US Coins

1971-S Eisenhower dollar prototype sells for first time at auction

How does one price a coin with no real direct comparable sales? Bidders faced this challenge when Heritage offered a 1971-S Eisenhower dollar copper-silver clad prototype at its Jan. 14 Florida United Numismatists Platinum Night auction in Dallas.

The coin, graded Specimen 67 by Professional Coin Grading Service, was making its first auction appearance. Specialists believe this “discovery coin,” which emerged in 2008, was a working prototype for Frank Gasparro’s design that would be struck from 1971 to 1978.

Bidders decided it was worth $264,000.

Heritage led its description by writing, “This prototype is one of the rarest of all silver dollars struck since 1794, and it has been poetically described as the ‘birth certificate of America’s last silver dollar’ ” noting that it was one of just three prototypes known, one of which is struck from a different obverse prototype die.

The Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection lacks a representative, as do the major numismatic museum collections.

Heritage advised potential bidders, “We would not be surprised if the new owner has the opportunity to place this coin on loan to any of these worthy institutions, among many others, and hope that he or she would accept such an invitation.”

The auctioneer looked to the 1975-S Roosevelt, No S dime that sold for $456,000 at a 2019 Heritage auction for guidance, as it is one of just two known examples of that classic 1970s rarity. Rather than being a prototype, that dime is the result of a Proof die, produced at the Philadelphia Mint, that lacked the San Francisco Assay Office’s S Mint mark.

Prototype or pattern?

Heritage calls the offered dollar a “prototype” rather than the more often-used term “pattern,” distinguishing the two terms. “A pattern coin is generally thought to be a concept coin, struck to evaluate a purely conceptual design never officially approved for circulation,” while, “prototypes, by contrast, are coins produced within the Mint for the chief engraver’s actual day-to-day working use” serving as “a tool to perfect an officially approved coin design for circulation.”

Paul Gilkes wrote on the discovery of the coin in a Sept. 29, 2008, Coin World cover story, sharing that collector Lee Lydston discovered it while searching through rolls of Eisenhower dollars for varieties at the Long Beach Expo earlier that year. He paid less than $10 for the find.

The collector said, “This particular coin is an example of one of the many reasons I love to collect Eisenhower dollars,” telling fellow collectors. “Who knows what varieties are out there just waiting to be discovered? Only those that look will ever know.”

Gilkes clearly explained the various die types used in producing the 1971 and 1972 Eisenhower dollars in this article, writing, “During the first two years of production for the Eisenhower dollar, the Mint produced several different versions, or subtypes, of the reverse, in which the relief differed slightly, along with other design differences. The Low Relief reverse was intended for use on the 1971 and 1971-D copper-nickel clad circulation strikes and Uncirculated 1971-S silver-copper clad dollar. The High Relief (Type II) reverse was introduced for use on the Proof 1971-S silver-copper clad dollar and both Proof and Uncirculated 1972-S silver-copper clad dollars. A third reverse subtype, an improved version of the High Relief design, was introduced late in 1972 for the Philadelphia Mint circulating dollar. All three subtypes were used on the circulating 1972 dollars from the Philadelphia Mint,” and, Gilkes reported, “researchers have identified other reverse styles.”

The edge reeding is identical to 1971-S Eisenhower copper-silver clad dollars, but the obverse and reverse both are struck in a higher relief, with a design that more closely resembles the original 1970 designs in Frank Gasparro’s galvanos. U.S. Mint press releases in 1971 noted that “trial strikes” were struck and that they would be destroyed. Heritage guesses, “This prototype and its two companions may possibly be from those experimental pieces, if they somehow escaped destruction.”

Research is ongoing.

Another theory is that they were prototypes struck at the San Francisco facility (then designated as an Assay Office rather as a Mint) on presses intended for striking Proof coins that were not present at the Philadelphia Mint.

Changing grades

Gilkes’s 2008 article states that the discovery was originally certified as Proof 64 by ANACS in 2008, and it was later re-certified Specimen 65+ by PCGS.

Heritage wrote, “The coin also exhibited the usual surface hazing imparted to Blue Pack uncirculated silver Eisenhower dollars, due to their long-term exposure to the mint’s pliofilm packaging,” and it was conserved in 2019 at the request of then-owner David Frohman, who trademarked the phrase “The Birth Certificate of America’s Last Silver Dollar” with regards to the coin, as noted in Heritage’s presale materials. 

He “felt strongly that the haze should be removed, both to protect the coin long-term and to unveil its extraordinary beauty. He also felt that once the coin was conserved by PCGS and regraded, it would receive a substantially higher grade,” according to Heritage.

It has since been upgraded and moved to an oversized PCGS “Rarities” holder with the Specimen 67 grade.

Heritage observed, “It has a stunningly beautiful and almost medallic high relief appearance, with some doubling evident on the motto and date.”

The cataloger calls the rims “perfect” and adds, “Strong prooflike reflectivity is evident in the fields, and many die polishing lines show on both sides. The virtually flawless surfaces add to the terrific eye appeal. A small depression near the eagle’s tail may be the result of mint personnel testing the planchet hardness. Significantly, a similar mark shows in nearly the same spot on another prototype.”

Heritage’s co-chairman Jim Halperin wrote before the auction, “I chose to make this coin a personal pet project.”

It was offered with no reserve. Halperin explained, “David and I both wish to encourage new (and especially younger) collectors to learn how to bid, and what better way than to place a bid on this prototype? Only one bidder will actually win the coin, but many could have the unique and fun experience of placing perhaps their first coin auction bid.”

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