Mike Costanzo submitted this article about the fantasy Sommers Island gold pound. Illustrated is a modern example struck from dies originally created by Wuesthoff in the early 1880's.
Lyman Low, T. Harrison Garrett, and the Sommers Island Fraud
From 1979 to 1981, Bowers & Ruddy Galleries sold the outstanding collection of
T. Harrison Garrett in four highly celebrated auctions. Among the 2,453 lots was a
highly questionable purchase made by Garrett in 1884 from dealer and future
author Lyman H. Low. The coin in question was a Sommers Island
shilling gold piece.
On October 24, 1884, Lyman Low wrote to Garrett offering him the
rarity and choicest gem which has ever come into my hands, a unique Sommers
Island twenty shilling gold piece. Low theorized that
a number of them were
struck off, but proving useless, they probably found their way to the melting pot.
Despite the piece appearing questionable to typical Sommers Island coinage, Low
considered it genuine and concluded
I bought it on my judgment and sell it on my
On October 29th, Low followed up with yet another letter concerning the piece
and claiming it arrived from Germany with
a lack of numismatic intelligence on
the part of the owner as to its real value. Low added that he could add no
additional details regarding its history but put its value it in the class of the Brasher
Doubloon and Good Samaritan shilling. Garrett took the bait and two days later
Low acknowledged Garrett's check of $500 for the piece.
The Sommers Island gold piece remained in Garrett's collection well after
Garrett's death in 1888 and continued to reside among later additions made by
Garrett's sons, Robert and John Work. The John Hopkins University would later
inherit the collection and eventually put the contents up for auction.
The third of these four public auctions by Bowers & Ruddy took place on
October 1-2, 1980, with lot number 1199 listed as the
Sommers Islands Gold
pound. Like the 1795 North Wales Halfpenny and 1781 North American Token,
the Sommers Island piece exhibited artificial wear produced from unfinished dies.
Bowers & Ruddy offered the piece as
an interesting piece de caprice which
played a brief but dramatic role in 19th-century American numismatic history. It sold for a high bid of $1250.
Bowers & Ruddy listed the piece as a
fantasy or fabrication, adding
it was manufactured during the 1880's by a New York dealer known as only as
Wuesthoff. Although the piece fooled Garret, whether it also fooled Low is
another question. At the time (1884) Low had only been a dealer for a year, and his
published reference of Hard Times tokens was still two years off. In The History of
United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection, author Q. David Bowers summed up the transaction by diplomatically noting,
Whether or not Low
was aware of the deception is not known today.
The Sommers Island Gold Pound as it appeared in the Bowers & Ruddy auction
Low, however, appeared to be pushing the piece on Garrett by writing two letters
in five days extolling the rarity of the coin, before successfully closing the sale
within the span of a week. Low also failed to mention the fact that the piece was
previously mentioned in Edouard Frossard's Numisma, which led an editor of The
American Journal of Numismatics to question the authenticity of the piece in print.
Frossard followed up by writing in the July 1884 issue of Numisma
If the XX
shilling can be proved bogus it is a worthless token, of no more value, except in
metal, than the well-known restrikes of the Hog Island shilling. If authentic, it is
one of the rarest and one of the most interesting numismatic monuments relating to
the early days of America.
Had Garrett subscribed to Numisma he would have been aware of the notoriety
of the piece well before being offered it by Low. At the same time, Frossard's
comments pertaining to the possibility of the coin's historical significance may
have only whetted his appetite. Bower & Ruddy's auction catalog also makes note
of this observation, stating
Whether or not Garrett was aware of the controversy
from his own independent reading of numismatic literature cannot be determined.
Garrett could have also made use of one of the best reference publications
available in his day, namely Sylvester Crosby's Early Coins of America. Crosby's
1875 book covered the Sommers Island issues as well as included photographed
specimens in Plate I of the book. Included in this very plate were photos of
authentic issues as well as modern day copies.
As for the $500 Garrett paid for this fabrication, it should be noted that Garrett
had purchased a genuine 1804 silver dollar from dealer George Cogan a year
earlier for $765. It should also be noted that the modern-day purchasing power of
$500 in 1884 amounts to over $14,000 in 2022. Garrett would continue to conduct
other business with Low, but the Sommers Island piece was apparently never
As for the Sommers Island gold pound, it has not surfaced since 1980 and its
whereabouts remain unknown. Bowers & Ruddy's listing also noted the dies for
the fabrication surfaced in the late 1950's and were purchased by a Pittsburgh
dealer, who then struck off additional pieces. Luckily, Robert Bashlow never got
his hands on them.
The Garrett sales were a high benchmark in the rare coin market at the time, with
many pieces exceeding their pre-sale auction estimate, and the twenty-shilling gold
pound was no exception. $1,250 was a lot to pay for a known fantasy, and still is.
And the disturbing fact remains that additional copies had been struck off when the
Garrett piece was purchased mainly for its pedigree. This complicates matters for
the high bidder whomever they were, much less whomever holds the piece today.
The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection. Q.
David Bowers. (Bower & Ruddy Galleries, 1979)
The Garrett Collection Sales. Sale III, October 1-2, 1980. (Bower & Ruddy
Numisma. (Frossard) Vol 7, Number 6. November 1883.
Numisma. (Frossard) Vol 8, Number 4. July 1884.
The Early Coins of America. Sylvester S. Crosby (Token and Medal Society,
Wayne Homren, Editor
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