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Fabulous 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 tennis.

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 of superstardom.

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 States coins."

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 sunken ships.

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 deceive."

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 restrikes.

"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 returned.&"

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 auction.

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. Eliasberg.

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 collection.

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.


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