|By Robert Kyle
NEW YORK — On a cold winter day in 1990, Lillian Rade, 43, of East Hampton, Long Island, ignored the urge to stay warm and cozy inside like everyone else. Instead, with boyfriend Ron King, she decided to take her metal detector to a frozen potato field on the chance of finding old coins.
The decision changed her life. It rocked the coin collecting community then and rocked it again two decades later.
Just below the surface awaited a Massachusetts Bay Colony New England silver sixpence minted in 1652. Only seven others are known, four of which are in museums. Her find was heralded as the most valuable American coin ever found with a metal detector. She consigned the nickel-sized coin to Sotheby’s auction in New York City where it sold in 1991 for $35,200. The buyer was Stacks Gallery, which later sold it privately to collector Jack Royse. Lillian and Ron King married. As years passed they shared fond memories of their coin find and its financial windfall.
Fast forward to winter 2012 when the coin surfaced again as part of the Whitman Coin and Collectibles auction in Baltimore, Md. Jack Royse, now 86, decided to sell more than 100 coins in his collection, including the New England sixpence.
Over the past 22 years no similar coin has been found, a fact that enhanced the lure and value of this one. Expecting to triple its value, the coin’s $100,000 presale estimate didn’t come close. An unidentified bidder paid $431,250.
“It makes me think that I wished I had waited to sell it and put it away in a safe deposit box,” Lillian King told Long Island Newsday. Her proceeds from 1991 went toward purchasing a home.
John Kraljevich, who cataloged the auction, told AntiqueWeek:
“The price, like anything else, is a reflection of supply and demand. There are just four in private hands and four others are locked away in museums. They are the most famous and historic issues in all of American numismatics. The NE Coinage of Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first issue of coins produced anywhere in what would become the United Sates.
“They were made for just a few months in 1652. Shillings, sixpencees and threepence pieces were made. The threepence—just one is known— is impounded by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The NE shilling is much more common than the sixpence, with perhaps 50 known. The sixpence is much more famous. Aside from its last appearance in 1991, no other NE sixpence has sold since 1983. It appears so infrequently it’s essentially non-collectible; even the most serious collectors figure they can’t buy one because it appears so rarely.”
Unlike subsequent Massachusetts coins from the period that bear a 1652 date, the rare sixpence is simply marked “NE” on one side and “VI” on the other. The specimen found in the potato field lay tantalizingly close to the surface for more than three centuries. It carries several old slice wounds inflicted by passing plows.
How many more are waiting to be found is anyone’s guess. “They were struck for only a few months,” Kraljevich said. “No records from the mint survive from that era, so anything I could offer would be speculation. I’d guess a few thousand were made. Most were probably melted down and turned into other later Massachusetts silver issues, like Willow Tree, Oak Tree or Pine Tree coins.”
These coins that followed the plain “NE” coin are identified by their trees. The willow has the 1652 date, the word “Masathusets,” and two decorative circles. A coin bearing an oak came along in 1660 followed by the pine tree in 1667. All are dated 1652 as a ruse to convince King Charles II, who came to power in 1660, that England’s exclusive rights to mint coins during his reign had not been violated.
Reproductions abound of all of the above. In its “Coin Replicas of Our Past” series, the Whispering Dream Pewter Company of Bennington, Vt., offers the rare NE sixpence and the tree series coins for less than $2.00 each. Made of lead-free pewter, all are marked “Copy” and are known in the trade as “imitation numismatic items” rather than counterfeit. The “Copy” marking, however, was not required on replica coins made before the Hobby Protection Act of 1973.
For the beginning coin collector or investor, John Kraljevich has this advice:
“High quality coins tend to go up in value. Common coins will pretty much always be common, and ugly coins will always be ugly. The only way to be successful investing in coins is to develop a good eye for quality and a knack for seeing what is currently under-appreciated in the marketplace.
“Coins made expressly to be collected will also be common because essentially all of them are saved, such as the modern ’Mint’ issues. Coins with historic interest and demand that outstrips the supply will tend to do quite well over time.”