US Coins

Out of nowhere: Dexter 1804 dollar makes first appearance

Prominent coin dealer Adolph Weyl held his 46th auction in Berlin, beginning on Oct. 13, 1884, and concluding the following day. Although the sale mainly featured world coins, lots 94 to 387 were United States issues, including the first European auction appearance of an 1804 Draped Bust dollar, in lot 159. The lot was purchased by the Chapman brothers (Henry and Samuel H.) for a low price of $216 and sold by them to Colorado collector James Vila Dexter for a staggering $1,000 the following year.

The huge profit the Chapmans realized and the mysterious origin of the coin caused Dexter to become suspicious of its authenticity. He filed suit against the Chapman brothers for fraudulently selling the coin, which he believed to be a recent restrike, and was only mollified after a prolonged legal scuffle, when affidavits of authenticity signed by various Mint officials convinced him the coin was genuine. Misconceptions about the sale have dogged numismatic researchers for the last 130 years.

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Although the events surround­ing the first appearance of the “Dexter” dollar are well-known to numismatists today, the controversial Weyl catalog is extremely rare and few collectors have ever actually seen an example. Coauthor David Stone reports:

“I recently had the pleasure of meeting D. Brent Pogue, the current owner of the Dexter dollar, along with some of his friends and family, while they were discussing authentication of 1804 dollars with Heritage Auctions’ President Greg Rohan. Greg has handled as many 1804 dollars as anyone in the business, and Brent Pogue is one of the few collectors to ever own two examples of the 1804 dollar, so the conversation was at a pretty high level. As the Dexter dollar affair is one of the most famous instances in history of a coin that was widely condemned as a fake and later determined to be genuine, I asked Brent if he had ever seen a copy of the Weyl catalog which had caused all the controversy. He replied that he had not, but had seen copies of the cover, with the famous plate of the 1804 dollar glued to the page below the auction date. We examined the copy of the catalog from my library, noting that the illustration depicts a coin with no apparent toning and flat, lifeless surfaces, nothing like the vivid, reflective surfaces of the Dexter dollar. The plate also shows a number of die cracks that do not appear on the actual coin. It is easy to see why contemporary numismatists had doubts about the mysterious European pedigree of this piece.”

In the November 1884 issue of his house-organ, Numisma, Eduard Frossard reported the sale of the 1804 dollar and noted that photographs of the coin had been extensively circulated in this country. Indeed, it seems that the plates were more common than the actual catalog, as very few examples of the printed catalog have turned up over the years, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Since the catalog was printed entirely in German, Weyl may have thought widespread distribution in this country would be nonproductive, and settled for sending out just the plate unless the catalog was specifically requested.

Numismatic literature specialist Dan Hamelberg informed us that Kolbe & Fanning sold an example of one of these plates in lot 1572 of their Auction #121 and P. Scott Rubin has a copy of the Weyl catalog containing an extra plate that may (or may not) have originally been one of the widely circulated photographs that Frossard mentioned.

The Weyl plate is one of the few images we have of the Dexter dollar before its eccentric owner stamped a tiny letter “D” on one of the clouds on the reverse, in order to identify the coin if it was lost or stolen. George Kolbe described the photograph as:

“Approximately 5 by 10 cm. 1 fine Lichtdruck illustration printed on thin stock, depicting the obverse, a portion of the edge lettering, and the reverse of an 1804 United States silver dollar. Near fine … Collotype or Lichtdruck illustrations, while of excellent quality, are photographically printed from plaster casts and, though the quality of detail is excellent, toning or proof surfaces are not apparent.”

Frossard later told Dexter that the coin in the Chapmans’ auction was a restrike, adding considerably to Dexter’s concerns about his purchase.

No copy of the Weyl catalog was available to Eric P. Newman and Ken Bressett when they published their landmark study, The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, in 1962. On page 92 of that remarkable work, they theorized that the Chapman brothers had laundered the coin through the Weyl auction, sending him an electrotype of the coin to photograph for the catalog, while really holding the actual coin in this country and authorizing him to outbid any other bidders at the sale on their behalf.

The question of why no modern researcher had ever bothered to compare the Weyl plate to the actual coin continued to trouble Newman, however. He soon found that the catalog was virtually unobtainable. After a five-year search, he finally located a copy in the Austrian National Numismatic Collection in Vienna. After studying the image, he concluded that the coin in the picture was really the Dexter dollar, and not an electrotype after all. The extra “die cracks” in the image were actually thin cracks in the plaster cast used for the photograph, not on the surface of the coin, and the picture shows some diagnostic marks that conclusively identify the Dexter dollar. He also concluded that Weyl must have had the actual coin to photograph, as he felt the picture of the edge lettering could not be reproduced from an electrotype or plaster cast.

Rubin suggests Weyl may have photographed the edge lettering of the coin to explicitly show that it was not a plain edge restrike from 1858 and did not have the seam on the side one might expect from an electrotype. This illustration is the earliest example of a photographic image of the edge lettering on any coin we are aware of, but it is possible that some earlier plates exist.

Newman published his findings in the March 1970 issue of The Numismatist.

Recently, Mark Ferguson located copies of the Chapmans’ correspondence with Weyl in the library of the American Numismatic Society that indicate the entire transaction was legitimate and there was no collusion between Weyl and the Chapman brothers (see The Dollar of 1804/The U.S. Mint’s Hidden Secret, 2014). While there may be some small room for doubt about the Chapmans’ motivation for copying these letters, they are the best evidence anyone has presented yet concerning this transaction and are quite convincing.

The Lichtdruck Plate

The question of why Weyl used such an unattractive photograph of the Dexter dollar has puzzled researchers for many years, but Lichtdruck photography was both popular and widespread with European catalogers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The reason for this popularity was long not understood, but new research into the techniques of coin photography from the period reveals that, at the time, directly photographing coins and medals created problems in dealing with the reflectivity of the surface of the metal. An article in the Jan. 10, 1908, issue of The British Journal of Photography, titled “Some Observations on Illusions in Relief — Visual and Photographic,” relates that, where the best possible visual result was required, a plaster cast was made of the coin and then photographed in the coin’s place; “this with a view to obtaining pictures free from the unpleasing variations of reflection or ‘glance’ that usually characterise direct photographs of highly burnished metallic surfaces.”

Making a plaster cast of a coin was rather simple, but was more time consuming and costly than photographing the coin directly; the two-stage process required the casting of an intaglio copy (sometimes called a “negative”) and then using that to make the coin-like relief cast. However, the added expense was outweighed by the perceived improvement of the photographic result. The image of the Dexter dollar on the cover of the Weyl catalog illustrates the lack of reflection and precision of detail which this technique produced.

European coin catalogs, particularly those of ancient coins, were often plated with high-quality plaster casts well into the 20th century. Why this practice never caught on in America and with modern coins is not fully understood, but it is possible that American catalogers were either better able to manipulate the natural reflection of metal coins — the quality of the plates in Edward Cogan’s 1869 Mortimer MacKenzie catalog would stand as evidence of this — or simply disliked the matte-like appearance of plaster. During this era, European coiners developed and perfected the matte finish for coins and medals that was widely appreciated in the Old World for its sculptural and artistic appearance, but cordially hated in America. Weyl and other European catalogers may have believed catalog-plated coins were more attractive with the similarly flat, matte-like appearance that is typical of Lichtdruck photography, while American catalogers preferred a more authentic representation.

Rarity of the Catalog

That a truly great collector like D. Brent Pogue had never seen a copy of the Weyl catalog is some indication of its rarity. There was no copy in the libraries of Harry Bass, John Ford or Armand Champa, and there is no example in the ANS Library. George Kolbe, perhaps the foremost dealer of numismatic literature in the 20th century, was in business for 27 years before he handled an example. He reported he had “half-serious doubts about its very existence” before a copy surfaced in lot 370 of his Fourteenth Annual Joint Kolbe-Spink Auction of Dec. 9, 1995. Kolbe noted this copy was originally part of a “bound volume of period European sales from the library of the Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal and, quite likely, it was originally part of the library of Robert Wallace McLachlan which was transferred to the Chateau de Ramezay in 1922.”

David Fanning informs us that this remains the only copy the firm of Kolbe & Fanning has offered at auction, but Ferguson reports he purchased a copy privately from George Kolbe’s booth at the 1996 American Numismatic Association convention. Charles Davis, an equally respected East Coast numismatic literature dealer, believes he sold a copy of this catalog privately at one time, but he has never offered one at public auction.

The only other example we have traced in private hands is the copy that was once in the library of Kenyon V. Painter. Painter’s grandfather, John Vickers Painter, was a banker and railroad man and an associate of John D. Rockefeller who became a millionaire in the late 19th century. Painter settled in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and built the family mansion there in 1903. The family suffered some setbacks in the Depression, and Kenyon Painter relocated to Phoenix, Ariz., after World War II. He became one of the leading collectors of pioneer gold coins and assay bars in the 1950s and 1960s. He sold the bulk of his collection through Abe Kosoff and Jess Peters, with many coins appearing in the 1973 ANA convention auction. He also had dealings with Ford and Paul Franklin, as detailed in Karl Moulton’s 2013 book John J. Ford and the “Franklin Hoard.” Painter’s library was dispersed in the early 1970s, with the Weyl catalog passing through several unknown intermediaries before it was acquired by co-author Stone in 1999.

Thinking that the catalog might be more available in Europe, we contacted Douglas Saville, the dean of British numismatic literature dealers. Surprisingly, Douglas reports he has never knowingly handled a copy of the 1884 Weyl sale. He cautions that the sale is not as famous or significant in European numismatic circles as it is in this country, so he has never made a special effort to seek out copies and might have missed an example that was part of a collected volume of Weyl sales or similar gathering. Still, the printed catalog seems to be just as rare in European circles as it is in this country. We have compiled a roster of the four copies known to us, including the example Eric Newman found in the Austrian museum, below.

Physical Description

The 293 lots of American coins in the Weyl sale included examples from a wide spectrum of numismatic interests. Colonial and state coinages were represented, as well as patterns, pioneer gold, Proof sets, and regular issues.

Newman translated the description of the crucial lot 159 as:

“159 Silver Dollar 1804. Bust and eagle. Unc. Corresponding exactly with the illustration of the one auctioned in 1875 in New York as Lot 535 of the Cohen Collection; edge legend, however, on the present specimen is only weakly impressed.”

The Oct. 13, 1884, Weyl catalog includes 50 numbered pages, with 2,355 lots described. All examples of the catalog in private hands have been disbound and the pages have been trimmed. The copy in Rubin’s library measures 22 centimeters by 14.5 centimeters while the copy in Stone’s library measures 23 centimeters by 15.5 centimeters. We have never encountered a copy of this sale without the famous plate on the cover, but some plates were apparently distributed individually, as noted above. On the three catalogs about which we have information, the plates have all been trimmed to slightly different sizes and placement on the cover varies slightly, but the images of the coin remain the same.

The Oct. 13, 1884, Weyl sale is essential to our understanding of the history of the Dexter 1804 dollar, one of the most important coins in American numismatics. The elusive nature of the catalog made it difficult for numismatists to properly study the document in the past, leading to much confusion and adding to the lack of confidence 19th century collectors felt in all 1804 dollars, after the “restrike” abuses of the late 1850s. These misunderstandings led to unfortunate damage to the reputations of some 19th century coin dealers, like the Chapmans, who seem to have been innocent of the dishonest business practices of other dealers (like their mentor, John W. Haseltine), at least on this occasion.

We hope this study has cleared up some of the misconceptions about the Dexter dollar. A better understanding of photographic techniques of the era should also clarify some questions about the image of the coin in the catalog. The 1884 Weyl catalog remains one of the rarest, most important, and enigmatic documents in the numismatic literature corpus.

Roster of Known Specimens

(1)?A specimen reportedly in the library of pioneer gold collector Kenyon Vickers Painter, before 1973; unknown intermediaries; David Stone, circa 1999.

(2)?An example reportedly in the library of Canadian numismatist Robert Wallace McLachlan; Chateau Ramezay in 1922; Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal; Fourteenth Annual Joint Kolbe-Spink Auction (George Kolbe-Spink & Sons, 12/1995), lot 370; P. Scott Rubin.

(3)?A copy sold privately by George Kolbe to Mark Ferguson at the 1996 ANA Convention.

(4)?A copy seen by Eric P. Newman in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Other appearances:

(A)?A copy received by the Chapman brothers in 1884, per a letter to Weyl dated September 12, 1884, “We have received your catalogue of a sale of coins to be sold by auction in October.”

(B)?A catalog sold privately by Charles Davis in modern times, possibly number 1 or 3 above.


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