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Seated Liberty Silver Dollars Not Inexpensive
By Paul Green

Lesser known but so rich in history the Seated Liberty dollar continues to be in the shadows of other silver dollars. It’s natural. Where there are millions of Morgan and Peace dollars to promote, the Seated Liberty dollar, which only had two mintages of even 1 million pieces, is always in short supply.

Those limited supplies make the lesser known Seated silver dollar a great value today. But prices start in the hundreds of dollars, so the coin is not for those who like to collect out of pocket money.

By the 1830s the silver dollar was basically a forgotten denomination. The last silver dollar had been in 1804 and apparently the commercial activity of the United States had not really suffered without a silver dollar.

Moreover, the period of no silver dollar production had given the Mint a chance to make inroads on a national coin shortage. By the mid 1830s, however, there was light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the national coin shortage and officials began to think again in terms of making silver dollars and gold eagles, which had both been suspended back in 1804.

The first silver dollar to emerge remains a somewhat controversial issue today. They were designed by Christian Gobrecht and have a Seated Liberty obverse, but the reverse is a flying eagle. The 1836 had no stars on the obverse but stars on the reverse and while considered by many to be a pattern along with the 1839, which had the same basic design but stars on the obverse and none on the reverse, our thinking has been changing about the two.

While the case can be made that they were patterns, it looks based on the fact that many of these coins circulated that they were used as coins, reflecting a slow evolution of the design. In fact, we see the Seated Liberty design evolving on other denominations as well as in every denomination the first Seated Liberty coins produced would see quick changes.

The 1836 and 1839 Gobrecht dollars cost thousands of dollars each in any grade reflecting what were very low mintages for a coin, but very high ones for a pattern. We currently expect that the mintage of the 1836 was around 1,000 pieces while the 1839 total is put at 300. Interestingly, both also had restrikes further confusing a situation that is anything but clear in the first place.

The wear seen on some examples today, however, looms large in attempting to determine the precise purpose of these issues as patterns rarely circulate but some Gobrecht dollars did.

There is no doubt that the Gobrecht dollars played a role in paving the way for the regular issues that would follow. The first Seated Liberty dollar with the regular design instead of the flying eagle was the 1840, which had a mintage of 61,000 pieces. That total sounds low, but for the time it would turn out to be relatively average for a Seated Liberty dollar.

The low mintages seen for many Seated Liberty dollars in the 1840s and 1850s reflect the fact that they really had a very limited role in circulation at the time. Dollar coins don’t do well in circulation today, as the public prefers paper money, but at the time of issue, these large, bulky Seated silver dollar coins had the purchasing power of today’s $20 bill. It is not surprising that the public preferred the convenient sizes of lower denominations.

In fact, it’s been suggested that the Seated Liberty dollars until the mid 1850s were used basically as reserves and novelty presents for birthdays and Christmas. The conclusion is strengthened by the fact that when a gold dollar appeared in 1849 the gold dollar mintages would be much higher than the Seated Liberty dollar totals with an assortment of gold dollar dates of the 1850s topping the 1 million mark while it would take until the 1870s for the Seated Liberty dollar to see a 1 million mintage.

The pattern of low mintages might well have continued, but in the 1850s the Seated Liberty silver dollar experienced a change in its role, going from a silver dollar that did not circulate to a coin that was being made primarily to use in foreign trade. It was natural as the largest silver denomination, but as it worked out, the Seated Liberty dollar became basically a coin used primarily for export and that rarely happens. Of course being exported means that we find some Seated Liberty dollars that are much tougher than their already low mintages suggest simply because the coins were exported and never returned.

At least initially the 1840 had the role of simply being available if anyone chose to use a silver dollar for whatever purposes. With a mintage that was low, but not as low as it seems today, the 1840 is available at prices of $260 in G-4 with an MS-60 listing of $3,950, which is up sharply from 2005.

The Seated Liberty dollars of the 1840s would prove to be a much tougher group than many realize especially in Mint State. After all, there were not many collectors at the time especially of high denominations like dollars and with limited demand a date like the 1844 with a mintage of just 20,000 has to be seen as a good value in any grade. With a price of just $265 in G-4 it has to be seen as a great value as is the similar mintage 1845 which is at $285 in G-4.

In MS-60 the two dates show prices of $6,400 for the 1844 and $10,500 for the 1845, and the grading service totals suggest these prices are justified as NGC has seen only 11 Mint State examples of the 1844 and 12 of the 1845 while PCGS reports 22 examples of the 1844 in Mint State out of 140 coins graded with the 1845 total being just eight Mint State coins out of 149 graded. There is an assortment of interesting dates from the 1840s, including the 15,000 mintage 1848, which lists for just $310 in G-4 today with an MS-60 price of $4,050 and with that mintage those prices have to be seen as very reasonable.

The 1846-O was an historic coin as it was the first silver dollar of the United States to be made outside of the main facility in Philadelphia. The 1846-O had a fairly large mintage, but shows characteristics of a New Orleans coin of the time in that it can be found in circulated grades, but is much tougher in Mint State where an MS-60 lists for $8,750 while an MS-63 if you can find one offered is $20,000.

The price of silver in the early 1850s became a factor in production levels as the 1848 discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio, making the cost of producing silver coins greater than their face value. That resulted in hoarding of silver coins and in some cases low mintages as the Mint was in the difficult position of producing coins at a loss only to have them hoarded anyway, which was not helping in the face of a growing national coin shortage. That produced a string of lower mintage silver dollars with the 1850 having a mintage of just 7,500 while the 1851 would be at only 1,300 and the 1852 would be at just 1,100.

Certainly with its higher mintage the 1850 would be the most available of the three, but it is certainly not common with a listing of $450 today in G-4 and $7,850 in MS-60. When you consider its mintage, the G-4 price has to seem extremely reasonable and the MS-60 price justified.

The 1851 and 1852 with their extremely low mintages are notoriously tough with a G-4 currently at $4,000 for the 1851 while the 1852 is at $3,500. In MS-60 the 1851 is $43,500 while the 1852 is at $38,500 and those prices are certainly fair in light of the mintages and the small numbers seen at grading services.

One of the lesser known stories about Seated Liberty dollars is that in fact some were found in the bags paid out by the Treasury over the years. The numbers were not large, but in the 1950s and 1960s an estimated 10,000 of circulated examples of mixed dates were released for their face value of one dollar each. Q. David Bowers had a chance to examine the coins and reports in his book American Coins Treasures and Hoards, “Among the early Liberty Seated dollars of the without-motto type (1840-1865) the most plentiful date was the 1847. Among the dollars of 1866-1873 the most often seen was the 1871. The typical coin graded VF or EF and had light gray toning. I recall no Mint State coins at all nor any extremely worn ones. There were no great rarities such as the 1851 or 1852, but there were a number of scarcer dates such as 1844, 1848 and 1870-CC.”

In 1853 the Congress acted to reduce slightly the amount of silver in silver issues although the silver dollar remained unchanged and that produced a change in its use to a coin basically issued only for export. In a very real sense it became the first Trade dollar two decades before the real Trade dollar was actually approved.

The evidence of something unusual happening with Seated Liberty dollars is seen immediately as the 1854 had a mintage of 33,140 while the 1855 was at 26,000, yet the two are hardly even seen.

In G-4 the 1854 lists for $1,000 while the 1855 is at $900 with MS-60 listings of $8,500 and $8,850, respectively, and in all grades the prices are far higher than earlier dates with lower mintages. Even in Mint State where Philadelphia dates even with lower mintages are usually found the 1854 and 1855 are not available in the numbers that would be expected. Something had to have caused the 1854 and 1855 to disappear and that something was to be exported.

One date that was not heavily exported was the proof-only 1858 with a mintage placed at just 800 pieces and even that total is suspect although it does make it lower mintage than the proof-only 1895 Morgan dollar. The 1858, however, is much less expensive than the 1895 simply because the demand for the 1895 remains high while relatively few are interested in a proof-only Seated Liberty dollar even if it is a great deal.

In 1859 another facility produced its first Seated Liberty dollar and once again foreign trade played a role. San Francisco had produced its first coins in 1854, but there apparently had been no interest in silver dollars. The merchants of San Francisco, however, needed large silver coins for use in China and in 1859 the San Francisco facility produced 20,000 silver dollars primarily because of pressure from these commercial interests.

The 1859-S is an historical coin and one that is available at $315 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $15,000. When you consider the low mintage and the fact that many examples were probably shipped directly to China, the prices are very reasonable.

The New Orleans issues of 1859 and 1860 deserve some attention as well. There are certainly good reasons for the low Mint State prices of the 1859-O and 1860-O as the two had high mintages of 360,000 and 515,000, respectively.

We cannot really be sure why New Orleans was suddenly producing more silver dollars than Philadelphia, although the likely reason would be demand for use in foreign trade. New Orleans was the port that sent the products of much of the United States to the world. Whatever the reason, the totals were unusually high at the time, but there is a better reason for the fact that the two dates are available in Mint State.

It now appears that the 1859-O and 1860-O were found in Treasury holdings but not in circulated grades like those Seated Liberty dollars examined by Bowers. Rather it appears that there was either a bag of both the 1859-O and 1860-O, or at least a partial bag still sitting in the vault a century after having been produced. It’s a little hard to believe as although there were rumors of a bag of Mint State Seated Liberty dollars in the Treasury bags, the rumors have sometimes centered around the higher mintage 1871 and 1872, which were the only dates to have mintages topping the 1 million mark.

Today, however, we have a way of checking to determine if a bag of any date was even possible and that is through the grading service numbers. In this case we find PCGS reports approximately 320 examples of the 1859-O in Mint State and about 520 examples of the 1860-O. The Mint State totals for the 1871 and 1872, however, are at just 138 and 84. The NGC totals are similar with the 1859-O appearing 175 times in Mint State while the 1860-O is at 258. In the case of the 1871 and 1872 the Mint State totals at NGC are just 123 and 79 coins, respectively.

While the totals of the four dates do not represent a full 1,000-coin bag of any of the four, it must be remembered that the coins in the bag were reported heavily bag marked. That could take a toll on the number that would grade Mint State today and if you add to the Mint State totals the number of coins that have been graded AU, you are much closer to a full bag.

In addition, it must be remembered that sometimes the Treasury bags would have a mixture of dates. If, however, we are looking for evidence of an entire 1,000-coin bag of Seated Liberty dollars, that evidence is certainly far stronger in the case of an 1859-O or 1860-O than it is for either the 1871 or 1872. It seems most likely that that if there ever was a bag, it contained the 1860-O with perhaps a full bag or some quantity of the 1859-O also being possible.

In 1866 there was a design change with IN GOD WE TRUST being added to the reverse. As it turned out, there were a couple exceptions as two examples are known without the motto. Those two coins were almost certainly produced for a favored collector or dealer but with the sale of one recently for over $1 million it is safe to assume that the no motto 1866 Seated Liberty dollars may be getting more recognition in the future.

The new type of Seated Liberty dollars thanks to higher mintages is certainly available, but there are better dates. The other $1 million-plus Seated Liberty dollar is the 1870-S and it too has an interesting story as the 1870-S apparently had a mintage of about a dozen pieces. It was made as a souvenir of the laying of the cornerstone of the new San Francisco facility. At the time, even if a denomination was not to be produced that year, at least one example was made for the cornerstone. In the case of the 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar, it appears that some extras were made probably to be given to important visitors. The bulk of the examples known show evidence of light wear or perhaps poor handling.

The big news of 1870 was not limited to San Francisco as it was also the year that Carson City produced its first coins. The first Carson City dollar had a mintage of 12,462, which makes the 1870-CC a tough date, but one which can be found with a price of $465 in G-4 and $23,500 in MS-60.

The Carson City dollars that followed would not be as available. The 1871-CC and 1873-CC had mintages of 1,376 and 2,300, respectively, and those totals result in prices of $2,000 and $6,000 respectively in G-4. The prices might seem backwards with the higher mintage 1873-CC costing more, but in fact that reflects the situation today as the belief is that with the Trade dollar being approved in 1873 it may very well be a situation where some of the already small 1873-CC mintage was melted, making it tougher than the very low mintage 1871-CC. In Mint State both dates are virtually impossible, making them truly the rarest of the Carson City silver dollars.

San Francisco would also have better dates in the early 1870s with the 1872-S having a mintage of just 9,000 pieces. It is, however, available in circulated grades and at reasonable price of just $310 in G-4, but like most other branch mint Seated Liberty dollars, the 1872-S is very tough to find in Mint State.

The 1873 situation created confusion as was seen in the case of the 1873-CC, which is almost unknown in Mint State, listing for $85,00 and that price is supported by a grading service total of just four examples reported by NGC and PCGS combined. The 1873-CC, however, at least exists as the 1873-S had a reported mintage of 700 coins, but not a single one is known today. The best guess is that the entire mintage of the 1873-S was melted before ever being released.

The arrival of the Trade dollar in 1873 brought to an end the production of Seated Liberty dollars, which as we have seen, had actually been being used as Trade dollars years before the Trade dollar was ever approved.

The silver dollar, though little loved, become the focus of intense political wrangling. The end of it was called the “Crime of 1873” and the emotional appeal helped gin up the necessary support for the introduction of the Morgan dollar in 1878. The public didn’t take to using it, either, but that is another story.

While in production for over 30 years, the Seated Liberty dollar had never become a regular feature in circulation. In fact it has been suggested that Americans of the period could literally have gone years without ever encountering a single Seated Liberty dollar in their daily lives. That would have made it difficult for many examples to be saved and we see that lack of saving today as the Seated Liberty dollar is a much tougher coin than most expect. With limited collector interest, today’s prices have to be seen as great values on a tough coin with a fascinating history.


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