1804 Draped Bust Dollar
By Mike Thorne
Have you noticed
how enamored people are with superstars? My wife
reminds me of this enthusiasm for the superstar
every time we go to a big-box store, as she
invariably buys one or more copies of the latest
movie-star fan magazine. In it, she reads to her
heart's content the current gossip about Brad
Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, and many
others, most of whom I've never heard of.
Superstars aren't limited to movies and
television shows, of course, as professional
sports are rife with them. For example, there's
Tiger Woods in golf, Alex Rodriguez in baseball,
LaBron James in basketball, and Roger Federer in
Coin collectors, too, have their superstars,
such as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the 1894-S
Barber dime, and the 1804 silver dollar.
Actually, the 1804 silver dollar is at the peak
But why is this the case? As Ken Bressett puts
it, writing in John Highfill's The Comprehensive
U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia:
"Everyone seems to agree that the 1804 Dollar is
one of the most famous and valuable coins of the
world. What they do not agree upon is just why
it is so valuable, or how this piece came to be
held in such high regard that it has been called
'The King of Coins.' Its history has been so
shrouded in mystery and so questionable, that it
is a wonder why any collector would ever
seriously want to own one. Still, even with its
bastard birth it is today one of the most
desirable and highest priced of all United
According to official Mint records, 19,570
dollars were struck in 1804. Were any of these
coins actually dated 1804? Probably not,
although different suggestions have been made as
to how all the 1804s made at the Mint, assuming
that was the date on them, might have been lost.
Examples include the intervention of pirates and
Bressett points out that none of the currently
known 1804 dollars could have been made in 1804
because, "Mint machinery used to make these
coins was not installed in the Mint until nearly
30 years later."
So when were they made? The answer: at different
times. As a result, the remaining 1804 silver
dollars are divided into three classes.
First, there are the Class I coins, which are
also frequently known as "originals." These were
probably made in late 1834, have a lettered
edge, and were struck as proofs. Eight are
known, but there may be more. According to Q.
David Bowers' Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of
the United States, the Class I dollars were
"produced openly, and with no intent to
Class II 1804 dollars are sometimes called
"first restrike" coins. Only one of this class
is known, it has a plain edge, and it was made
in secret by workmen at the Mint in 1858. The
coin is now part of the Smithsonian collection.
Class III coins are sometimes called "second
restrikes." They have a lettered edge, but the
lettering was done years after striking. Six are
known of this class, and the coins were made
secretly in 1858.
Nothing was known of the 1804 dollars until a
publication in 1842 by Jacob Eckfeldt and
William DuBois (of the Philadelphia Mint)
appeared that pictured such a coin. In the
following year, Boston collector Matthew
Stickney appeared at the Mint to swap a coin
from his collection (a 1785 Immune Columbia gold
piece) for one of the 1804 dollars.
"Stickney told others of his acquisition, and
during the next 20 years a number of collectors
acquired 1804 dollars by trade, or more likely,
private purchase either directly or indirectly
from a Mint official."
Here's how the "original" 1804 dollars probably
came to be minted: In 1831, the Mint considered
coining some new silver dollars for circulation.
To provide samples of such a new dollar, "some
specimen coins dated 1804 were made from dies
which employed old punches."
The next part of the story involves the
production of proof sets to present to foreign
dignitaries. Foremost among these were "special
sets of coins for presentation to the King of
Siam and the Sultan of Muscat," according to
Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth's 100 Greatest U.S.
Coins. Care to guess the coin that's featured on
the cover of Garrett and Guth's book?
The special sets were ordered in 1834 and 1835,
years in which no silver issues were minted.
That left the problem of the dates to put on the
coins. As Bowers puts it, "The United States
Mint did not want to produce silver dollars
dated 1834-1835, for there was no authorization
to make these, and none was currently being
produced for circulation. Thus it was desired to
include top-grade specimens of the last date in
which silver dollars were regularly issued, in
this case 1804 (or so it was thought)."
That brings us back to the 19,570 mintage
figure, which the Mint assumed included at least
some 1804 dollars. In other words, the Mint
assumed that the last authorized silver dollars
had been ones dated 1804 and proceeded to use
some of the 1831-minted samples and perhaps a
few new ones made in 1834.
This accounts for the Type I 1804s. The later
types were presumably made secretly, without
knowledge of the Mint director. As you would
expect, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of
U.S. and Colonial Coins tells a colorful story
about the striking and selling of the various
"Theodore Eckfeldt, then barely 21, had earlier
been fired from the Mint for theft, but was
rehired as night watchman to avoid disgracing
his family, which had included Mint officials
since 1792.& Eckfeldt connived with personnel in
the Coiner's Department to make [1804 dollars]
and other coins, which he peddled through Dr.
Montroville W. Dickeson's store.& After Eckfeldt
had sold four plain-edged 1804 restrike dollars
at $75 each, a scandal broke out. Mint Director
James Ross Snowden demanded that all be
Of course, one of these became the plain-edged
restrike (Class II) specimen in the Smithsonian.
The rest were presumably melted. Breen's account
continues and explains the manufacture of the
Class III 1804s.
"However, beginning apparently in 1859, and
continuing into July 1860, Eckfeldt and friends
struck more 1804's from the same dies, using
normal dollar blanks somehow obtained from the
Coiner's Department; they lettered the edges of
the finished coins to avoid a replay of the 1858
scandal. Today at least six are known, proofs or
impaired proofs, all with varying amounts of
blundering on edge letters.&"
Today, there are 15 known 1804 silver dollars,
although several are off the market because they
are in public collections or museums.
As you would expect, sales of 1804 dollars are
few and far between. The current edition of A
Guide Book of United States Coins lists two
values for the coin, both based on auction
sales. The first is for a Type I 1804, graded
Proof-68, which was sold by Bowers & Merena
Galleries in August 1999. The total realization
was $4,140,000, which is the second highest
price paid for a U.S. coin after the sale of a
1933 Saint-Gaudens gold $20 for $7.59 million.
The other value listed in A Guide Book of United
States Coins is $1,207,500, which is the price
paid for a Proof-58 restrike. This coin was also
sold in a Bowers & Merena auction, which was
held in July 2003.
Another Class I 1804 crossed the auction block
in 2008, this one from the David Queller
collection. The venue for the sale was the
Central States Convention in Chicago in
mid-April, and Heritage Galleries conducted the
At the urging of a son, Queller had bought the
Proof-62 specimen in 1993 for $475,000. His
investment was richly rewarded when the coin
realized $3,737,500, following an opening bid of
$2.4 million. The 1804 dollar turned out to be
the single most valuable coin that Heritage has
ever sold at auction.
Bowers account contains a listing of known
specimens of the 1804 dollar, which, of course,
is now badly out of date because of the
publication date of his encyclopedia (1993).
Still, it's interesting to look at the list of
owners of some of the more famous specimens.
For example, there's the Stickney specimen, the
obtaining of which led other contemporary
collectors to approach the Mint for examples of
their own. The coin is described as an impaired
proof. Stickney kept the piece until his death,
when it passed to his daughter.
At the sale of Stickney's collection by Henry
Chapman in 1907, the coin realized $3,600 and
was purchased by Col. James Ellsworth. Wayte
Raymond and John Work Garrett bought the
Ellsworth collection, with Raymond selling the
1804 dollar to William Cutler Atwater in 1923.
B. Max Mehl subsequently sold the Atwater
Collection, and the 1804 dollar brought $10,500.
The purchaser? None other than Louis E.
The Stickney-Eliasberg specimen sold for
$1,815,000 at auction in April 1997. Housed in a
Professional Coin Grading Service Proof-65
holder, it's currently part of a private
As I think you can see from reading this brief
account, the 1804 dollar could easily have been
dismissed as a fantasy coin that some dishonest
Mint employees cobbled together in the dead of
night. But, of course, that's not what happened,
and the 1804 silver dollar of either Class I or
Class III caught on with well-heeled collectors
and achieved the status that it has today. In
case you want to see one 1804 dollar of each
class in one place, you'll have to visit the
Smithsonian, as that's the only location where
one of each type can be found.