Out of nowhere: Dexter 1804 dollar makes first appearance

1884 catalog has first European auction appearance of an 1804 Draped Bust dollar
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 07/01/16
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Prominent coin dealer Adolph Weyl held his 46th auction in Berlin, beginning on Oct. 13, 1884, and concluding the following day. Although the sale mainly featured world coins, lots 94 to 387 were United States issues, including the first European auction appearance of an 1804 Draped Bust dollar, in lot 159. The lot was purchased by the Chapman brothers (Henry and Samuel H.) for a low price of $216 and sold by them to Colorado collector James Vila Dexter for a staggering $1,000 the following year.

The huge profit the Chapmans realized and the mysterious origin of the coin caused Dexter to become suspicious of its authenticity. He filed suit against the Chapman brothers for fraudulently selling the coin, which he believed to be a recent restrike, and was only mollified after a prolonged legal scuffle, when affidavits of authenticity signed by various Mint officials convinced him the coin was genuine. Misconceptions about the sale have dogged numismatic researchers for the last 130 years.

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Although the events surround­ing the first appearance of the “Dexter” dollar are well-known to numismatists today, the controversial Weyl catalog is extremely rare and few collectors have ever actually seen an example. Coauthor David Stone reports:

“I recently had the pleasure of meeting D. Brent Pogue, the current owner of the Dexter dollar, along with some of his friends and family, while they were discussing authentication of 1804 dollars with Heritage Auctions’ President Greg Rohan. Greg has handled as many 1804 dollars as anyone in the business, and Brent Pogue is one of the few collectors to ever own two examples of the 1804 dollar, so the conversation was at a pretty high level. As the Dexter dollar affair is one of the most famous instances in history of a coin that was widely condemned as a fake and later determined to be genuine, I asked Brent if he had ever seen a copy of the Weyl catalog which had caused all the controversy. He replied that he had not, but had seen copies of the cover, with the famous plate of the 1804 dollar glued to the page below the auction date. We examined the copy of the catalog from my library, noting that the illustration depicts a coin with no apparent toning and flat, lifeless surfaces, nothing like the vivid, reflective surfaces of the Dexter dollar. The plate also shows a number of die cracks that do not appear on the actual coin. It is easy to see why contemporary numismatists had doubts about the mysterious European pedigree of this piece.”

In the November 1884 issue of his house-organ, Numisma, Eduard Frossard reported the sale of the 1804 dollar and noted that photographs of the coin had been extensively circulated in this country. Indeed, it seems that the plates were more common than the actual catalog, as very few examples of the printed catalog have turned up over the years, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Since the catalog was printed entirely in German, Weyl may have thought widespread distribution in this country would be nonproductive, and settled for sending out just the plate unless the catalog was specifically requested.

Numismatic literature specialist Dan Hamelberg informed us that Kolbe & Fanning sold an example of one of these plates in lot 1572 of their Auction #121 and P. Scott Rubin has a copy of the Weyl catalog containing an extra plate that may (or may not) have originally been one of the widely circulated photographs that Frossard mentioned.

The Weyl plate is one of the few images we have of the Dexter dollar before its eccentric owner stamped a tiny letter “D” on one of the clouds on the reverse, in order to identify the coin if it was lost or stolen. George Kolbe described the photograph as:

“Approximately 5 by 10 cm. 1 fine Lichtdruck illustration printed on thin stock, depicting the obverse, a portion of the edge lettering, and the reverse of an 1804 United States silver dollar. Near fine … Collotype or Lichtdruck illustrations, while of excellent quality, are photographically printed from plaster casts and, though the quality of detail is excellent, toning or proof surfaces are not apparent.”

Frossard later told Dexter that the coin in the Chapmans’ auction was a restrike, adding considerably to Dexter’s concerns about his purchase.

No copy of the Weyl catalog was available to Eric P. Newman and Ken Bressett when they published their landmark study, The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, in 1962. On page 92 of that remarkable work, they theorized that the Chapman brothers had laundered the coin through the Weyl auction, sending him an electrotype of the coin to photograph for the catalog, while really holding the actual coin in this country and authorizing him to outbid any other bidders at the sale on their behalf.

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