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Ephraim Brasher

The Man and His Coinage

Brasher's efforts in the lucrative field of private coinage range from the modest Nova Eborac coppers to the majestic New York-style doubloons with which his name will always be associated.

Ephraim Brasher, a man of many accomplishments, established a reputation for integrity and fine workmanship while engaged in several professions during his eventful life. He enjoyed a certain celebrity, as a patriot of the Revolution, prominent businessman, and neighbor of George Washington. His famous EB counterstamp was widely recognized and accepted as a guarantee of quality and value, and today he is justly remembered as the creator of the famous 1787 New Yorkstyle Brasher doubloon, one of the rarest and, historically, the most valuable of all American coins.

Unfortunately, his renown faded quickly after his death in 1810. Brasher was largely forgotten until numismatic scholars began to study his legacy in the 1850s, when coin collecting first became widespread in this country. Considering his accomplishments, biographical information is minimal, and the earliest extensive work we could find was "Ephraim Brasher, Silversmith of New York," by Stephen Decatur in the June 1938 edition of the American Collector magazine. More recently, Elegant Plate: Three Centuries of Precious Metals in New York City, vol. II (New York: Museum of the City of New York, 2000), provided new information regarding Brasher's life and work.

Ephraim Brasher was baptized on April 18, 1744, in the Reformed Dutch Church of New York; he resided in New York City all his life, save for the period of British occupation when he and his family were in Red Hook, Dutchess County. The Brashers were a long-established Dutch family in the area, and their strong tradition of naming male offspring after a close family member has caused some confusion over the years. Patriarch Abraham Brasher had sons named Abraham and Ephraim. The junior Ephraim also had two sons named Abraham and Ephraim, and both were silversmiths. The subject of this study also had a son named Ephraim.

Genealogists note much confusion about the Brasher surname, as well. The old Dutch records show different branches of the family spelled their name variously as Breser, Bresert, Brasier, Brazier, and even Bradejor. The general public has always pronounced Brasher's name phonetically, but his descendants have said that the preferred pronunciation is Bray-zher.

Little is recorded about Brasher's life until November 10, 1766, when he married Ann (Adriaantje / Adrianntje / Arejaantie) Gilbert. Anne was slightly older than Ephraim, as records show she was baptized at the Reformed Dutch Church in 1742; she died sometime before January 1797. While the details of his training are unknown, their intimate personal relationship indicates it is quite possible that Ephraim apprenticed as a silversmith alongside Ann's brother William. Ephraim and Ann acted as witnesses for the baptisms of the Gilberts' daughter Aletta and son Ephraim. Along with Margret Brasher (relationship uncertain), William Gilbert in turn was a witness to the baptism of Ephraim's own namesake on September 28, 1777, in Red Hook, Duchess County. Upon Ann's death in 1797, Brasher married Mary Austin. According to Elegant Silver , together they had five children. (Ephraim's great-great-great granddaughter, Deborah and great-great-great grandson Milton Brasher were present at the 1979 Garrett Sale where Donald G. Partrick acquired the finest known example of the New York-style Brasher doubloon.)

Brasher tankard to be offeredin a future Partrick Collection sale.
Brasher tankard to be offered
in a future Partrick Collection sale.

Brasher was a well-respected member of the community. In his March 1987 Coinage article, "The Brasher Bicentennial," David T. Alexander noted: "In the late 1700's, silversmiths and goldsmiths were particularly respected members of the community, often acting as bankers, assayers, and authenticators of the Babel of gold and silver coins of the world which circulated in the bullionstarved colonies and the new republic." Celebrated patriot Paul Revere was a silversmith by trade, and lawyer Elias Boudinot, who later served as a Congressman and Director of the United States Mint, also worked as a silversmith in his younger days.

In 1786, Myer Myers chaired meetings of the Gold and Silversmiths Society, of which Ephraim Brasher was a member. The Jeweler's Circular and Horological Review (June 1, 1892) writes: "In the first directory of New York, 1786, is found the following: 'Gold and Silver-smiths' Society meets on Wednesdays at the house of Walter Heyer. Myer Myers, chairman; members, Samuel Johnson, William Gilbert, Esq., Otto de Perrizang, William Forbes, John Burger, Daniel Chene, Cary Dunn, Benjamin Halsted and Ephraim Brasher.'" Brasher's craftsmanship was excellent, and many examples of his work are currently on display in New York and New England museums. Interestingly, the August 3, 1921, issue of The Jewelers' Circular noted that U.S.S. Constitution Commodore Isaac Hull possessed a bowl made by Ephraim Brasher that was onboard when he defeated the Guerrière during the War of 1812.

As the conflict between the American colonies and the mother country deepened, Brasher, along with brother-inlaw William Gilbert, served in Colonel Lasher's regiment of the New York Provincial Army; Brasher was a Lieutenant of grenadiers in 1775. Ephraim's brother Abraham was "one of the most active associates of the 'Liberty Boys' of his native city. He wrote many of the popular ballads of the Revolutionary period, and was a constant contributor to the newspapers of his day. Among his celebrated poetical products were 'Another New Year's Address' and the 'General's Trip to Morristown,' both of which were favorites of soldiers in the American camp." (Jeweler's Circular of August 3, 1921.)

When the British occupation began, Ephraim and his family left for Red Hook, Dutchess County. Records list him as serving in the Sixth Regiment as an enlisted man in "Dutchess, New York." His military career continued after the war, when he rose to the rank of major in the militia. He finally retired in 1796.

It is noteworthy that Brasher lived just a few feet from President George Washington after the war, when New York City was briefly the nation's capital. Washington's residence was at 3 Cherry Street and the New York City Directory of 1789 notes "Brafher Ephraim filverfmith" lived next door at number 1 Cherry Street (he later moved to number 5 Cherry Street).

The neighborhood of Cherry Hill was a smart section of New York City in the 18th century, located just north of the Manhattan side of the present day Brooklyn Bridge. Brasher's business address was listed in the 1789 Directory as 79 Queen Street, an easy walk from his home. In addition to being Brasher's nextdoor neighbor, Washington was also a customer. He owned a set of four skewers, the receipt for which survives today, as well as four Neoclassical trays purchased on September 6, 1790 (Mount Vernon collection). Brasher's work was undoubtedly on display at many important dinners-of-state and other social gatherings.

Throughout his later years, Brasher served in local political and civil service posts in New York City, which at the time was tantamount to serving in national posts; New York was the leading center of banking and foreign trade, and was also the new national capital. He served as sanitary commissioner from 1784 to 1785, coroner from 1786 to 1791, assistant justice from 1794 to 1797, election inspector from 1796 to 1809, and commissioner of excise from 1806 to 1810. He continued practicing his trade, and briefly partnered with George Alexander (1800-1801). The Old Middle Dutch Church records say he died on November 10, 1810, aged 66.

Brasher the Assayer

Brasher the Assayer

In addition to his primary trade as a silversmith, there is much evidence that Brasher was often employed as an assayer by banks and other institutions, including the United States Mint. The Mint conducted an assay every year to determine the weight and fineness of foreign coins in circulation, and the results were reported for many years in the annual Report of the Director of the Mint. Unfortunately, the Mint Act of 1792 required both the Chief Coiner and Assayer to post a bond of $10,000 before they could perform any precious metal coinage operations. Neither Chief Coiner Henry Voigt nor Assayer Albion Cox could afford to post such an exorbitant bond, so the assays could not be legally conducted by Mint personnel in 1792. As a result, the assay had to be outsourced that year, with Washington's old neighbor, Ephraim Brasher, and others, standing in for Cox. An entry in the July 1892 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics notes:

"He (Brasher) was employed by the authorities of the United States Mint, in 1792, to make assays for the Mint, 'on sundry coins of gold and silver, pursuant to instructions from the then Secretary of the Treasury' (Alexander Hamilton). What those coins were, it cannot now be definitely ascertained, but possibly he may have assisted David Ott, whose assay in November, 1792, is on record; this was an examination of 'French Guineas and Double Guineas,' so-called, and of English Guineas, Spanish Pistoles, and Half Johannes of Portugal, of various dates, in gold, and of English and French Crowns, English Shillings, and Spanish Dollars, in silver; for work of this kind Brasher seems to have been well adapted."

Apparently, Brasher was only paid for this assay years later. He assigned his payment to John Shield, according to an account in the American State Papers, under the entry "Estimated Expenditures for the Year 1796" in which a $27 Treasury Warrant was recorded:

"... in favor of John Shield, assignee of Ephraim Brasher, being for assays made by said Brasher, in the year 1792, for the Mint of sundry coins of gold and silver, pursuant to the instructions from the then Secretary of the Treasury."

The surety bonds remained a problem for the Mint until 1794, when Congress lowered the requirement to $1,000 for the assayer and $5,000 for the chief coiner. Cox was then able to provide the surety, with the help of his Philadelphia merchant friend, Charles Gilchrist (see David Finkelstein's article in the September 27, 2015, edition of the E-Sylum ).

In the later part of the 18th century, the money supply in the newly independent United States included a bewildering assortment of foreign coins, like those enumerated in David Ott's 1792 assay, above. Everyday transactions usually involved privately issued, or state sponsored, copper pieces, but gold coins were primarily used in large transactions, by banks or merchants in the larger cities. The general public seldom handled precious-metal coinage, so most people were not familiar with the appearance or specifications of the coins. In 1789, the Bank of North America issued pamphlets listing the values of various foreign gold coins, as determined by their assays, to assist merchants in everyday commerce. Other institutions published tables of weights and measures to help facilitate these exchanges (see table from the Federal or New Ready Reckoner and Traders Useful Assistant below).

Image courtesy of the Newman Numismatic Portal
Image courtesy of the Newman Numismatic Portal

In the years before the Mint was firmly established, private individuals and banking institutions frequently carried out assays on circulating coins and, although some researchers have questioned his involvement in these proceedings, it is believed that Brasher performed this service for many of his customers.

As confirmation, a number of foreign gold and silver coins known today bear Brasher's hallmark. Brasher apparently examined these coins and stamped them to signify that they were of full weight and fineness. The Bank of New York regularly employed gold- and silversmiths, like Brasher, to test the coins received at the bank in routine commerce. These men, known as "Regulators," would weigh each coin as it was deposited, add a plug of gold to any that were found to be outside the allowable tolerances, and stamp the coin with their hallmark to indicate that the coin was acceptable. These interesting coins are highly sought after by collectors today, and examples bring substantial premiums whenever they are offered. They confirm that Brasher's reputation as an assayer was well established by the late 1780s, and coins bearing his counterstamp were widely accepted. The Partrick Collection includes several examples of foreign gold coins that were "regulated" by Brasher.

Brasher's Private Coinage

Brasher's Private Coinage

Despite his remarkable accomplishments in other areas, Ephraim Brasher is best remembered for his endeavors in the area of private coinage. His efforts in that lucrative field range from the simple Nova Eborac coppers to the majestic New York doubloons with which his name will always be associated. His skill set as a businessman, engraver, assayer, and metal worker served him well in that demanding profession, and his coinage helped to fill the needs of the infant republic in the chaotic economic period between independence and the establishment of the First United States Mint. Many questions about the purpose and extent of some of his private coinage issues remain unanswered, but some remarkable research has been done in recent times by scholars like Louis Jordan and Michael Hodder.

The physical evidence of the coins indicates Brasher's first private coinage effort was the Lima doubloon, a stylistic copy of the widely circulated 1742-dated coins of the eight escudos denomination issued by many Spanish mints in their Latin American colonies. The eight escudos coins were called Doblons in the Spanish colonies, and the term was adopted and Anglicized to doubloon in this country.

Brasher's Private Coinage
Enhanced obverse of the Lima doubloon, with
the incomplete letters and numerals illustrated.

It has been proven that the Lima-style doubloons predate their more famous New York counterparts. In his article titled "Ephraim Brasher's 1786 Lima Style Doubloon," published in the 1992 Money of Pre-Federal America for the Coinage of the Americas Conference, Hodder showed that the EB punch used on the Lima doubloons was in an earlier die state than in its use on the New York doubloons; on the latter, the punch showed signs of die rust above the upright of E, inside the top space of E, above and right of the crossbar, and over the inside right curve of B. From the peripheral partly impressed date on the obverse, the Lima style doubloons were almost certainly produced in 1786 and in fact are dated as such. The mintage is unknown, but it certainly must have been small, since only two examples of the issue survive today. Some researchers have suggested that they were struck as patterns for the later New York issue, but large gold patterns would certainly have been too costly for practical purposes. Another theory is they were produced for circulation in the lucrative West Indies trade. However, given the preponderance of foreign gold coinage in trade in the United States prior to the establishment of the Mint, they were most likely to have circulated in New York City; they are closely related to Brasher's more famous New York doubloons, as the weight and fineness of the two issues are virtually identical.

After striking the Lima-style doubloons, Brasher next tried his hand at copper coinage. An article by Louis Jordan on the Notre Dame website states:

"In 1787 Brasher appears to have joined with the New York silversmith and noted sword maker, John Bailey in requesting a franchise to produce copper coins for the State of New York. The legislative record for February 12, 1787 stated, 'the several petitions' of Brasher and Bailey were filed with the state. Because of the ambiguous wording it is not known if the petitions were joint ventures or simply individual petitions that just happened to have been submitted on the same day."

Jordan notes the possibility that the two men were operating independently, but concludes it is much more likely that they acted in concert. Unfortunately, the committee considering the matter decided that their mandate was limited to regulating the coinage that was already in circulation. Their authority did not include establishing a full-blown program of state coinage. Accordingly, no state coinage contract was awarded to Brasher and Bailey, or to Thomas Machin, who submitted his own petition at about the same time.

Undeterred, Brasher and Bailey proceeded to strike copper coins on their own account, without a contract, using a design that closely resembled the Connecticut state coppers of that era. Colonel Eli Leavenworth of New Haven, Connecticut, provided the planchet stock, and the design featured an armored male bust on the obverse and a seated figure of Liberty on the reverse. The number punches and the four-lobed rosettes (quatrefoils) that were used on these early pieces, known as Nova Eborac coppers, were later employed to prepare the dies for Brasher's famous New York doubloon. Their passing resemblance to the familiar Connecticut pieces and their semi-official appearance undoubtedly aided in the success of the Nova Eborac coins, which were widely accepted.

Brasher's Private Coinage

Brasher created his most famous numismatic issue, the New York-style Brasher doubloon, sometime in 1787. Although the specifications for the coin are virtually identical to the Lima doubloon and are extremely close to those of the earlier Spanish coins that served as their prototype, the design was totally different. The obverse was adapted from the coat of arms of New York while the reverse iconography is similar to the Great Seal of the United States. One example of the New York doubloon exists with the countermark on the eagle's breast, while the other six specimens show this feature on the wing. At least one example of a half doubloon exists, now in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. It was struck from the same dies as the regular doubloons on an undersized planchet weighing half as much as the larger coins. (Others posit what is known as a half doubloon is actually a full-size doubloon that has been cut down in order to conceal edge damage.) Michael Hodder established the following emission sequence for Brasher's gold issues, determined by the state of the EB countermark:

First -- Lima-style doubloon
Second -- Punch on Breast New York-style doubloon
Third -- Punch on Wing New York-style doubloon
Last -- Brasher half doubloon

The Brasher Lima-style doubloons were the very first circulating gold coins produced in the United States. And the New York-style doubloon, Brasher's masterpiece of design, is probably the most famous numismatic coin in the world.

Brasher's Private Coinage
Ephraim Brasher's counterstamp

Over the years, various theories have attempted to explain the purpose of the New York-style Brasher doubloons: Dickeson proposed they were struck as patterns from dies originally intended for Brasher and Bailey's proposed copper coinage; Don Taxay also thought they were gold patterns, but for the purpose of bribing New York State legislators who would favor Brasher and Bailey with a contract for the copper coinage; Vlack said the dies were for New York copper coinage; the 1979 RARCOA cataloger decided they were designed as souvenirs due to George Washington's being Brasher's next-door neighbor for a brief time.

Those ideas can easily be put aside. Large gold patterns would have been impractical, there's no evidence suggesting bribery, and gold souvenirs would have been prohibitively expensive -- plus, Washington was not living next door to Brasher when he made the coinage.

In actuality, the doubloons were produced to serve as a circulating medium of exchange, useful in large transactions between merchants and banks. In support of the theory is the weight and gold content of these pieces, which are within the tolerance for the Spanish doubloons in circulation at the time, and the fact that most of the known specimens show definite evidence of circulation. The doubloon was one of the most widely used of all circulating gold coins in America, according to James Risk in his article in the September 1981 issue of the Colonial Newsletter (p. 754):

"Banker's lists of gold coins acceptable for receipts and payments show quite clearly that the pieces were largely the issues of Brazil and Portugal, Britain and France, and, possibly the most important, Spanish Mints in Mexico and Peru. It was in all these mints that the familiar single and double Pistoles and, above all, the Doubloons were struck. The latter were large coins, somewhat greater in diameter than the U.S. Double Eagle gold piece, but thinner and worth about $16.00 in terms of the old United States gold coinage. The Doubloon was probably the most common gold trade coin used in Colonial America, and one with which every merchant of substance was on intimate speaking terms."

The Brasher Lima-style doubloons were the very first circulating gold coins produced in the United States. And the New York-style doubloon, Brasher's masterpiece of design, is probably the most famous numismatic coin in the world.

The following lots present significant examples of Brasher's coinage from the Partrick Collection, including the finest-known examples of both the Lima- and New York-style Brasher doubloons.