AUGUSTA — George Washington had been dead for a couple of weeks when two funeral processions were held for him in Boston.
As was customary, many mourners bought and wore medals made on site. Washington medals were crafted by E.J. Perkins, an engraver for the United States Mint. Masons in the procession wore funeral medals with a small bust of Washington on one side, surrounded by the the words “He is in glory, the world in tears.”
The reverse shows a skull and crossbones.
For the public procession in early January 1800, the medals had the same bust and words, but the back side showed an urn. They were made of different metals: 18 to 22 in gold, 150-250 in silver and 200-300 in pewter or white metal. In addition, two or three were made of copper.
Montville resident Thomas Donlon now owns one of those rare coins after paying more than $1,700 and getting an Augusta firm to authenticate it.
“Someone might have actually worn this and walked by the casket,” Guerrette said. “The person who got it very likely touched the coffin of Washington.”
Now 72, Donlon has been a coin and medal collector since he was 14, and his favorite topics are Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
When one of the copper funeral medals turned up on eBay, Donlon took notice.
“I remembered reading about a rare copper medal,” Donlon said. “I asked the seller, ‘Is it white metal or copper?’”
“No, it’s copper, and good luck,” the seller replied via email.
“Copper was very rare; the mint had just starting making half-cents and large cents in copper,” Donlon said. Most of the copper was recycled from bands around kegs shipped from France.
At $1,725.99, Donlon was the successful bidder of 28 who vied for the coin. That was on May 12.
Donlon was excited, believing he had one of the very few rare copper coins made for the public procession, but he needed it authenticated. “I knew because I do a lot of research on presidents and medals,” he said.
So he turned to William Guerrette, owner of China Lake Coins & Currency on State Street in Augusta, an authorized agent, who could forward it to the Numismatic Guaranty Corp., which grades coins.
Donlan paid extra for the 48-hour turnaround time, but Guerrette got a call from the national organization: This was a special item and would take 10 days. It was then vetted by lots of experts and ruled the real thing.
He classified it as a unique item and said the value could range anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 and up.
A “common” white metal one sold at auction on Jan. 25 for $11,500.
The coin came back on Thursday and an elated Donlon came to the store to pick it up. “I think I’ll keep it in a safe box at the bank,” he said.
“The trouble with you, Tom, is you fall in love with these things,” Guerrette said.
“Wait until you see the next coin I’m bringing in,” Donlon teased.
Guerrette and others at his business were excited to see the quarter-size dark-colored medal, which Donlon brough in and handed around like a coin. But no one will touch it again — the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. mounted it, labeled it, sealed it and encased it in hard plastic.
Donlon made a wooden box to hold it, decorating it with a pewter reproduction of a button that would have closed a coat worn by Washington.