Found in a Candy Tin: One of the First Coins Struck in Colonial North America

Illegally minted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the 1652 silver shilling recently sold at auction for $351,912

Simple coin with NE on one side and XII on the other
The simple coin design was quickly replaced, leaving only 40 or so surviving specimens today. Courtesy of Morton and Eden

A silver coin minted in colonial Boston in 1652 has sold for $351,912. The one shilling coin is one of just 40 of its kind known to survive today, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

“I am not surprised at the amount of interest this exceptional coin attracted,” says James Morton, a coin specialist with London-based auction house Morton and Eden, in a statement. “The price paid ... reflects its extraordinary historic significance and outstanding original state of preservation. The fact that it was previously completely unknown, together with its distinguished provenance, simply added to its appeal.”

Morton and Eden sold the coin on behalf of Wentworth “Wenty” Beaumont, a descendant of early New England settler William Wentworth. Beaumont’s father recently discovered the artifact in a candy tin containing hundreds of old coins at the family’s estate in Northumberland, England.

“I can only assume that the shilling was brought back from America years ago by one of my forebears,” says Beaumont in the statement.

After the long-forgotten tin resurfaced, Beaumont brought it to Morton, who realized that the container included specimens from all over the world, spanning the ancient era through the 1970s, reports Sophie Corcoran for PA Media.

“I could see straight away that there were plenty of interesting pieces alongside some ordinary modern coins, but there was one simple silver disc which immediately jumped out at me,” says Morton in a separate Morton and Eden statement. “I could hardly believe my eyes when I realized that it was an excellent example of a New England shilling, struck by John Hull in 1652 in Boston for use as currency by early settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”

Purchased by an anonymous bidder from the United States, the coin features a simple design with the initials NE (for New England) on one side and the Roman numeral XII (its value in pence) on the other. The newly discovered example is the only one of its kind certified as “mint state” by a coin grading service.

The New England coin held over the tin with assorted old coins
A descendant of an early New England settler found the shilling in a tin filled with coins from a variety of time periods and places. Courtesy of Morton and Eden

“The coin has tremendous eye appeal,” coin expert Jim Bailey told the AP’s Mark Pratt prior to the sale. “Because there are only about 40 such coins in existence, this specimen can be called the finest known.”

Prior to 1652, New England settlers used coins from various European countries, along with wampum made from shells, as currency. Though English authorities had banned the creation of colonial coinage, the Massachusetts General Court defied this order by commissioning silversmith John Hull and his assistant Robert Sanderson to produce the first coins struck in North America in 1652.

Minted to address coin shortages and improve consistency in coinage, these initial undated coins were easy to counterfeit, so the Boston-based mint soon shifted gears to more complex designs featuring willow, oak and pine trees. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, silversmiths dated all coins struck at the mint over the next 30 years to 1652 in order to “conceal the continuous mintage from British authorities in London.” In 1682, however, English king Charles II shut down the mint as “treasonous”; two years later, the colony’s charter was revoked in response to “repeated violations of [its] terms,” including the establishment of the illegal mint, as Rebecca Beatrice Brooks wrote for the History of Massachusetts Blog last year. 

William Wentworth likely arrived in New England in 1636. He was a follower of Puritan clergyman John Wheelwright, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, and a signatory of the 1639 Exeter Combination, which created the community that would later become Exeter, New Hampshire. Based partly on the fact that Beaumont found other early New England coins in the candy-tin collection, Morton and Eden suggest that Wentworth acquired the coin when it was new and kept it in the family. The colonist’s descendants went on to hold a number of prominent positions in New England, noted Nancy Riley for My New England Ancestors in 2016.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.