US Coins

1878-S Morgan dollar may be presentation piece

What is being identified as one of a handful of 1878-S Morgan dollar presentation strikes specially struck at the San Francisco Mint for dignitaries has been authenticated and graded Specimen 65 by Professional Coin Grading Service.

A PCGS press release said the coin has been identified as one of a handful of specially made pieces presented to dignitaries at a long-forgotten ceremony on April 17, 1878, the day the San Francisco Mint began production of the silver dollars bearing new designs rendered by Assistant U.S. Mint Engraver George T. Morgan.

The collector purchased the coin at Doyle New York’s March 23, 2006, public sale of coins, medals and bank notes from the estate of banker Samuel Mills Damon of Honolulu, Hawaii. Damon was sole owner of the Bank of Bishop & Co. He served as minister of finance for three years for the Kingdom of Hawaii during the reign of King Kalakaua.

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The coin, offered as Choice Uncirculated, realized $2,280 in the 2006 sale.

Forensic evidence

PCGS President Don Willis stated, “The forensics for this coin are overwhelming. It has a medallic strike from fresh, new dies of the correct variety, it’s fully struck with square rims and with prooflike surfaces, there are no reeding marks, and no clash marks as found on other coins of this variety struck later.”

The unbroken pedigree of this coin dates back to the 1880s when it was the property of Bishop & Co. Bank and then acquired by Damon, who was a partner in Bishop’s Bank before becoming sole owner.

Damon died in 1924 at his Moanalua estate. The 1878-S dollar remained in the Damon estate holdings for more than 120 years until it was offered at auction by Doyle New York in 2006. The auction house described the coin as “possibly a presentation piece.”

PCGS officials suggest there are clues about how the coin got to Hawaii in the 1880s. One of the dignitaries attending the April 17, 1878, first striking ceremony for Morgan dollars at the San Francisco Mint was a former California governor, Frederick Low, who was given the second coin struck. Low served as the ninth governor of California from Dec. 10, 1863, to Dec. 5, 1867. Low moved to Hawaii in 1882 and became a banker there.

VAM-58 die marriage

The coin is a VAM-58 die marriage, which John Roberts, a specialist in Morgan dollars with particular knowledge in the coins of 1878, confirmed. 

The coin just certified by PCGS “is also the earliest die stage of this particular marriage,” Roberts said. “The present example is clearly a phenomenal coin that is remarkably well preserved and appears to have been handled with care at the time it was struck. It also appears to be very sharply defined strongly suggesting higher that normal striking pressure. Seeing images of the piece, I understand the Specimen designation.”

First day or struck later?

Roberts says the piece does raise some questions, however. “An engraved presentation piece stating it was from the first 10 struck was in the Eliasberg collection and was cataloged as Lot 2254 by Bowers & Merena as a Branch Mint Proof. It is from the VAM 60 marriage. This piece is well known to specialists. ... I’m hard pressed to believe the San Francisco Mint needed more than [one] die pair to strike 10 or 12 pieces, depending on account, for their first-strike ceremony. Both marriages would have been in the initial delivery of dies to the Mint, so it’s possible either was used for the actual ceremony described in contemporary newspaper accounts. If I was to guess, I’d say the VAM 60 piece with the [engraved] inscription ‘ONE OF THE FIRST TEN COINED APRIL 17TH, 1878 FROM J. GUS. BURT.’ was from the actual event. Mr. Burt was a local businessman and former official of the Bank of California. He lived and worked a few blocks from the Mint. It’s purely speculation on my part, but I can imagine there were inquiries about some of these ‘first strike’ dollars after word of them was published. VAM 60 is an extremely rare variety and it is unlikely the obverse die survived for more than a day or two of normal coining. Perhaps the present example of the VAM 58 specimen strike was made for a person who was literally a day late and a dollar short.”

The engraved presentation piece to Burt was listed as Proof 63 in Lot 2254 in the April 6 to 8, 1997, sale of the Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. Collection. The first 1878-S Morgan dollar struck was presented to Coiner Frank X. Cicott, who acted as master of ceremonies for the April 17 event.

“After nearly 1,000 coins were struck, one of the dies broke, the press was stopped, and further coinage was suspended until the following day,” according to the Eliasberg catalog. 

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