US Coins

Auction catalogs offering 1804 dollars: Numismatic Bookie

Back in May, the Numismatic Bookie bought an 1804 silver dollar for $15. OK, it was really my wife, Florence, who made the purchase, and the 1804 dollar was actually photographed in an auction catalog. This experience, however, illustrates how you can build an important numismatic library without breaking your budget.

Antique fairs, flea markets, book sales: bargain-priced numismatic literature hides in them all. We attended the annual Rhinebeck, New York antiques fair, but it could have been any sale, anywhere. Florence spied a Parke-Bernet catalog featuring an 1804 dollar (although its cover depicted a 1907 Saint-Gaudens, Roman Numerals double eagle), at a dealer’s booth, and quickly paid the $15 asking price. 

Not only was Florence’s find a bargain, it was also inspiring. The 1804 Draped Bust dollar — “The King of American Coins” as dealer B. Max Mehl called it — has been the straw that stirs a coin collector’s drink ever since the first one was revealed in 1842. One of the greatest numismatic books ever written — The Fantastic 1804 Dollar — exposed this storied coin as a novodel, struck illegally long after the date on its face, but nonetheless, at every public auction appearance, a bidding frenzy erupts. So why not try collecting one copy of every auction catalog offering an 1804 dollar for sale?

If you love challenges, this one will turn your crank. You’ll need to find more than 50 catalogs, ranging in age from 148 years to few months, and in price from hundreds to the $15 Florence paid. Most are American, some British, and one is German. Most are relatively common, some are rare and expensive, and a few are uncommon, yet inexpensive. It will take years of work with numismatic literature dealers, but when finished, you’ll have a superb catalog collection.

Two “keys” are required to complete such a set. The first is the oldest: W. Elliot Woodward’s sale of the Joseph J. Mickley Collection, Oct. 28, 1867. The second is the rarest: Adolph Weyl’s sale of Oct. 13, 1884, which featured, glued to its cover, a photograph of a plaster cast of the 1804 dollar known as the Dexter specimen. Why photograph a plaster cast instead of the real coin? No one knows, although theories abound

The Parke-Bernet catalog offers a different example, the Davis specimen. After Philadelphia numismatist Robert Coulton Davis purchased this coin from John Haseltine in 1877, he sought assurance from the U.S. Mint that it was an “original” coin (today called a Class 1 dollar, struck around 1834). Mint Assayer William Dubois compared the Davis specimen (today called a Class III dollar, struck around 1858), with the Class I dollar in the Mint Cabinet (museum), and declared that Davis owned an “original” issue. Dubois was a knowledgeable numismatist and longtime curator of the Mint Cabinet who knew the differences between Class I and Class III 1804 dollars, which are readily obvious upon comparison. Dubois simply lied to Davis. 

Too bad for Mr. Davis, but good for us. The story of 1804 dollars is chock-a-block with intrigue, skullduggery, and double-dealing. A collection of such catalogs provides hours of fascinating reading as you trace how people over decades pieced together the truly fantastic history of the 1804 dollar. 

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