Some designers of US coins are so famous that the coins they produced are known by their names—Morgan Dollars, Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles, Barber Quarters. They were well-known artists of their time who were hired by the US Mint, sometimes after winning competitions, sometimes by appointment, and often not without controversy.
But one man designed a famous coin that bears his name even though it was never officially part of US currency. That man was Ephraim Brasher, and the coin, the Brasher Doubloon, is one of the most sought-after and expensive coins in the world.
Ephraim Brasher was born in New York City in 1744, where he became a jeweler and gold and silversmith of considerable repute. He was George Washington’s next-door neighbor on Cherry Street at one point. Brasher also held several civic positions including Sanitary Commissioner, Coroner, Assistant Justice, Election Inspector, and Commissioner of Excise. And he was a lieutenant in the New York Volunteers during the Revolutionary War.
The United States didn’t produce its own coins until 1792 (the earlier Continental Congress had printed some money, but it had become worthless by then), so commerce relied principally on foreign coins, mostly Spanish “silver dollars.” But some states wanted their own coins, so Brasher and his partner John Baily petitioned the New York Assembly for a contract to make copper coins. But the Assembly postponed the matter, and the Brasher and Baily proposal was set aside.
Brasher was a businessman, though, and wanted to keep interest in his coins up, so he made a few gold coins, probably as samples of his work, in 1787. They were the size of a Spanish 8-escudo doubloon—the famous pieces of eight—and contained about 39.4 grams of gold (1.39 oz.), worth about 15 dollars, a princely sum at the time.
The face of the coins featured the sun rising behind a mountain with a river flowing in front of it. Brasher’s name is below the river and the Latin motto Nova Eboraca Columbia Excelsior on the obverse, meaning "New York and America Ever Upward" surrounds the coin’s border outside a ring of small dots. The reverse has a heraldic eagle with thirteen stars around its head, olive branches in its right talons and arrows in its left, a design that would appear on many future official US coins. The motto E Pluribus Unum surrounds the eagle with the date 1787 below it.
Gold and silversmiths usually stamp an identifying symbol called a hallmark on their work, and that’s true of Brasher’s doubloons. Brasher put his EB hallmark in two different places on his doubloons, only two of which are known to exist. In 2014, a coin with EB stamped on its wing sold for $4,582,500. Three years earlier one with the hallmark on the eagle’s breast sold for $7,395,000, the third most valuable coin ever sold.
Besides the two doubloons, Brasher made a few lower denomination coins, some of which have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. His silver urns, tankards, pots and serving pieces are in high demand as well, with pieces in both private and museum collections.
When the US Mint was established by Congress in Philadelphia in 1792, Brasher was appointed an official assayer of foreign coins in New York. He worked as an excise office in New York City in 1808 and 1809 and continued his private businesses until his death in 1828.
There still remains some controversy over whether Brasher’s coins were ever official currency, but there’s little doubt that they remain a fascinating part of the history of US coinage.