Mystery Solved


By David Stone

Between 1820 and 1854, pioneering collector Matthew Stickney formed one of the most important coin collections of all time.


Stickney’s achievement was truly remarkable, considering the state of the hobby in those early days. As a hobby, American numismatics was in its infancy and the numismatic community was limited to a handful of serious collectors, a few part-time coin dealers, and a couple of like-minded Mint employees. Accordingly, contemporary collectors had no large dealer stocks to browse, no fixed price lists mailed from reputable dealers and no regularly scheduled coin auctions. To acquire the rare coins they sought, early collectors relied on a system of personal contacts with bullion brokers, bank tellers, Mint officials and other active collectors.


Beebee & Co.’s letter shows the 1815 Half Eagle was offered to Stickney for $5.30. Photo courtesy Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

A prime example of how this primitive system worked is Stickney’s acquisition of his 1815 Half Eagle, one of the rarest and most valuable coins in the American series, with only 10 examples known.

When Ivy Press published The 1815 Half Eagle: New Discoveries in 2012, the source of Stickney’s 1815 Half Eagle was still a mystery. Fortunately, Stickney’s papers were recently discovered in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. Heritage Auctions numismatists were able to examine much of his correspondence in the spring of 2015, discovering a great deal of new information about many coins in his collection. Among the most important discoveries was an Oct. 1, 1851 letter from bullion and exchange brokers Beebee & Co. that reveals Stickney’s source for his famous 1815 Half Eagle.

Matthew Stickney
Matthew Stickney

Stickney had a long relationship with the Beebee firm, and often sent them lists of coins he was looking for, along with arbitrary sums of money (most often $20 to $30) to be held on account until desired coins turned up in Beebee’s coffers. Beebee officials would send prospective purchases to Stickney and he would select the coins he wanted for his collection and return the rejects. The cost of the coins he kept would be subtracted from his account or, if the cost exceeded the amount he had on deposit, the balance would be billed to him. Beebee representative John Gelston sent Stickney a letter that demonstrates this process and led to the purchase of his prized 1815 Half Eagle.

Interpreting the missive, Beebee offered Stickney an assortment of mostly foreign coins with a bullion value of $24.54. Included in the package was a single American coin, the rare 1815 Half Eagle, offered at its bullion price of $5.30. Apparently, Stickney owed Beebee $11.46 for coins from a prior shipment and had sent a deposit of $30 in his last letter, when he listed a number of American gold coins he was actively seeking for his collection. The balance due to Beebee was $6.


Matthew Stickney’s 1815 Half Eagle
Matthew Stickney’s 1815 Half Eagle is one of the rarest and most valuable coins in the American series. Photo courtesy National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

At the bottom of the letter, Stickney noted, “Sent Jany 14, 1852 thirty dol for coins & to pay Am six dol due on the above to Beebee & Co. by Harnden & Co.” Thus, the account was settled, and Stickney acquired one of his most important and valuable coins for its intrinsic value of $5.30. His resourcefulness and ingenuity served him well on this, and many other occasions, as he built his remarkable collection.Stickney’s 1815 Half Eagle today resides in the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Similar coins have auctioned for more than $450,000, but Stickney’s, of course, would be expected to sell for much more.

Stone_DavidDAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.