Eric P. Newman’s and Kenneth Bressett’s book The Fantastic 1804
Dollar addressed the “veil of secrecy” that always surrounded
1804 Draped Bust silver dollars.
U.S. Mint records indicated 19,570 pieces were struck, yet only
15, of three different types, could be traced. This minuscule survival
rate prompted fanciful theories to explain their disappearance, such
as the shipwreck of a vessel carrying payroll for sailors fighting the
Barbary pirates. A more prosaic explanation held that the dollars were
melted, since their silver content was worth more than their face value.
However, sharp-eyed numismatists noticed that 1804 dollars had
certain features in common with dollars struck in the 1830s, and
wondered if they had been struck after 1804. In its first edition,
A Guide Book of United States Coins summarized various
theories, and concluded: “The 1804 dollar has been and probably will
continue to be a subject of much discussion. Unless some new evidence
is uncovered, the mystery of its existence or disappearance will
always be a matter of speculation for the numismatic fraternity.”
In the mid-1950s, Newman and Bressett began seeking that new
evidence, joining forces and conducting research at the Mint, in
public archives, and in thousands of numismatic periodicals and
auction catalogs. The truth they uncovered about the 1804 dollar was,
well, fantastic. They confirmed that 19,570 dollars were struck in
1804, but all were dated 1803, for the Mint used old dies until they
shattered. After this run was completed, dollar production was
suspended with most melted for their silver. Thus, no 1804-dated
dollars were struck in 1804. They were first struck in 1834 to 1835,
for sets of U.S. coinage to be distributed to the kings of Siam,
Cochin-China, Muscat and Japan.
Mint officials were ordered to prepare complete sets of U.S.
coinage as diplomatic gifts, and dollars, though suspended, were still
an authorized issue. Records indicated that dollars had last been
coined in 1804, and since no one at the Mint recalled that those
dollars had actually been dated 1803, they made new dies dated 1804.
Eight “Type 1” dollars were struck from these dies; four were sent as
gifts on the 1835 diplomatic mission, and four kept in reserve. The
sole “Type 2” example came from a different reverse die. The six “Type
3” dollars differed from the Type 2 only in that they have lettered edges.
Both Types 2 and 3 were secretly struck by Mint employees around
1858 for sale to collectors. The authors even named the workers who
used public resources for their private gain.
Newman and Bressett concluded that 1804 dollars are fantasies with
no original counterpart. They closed their book with a memorable
condemnation: “There are no genuine 1804 dollars, and those struck
from Mint-made dies which bear that date are antedated fantasies. The
‘King of American Coins’ is an impostor, but was made for a king.”
Though the authors exposed the 1804 dollar as a concoction,
collectors loved them all the more. In 1962, when The Fantastic
1804 Dollar was published, the coins were bringing about
$30,000 at auction. In 1998, a Type 1 specimen sold at auction for 138
times as much! Even though they are pretenders, 1804 dollars are still
regarded as numismatic royalty.
JOEL J. OROSZ is a charter member of the Numismatic Bibliomania
Society and co-author of The Secret History of the First U.S.
Mint. He can be reached at Joeljorosz@gmail.com