CWTS Article of the Month!

February 2000

"Knowledge of Civil War Tokens"

Extracted from The Civil War Token Journal, Volume 14 Number 4.

   There are essentially six basic types of knowledge which a collector of or dealer in Civil war Tokens can utilize in connection with our hobby.  These six types of knowledge can be categorized as follows:  (1) attribution, (2) grading, (3) rarity, (4) origin, (5) demand and supply and (6) valuation.  Let's examine each of these in turn.


    As anyone who has wrestled with attribution of Civil War Tokens (CWTs) well knows, it takes more than the possession of a standard reference work on the subject to be able to accurately attribute them.  This is especially true in the case of patriotics.  Only by working with such a reference over a period of time can one accumulate the ease of recognition of what variations to look for in an expeditious manner.  This accumulation of knowledge takes patience and perhaps best explains why, at least to date, the store cards have generally been more popular among collectors that the patriotics.
    Accurate attribution of CWTs also entails knowledge of counterfeits.  Doug Watson's excellent article in Volume 3, Number 2 provides a useful checklist of known cast varieties together with an analysis of what to look for in distinguishing these pieces.  It is advisable not only to be familiar with Doug's article but also to study several of these cast counterfeits first hand so as to gain familiarity with this breed of replica.


    Grading of U.S. coins is a picnic relative to the accurate grading of CWTs.  A number of factors contribute to this state of affairs.
    First, more than two dozen different die sinking firms manufactured CWTs, and no single standard of workmanship prevailed.  For example, alloys, plantchet specifications, depth of field of dies, and striking equipment varied substantially.  As a result, uncirculated specimens of certain die sinkers, at least superficially, look very much like very fine specimens struck by other firms.
    Second, many, many varieties of CWTs were struck - often after the Civil War - from worn or rusted dies.  Uncirculated specimens of these strikes often are far less aesthetically attractive than extra fine specimens of CWTs struck to be used as a medium of exchange.


    Any one CWT has several rarities associated with it.  These include the rarities of each of the dies used in striking the piece; the rarity of the merchant, the rarity of the town, and the rarity of the state in the case of storecards; and the rarity of the particular variety (muling, metal, and edge detail).  Increasingly, collectors of CWTs are recognizing that a specimen may be relatively common in terms of its town rarity, but may be very rare in terms of the scarcity of one of its dies.


    The real measure of a collector's knowledge of the specimens in him or her collection is an understanding and appreciation of the origins of those pieces.  For example, for what proportion of the specimens in your collection can you answer the following questions:


    Collectors generally are much less concerned than are dealers with demand - how many collectors are looking for a certain variety and how much each is willing to pay for it - and supply - how many specimens of a particular variety are available for sale and potentially could become available and at what price.  Dealers who conduct mail bid auctions are in an excellent position to develop a feel for the depth of demand for certain varieties of CWTs through their accumulated knowledge of the number and magnitude of bids for those varieties.  Dealers who hold fixed price sales also obtain some feel for the depth of demand (at least at their price) by the number of orders received for a certain variety.


    To date, the best measure of retail value for a specific variety of CWT has been the current price realized for that variety in a specified grade at a well publicized and unrestricted public auction.  However, the Garrett Collection sale of Hard Times tokens raised serious questions regarding the adequacy of that measure.
    In that auction, it appears that a number of bidders were making record breaking bids not just for the Hard Times tokens, but for the tokens together with their envelopes which had the name of Garrett and Lyman Low associated with them.  On the other hand, that sale had a significant upward impact on the prices of non-Garrett Hard Times tokens which have sold since the Garrett auction.
    Although each of these basic types of knowledge together with their current auction results should have a major bearing on the valuation of any given CWT, frequently only attribution, grade, variety rarity, and recent auction results are used as the principal determinates of retail (or wholesale) value in transactions.  For example, sometimes when a collector sells their prized collections of CWTs, they lack an appreciation of the forces of demand and supply at work in the marketplace.  Although these collectors cannot hope to equal the feel for these forces which some dealers have painstakingly acquired, they can,  by shopping around, develop a feel for the magnitude of dealer demand for their material.
    More importantly, when many collectors buy CWTs, the prices they pay for certain varieties reflect a gross lack of knowledge of the origins of those varieties.  Too often high rarity, per se, is held to be synonymous with high retail value.  Little though apparently is given to consideration of whether the piece was struck to be used as a medium of exchange and is a valid historical document, or whether it was struck for speculation and is devoid of historical merit.

Why collect or invest in varieties of CWTs whose only claim to worth is their high rarity?  One might just as logically collect the offal of some endangered species.  Regardless of rarity, offal is offal.

CWTS Article Archive
Winter 2016 A Reminiscence
Winter 2016 My First Sulter Token
Spring 2016 Protesting Union Civil War Policies
Winter 2015 Slave Owner Issued Civil War Tokens
Fall 2014 Hill the Barber & African American Store Card Issuers
Fall 2014 Gustavus Lindenmueller: The Myth, The Man, The Mystery
Apr. 2004 Henry Varwig - OH165GD
Mar. 2004 Dating Mr. Sayre's Tokens
Feb. 2000 Knowledge of Civil War Tokens
Jan. 2000 Ohio 710A
Dec. 1999 Speculations About Yankee Robinson
Nov. 1999 Hussey's Private Message Post
Oct. 1999 The Great Central Fair
Sep. 1999 Wm. S. Wilcox of Adrian, Michigan
Aug. 1999 Grading Isn't Really a Monster
July 1999 The 1860 Presidential Campaign Medalets
June 1999 The Other Store Cards of Central New York
May 1999 George McClellan - The Peace Maker?
Apr. 1999 Sutler Tokens at Gettysburg
Mar. 1999 More on the Monitor and Merrimac
Feb. 1999 Civil War Token Mini-Set -- General Franz Sigel
Jan. 1999 Die Sinker Errors on Civil War Tokens
Dec. 1998 The Abraham Lincoln Mini-set
Nov. 1998 Civil War Token Errors
Articles reprinted with permission of The Civil War Token Society.
Copyright ©1998-2016