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Lucky Irish Pennies

May 29, 2011

Ever since my boyhood, I’ve been fascinated with coins. I’ve collected common US coins from pocket change, mint errors that are only visible under magnification, ancient Greek and Roman coins, coins of India, medieval and early modern European coins – on and on. The size of my collection (it’s at very low ebb these days) has fluctuated with my financial circumstances – I’ve often had to sell in order to meet bills or pursue other interests. But the hobby always survived.

My collecting areas, especially in my adult years, have usually been determined by historical and aesthetic considerations. For some time now, I have focused on ancient and medieval coins, but I’ve remained fairly eclectic within those very broad specialties. And my purchases have emphasized “big and pretty” rather than “rare and significant”. Therefore, I never thought I would make a contribution to the study of numismatics.

However, I became intrigued by the hammered pennies of the English kings Edward IV (1461-1483) and Richard III (1483-1485). These are tiny silver coins (usually less than half a gram) with large portraits of the crowned king on one side and a cross on the other. These pennies were usually clipped at some point, meaning that their outer margins were cut away (obscuring or removing the legends in the process), either to make them correspond to new, lower weight standards or so that the perpetrator could accumulate clippings from the coins and turn an illegal profit.

Edward and Richard’s coins were struck in Ireland as well as in England. The Irish issues tended to have distinctive, often charming portrait styles and were struck at a lower weight standard than the English. However, they closely resembled the English coins and could be passed off in England at a profit. The result was a drain of silver coinage from Ireland to England. Today, many English metal detectorists find these Irish coins, which are difficult to identify without legends and are often misidentified as English. These coins are often offered for sale without proper attribution on ebay, where they may frequently be purchased for a song.

There are many varieties of these Irish pennies – more, in fact, than English varieties for the same period. Moreover, new types are often encountered. Attribution in the absence of comprehensive guidebooks and complete legends is extremely difficult and often impossible.

In an effort to get my head around the series, I began to accumulate photos of the Irish coins, which helped me learn to recognize the Irish portrait types and to read mint signatures from partial legends that survived clipping. Within 4 years of my first acquisition, I had identified 14 entirely new types. In addition, I had added several extremely rare varieties to my collection for very modest amounts of money. For example, at a time when a total of three excessively rare Richard III Dublin pennies were known to reside in private collections, I purchased two nice specimens on ebay within a span of 4 months for a total of $160.00. They have since been sold for a total of $4000.

Quite unexpectedly, I realized that I was one of the leading experts on this series of coins. Even though I knew that it would reduce my cherry-picking opportunities, I decided that the time had come to share my discoveries with fellow collectors. So I published a guidebook: “Irish Hammered Pennies of Edward IV and Richard III”. Since it came out, I rarely get bargain prices for these Irish pennies on ebay, presumably because I have educated my competition. But it was a privilege to have the opportunity to acquire and study these amazing coins and to make a small contribution to a fascinating hobby and to our knowledge of medieval Irish history.

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