US Coins

Most valuable coin in 1890s wasn't what you'd think

This Proof 1892 Columbian half dollar was the third coin struck. It sold for $42,250 in 2002. Note the handsome, rainbow toning.

Original images courtesy of Heritage Auctions

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.

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“They gathered around an improved automatic, toggle-jointed coining press, a noiseless, powerful, highly polished and wonderfully accurate machine… .

“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.

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