Repatriating the Gilman plate

Last modified: 5/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
In a tale worthy of Antiques Roadshow, a Minnesota teacher discovered a key piece of New Hampshire history at an estate auction in 2009: a copper plate used to print money to help New Hampshire pay its share of the Revolutionary War. The teacher bought the plate but last year, when he put it up for auction, the state stepped in and laid claim to it.

The plate, which was engraved by Exeter silversmith and patriot John Ward Gilman, belongs in New Hampshire. It was commissioned by the New Hampshire Provisional Congress, a government in rebellion, on June 9, 1775. The battles of Lexington and Concord occurred the prior month, the War of Independence was under way and statehood for New Hampshire would come just months later.

Gilman was a key figure in New Hampshire history. In addition to the plate, he designed the state's seal, signed the protest against the Stamp Act, and made swords, guns and musket balls for patriot forces. The plate is a critical piece of state history and the attorney general's office should not relent in its attempt to prove that it is state property.

New Hampshire has offered to purchase the plate, but since the offer was not accepted, its was presumably for less than the plate's $50,000 to $100,000 auction estimate. The plate is now locked away in a Minnesota bank. The state stands a good chance of winning, should the matter go to court. We hope that can be avoided. The collector did nothing wrong, and his desire to profit from his find is understandable. But one way or another, the plate must come home. A state that can't afford to care for its needy certainly can't spend a five- or six-figure sum on a piece of its history. But the public, aided perhaps by a modern history-loving patriot of means, can. A fund should be created, perhaps under the state historical society or division of charitable trusts, to accept contributions to purchase the plate. A fund drive should be held. If the money can't be raised, or if the seller is unreasonable, then by all means, the state should go to court.

Though he has been unable so far to locate records that prove it, former state archivist Frank Mevers is likely correct that the plate was removed from the vault in the State House. Records do, however, show that a former state representative and then-head of the New Hampshire Hospital for the Insane loaned the plate to a Boston doctor and currency collector who used it in the mid-19th century to print commemorative copies of the notes used to fund the War of Independence. So it's more likely that the plate was not stolen, but borrowed, not returned and then forgotten.

Gilman was paid 13 pounds for engraving the plate, and he used it to print 10,500 pounds for the war effort. Engraving the plate and printing the notes, his records say, took 24½ days. The notes came in four denominations of 40, 20, 6 and 1 shilling.

Today, the notes themselves, which are signed by the Provisional Congress's receiver general, John Ward Gilman's relative, Nicholas Gilman, sell for thousands of dollars apiece. No known copy of an original 1-shilling note from the Gilman plate has ever been found, so the hunt continues. But now that the plate that created those notes has been found, it must come home to New Hampshire.


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