The 1804 silver dollar has many impressive attributes. It is one of the rarest of all U.S. coins, with just 15 examples known. It is arguably the most famous. And it is certainly one of the most valuable: When the Eliasberg specimen changed hands for $1,815,000 in April 1997, that went into the books as the highest price ever paid for any U.S. coin at public auction. As this is written, in mid-August 1999, that record appears to be in jeopardy -- for yet another 1804 dollar, the Childs specimen, seems likely to fetch more than $2 million at a Bowers and Merena auction on Aug. 30.
There is, however, one thing the 1804 dollar is NOT: It is not a silver dollar of 1804.
This probably sounds illogical to the uninitiated, but there's really a rather simple explanation: Although they are dated 1804, all 15 of these rare silver dollars actually were minted decades later.
Countless articles, a well-known book by Eric P. Newman and Kenneth E. Bressett -- and now a new book by Q. David Bowers -- have been written about these coins and the fascinating circumstances under which they came to be produced. Little has been written, though, about what might be called the REAL 1804 silver dollars -- the ones that were, in fact, struck by Uncle Sam during the Year of Our Lord 1804.
You say you've never heard of them? That isn't too surprising, since these lesser-known coins have something important in common with their much more famous brethren: They, too, carry a date other than the year of their production.
The official U.S. Mint report for calendar year 1804 shows that during that 12-month period, the Philadelphia Mint (the only mint then in operation in this country) struck a total of 19,570 silver dollars. All were minted during the year's first quarter. And all, it is now believed, were made from dies left over from the previous year or two.
"Unquestionably, the Mint used 1803 dies -- and possibly 1802 dies, as well -- in striking those coins," noted scholar Walter Breen told me in an interview nearly a decade ago. "In those days, the Mint was very little concerned about whether all new coins bore the current year's date. The primary concern was economy: If dies from the previous year were still usable, they would be used.
"With large cents, this practice was common in every year from 1795 through at least 1803 -- and maybe through 1806," Breen told me. "Many 1794-dated half dollars were actually struck in 1795. And there were, without a doubt, a great many other half dollars in the early years minted in a similar manner. It's well established, for instance, that 159,000 half dollars were struck in 1804 from dies dated 1803. There were simply no other dies available at that time."
Production of silver dollars was suspended after March 31, 1804 -- with good reason: The large silver coins simply weren't circulating. Many were being shipped to the West Indies, where they were being exchanged for heavier Spanish milled dollars -- coins containing slightly more silver -- and these, in turn, were being brought back to the United States for melting at a nice, dependable profit.
With one monumental exception, that was the end of the Bust dollar series, a series that had started in 1795 and was so named because it depicted a bust (and a bosomy one, at that) of Miss Liberty. The suspension remained in effect for three decades, and its lifting -- little noticed at the time -- gave rise to one of the most important chapters in U.S. numismatic history.
In 1834, under orders from President Andrew Jackson, the State Department dispatched a special agent named Edmund Roberts to try to establish diplomatic relations with several important countries in the Far and Middle East. As gifts for the rulers he met, Roberts was provided with presentation sets of U.S. coins.
In requesting these sets from the Treasury, the State Department asked that the coins include examples of "each kind now in use, whether of gold, silver or copper." Two of the statutory U.S. coins -- the silver dollar and eagle (or $10 gold piece) -- hadn't been issued since 1804, but Mint Director Samuel Moore decided to include them anyway.
Genuine 1804 eagles had been made, but no dies had ever existed for 1804 silver dollars. Accordingly, the Mint director ordered the preparation of new dies -- easily identifiable as such because the denticles on the rims were 1834-style beads, not the tall, tooth-like kind found on silver dollars a generation earlier.
Scholars have concluded that eight of these so-called "original" 1804 dollars were minted at that time. Evidence suggests that another seven pieces -- known as "restrikes" -- were produced in the late 1850s, when Mint employees (often described today as "midnight minters") used old dies to make rare-date coins for sale to collectors of the day.
All this drama has heightened the allure of the 1804 dollar; it's a coin with a compelling story to tell. And that -- in combination with many years of hype -- has greatly enhanced its value through the years. But what about those REAL 1804 silver dollars -- the ones that were actually made in 1804? Shouldn't they be basking in at least reflected glory?
It turns out that in the very highest grades, the ones most appealing to condition-conscious collectors nowadays, the 1803 Bust dollar is every bit as elusive as its much more famous 1804 counterpart. As of this writing, the Professional Coin Grading Service has certified only one 1803 dollar as Mint State-62, two as MS-63, one as MS-64 -- and none higher among the business-strike examples it has reviewed. It has certified two (presumably restrikes) as Proof-65 and one as Proof-66. Recently, PCGS certified the Childs specimen of the 1804 dollar as Proof-68 -- a grade as yet unknown among the surviving 1803 examples.
Arguably, then, the 1803 silver dollar is just as rare in the highest grades as the 1804, since most of the 15 known examples of the "king of U.S. coins" are considered to be in, or close to, mint condition. The price gap between them, however, is substantial. Whereas any of the 1804 dollars would bring at least a strong six-figure price in the current marketplace, and quite possibly a million dollars-plus, the 1803 would trade for perhaps $20,000 in MS-63, $30,000 in MS-64, $120,000 in Proof-65 and $200,000 in Proof-66.
What's the real value of a mint-state or Proof 1803 silver dollar? Is it undervalued in relation to the 1804? For his part, Walter Breen was reluctant to venture a guess.
"I don't like the term `real value,'" Breen declared. "In the last analysis, a coin is worth what informed collectors will pay for it at auction when it's been properly described, properly graded, properly pedigreed and everyone concerned knows the coin, knows that it's genuine, knows its history and knows everything about it.
"There are so many factors affecting price," he added. "Rarity is only one of them. Publicity is a large part of it, too. It's not impossible that if one of these 1802 or 1803 silver dollars were marketed as `the real 1804 dollar,' struck during 1804, it would bring more. Who knows?"
Scott A. Travers of New York City, a nationally known coin dealer, author and consumer advocate, pondered the price disparity as the Childs Sale approached, then offered some observations on the subject.
"Obviously, the 1803 dollar doesn't have the mystique or pizzazz of the 1804," Travers said. "That's why the 1804 commands a much higher price. Nonetheless, it's always a significant event when a high-grade coin of this nature comes up for sale. When a coin this large, made of precious metal and dating back this far, has fortuitously escaped circulation and all the other ravages of time, it's a testament to the age-old appeal of coin collecting and to the role of numismatics as an art form. "
The 1803 dollar may not be as famous as the 1804, but it's held in high esteem and great respect. And in time, it may well be worth what the 1804 dollar is today.
"The only thing is, by then, the 1804 will probably be worth $20 million."