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O.C. Collector Paid a Mint for One of Nation’s First Coins

Times Staff Writer

Steven Contursi thinks he got a bargain. He was ready to pay $4 million for a 1787 gold coin, the first coin minted in the United States. But he had to pay only $2,990,000.

“It might fit nicely with our collection,” Contursi, owner of Rare Coin Wholesalers in Dana Point, recalled thinking at the time.

That collection is one of the highlights being displayed at the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectibles Expo, which runs through today.

The expo also features famously misprinted stamps, and a dime valued at $1.5 million because it is the finest known specimen of only 24 minted in San Francisco in 1894.

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But the display of the Brasher Doubloon, minted for the fledgling American government, was clearly one of the primary attractions. The coin gained fame in Raymond Chandler’s novel “The High Window,” which was made into the 1947 movie “The Brasher Doubloon.”

Ephraim Brasher, a renowned gold and silversmith and a friend of George Washington, hand-struck the coin and nine others. They were intended as a prototype for the United States’ first gold coin and not meant for circulation. Each would have been worth $14 in 1787 dollars, which would have had the spending power of $2,800 today, said Donn Pearlman, an expo spokesman.

The coin bears an outstretched eagle holding a cluster of arrows and an olive branch in its talons, surrounded by the words “E Pluribus Unum.”

On the reverse is the sun rising over a mountain.

Experts know that this coin was the first made because its impressions are the clearest. It also is the only one with the silversmith’s initials on the eagle’s breast.

It wasn’t until 1793 that the United States Mint began producing its own coins for circulation. Americans relied heavily on foreign coins in the nation’s early years.

Contursi said the Brasher Doubloon complements his purchase of the first American silver dollar ever struck, which cost about the same. Contursi purchased the doubloon with a friend who is an expert on early U.S. coins.

The most ever paid for an American coin at public auction was $7.59 million in 2002 for a 1933 $20 Double Eagle gold coin.

The doubloon was stowed away at Johns Hopkins University for more than half a century before it was auctioned in 1981 for $675,000.

Since then, it has passed through the hands of several dealers and collectors through private transactions.

Contursi bought it in January at an auction in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.


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