September 9, 1998
Inflation can be insidious, eroding our net worth with
the stealth and inevitability of a wave breaking softly on the
shore. It also can be all too painfully obvious and emphatic,
slashing the value of our assets before our eyes.
I was not around for the hyperinflation in Germany
following World War I, when people paid for bread and milk
with suitcases full of paper money. As a member of the
generation born on the eve of World War II, I can, however,
recall another dramatic example of big-time inflation right
here at home -- one involving not luggage, but radio and TV.
Back in the 1940s, in my pre-adolescent years, I
sometimes matched wits with contestants on a show called
"The $64 Question" on my Philco radio set. Less than a
decade later, in the mid-1950s, inflation -- combined with
hype -- had raised the stakes spectacularly, giving rise to a
TV show called "The $64,000 Question."
I mention all this by way of leading up to a numismatic
drama that unfolded yet another decade later, smack in the
middle of the turbulent 1960s. The preamble is relevant,
however, for the drama has come to be known in
coin-collecting circles as "The '64-Dollar Question." And the
coin around which it revolves could very well be worth
$64,000 -- possibly even $640,000 -- if it ever appeared on
That coin is the 1964-D Peace dollar -- and it is, without
much doubt, the single most valuable U.S. coin struck in
the last 65 years, or since the production and immediate
withdrawal of the 1933 double eagle.
How much is it worth? That's hard to say, since there
never has been a published report of any being sold. Some
would even question whether any examples remain in
There's little question, though, that this coin did exist at
one time -- in fact, that hundreds of thousands were
produced. And the strange circumstances surrounding its
birth and subsequent disposition only serve to heighten its
It's widely believed that if any examples still survive
today -- and if they can escape the threat of confiscation --
they might very well bring prices in the six-figure range.
But, like so many of the facts and figures having to do with
this coin, that falls under the heading of pure conjecture.
More than 33 years have passed since the '64 Peace
dollar came into being in the late spring of 1965. However,
the passage of time has shed little new light on this
fascinating numismatic enigma.
Many are perplexed as to why the coin was minted in
the first place. The timing was curious, to say the very least;
in fact, it hardly could have been worse.
Consider what the circumstances were in August 1964,
when the silver dollar proposal came before Congress for a
Against this dismal backdrop, a new silver dollar was
just about the last thing the government needed. Yet, under
pressure from President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress threw
logic out the window and authorized the production of 45
million silver dollars. To get the ball rolling, it appropriated
While there may not have been a logical explanation,
there WAS a certain amount of political expediency behind
this ill-conceived action.
Evidently, the realities of the silver shortage hadn't yet
been fully grasped in Washington, and many members of
Congress felt that the silver dollars siphoned from the
Treasury ought to be replaced. This sentiment, it appears,
was reinforced by demands from Western lawmakers, who
argued that silver dollars were needed in the commerce of
These legislators pressed their case with the president
-- and once LBJ gave the proposal his blessing, his
legendary arm-twisting skill all but assured the measure's
The folly of this was underscored only a few weeks later,
when the worsening coin shortage prompted Congress to
authorize a date freeze: All coins struck after Dec. 31, 1964
would continue to be dated 1964 in an effort to discourage
hoarding. But, even then, Congress stopped short of
scuttling the new silver dollar.
Confronted simultaneously with shortages of smaller
coins and dwindling stocks of silver, Treasury officials balked
at starting production of the newly authorized cartwheel.
They did so with the backing of key members of Congress
who had fought against the proposal from the start.
But Western senators and congressmen continued to
press for action -- and finally, on May 15, 1965, LBJ issued
a presidential order directing that production begin without
During the days that followed, well over 300,000 silver
dollars were struck at the Denver Mint. These included 30
trial strikes and 316,076 business strikes, presumably
meant for use in circulation.
The Treasury has sought to keep a tight lid on details
of this production. Despite this, numismatic sleuths have
learned a great deal of pertinent information.
It is known, for example, that the coins were identical
in design and composition to the Peace dollar, the last
previous U.S. silver dollar, whose production had been halted
in 1935. That means they were 90-percent silver.
It also has been determined that the coins were dated
1964, rather than 1965, in compliance with the date freeze
then in effect. And according to at least one published
report, they carried a "D" mint mark.
Why all the secrecy? Why not let those hundreds of
thousands of coins speak for themselves?
As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, those coins never
really existed. All 316,106 of them (counting the 30 trial strikes) were -- or should have been -- consigned to the
Let's return to 1965. The White House, it turned out,
was overruled by Congress. When word of the coins'
production got back to congressional opponents, they
angrily demanded immediate suspension of the program.
And Mint officials cheerfully complied.
The Mint was convinced that the coins would never
circulate -- and evidence suggests that it was right. Before
a single '64 silver dollar could be issued, coin dealers --
anticipating their release -- already were running ads
offering them for sale at prices as high as $7.50 a piece.
They never got to fill any orders. The fact is, the Mint
never did issue a single '64 dollar. Orders went out from
Washington that no further dollars should be struck, and
that those already made should be melted -- and Denver
Mint officials carried out those orders conscientiously.
How, then, could any of the coins have survived? The
explanation lies in the manner of the melt.
Following standard procedure, Denver Mint technicians
verified the number of coins being melted by weighing
them on a quantity basis, rather than examining each one
individually. This saved time and cut costs, but it also
opened the door -- quite literally -- to possible removal of
some of the coins from the mint.
One or more employees might very well have removed
a few of the new coins and substituted specimens of older
silver dollars. That way, the total weight still would have
been correct, and the substitution might very well have gone
Undoubtedly, the Mint had other safeguards in place to
avert such an occurrence. Eva B. Adams, the Mint director
at the time, said the '64 dollars were "most carefully guarded
to avoid a loss." She went so far as to say that "none of the
coins ever left the mint."
But how could she -- or anyone -- really be sure? A few
years later, entire bags of coins were stolen from the
Philadelphia Mint, a much more modern facility, in spite of
sophisticated security measures.
There's also a good chance that some of the silver
dollars may have gotten out through official channels.
Persistent rumors have it that presentation pieces were
given to President Johnson and certain members of
Congress -- and while the Mint has always denied such
reports, cynics point out that the government once denied
ever having produced the coins in the first place.
That denial was contained in a Treasury Department
press release dated May 24, 1965. The Mint, it said, "will
not make any ... dollars at this time" -- conveniently
failing to mention that it had already produced more than
There's documented evidence that at least two 1964
dollars survived until 1970. According to Mint records, 28
of the 30 trial strikes were melted immediately -- but the
other two were sent to Washington for optical, physical
and spectrographic examination and remained there, in a
Treasury vault, until the spring of 1970. At that time, the
records show, they were melted. Four members of a
destruction committee signed affidavits attesting to this.
For a time, the '64 dollars all but disappeared from the
hobby's consciousness. Then, in 1972, a commodities
market newsletter reported that such dollars had indeed
been produced -- and that some of them had escaped into
By interesting coincidence, that report appeared just
about the time the seven-year statute of limitations
presumably would have expired for federal prosecution of
anyone who removed these coins from the mint.
In April 1973, Maryland coin dealer Bob Cohen placed
a full-page ad in The Numismatist, the official monthly journal
of the American Numismatic Association, offering to pay
$3,000 for a specimen of the coin. Cohen reported that the ad
generated a number of intriguing responses and even tentative
offers -- but no actual coins.
A major reason for that, it would appear, was a press
release issued by the Mint on May 31, 1973. In it, the bureau
declared that since the '64 dollars were never officially
issued, any such coins found in the possession of private
individuals "are the property of the United States, which is
entitled to recover [them]."
"Right after the ad appeared, I had an offer of five
pieces at $5,000 each," Cohen said, "and I'm convinced it
was legitimate. But then the government came out with all
the publicity that the coins were illegal, and I never heard
any more. The people evidently got scared."
Since then, most observers familiar with the matter have
likened the '64 dollar to the 1933 double eagle ($20 gold
piece) -- a coin which was also officially struck but not,
in the government's view, officially issued. The Secret Service
has indeed resorted to confiscation in the case of the '33
double eagle -- so anyone holding a '64 dollar would be
understandably hesitant to bring it out of hiding, at least
until and unless the stigma is removed by the Mint.
Harry J. Forman, a well known coin dealer from the
Philadelphia area and author of several books on coin
investment, has no doubt that '64 silver dollars may exist,
but doubts whether any will surface -- at least in this
"None has turned up for 33 years and none may turn up
for 33 years more," Forman said. "If one of these coins ever
did turn up, I think it would be seized and in all probability
placed in the Smithsonian. That's my guess.
"I don't think it would ever be ruled legal," he went on,
"because there would be questions about how it got out of
the mint. There would always be a cloud over the coin."
Collectors' best chance of seeing a '64 dollar -- or at
least an illustration -- would be if one turned up overseas,
"If one did get out, my suspicion would be that it would
be out of the country," he remarked. "And if one of these
coins turned up in an auction in Switzerland, I don't know
whether the U.S. could get it back; after all, it sometimes
has trouble extraditing criminals and bringing them back
from abroad -- much less coins."
For now, there are many more questions than answers,
and the 1964 Peace dollar remains a coin of mystery.
Do any examples exist? If so, where are they hidden?
Is there any chance that the Mint might lift its ban? And if
the ban were lifted, what would the coins be worth?
Those, to coin a phrase, are '64-dollar questions.