GOBRECHT DOLLARS 1836-1839
by R.W. Julian
Dollars Popular With Collectors
As early as the 1850s, collectors avidly sought the rare and beautiful Gobrecht dollars of 1836, 1838, and 1839. Little was generally known about these very elusive specimens of the coiner's art except that they were considered patterns. Until the 1980s, most collectors of silver dollars normally added one of these to their collections on the vague grounds that everybody else was doing it. It is now known, however, that some of these pieces are indeed "regular" coins and were issued for circulation. The story of the creation of these superb coins is one of the most interesting chapters in American numismatic history.
In April 1831, at the request of Mint Director Samuel Moore, President Jackson removed the interdiction against the coinage of silver dollars. Coinage did not begin at that time because the conditions which prompted Moore to make the request soon changed, but permission was still on the books and taken advantage of in 1836.
Samuel Moore had become director upon the death of Robert Patterson in 1824. Patterson was his father-in-law, but the selection of the new director was justified as he was a highly-qualified mining engineer. Oddly enough, the other major candidate was Robert Maskell Patterson, a son of the late director.
Director Moore was quite interested in improving the appearance of United States coins and, beginning in 1828, worked with Engraver William Kneass to "tighten up" the design of various denominations. Moore was also a strong proponent of having the latest technological advances on Mint equipment. In what may have been the opening move that led to the new design, Director Moore wrote Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury on June 15, 1835, for permission to hire Christian Gobrecht (1785-1844) for the engraving department.
As by June 1835 Moore had already handed in his resignation, the request to hire Gobrecht was actually made for, the new director, Robert Maskell Patterson, the same individual who had lost out in the contest for this post in 1824. Both Moore and Patterson wished to improve the coinage. Patterson also believed that coins should carry artwork worthy of a great nation and not just something that was ordinary, such as the Reich design of 1807.
Moore's last day was supposed to be June 30, but he stayed on for a few more days until his brother in-law arrived to take up the directorship. Patterson had waited out his years of "exile" by serving as a professor of science at the University of Virginia and was exceptionally well qualified for his new post.
Treasury Secretary Woodbury had not yet answered the June 15 letter from Moore, asking permission to hire Gobrecht, when Engraver William Kneass suffered a debilitating stroke on August 27. Something had to be done-and quickly. On the following day Director Patterson wrote Woodbury, asking for emergency permission to hire Gobrecht now that Kneass was incapacitated. No one knew if Kneass would ever return to full-time work.
This time Woodbury did respond quickly and permission was forthcoming to hire Gobrecht at $1,500 per year, all that Patterson could squeeze out worker earned perhaps $1.25 to $1.50 per day, the wage paid to Gobrecht could be considered ample or even generous. However, there was another side to the salary that was a little less pleasant and was to cause trouble a few years down the road.
Gobrecht had very good private employment as a bank note engraver and was understandably loath to give that up. To sweeten the arrangement, Patterson persuaded Kneass to surrender $62.50 of his salary every quarter ($250 per year) to be given to Gobrecht as a private transaction. At the time Kneass was being paid for doing little or no work. Gobrecht now had a salary of $1,750, which was apparently enough to get him to the Mint and away from the bank note printers. In 1840, when Kneass died, his widow made unseemly accusations against both Gobrechtand Patterson; and it was some time before the whole matter could be hushed up.
Shortly before Engraver William Kneass had his unfortunate stroke, Director Patterson had begun his long-cherished dream of having quality artwork on American coins. The director contacted two artists of the highest reputation and ability, Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, and asked them to prepare drawings according to certain specifications. The meeting with Peale, son of famed artist Charles Willson Peale, was face to face, and no written record remains of the discussions. In the case of Sully, the director wrote him (on August 1) explaining in detail what was wanted, both for himself and Peale.
Inexplanation of' what Peale had been asked to do, Patterson wrote to Sully: "I propose an eagle flying, and rising in its flight, amidst the constellation irregularly dispersed of twenty-four stars and carrying in its claws a scroll With the words E PLURIBUS UNUM .. ." He went on to note that the eagle was to be life-like instead of the "artificial" bird on the current gold and silver coinage. Patterson particularly disliked the shield appearing on the eagle's breast which he called contrary-to nature and good art.
One point Patterson did not dwell upon was that the devices on the design of the silver coinage, as adopted in 1807, had been carefully chosen by his own father, Director Robert Patterson. The elder Patterson had almost certainly gone through a period of very careful discussions With his artist John Reich, before acceptable designs for both sides could be engraved. However, times change and the art appreciated by one generation is not necessarily the choice of another.
In his opening letter of August 1, 1835 to Thomas Sully, the director asked him to execute a figure of Liberty seated on a boulder and holding a liberty pole in her right hand. Her left hand was to be resting on the national shield in front of the rock. In addition there was to be a scroll marked "LIBERTY" across the face of the shield. On August 14 Sully answered by indicating that he accepted the commission and would do his best. The final design had the position of Liberty considerably altered from what Patterson suggested in his initial letter.