At last week’s American Numismatic Association (ANA) World’s Fair of Money, Kolbe and Fanning Numismatic Booksellers displayed an “exceptionally important” group of six handwritten letters by the notorious forger Thomas Wyatt.
The letters, all of which pertain to Wyatt’s creation of struck copies of early U.S. silver coins and related fantasy pieces, were written between June and August 1856. The letters illuminate Wyatt’s methods of salesmanship and demonstrate the degree to which he was willing to falsify the provenances of his “coins.”
Arguably most important are his adamant and firm statements denying his offerings to be counterfeit or otherwise fraudulent.
The group of letters begins with a June 20, 1856 missive asking the recipient to “inform me what I must give for a shilling & sixpence of N.E. 1650 a gentleman at Baltimore has them and is willing to sell or exchange.”
A letter dated July 5 mentions that Wyatt’s unnamed source “has got the coin of the ‘Good Samaritan coined in Massachusetts,’” and asks about it. This famous fantasy piece is discussed repeatedly in the following letters.
A remarkable letter dated July 14 states: “As soon as I receive the Good Samaritan piece I will enclose it to you with their price and you can do as you please about keeping it.” It also claims that “a widow lady of Chambersburg has 6 of the pine tree money pennies in a collection belonging to her late husband a Gentleman assures me he can obtain them for me she wishes to sell the collection I have requested to know particulars.” The letter mentions Jeremiah Colburn, a Boston numismatist who would publicly condemn the pieces as counterfeit by August.
By late July, accusations are beginning to be made and Wyatt is feeling the heat. In a letter dated July 28, he states, “As to the Pine Tree Money being Counterfeit I believe no such thing.” Referring to the imaginary “Chelsea Hoard” from which his trove of these pieces allegedly derived, Wyatt writes: “I saw & examined the bottle &c myself with many others and they all pronounced them genuine, many of them were stuck together in a hard lump by a substance resembling pitch some of it now remains on mine, and the antique shape of the bottle was unlike any thing I ever saw before.” He further claims that the N.E. coinage he offered came from the collection of Robert Gilmore.
On Aug. 7, Wyatt writes, “I have not received the Good Samaritan till this morning’s mail and I enclose it for your approval.”
He asks for $7 for the coin, claiming he will only be breaking even by such a transaction. He notes Colburn “requested as soon as I received it I would send it to him,” but Wyatt demurs. He alludes to further treasures to come from the collection at Chambersburg, including “2 Lord Baltimore shillings as good as new.”
By Aug. 12, Wyatt is in defensive mode, writing, “Whatever you may be disposed to think, I have acted justly to you in every point and that man does not live that can accuse me of the reverse without slander & falsehood but there is a clique here that what they cannot obtain by fair means they will by defamation and trickery.” He adds, “you are quite mistaken about the coins being spurious metal, we tried them here in Nitric Acid and they were pronounced good silver.”
All six letters are clearly signed by Wyatt and are in “near fine” condition. This “extraordinary archive of material pertaining to one of the more audacious and famous numismatic frauds of the 19th century” was among the highlights of this year’s ANA Convention offerings.