We have stories, mostly published in the 19th century, explaining
the rarity of certain United States coins. Silver dollars of 1804 were
minted to the extent of 19,570 pieces, per The Annual Report of the
Director of the Mint, but only 15 of the date are known today. Where
did they all go? The answer: They were on a ship headed to the
Mediterranean when there was trouble with the Barbary Pirates, and the
vessel and crew were lost.
Well, not quite.
Regarding the rarity of the 1799 Draped Bust cent, of which many
thousands were thought to have been minted: Most of them were sent to
Africa and lost; alternatively, these too were sent and fell victim to
the Barbary Pirates along with the 1804 silver dollars.
Again, not quite.
One of my favorite fictions is from English numismatics and
concerns the copper farthings (quarter of a penny) coins of Queen
Anne. These have the dates of 1713 and 1714, but seem to have been
made in relatively small quantities, perhaps in the thousands.
Seemingly, no accurate account exists of them. Beginning many years
ago the Queen Anne farthing was pinpointed as a great rarity.
The standard reference on the subject by C. Wilson Peck, English
Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958, states
that examples are indeed rare, but it is unlikely that any copper
coins depicting Anne were made for circulation.
Whatever the circumstances, at least a few hundred 1713 and 1714
farthings exist today. They regularly appear at auction.
Peck quotes several stories, including this:
“At Dublin, 1814, an extraordinary trial took place in connection
with one of these coins, an account of which appeared in The British
Press newspaper, on the 14th February in that year, by which it
appears that a man named George Hone received twelve months’
imprisonment for stealing a Queen Anne’s farthing. And so impressed
were the parties of its great value, that it was estimated that £700
was half the price that would be realized by its sale! The council for
the Crown further informed the jury that only three specimens were
known, that the die broke upon striking the third farthing; and that
one farthing was in the King’s Museum, the second in the British
Museum, the third being missing, was presumed to be the one in question.”
In 1814 £700 was equivalent to over $3,000 in U.S. funds!
Do you know why the 1804 dollar and 1799 cent are rarities? What
is the real story? Something for you to check.
Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries
and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached
at his private email, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.