In the 1780s, the economy of the nascent United States suffered from a lack of circulating coinage. As the US Mint had not yet been established, some states contracted with private enterprises to produce copper coinage. Ephraim Brasher, a skilled gold, and silversmith in New York City petitioned the State of New York in 1787 with a proposal to produce copper coins for that state. His proposal was rejected, but soon after Brasher produced a handful of pattern coins in gold. It is still unclear if they were truly pattern coins for the proposed copper coinage or simply privately-minted gold coins. Either way, “Brasher’s Doubloons” have become some of the rarest and sought-after coins in American history.
In pre-industrial times, it was more difficult to verify the weight and purity of gold and silver coins. Brasher was often patronized by those wishing to assay their gold coins. His “EB” stamp was impressed unto many foreign gold coins and was a well-respected symbol of authenticity. Brasher would have been familiar with foreign gold coins, including the Spanish doubloon (worth 8 escudos), and according to some sources, he produced gold copies of these coins. It is likely not a coincidence that the Brasher doubloons have a weight nearly identical to the Spanish doubloon. However, his coins did not become known as “doubloons” until many decades after their production, when this similarity was noted by an assayer.
A total of seven coins are known to exist: six “full-size” coins, and one smaller coin on a half-size planchet with the same design. The obverse design is based on the New York State Seal, showing the sun rising behind a mountain, reflected in the water below. The Latin inscriptions “Nova Eboraca” (New York), “Columbia” (America), and “Excelsior” (the state motto) surround this design. The reverse bears a federal eagle holding a shield, with the unusually worded Latin motto “Unum E Pluribus” and the date inscribed along the edge. Brasher’s doubloons were also imparted with his signature “EB” counterstamp.
The mysterious fate of these gold coins has added to their allure. The seven extant coins were discovered in various places during the 19th century. The most recent coin to have been discovered was recovered by a Philadelphia sewer digging crew in 1897. Another was en route to the US Mint to be melted when it was picked out. Brasher’s reputation and association with George Washington have also helped increase the value of these coins: he lived in New York City directly next door to George Washington and even sold silver to the Washington household.
Because of their rarity, Brasher’s Doubloons are among the most commonly imitated and reproduced coins. As early as 1861, reproductions were made of copper. Two of the doubloons are in the hands of the Smithsonian, while a few others are in private hands. In 2011, one was reportedly sold to an unnamed firm for $7.4 million, one of the highest prices ever realized for any coin.