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Tied for Finest Certified at PCGS

"1778-1779" (Circa 1780) Rhode Island Ship Medal. Betts-563, W-1740. Wreath Below Ship. Brass. MS-64 (PCGS).


A handsome piece with predominantly reddish-brown patina greeting the viewer from both sides. Both sides do reveal splashes of lighter sandy-tan and pinkish-orange colors here and there. Sharply struck and expectably smooth for the Choice grade, a tiny flan flaw (as made) at the lower obverse and upper reverse borders is noted solely for accuracy.

The popular Rhode Island Ship medals continue to fascinate and baffle numismatists. They are believed to have been struck around 1780, though by whom and for what reason remains unclear. The obverse of the medal depicts the Continental Army's withdrawal from Aquidneck Island in August 1778 surrounded by the British fleet commanded by Admiral Lord Richard Howe. The Americans' retreat was necessitated by the withdrawal of a covering French fleet under the Comte D'Estaing to Newport after receiving considerable damage in a storm. The reverse has been the subject of debate as to what it portrays. For generations, it has been assumed that it is a satirical representation of Lord Howe's flagship fleeing Narragansett Bay in 1779, an interpretation in part based on the earliest versions of this medal bearing the word VLUGTENDE ("fleeing") underneath Howe's ship. The most recent scholarship asserts that instead of a pro-American medal, it is actually a British medal intended for the Dutch market, or even an entirely Dutch product created to help garner support to the British cause in the global war for empire that raged throughout the 1770s and 1780s and of which the American Revolution was only a small part. With this current interpretation of the medal, it would appear that if it was intended to influence Dutch feelings towards a more pro-British position, it failed in its purpose. Often at loggerheads with each other, British and Dutch relations were very tense, culminating in December 1780 when the Dutch joined other European nations in the League of Armed Neutrality. The League was established as a counter to the British Royal Navy's policy of intercepting neutral shipping in search of French supplies.

There are several design varieties of the Rhode Island Ship medal. Soon after production started the placement of the word VLUGTENDE came in for scrutiny, perhaps because it would lead to a misinterpretation of the scene (which has obviously happened, as related above). In order to salvage the die for continued use, however, the word VLUGTENDE was laboriously removed by hand, leaving obvious traces of the effacement. The die was further modified to replace the word with a wreath, though even then some traces of VLUGTENDE can be discerned. Examples were all but unknown in the United States until the appearance of a specimen in a W. Elliot Woodward sale in 1864, where it brought the then-staggering price of $40. Ever since, the Rhode Island Ship medals have been in great demand among enthusiasts of Revolutionary War history. Examples with VLUGTENDE are of the highest rarity, often with decades between auction appearances. The transitional type as well as the later modified die with the wreath are of roughly similar rarity with most examples in the VF to AU grade range. Mint State specimens, as here, are notable rarities.

Provenance: From the Antony Bettencourt Collection. Earlier ex Ira & Larry Goldberg's sale of the Benson Collection, Part II, February 2002, lot 5; Superior's New York ANA Sale of August 2002, lot 129; Heritage's FUN Signature Sale of January 2004, lot 4046; our (Bowers and Merena's) Baltimore Auction of July 2004, lot 13; Heritage's Signature Auction of November-December 2012, lot 3060; Heritage's CSNS Signature Auction of April 2014, lot 3829.

PCGS Population: just 2; 0 finer.

Rhode Island Ship Medal Wreath Below Ship Variety in Brass

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