Know your U.S. coins: Gobrecht dollars

This may trouble some people, but the Gobrecht dollar really should be renamed to something a bit more accurate – perhaps the Seated Liberty, Flying Eagle dollar.

The Gobrecht dollar is named after Christian Gobrecht, an engraver at the United States Mint in 1836 when the coin made its debut. However, unlike the similarly named Morgan dollar, the Gobrecht dollar was not designed solely by the man whose name it bears. Credit for the designs used by Gobrecht properly should be shared with others, which is why a name change is appropriate for accuracy's sake.

We're not going to delve into which Seated Liberty, Flying Eagle dollars are patterns, which are circulation issues and which are restrikes. Modern researchers are still debating those points and publication of one person's view is generally a rallying call for a contrarian viewpoint from someone else.

Instead, we'll focus on how the coin came to be, and why the Gobrecht dollar is singularly misnamed.

COIN VALUES: See how much Gobrecht dollars are worth today

Silver dollar production had ceased in 1804 with the production of 19,750 Draped Bust dollars dated 1803. The silver dollar had too much silver when compared to the Spanish 8-real coin, and most were exported rather than circulating in the United States. Except for some 1804-dated dollars struck about 1834 as diplomatic gifts, no silver dollars were struck from 1804 through 1835. It was determined by the mid-1830s, however, that a silver dollar was necessary, and plans were made for a coin of new standards and designs.

The new silver dollar, rather than being designed by one man, was designed virtually by committee. Robert Maskell Patterson was one of them. He was named Mint director on May 26, 1835, effective upon the resignation of Director Samuel Moore July 1.

One of Moore's last acts as director was to recommend the hiring of Christian Gobrecht as an assistant engraver, made necessary by the expected increased need for dies with the opening of the new Branch Mints. Before Gobrecht could be hired, William Kneass, the engraver, suffered a stroke.

Patterson hired Gobrecht. He also hired two Philadelphia artists, Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, to create new designs for various denominations, including the dollar.

All four men (and others) would play key roles in creating the silver dollar that today bears the name of just one of them.

Patterson deserves much of the credit. He conceived the obverse design as an American variation of Britannia, Britain's allegorical icon, and advised his artists and engravers on fine points of design modifications. Credit should also go to Kneass, who produced a sketch of an Americanized Britannia before he suffered the stroke. Both Peale and Sully produced their own versions of a Seated Liberty as well, and deserve credit. Gobrecht, using sketches provided him, made a copper-plate impression for presentation to Secretary of Treasury Levi Woodbury, and thus should share the credit. Early in 1836, Patterson sent impressions from a study die to Woodbury and President Jackson. Both officials approved the design, although Woodbury expressed a desire to see the foot of the Liberty pole held by Liberty (replacing the trident held by Britannia).

Patterson replied that this would be impossible on a seated figure. Patterson also recommended further refinements of the design (including to her right arm, her cheeks, the drapery and her index finger), and in April submitted an improved obverse die, as well as a sketch of the Flying Eagle reverse.

Patterson referred to this eagle as being "true to nature," avoiding the "absurdity of the shield sticking to the breast of a bird." He noted in a letter to Woodbury that some 30 sketches for the eagle had been rejected before an acceptable Flying Eagle design was created.

Gobrecht claimed credit early. At one point, he placed his name in the field beneath the image of Liberty on one die. Then his name was moved to a less prominent place on the base upon which Liberty sits. One can imagine the reaction of the others who worked on the designs, to receive no credit. However, his bold signature presaged the day when collectors would ignore the contributions of Woodbury, of Patterson, of Peale and Sully, and call the coin by just his name – the Gobrecht dollar.

It hasn't always been that way. Collectors at one time referred to the coin by its designs, not the engraver. This practice makes sense. We call the silver dollar that followed the Seated Liberty dollar, with an obverse based on that used from 1836 to 1839. However, Patterson's natural eagle did not survive, being replaced by an eagle with a shield absurdly sticking to its breast.

At some point, collectors and dealers began calling the dollar of 1836 to 1839 the Gobrecht dollar, probably because Gobrecht's name appears on some specimens. That practice continues.

However, it's neither fair nor completely accurate to do so. Whether the collecting community will change its practice is questionable.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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