Provenance and the Intrigue of What Historically Important Person Held It--Where Paper Bests Coins
I've been collecting coins since elementary school. While my interests are varied, I always found it fascinating to think of who may have held an old coin. For the most part, it's a mystery. A few coins have an established provenance to historically important people, and of course many more can be tied to great collections, which were build by important people within numismatics, but who aren't necessarily important to the broader population. A few years ago I was doing a photography project which included photographing (and, of course, touching) the boot scraper from the original Philadelphia Mint. It is all but guaranteed that 200-something years before I took those pictures, George Washington used it. Incredible.
Last year, I decided to look into paper money a bit. Going back to the colonial issues, notes were hand signed, meaning that if a note was signed by someone important, there is no doubt it was handled by that person. The first note I acquired was signed by John Hart, whose signature can be found on the Declaration of Independence (I wrote a post about that here: https://forums.collectors.com/discussion/1031816/newp-my-first-paper-purchase-with-a-tie-to-my-earliest-collecting-days-the-declaration-of-indep).
With a little more research, I decided to buy a note signed by Benjamin Levy, the only Jewish signer of Continental Currency. While there isn't much written about him, I was able to dig up enough of his family history to see that his family was among the founders of the Jewish communities of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore--communities that thrive nearly 300 years later (and to which I have strong ties going back many generations; the first and oldest synagogue in Philadelphia is between Independence Hall and the cemetery where Benjamin Franklin is buried, which itself is across the street from the Mint). I got my first note (the $8 note, which is ex. John J. Ford) in January 2020, and this week acquired a second example (the $3).
While I still think the mystery of who may have held a coin is wonderful--indeed, give me a US issue from the 1790s and I'll wonder if Washington himself held it--I can't help but think that paper provides an even greater historical tie by guaranteeing who handled a given note. True, while many of the most famous historical figures from the time currency was hand-signed were not signing notes--Washington, Jefferson, Hancock, and Franklin, to name a few--there are still treasures to be found among those who did sign notes.
When I acquired the first note, I wrote up a few paragraphs on what I was able to learn about Benjamin Levy and his family:
Moses Raphael Levy (1665-1728) was born in Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany and moved to the American Colonies in 1695. He became a successful merchant and real estate investor, and helped establish the Jewish community in New York, becoming the president of the first congregation in the colonies, Shearith Israel, and helping to fund the building of the first synagogue in the colonies, which was completed in 1730. His children followed in his footsteps, largely trading between New York and Baltimore.
Two of his sons, Benjamin (1728-1802) and Samson (1722-1781) signed the Non-Importation Agreement of 1765, which was aimed at repealing Britain's Stamp Act, enacted into law earlier that year, by way of merchants agreeing to embargo British imports due to their taxation without representation. Benjamin married Rachel Levy, the daughter of his older half brother, Nathan, who was considered the founding father of Philadelphia Jewry, where he established the Mikveh Israel Cemetery in 1740, shortly thereafter leading to the creation of Mikveh Israel Congregation, today the second oldest synagogue in the United States.
Benjamin was a member of high society in Philadelphia, and in 1773 moved to Baltimore, where he became the first Jew to settle in the city. On December 9, 1773, he put out an advertisement to report the opening of his store at the intersection of Market St. and Calvert St. Benjamin was also tied to the Continental Congress. To help fund the Revolutionary War efforts, the Continental Congress began issuing money (mostly in the form of paper notes) in 1775. Benjamin was one of the official signers of Continental Currency, and the only Jew to have such a role. His son, Nathan, also took a role in the Revolution, fighting under Lafayette in Virginia. Hitting financial straits in 1789, Rachel Levy would write directly to George Washington in an attempt to find work for her son.
While it was intended for Benjamin and Rachel Levy to be buried in Philadelphia, paperwork errors led to that not happening, and both were buried in St. Paul's Cemetery in Baltimore.