The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, by Eric P. Newman and Kenneth
Bressett, ripped away the veil of secrecy from this fabled coin, as
noted in last month’s column. This month, we relive a dramatic
revelation that required a last-second rewrite in 1962, creating a
rarity for numismatic bibliophiles.
The two authors began researching 1804 dollars in the mid-1950s,
joined forces in 1959, and by July 1962, their completed manuscript
was at Whitman Publications. Then it was off to Detroit for a restful
annual convention of the American Numismatic Association. Restfulness
evaporated at a seminar where researcher James C. Risk revealed the
existence of a Proof set of American coins, including an 1804 Draped
Bust dollar, which had belonged to the King of Siam (Thailand). This
set, which had been delivered to the king by American diplomat Edmund
Roberts, was placed on display at the convention.
In their manuscript, Newman and Bressett had argued forcefully —
for an entire chapter — that old stories about 1804 dollars serving as
diplomatic gifts were a “delusion.” Confronted with new evidence, Ken
scrambled to the telephone and urgently asked Whitman to “hold the presses.”
How did this happen? The authors had been determined to write a
fact-based book. As they put it: “Opinions, assertions, hunches,
theories, assumptions, guesses, challenges or pretensions … are
without real value in numismatics, unless supported by the facts.”
Their research had revealed only unsubstantiated stories. In the
absence of verifiable facts, they had concluded the diplomatic gift
story was a delusion.
Fortunately, Ken’s call reached Whitman in time. The authors
quickly rewrote the offending chapter and the book appeared only a few
months behind schedule.
The final version of The Fantastic 1804 Dollar is a
common volume, readily available from numismatic booksellers. But the
“stop the presses” incident created a literary rarity. Prior to the
1962 ANA convention, Ken had asked Whitman to encase page proofs of
the original manuscript in the same binding (brown cloth with silver
lettering), that would eventually be used for the regular published
edition. The bound page proofs were sent to numismatists who had
helped the authors with research, with the request that they make
edits and return the proofs to the authors for corrections. About 20
copies were made and most survive today, making these bound page
proofs as rare as the 1804 dollars themselves (15 dollars are known)!
Any proof copy is special, and those inscribed or annotated by the
authors are especially prized. However, since the proof and regular
editions are bound precisely alike, how can you tell them apart? The
best way is to look at the table of contents. If Chapter IX is titled
“The Diplomatic Gift Delusion,” you have a proof! If Chapter IX is
instead titled “The Origin of the 1804 ‘Originals,’ ” don’t cry in
your beer, for you still own, according to the Numismatic Bibliomania
Society, the 26th best numismatic work ever produced. Whitman agrees,
for in 2009, it published a “Tribute Edition” of The Fantastic
1804 Dollar, which reprints the original, adds 58 pages of new
scholarship, and boasts a bookplate signed by both authors, all bound
in full leather with gold lettering.
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.