Meadow Merrill has an intriguing "either/or" coin-related scenario. She owns an 1853 5 Centimes bronze coin from France that is either a worthless, damaged piece of junk, or a valuable and historically important artifact from the Wild West. The coin, which features a portrait of Napoleon III, is a family heirloom that has been passed down to Merrill with an interesting story. It was purportedly shot up by legendary Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley! Is there any way to authenticate such a coin?
Like most coins that have legends attached to them, the potential monetary value of the coin is closely tied to the ability to verify the claims made about it. Annie Oakley was known to have shot at coins thrown into the air, usually putting a bullet clean through them. But is there any way to prove that any given coin with a bullet hole through it was one shot by Oakley? Finding out the answer in Merrill's case proves to be an excellent exercise in numismatic forensics, which is why I am sharing it with you.
Annie Oakley and the Wild West Show
Merrill inherited the coin, along with some photographs depicting musicians and performers in the famous Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Family lore claimed that Annie Oakley gave the coin to Merrill's great-grand uncles, who were purportedly musicians in the Wild West troupe. The PBS show History Detectives sent investigator Elyse Luray to attempt to verify the story. During her investigation, Luray takes the following steps:
Compare the photos to known Wild West images - Luray visits the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, to do some checking. The Center has extensive archives and artifacts from the Wild West Show and Annie Oakley. Do the photos match? Are Merrill's photos what she thinks they are? Are her relatives in any of the Historical Center's photos?
Set up a test shoot using a similar coin and Oakley's favorite gun - Luray tacks a similar coin onto a target board and has a sharpshooter hit the coin. Then she compares the marks the bullet left on the coin. Do the marks match those on Merrill's heirloom coin?
Consider some common sense - Would a 5 Centimes coin from France likely show up in late-19th century America? Or did Annie Oakley ever travel to France? In other words, is an 1853 5 Centimes French coin likely to have ever come into Annie Oakley's hands?
Scientific forensic analysis - Can the modern science of ballistics tell us anything about whether the coin was even really damaged by a bullet? And if it was, what type and kind? Is this a bullet from a gun type that Annie Oakley could have used?
Genealogical research - Can Merrill's family members be traced back into time, and proven to have been part of the Wild West troupe? (This part of the show is really good; Investigator Luray offers some excellent tips for performing your own genealogy research!)
Did Annie Oakley Shoot the Coin?
All of the above analysis is carried out at a slow, easy-to-follow pace during the show. Investigator Luray cannot say for 100% certainty that the coin was shot up by Annie Oakley, (after all, short of having a video or fingerprints on the coin, how could you prove something like that,) but given the Merrill family photographs and the fact that Merrill's ancestors were part of the Wild West Show troupe, it is extremely likely that the story about the coin is true. I can't help but wonder if the evidence is good enough for PCGS to slab the coin with its provenance. Maybe it would depend on who submitted it...