sales while we spoke at Champa's.

To read the complete E-Sylum article, see: JOHN J. FORD, JR. (

Now leap forward to 2009. This article was posted September 25, 2009 on the Whitman web site.

Whitman's own Q. David Bowers appeared on Philadelphia's FOX29 this morning, with Nova Constellatio pattern coins, the $1,000 "Grand Watermelon" Note and Sansom Medals. Mr. Bowers told viewers how to have their coins evaluated by dealers at the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Philadelphia Expo, now through Saturday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

To read the complete article, see: Q. David Bowers on Philly's FOX29 (

Whitman's David Crenshaw forwarded this picture of the exhibit as well as the images of the coins above. He writes:

The young lady is Kimberly Godinho. Learn more about her and her early American coin paintings that were also on display at: .

Nova Constellation pattern set exhibit

I asked Alan Weinberg, who writes:

Yes, the Nova Constellatio set was displayed vertically in a white Capital Plastics holder in a poorly lighted case at the Philadelphia show. You couldn't really see them well and had to strain your body various ways to see any detail at all. They would have been more wisely displayed flat- so you couldn't see the reverses but at least you could see the obverses ! I hadn't mentioned the Nova display as it was so difficult to see.

They had belonged to John Ford, Jr. who acquired most of them out of the Garrett sale in 1979 but had to sell a great many coins he owned to raise money to do so. Ford was never cash-rich.

Fifteen years ago Stack's got them on consignment from Ford and advertised them, issuing a pamphlet, at $1.5 million and they didn't sell. Then a few years ago they privately offered them at $4 million to Don Partrick who turned them down flat, saying if he had wanted them he'd have paid the $1.5 million years ago. Then Stack's sold them for $4-5 million to the current owner who put them on display.

Stack's 1994 Nova Constellatio Pattern booklet I was fortunate to view the set in 1994 at the Detroit show. I sat down at the Stack's table and they handed me the large white Capital holder. I examined each obverse and reverse with my magnifier. Luckily there were no other viewers at the table, and I must have sat there gawking for 15 minutes or more. And then I saw John Ford walking down the aisle. He pulled up a chair beside me and we talked about the set.

My copy of the 1994 Stack's pamphlet is illustrated here. It's a nicely done 12-page color booklet on glossy paper. A big chunk of the first two pages is wasted with images of a Guttenberg bible and first folio of Shakespeare. Puh-leeze, spare us the marketing crap! We get it. But the rest of the pamphlet is a nice history of the creation and provenance of the set.

It's a shame the coins were denied a first-class catalogue description in the Ford sales. But I doubt that it's Stack's (or anyone's) fault. These things happen for various reasons, and none of us should second guess the decisions of the parties involved, which include not just Stack's but the Ford family and the buyer of the set. At least we now know what happened to it.

The buyer wishes to remain anonymous so I won't spill the beans even though their identity is considered "an open secret" in numismatic circles. Congratulations to the "Southern Gentleman", and many thanks for putting the set on display. -Editor


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