US Coins

Shady stories for U.S. coins add value and mystery

To paraphrase Mark Twain, when evidence is weak or lacking, wholesale returns of conjecture often are derived from a trivial investment of fact. Often such facts only provide correlation, and correlation is not evidence of causality. Even worse, a notion repeated often enough can be thought to be a fact. 

Numismatics is not immune to fallacy; numerous examples could be produced in which yesterday’s correlation or notion became today’s “fact.” In some cases, new discoveries have cleared up the fallacies, but in other cases, the fallacies have died hard or not at all. 

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With so many really rare coins appearing on the market recently, it’s easy to forget that some of the rarest, priciest and most “significant” rare coins aren’t really coins at all. The Merriam-Webster definition of a coin reads: “a small, flat, and usually round piece of metal issued by a government as money.” The key element we focus on here is that it must be “issued by a government as money.” That keeps out a number of very famous “coins.” The 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins, 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars, and restrike 1804 dollars were produced clandestinely and illegally, apparently at the Mint, for private profit. Courts are still deciding whether 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles are money. Many more examples could be given. It is probably fair to stretch the definition of “coin” to include pattern coins, such as the 1907 Saint-Gaudens, Ultra High Relief, Roman Numerals double eagles, as there is at least the presumption that a government was considering issuing the designs as money. 

There are, however, several “rare coins” that fail to meet the definition of “coin,” even if we stretch it to include patterns. Eric Newman and Ken Bressett’s famous book is titled The Fantastic 1804 Dollar for more than one reason. The stories of how the 1804 dollars came to be and how Newman and Bressett learned about their origin are pretty fantastic. But also, the coin is fantastic in the sense of being a fantasy piece. The “original” Class I 1804 dollars were issued by the U.S. government, but not as money (Classes II and III were produced clandestinely and illegally for sale to collectors beginning around 1859). Since they were never intended as money, 1804 dollars don’t fit our definition of coins. 

At least eight Class I 1804 dollars were produced. They were intended to be included as part of Proof sets to be given as diplomatic gifts for foreign heads of state beginning in late 1834. Two were actually presented: one to the Sultan of Muscat on Oct. 1, 1835, and the other to the King of Siam on April 5, 1836. Two other sets were prepared in April of 1835 but not delivered. Those four 1804 dollars and four others are known to exist in private and public collections. Remarkably, two of them are in the D. Brent Pogue Collection being sold at auction by Stack’s Bowers Galleries. The King of Siam set, discovered in 1962, provided the key to understanding the origin of these fascinating and expensive pieces. 

Very few collectors can ever hope to own an 1804 dollar. Fortunately, they trade hands fairly frequently, so they can be seen at auction lot viewings. Other examples are held in the American Numismatic Association Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, where they can be seen. However, if you really want one and don’t have seven-figure funds to spend, good facsimiles are available. Some of the best were produced by the former Gallery Mint Museum, and one is illustrated with this article. At less than $100, these can fit most collectors’ budgets.

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