December 29, 2019
From William Pitt to Counterfeit
Attribution Guide to the William Pitt Stamp Act Repeal Medals of 1766
THE MAN WHO; HAVING SAVED THE PARENT; PLEADED, WITH SUCCESS, FOR HER CHILDREN.
The year was 1765, and the colonies were facing a barrage of new taxes levied against them to pay for the French and Indian War. The expensive conflict effectively ran from 1754-1764, if one is to count the Indian wars that continued beyond the Treaty of Paris. Early on, Britain suffered one defeat after another and nearly lost the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley to France; but for William Pitt’s intervention in 1758. As Minister of War for George II, Pitt initiated a global strategy that cut French supply lines globally, and opened the way for swift conquest of the American Continental interior.
The global conflict ultimately became known as The War for Empire; and in the European theater, the Seven Years War. When Pitt’s management delivered a string of monumental victories, around the world, in both 1758 and 1759; and saw the French utterly driven from Canada, with the fall of Montreal in 1760; Pitt became a living legend in the English-speaking realm. By the end of the conflict, British military superiority had been established, and the small British Isles were reaffirmed as a global empire. Pitt was thereafter known as the Great Commoner. Ironically Pitt was forced to resign in 1761, shortly after the succession of Hanoverian George III, in late 1760, following his suggestion that an attack on Germany would be beneficial. Pitt would however remain an influential member of in Parliament.
The war, which had started in America (by George Washington, in fact) would also end in America, with the defeat of Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763-1764; and the British intended that their stubborn colonies, who barely contributed monetarily to the war effort, would be made to show respect to the mother country and pay for their defense (Anderson). The Stamp Act of 1765 was the most onerous of these measures. However, not everyone in England agreed with this rationale. The man who; having restored British influence; now turned his attention toward British subjects in the colonies, whom he felt were dealt an unfair hand with onerous taxes without representation. On January 14, 1766, Pitt delivered a moving address to Parliament, known as “In Defense of the Colonies,” pleading that the mother country should relieve her children of these unfair burdens. Pitt argued that “the greater must rule the less. But she must so rule it as not to contradict the fundamental principles that are common to both” (Pitt). The text of Pitt’s address made its way across the Atlantic and was met with great fanfare in America. Pitt immediately and successfully created a shift in public sentiment, and the Stamp Act was repealed in March. This solidified William Pitt’s stature as a beloved British icon, on both sides of the pond.
Considering there was a Royal society devoted to medal making in the mid-18th century, it should not surprise us, today, that the British struck many tokens and medals to commemorate the occasion. In addition to numerous low-quality tokens produced for the general public, in the vein of the notoriously shoddy Vernon medals, a fine and stately medal was also engraved for the aristocracy. Medals struck from finely engraved dies were the height of technology in the 18th century, and could be powerful messaging tools to reach both political and personal ends regarding popular opinion. Eimer concludes that the Pingo firm received their commission to engrave and strike the William Pitt Stamp Act Repeal medals of 1766 from London coin dealer, John Kentish (Eimer, Pingo, 23).
Whoever commissioned it, they had chosen the predominant British medal making firm of the 18th century. The result was an exceptional high-relief sculpture of William Pitt adorning the obverse, his name Latinized around the margins, “GULIELMUS PITT.” The reverse bore only an English inscription: one that perfectly captured the sentimentality of the day. It was succinct, almost to a fault, “THE MAN WHO, HAVING SAVED THE PARENT, PLEADED WITH SUCCESS FOR HER CHILDREN.”
Today, these relics of the 18th century Stamp Act are important pieces of American colonial history that should be collected alongside the 1766 William Pitt tokens. The Pingo medal was first advertised in England, but its popularity quickly crossed the Atlantic, where it was also advertised and sold to Americans. The predominant 19th century authority on these medals, C. W. Betts, in his American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals, of course, includes the Pitt medals. In fact, because they deal not only with an American subject, but were also distributed in America, these medals are of particular significance, and should be sought by every Colonial collector. They were so special that both copies and counterfeits were issued at various points in time. However, much confusion has been created around them, largely because there are so many versions.
Great confusion persists because of Betts, who was apparently unaware of any reproductions when he added the Pitt medals to his groundbreaking catalog, which, in fairness, was published by the editors, upon his death, in 1894. Betts’ laissez faire treatment of this medal, with missing varieties and a seeming ignorance of the reproductions, has led to many misinterpretations of his catalog. Our research has identified four die varieties, of various and even mysterious origin. Betts offered only two catalog numbers, 515 and 516, and these numbers match two specific die pairs. However, catalogers are constantly trying to make the other two varieties match Betts numbers, but they simply do not, and never will. For instance, today, we know there are reproductions of the original medal. Sometimes an uninformed cataloger will erroneously identify Betts 516 as a restrike, simply because it is placed after Betts 515 in the catalog. This is an egregious offense, considering Betts did not make mention of, or seem to know about, any restrike, whatsoever.
The British Historical Medals reference is not any clearer; in that reference, all versions of the Pitt medal fall under the catalog number BHM-100 (Brown, 24). We have seen second-hand references suggesting that Eimer has broken these medals down into die varieties, but we have not been able to find a published listing of these numbers, and our interpretations seem to be different than what we know of his. Eimer’s British Contemporary Medals and his Pingo Family book only mention the existence of “several minor varieties” (Eimer, Pingo, 55).
Creating an effective attribution guide requires a rudimentary die variety analysis. We have accomplished such an analysis over a period of more than a decade, through the examination of numerous auction descriptions and images, as well as the examination of high-grade examples of these medals, in-hand. We have determined there to be four distinct die pairs, with no interchanging of obverses and reverses known between them. We would argue that the existence of four varieties cannot be questioned, but it is the exact origin of some of these, which remains in the realm of educated speculation. It is our opinion that two separate die pairs were employed in the striking of the originally commissioned, 1766 Pingo medal, and that two die pairs were created to make copies, and even counterfeits. The questions that cannot be answered with certainty are: in what period were the reproductions made, and by whom?
The two original obverse dies were both signed “T. PINGO F.” beneath the bust. The greater body of evidence suggests these were the dies used in the striking of the original, 1766 medals. The two originals have slight differences in design, which become very noticeable when compared side by side. It is our belief that the original Pingo design, almost certainly a prototype, can be discerned by its lifelike portrait and exquisitely rendered, high-relief details. Every hand-engraved die line is visible on the large, honest portrait of Pitt. However, it depicts an old, bloated, overweight man, with sagging jawline and brow, and extra-plumb cheeks and lips. His humongous head is seated atop broad shoulders which seem to eliminate the need for any neck, his cravat fitting snugly against his chins. It might not be flattering, but the detail is magnificent, down to the fine contours of the skin. The bust is wider, fuller, and in a higher relief than the other signed variety, and the hair is much more intricately detailed than on any other die. This variety is clearly defined by Betts as number 516, in that "the wig is fuller and the letters heavier" than number 515 (Betts, 229).
Die Pair 1, NGC MS64
The dies were prepared with frosted devices and Prooflike fields, as seen on the earliest impressions. The lettering is engraved as neatly as possible from hand-made, imperfect letter punches. There are two raised spacer dots on the reverse, the first being of irregular shape, the second being round, and both being high-relief and bulbous. The letters "GUL" are more closely spaced than the “IELMUS,” suggesting the engraver had to rethink the spacing in the middle of the word in order to make it fit properly in the margin. A few of the letters are double punched, and it is clear that the right side of the decorative “R” punch had to be trimmed off to make the word “PARENT,” without having any overlap between the “R” and “E.” Thus, while this die is exquisitely detailed and it undoubtedly produced the most breathtaking medals of this entire issue, it nevertheless had some obvious eccentricities.
Therefore, we believe the second die pair was created because of the unflattering portrait of Pitt, as well as and the irregular lettering, seen on Die Pair 1. Also prepared with frosty devices and mirrored fields, Die Pair 2 shows a much more stylized portrait of the Great Commoner. His eyes are no longer beady, nor do his plump cheeks interfere with his profile. Pingo also pulled the cravat away from the chin and neck to show that Mr. Pitt really does have a neck. Indeed, Pitt has undertaken a serious diet program for this portrait; the profile is now stately, and the hair has been restyled to accomplish similar effects with fewer curls. This type of revision was not uncommon. For instance, an unflattering George II portrait on the Victories of 1758 medal attributed to John Kirk; Betts 416; was quickly revised in a similar manner.
The relief of the design was also reshaped. The high relief that was maintained along the length of the original portrait is now gathered up at the center, sloping away from the hair curls above the ear. Also gone are the engraving lines on the skin, and this smaller bust size has slightly truncated Pitt’s shoulder, below which the “T. PINGO F.” is engraved smaller, and more neatly than before. This re-design would have pleased William Pitt, who certainly saw these famous medals. This design would also have been easier to strike; ease of production would have become a prime consideration for a medal that had recently gone international. Strangely, though, there is absolutely no mention of Die Pair 2 in Betts reference.
Die Pair 2, PCGS AU58
Despite the changes, the engraving is clearly accomplished by the same hand, doubtlessly the Pingos. The major lettering punches are still hand-made, but are now engraved in a slightly smaller font. The engraver realized, on his second attempt, that smaller, more regular lettering would eliminate the need to truncate certain letters to make them fit together into words. The letters are somewhat more exactingly placed, as well, save for the last “S” in “SUCCESS,” which is punched noticeably high. Finally, the globular spacer dots, this time, were both made in the round.
The Pingos had now streamlined the design. However, an unsightly series of progressive die breaks would cause the left obverse to crumble, most certainly leading to this die’s premature retirement. Some have even reported examples showing tooling, where an attempt was made to remove the unsightly cracks from the finished medals, likely at the time of manufacture. This was also a common problem. In 2006, Stacks sold a number of the Pingo 1759 Quebec Taken medals, on which a large obverse rim cud in the collar margin had been filed down to match the height of the rest of the rim. Shortly thereafter, they moved the dies into a new collar, solving the problem altogether.
In this case, however, the break is on the die face, making the only solution to scrap the die. It is intriguing that there does not appear to be any intermingling between Die Pair 1 and 2, further strengthening the idea that Die Pair 1 was rejected on artistic and not practical grounds. It would have been prudent to resurrect the obverse of Die Pair 1 here, for instance.
What happened next is a matter of speculation. At some point, thereafter, a third die pair was created. This was clearly at the hand of a new engraver; in fact, the obverse die was, this time, left unsigned. There are other major inconsistencies that indicate that this is a copy; not an original Pingo medal. These include the transfer process used to create the bust; the new, uniformly machined letter punches; the surface finish; the added collar ring; and inattention to planchet size. Die Pair 3 should technically be called a “copy” rather than its common misclassification as a “restrike,” as it was likely produced by someone trying to imitate the originals, using a completely new and unique die pair. It remains unclear who created this copy, or when, but the prevalence of high-grade pieces that designate Red or Red & Brown suggests these may be much newer than the originals. This die pair is the only exact match to Betts 515, but he notes it comes in "silver and bronze; two varieties of each with slight differences, in bronze" (Betts, 229). Betts made no mention of this being a reproduction, and must not have known, or he would not have lumped it together with other variants. Strangely, there are no known variants of the unsigned, narrow letters, smaller head configuration known in bronze. Was Betts including our Die Pair 2 here? If so, it does not fit the parameters of his number 515.
The fact that this variety was catalogued sequentially before a known original has created much confusion. Clues to its origin might be found in how the dies compare to those signed by the Pingo family. First, the portrait, and only the portrait, of Die Pair 3, was rendered through a sophisticated transfer copy of the small bust used on our Die Pair 2. It is tempting to think that an original "puncheon" of the Pitt bust was used; Eimer notes that all of the original Pingo dies, punches, and the like, were sold off by the Pingo estate in 1792 (Eimer, Pingo, 20-26). It could be that an original puncheon was used, and that the fine details were simply polished away by the careless, less sophisticated company responsible for their manufacture. However, the portrait has the tell-tale appearance of a transfer copy, faithfully reproducing the major design elements, but missing the finer features of the originals, and having that tell-tale, one-piece, molded appearance that lacks hand-engraved features of the originals. These copy medals tend to have a uniformly glossy or even satiny finish across the entire surface, with little contrast between fields and devices, and evidence of almost continual and excessive polishing, indicating an inattention to the concept of contrast. This is completely unlike the known originals, which were carefully prepared with frosty devices and mirrored fields. In fact, the original dies maintained at least a trace of contrast for their entire production life. Die Pair 3 was simply not prepared that way, from the start.
In addition to differences in the creation of the bust and the finish of the surfaces, the letter punches used on the copy dies are altogether inconsistent with the originals. The Pingo letter punches were hand-made, in house. The making of engraving punches was a part of their business, and their punches display various quirks and imperfections in shape, size, and style (ibid., 25). That said, the letters were thick and sturdy in their construction, and they showed bulky, triangular serifs, especially on Die Pair 1. The font changed for Die Pair 2, as has been addressed, but it remained of similar style. In contrast, the letter punches on Die Pair 3 seems machine-made, with symmetrical curves and sleek, slender lines and serifs. They are taller and thinner than either of the original fonts. In fact, of the 124 Pingo medals illustrated by Eimer in The Pingo Family, we do not see any that match this font. These new letters look scant in comparison to those on Die Pair 1 and 2, and frankly, they were ill-suited for the task at hand. One will also notice that the spacer dots between the words are different, both being round and dimpled, instead of spherical domes. These features look much more modern than those found on the originals, or they could just be the work of an engraver with very different style.
Perhaps more telling than the difference in font was the spacing of the new letters onto the dies. On both die pairs of the original 1766 medal, we see an attempt to make imperfect, hand-made letter punches run smoothly, in seven straight lines, across the reverse. On Die Pair 3, however,we see an attempt to take uniformly machined letters and stagger them, in noticeably crooked lines, to forge the appearance of old-world craftsmanship. Also, the “W” punch is a great deal larger than other letters. In fact, the overall font size turned out to be a little too big to fit. Several of the letters; most noticeably the "P" in "PARENT" and the second “D” in “PLEADED;” run off the field and through the rim, breaking the double ring around the reverse in several places and creating a very sloppy result. The engraver actually found it necessary to bend the rims around the letters. Surely this was not the work of the Pingos. The letters on the signed dies were kept far away from the circle around the periphery. A die crack develops through the last “D,” on later stages of Die Pair 3, and the rim rings are starting to crumble in places.
Also, since we have just bumped into them, the rims must be addressed because of what they say about the production of these copies. Differences between the rims of the these and originals are often ignored. We have found no written references to the rims of any of the dies, in fact. All examples of the known originals (Die Pairs 1 & 2) were struck in a close collar, showing two distinct rings around a smooth, crisp edge. Care was taken to craft an attractive, finished product that would be respectable and worthy of saving. Die Pair 3 is much different; these reproductions distinctly show a new collar ringaround the original double rim, and then a margin of excess metal outside of that, caused by an oversized planchet. Sometimes this new collar-ring merges with the second ring of the original rim, making an extra thick outer ring instead of three rings. This margin, however, is seen on all examples, and the medals are typically unevenly centered on the oversized planchets. These inconsistencies demonstrate that the third die pair was not struck with the same equipment, with the same planchets, or with the same attention to detail that was observed in making the original medals. Because of the extra margin, Die Pair 3 consistently averages at least one full millimeter wider in diameter than the originals.
A further discrepancy is the metallic composition. The originals are known in silver and bronze, though one example of Die Pair 1 has surfaced in golden, Pinchbeck brass. Die Pair 3, the copy die, comes in bronze, gilt bronze, and in extremely rare cases, silver. A metallurgic analysis of the originals and the copies could be a telling experiment, as differences in purity and refinement of the metals could potentially provide a date range for their production.
Overall, Die Pair 3 is a deficient reproduction of the original medal. The only thing these copies have going for them is that they come very well struck, and the bronze version can be found with considerable mint red color. This makes them very attractive, but is also at least circumstantial evidence of a much younger age. And let us not forget that the engraver’s signature was intentionally omitted. Perhaps no one wanted to take credit for this sloppy creation, or was it left out because the creator was intending to deceive?
The question remains, when were these copies produced? Some might suggest that, perhaps, Die Pair 3 was actually an 18th century contemporary copy made by someone other than the Pingos, which was cheapened in order to satisfy demand in America after the Pingo dies broke. This is certainly possible, but it does seem unlikely, based on the intentionally deceptive workmanship of this copycat issue. It could very well be a product of the early 19th century, when the Pingo dies were disbursed. Again, a metallurgic analysis could provide scientific evidence to strengthen one theory or another. It is worth noting, too, that the famous (infamous) engraver, “I.W.,” fulfilled the role of copycat in the 1760s, with his own brass version (Adams & Chao, 47, 209). However, his pieces were slightly smaller and signed “I.W” below the bust. While they do date to the mid-18th century, they are listed as Betts 517 and are not readily confused with the originals. Therefore, they are not included in our variety guide.
Perhaps the answer to this riddle of who made Die Pair 3 was actually given to us, back in 1901. That year, Mr. Edward Groh wrote a leader that was read before the American Numismatic & Archaeological Society of New York City, on a counterfeiting operation he stumbled upon by accident some years prior. The year was 1863, and Groh was interested in acquiring some of the Civil War tokens being struck in that city during the token boom of that year. Walking into a shop at 29 Rose Street, he was surprised to find before him a large screw press, on which sat a trial strike of the Pingos' William Pitt medal. Groh picked it up with intrigue, but the German shopkeeper took it away from him “hastily.” Groh was already beyond suspicious, and politely asked if he could purchase one of these medals from the German, who answered him in the negative. The German asserted that the dies did not belong to him, that the engraving had been done, not by him, but “by a die-sinker of this [New York] city” who was “a very good customer,” and finally, that the owner wanted the operation kept secret. Not wanting to upset this lucrative business relationship, the German simply could not help Mr. Groh. But, over the next few days, Groh ultimately convinced the shopkeeper to strike a copy for him on an old silver crown of Charles II, which Groh provided for the occasion. Upon delivery of the over-strike, Groh was also given an additional piece that was struck in white metal; perhaps to satisfy him and to keep him quiet. That seems to have worked, as he apparently waited some 38 years to publicize the event.
Fortunately, Groh still had the counterfeits when he wrote in 1901, but the huge time lapse certainly could have allowed the operation to grow and mature unabated; Groh certainly thought so. He speculated, in his letter to the society, that there could be “no doubt” that “a number of these medals have found their way into the cabinets of Numismatists throughout the country, as well as in this city, who may be deluded with the belief that they possess the original English medal.” Having noted already that the counterfeit he received “answers precisely to [Betts’] description” of number 515, he went a step further, suggesting “it is possible that Mr. Betts may have been deceived with the imitation and placed it on the record as a variety of the original.” Of 515, Betts only explained that there were “two varieties with slight differences, in bronze” (Betts 229). Indeed, if Betts had any inkling that a copy was on the market (Die Pair 3), he would not have placed the copy ahead of an original version (Die Pair 1), and deferred to a note about other slight variances to account for the other original medal (Die Pair 2). (Groh, 68-69).
This is positively damning information. However, the 1863 counterfeit theory is not quite air tight. Mr. Groh’s medal, struck over a Charles II crown, miraculously survives today, and was sold by Stacks in 2006. Another piece, in silver, was auctioned by Heritage in January of 2014. Along with the latter was a note referencing Mr. Groh’s encounter in 1863 with a counterfeiting operation, stating that this piece was of that same origin. The wrinkle in the story is that these documented 1863 New York pieces are of an altogether new die pair, which we call Die Pair 4, and which we believe to fall under the classification of forgery.
Ironically, it is not an exact match to Betts 515, despite what Mr. Groh stated. Groh apparently fell into the same trap as have many modern catalogers; this variety is simply not in Betts and, therefore, has no Betts number. Perhaps Groh was not totally familiar with Betts’ descriptions, as he did slightly misquote Betts in the text of his letter. Regardless, Die Pair 4 simply does not answer “precisely” to Betts 515. Yes, it is unsigned like Die Pair 3, which is Betts 515. Yes, it displays the narrow lettering of that third emission. However, it features the large bust, which was last seen on Die Pair 1, and which Betts specifically catalogs as number 516.
Die Pair 4 is thus a totally new, hybrid variety. It is actually made from cast copy dies of the obverse of Die Pair 1 and the reverse of Die Pair 3, and it again has that molded appearance. The grainy texture on the die face, and the attempted polishing of that surface is further indicative of casting. The familiar spacing, such as the close “GUL,” confirms that not just the bust, but the entire obverse die, including the lettering, was cast from Die Pair 1. The transference was very crude, with many imperfections and lumps. Most of the letters on this die had to be filed and tooled to remove defect lumps, making them wavy, thin, and jagged on their edges. The reverse suffers equally from this touch-up work. It is also the only variety known in white metal.
The weakness of strike seen on the few known pieces is evidence that the shop did not have a strong enough press to strike these high-relief medals properly. The press was probably intended for striking low-relief store card tokens and other Civil War tokens, which required much less strike pressure to produce. We have seen a white metal piece that was a flip-over double-strike Mint Error. This was sold by Stacks and then spent some years on Ebay. Both impressions are incomplete. This may have even been a trial piece. The aforementioned Heritage piece in silver measures 43mm in diameter, and seems to have been much better struck and on heavier equipment. So far, the Heritage piece remains the only well-struck example we have seen of Die Pair 4, and it was thus used as our plate. All pieces from Die Pair 4 seem to have extreme outer margins, even more so than do those from Die Pair 3. Certainly, for whatever reason, much experimentation occurred with this variety. Was this because it was an experimental forerunner of Die Pair 3?
It is tempting to read Groh’s letter and think that Die Pair 4 was an early creation of a counterfeiter that went on to produce many, more sophisticated counterfeits, such as Die Pair 3, over the almost four decades in which he remained hidden. However, beyond the fact that both die varieties are unsigned, and both are crude imitations of the Pingo dies, there does not seem to be any direct evidence that Die Pair 3 and Die Pair 4 are manufactured by the same source. In fact, the only correlation between them is the fact that the reverse of Die Pair 4 is a crude copy of the reverse of the mysterious Die Pair 3. All that this tells us, definitively, is that Die Pair 3 already existed in 1863, placing the entire notion into serious doubt. It is still theoretically possible that Die Pair 4 was some sort of afterthought of the creator of Die Pair 3, but the reduced quality and completely different manufacturing technique are further defects in that argument. If Die Pair 3 was not created by the 1863 counterfeiting operation in New York City, the exact origins remain a mystery.
With so many wrinkles in this story, we cannot put a precise date on Die Pair 3. What the evidence seems to suggest is that it is not the work of the Pingo firm. Whether or not it is a late 18th century reproduction, or a creation of the 1863 counterfeiter who coined Die Pair 4, remains to be determined. The latter seems unlikely given the evidence presented. Again, perhaps that metallurgic analysis could help, though it would likely require the destruction of several medals to get something deeper than a surface scan.
Ultimately, all four die varieties have value. The 1863 counterfeits, for instance, are arguably rarer than the originals, and the story behind them is just fascinating enough to give them some added mystique. However, to borrow a 118-year-old thought from Mr. Groh, the collector seeking to “possess the original English medal” should probably acquire a piece struck from Die Pair 1 or Die Pair 2; i.e., one signed by Thomas Pingo.
Die Variety Guide
Adams, John W. and Dr. Fernando Chao. Medallic Portraits of Admiral Vernon. Gahanna, OH: Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers, 2010.
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Betts, C. Wyllys. American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals. New York: Scott Stamp and Coin Company Ltd., 1894.
Bowers, Q. David. Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC., 2009.
Brown, Lawrence. British Historical Medals, 1760-1960. Volume 1. London: Seaby Publications Ltd., 1980.
Eimer, Christopher. The Pingo Family & Medal Making in 18th-Century Britain. London: British Art Medal Trust, 1998.
______. British Commemorative Medals and Their Values. London: Spink & Son, 2010.
Groh, Edward. A Counterfeit Pitt Medal. The American Numismatic & Archaeological Society of New York City: List of Meetings Held And Papers Read Before The Society Under The Direction of The Committee on Papers And Publications, 1900-1901. P 68-69.
Pitt, William. “In Defense of the Colonies.” William Pitt's speech on the Stamp Act January 14 1766. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1751-1775/william-pitts-speech-on-the-stamp-act-january-14-1766.php