View this remarkable artifact from the early years of the United States currency system, before the federal government had begun minting its own coins.

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Education Center

Description

Pattern coins were often produced as samples by private mints hoping to secure government contracts to produce currency. Although George Washington objected to having his image appear on currency, more than 20 surviving pattern coins feature the first president. The 1792 Washington President gold eagle pattern has sparked the interest of collectors and numismatists for generations. It is the earliest gold pattern prepared for U.S. coinage and, as the only gold coin with this design, a unique artifact. 

The front of the coin features a bust of George Washington in military uniform, surrounded by the words “WASHINGTON PRESIDENT 1792.” On the reverse is a heraldic eagle (similar to the Great Seal of the United States) with an olive branch in one talon and thirteen arrows in the other. The eagle holds a banner in its beak with the motto “UNUM E PLURIBUS.” Thirteen stars appear in an arc above the eagle’s head. Lettering around the edge of the coin reads “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

The Maker

For years the Washington President gold eagle pattern coin was thought to have been struck in England, but researchers now identify the maker as Jacob Perkins, a talented die engraver, inventor, and physicist in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The bust of Washington on this coin closely matches the depiction on another coin that Perkins designed. The physical appearance of the coin itself also points to an American rather than British manufacture. Though just 25 years old at the time, Jacob Perkins was experienced in the realm of currency: in 1788, he had been hired to engrave dies for Massachusetts copper cents and half cents. Interestingly, Perkins also produced well-known funeral medals commemorating Washington after his 1799 death.

On February 29, 1792, teacher and mathematician Nicolas Pike of Newburyport wrote to George Washington enclosing a sample coin “struck in my presence by an ingenious & reputable Gentleman, who also made the Die.” The maker wished to remain anonymous, Pike wrote, but if Congress liked the design, “he would be happy…to serve the Public in this line.” Pike is almost certainly referring to Jacob Perkins. It was common for coin makers to send government officials samples of their work in hopes of gaining a contract. It is possible that the coin Pike enclosed in his 1792 letter to Washington was this gold coin.

Provenance

The history of this coin has long proven elusive, as its whereabouts prior to the mid-19th century are not documented. It surfaced in the hands of a collector in Richmond, Virginia, in 1855, more than 60 years after its creation. The suggestion that it belonged to Washington first appeared in 1875, when a coin dealer selling the item asserted that “it was most probably struck in compliment to General Washington,” and “was probably used for some time as a pocket piece…” As the name suggests, a “pocket piece” is a coin kept in the pocket so that it can be accessed or shown easily. Pocket pieces are often identified by their slight wear, which differs from coins that entered circulation and those preserved in mint condition.

Did George Washington have this item in his possession?

That question remains unresolved—a mystery to intrigue scholars, collectors, and the public.

Exhibit Details

Beginning April 30, the 230th anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration, visitors can view the 1792 Washington President gold eagle pattern coin, the earliest gold pattern proposed for U.S. coinage and the only gold coin with this design. This unique piece, on loan indefinitely from a private owner, will remain on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center.

Exhibit Dates

On view April 30, 2019

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Included with general admission

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