A fantastically fortuitous visit
While the United States Mint began operation in 1792, it did not try to strike silver dollars until two years later – the Mint just didn’t have the equipment to do the job.
In October 1794, when the first silver dollars were struck, the Mint still lacked proper equipment, but made a go of it anyway.
The Mint jury-rigged a half dollar press to strike the large coins, with predictable results. The coins were weakly struck in some areas. Some were so poorly struck that they were never placed in circulation.
Researcher Walter Breen estimated 2,000 coins were struck, but about 242 were rejected. What became of those imperfect coins is unknown, but one 1795 dollar is known to have been overstruck on a 1794 dollar, suggesting the unreleased coins were reused as planchets.
On Oct. 15, 1794, 1,758 acceptable dollars were delivered by the coiner, and the denomination was abandoned until the following year when a larger press was built.
The letter punches used to impress UNITED STATES OF AMERICA into the dies come with their own story. Frederick Geiger, who came to America from Germany as a servant indentured to Benjamin Franklin Bache (Ben Franklin’s grandson), executed the punches. He left the Mint shortly after to work on a perpetual motion machine, which presumably never reached perfection.
Collectors prize the coins as the nation’s first silver dollars, but two specimens especially stand out, the Lord St. Oswald coins, which were picked up as numismatic mementos in late 1794 or 1795 by William Strickland, an ancestor of Lord St. Oswald, on a visit to Philadelphia.
The coins remained in the lord’s family for the next 170 years, housed along with other coins (including 22 1794 cents) in a purpose-built Chippendale coin cabinet at Nostell Priory in Wakefield, Yorkshire.
American collectors were astonished to learn about the coins in 1964 when they were placed at auction by Christie’s, Manson & Woods, Ltd. in London.
The coins, described as Mint State, fetched £4,000 ($11,200) each. In subsequent sales, the two fabled specimens have sold for multiples of that.
One sold in 1988 for $242,000 as part of the Bowers and Merena Galleries Norweb sale. Offered during the Aug. 3 Rarities Night auction by Stack’s Bowers Galleries at the 2017 ANA auctions, the same coin brought $2.82 million.
In 2015, Stack’s Bowers sold the other Lord St. Oswald coin for $4,993,750 in the September D. Brent Pogue sale.
A third 1794 dollar in British hands also has a long and regal history. The British Museum’s specimen came from the estate of Sara Sophia Banks, sister of King George III’s friend, Sir Joseph Banks. She, depending on the source, either bought the coin from Admiral Sir James Hawkins-Whitshed in 1796 or directly from the Mint by mail.
Next: Marked money