In the late 19th century, the most valuable coin wasn’t the 1804
silver dollar — it was worth just a piddling $570 in 1890 — but the
1892 World’s Columbian Expo half dollar.
In a publicity stunt, Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, makers of the
Remington typewriter, had bid an incredible $10,000 for the first coin
struck for the expo. Q. David Bowers in his Commemorative Coins of
the United States estimates the sum was about equal to a common
worker’s lifetime earnings. Newspapers across the country carried
coverage of that famous first strike. Here’s how the New York
Times reported it.
“PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 19 —The most valuable half dollar ever made in
this country and probably the most valuable coin in existence, the
first of the new World’s Fair souvenirs, was turned out at the United
States Mint here to-day. ...
“When the hour arrived, Superintendent [Oliver C.] Bosbyshell was
summoned to the pressroom by Chief Coiner William S. Steele, while
Engraver Charles Barber, who designed the famous coin [along with
George T. Morgan]; Chief Clerk M. H. Cobb, and others assembled as witnesses.
Connect with Coin World:
“They gathered around an improved automatic, toggle-jointed coining
press, a noiseless, powerful, highly polished and wonderfully accurate
“No power was applied to the machine for the first test. Instead,
Foreman Albert Downing placed one of the planchets in the receiver and
grasped the lever which raises the lower die while Edwin Cliff, his
assistant, stood at the balance wheel. Then came the critical moment. …
“Unfortunately the first attempt was a failure. … To an ordinary
observer it might have appeared perfect, but the coiner and designer
examined it under a glass. One glance was enough.
“A fatal flaw was revealed, and the verdict which consigned the
prospective ten-thousand dollar beauty to the scrap box was
pronounced. A hammer was at hand, and what might have been the most
famous coin in history was battered into comparatively worthless metal.
“The next attempt was made more carefully for the reputation of the
coiners was at stake, and they had resolved that the first souvenir of
the exposition should be a marvel of perfection and beauty.
“The planchet before being accepted was examined under the
microscope and found without blemish. For the second time the two
workmen turned the press by hand, while the spectators waited in
suspense.” And it worked.
That coin was eventually donated to the Columbian Museum, now the Field Museum of
Natural History. What’s it worth today? While most World’s
Columbian Expo half dollars are worth very little, high grade Proofs
have topped $40,000.