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Washington gold piece in spotlight at last

A 1792 gold piece bearing the portrait of George Washington was sold by Heritage Auctions for $1.74 million Aug. 16 in Philadelphia.

Have you ever seen this piece before?

It definitely is not a 1933 $20, an 1804 dollar, or a 1913 Liberty Head nickel.

These latter three great rarities are valued more highly and are better known to active coin collectors.

Their stories have been told many times.

However, the Washington gold piece might have a better claim to top numismatic status than its more famous cousins.

If that is the case, then why aren’t collectors aware of it?

Heritage notes that Eric P. Newman, the St. Louis numismatist who died last year at age 106, held this piece up as his favorite.

The reason?

“Numismatic researchers widely agree it is one of the most important coins in American history,” said Jim Halperin, co-founder of Heritage Auctions.

It was created as a pattern for a potential national coinage. That coinage was never made.

According to Heritage, “Newman believed the Washington gold eagle was not produced because legend stated it defied the president’s own edict that his likeness not appear on any U.S. currency to avoid appearing as a monarch to the new democracy.”

The fact that Washington dismissed the use of his portrait on U.S. coins is both widely known by collectors and widely admired as evidence of the great man’s humility and benevolent intentions.

That this gold piece might be a physical connection to the story should make it one of the most identifiable pieces in American numismatic history. But it is not. Why?

Heritage notes that it has not appeared at public auction since 1890.

No one alive would remember it.

Further, only eight numismatists have been known to have owned it.

Newman bought it in a private treaty sale in 1942.

This also is so long ago that few alive might remember.

Newman’s numismatic research led him to publish his views of the piece in the mid-1970s.

Those collectors who were around then might also be forgiven for not noticing this historical research amid the craze to invest in gold and silver that characterized the 1970s.

So if you are among those who know little of this piece, the Heritage lot description will be of immense help.

When this story becomes more widely known, the value of the Washington gold piece might easily begin to add zeroes.

In the case of this transaction, the $1.74 million proceeds are being donated to charity.

That probably would make George Washington want to smile.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog for the third time in 2017 . He is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."