Again an issue for export: Again, here is a silver dollar issue primarily used in the China trade. Very few if any 1857 silver dollars were used in domestic commerce.
Walter H. Breen notes that the Mint Report includes 94,000 coins June 6th through 30th, but not 490 additional pieces produced by May 29th. Many of the 94,490 coins went to San Francisco by sea, for shipment to China to pay for tea and silk, as in previous years. Others were sent to China from New York and Boston.
A review of legal tender foreign coins: The Act of February 9, 1793 regulated the values of foreign coins and specified which would be legal tender in United States commerce. Excerpt: "Spanish milled dollars, at the rate of one hundred cents for each dollar the actual weight whereof shall not be less than seventeen pennyweights and seven grains; and in proportion for the parts of a dollar." The Act of April 10, 1806 renewed the legal tender status of selected foreign coins. The Act of June 25, 1834 revised the legal tender status of foreign coins and, importantly, did not provide for this status for any coins of less than crown (dollar) size. The Act of March 3, 1843 was somewhat similar in that it, too, provided for selected dollar-size foreign coins to be legal tender, but not fractions of a dollar. Despite the fact that they were not legal tender, the Act of February 21, 1857 provided for the redemption by the Mint of fractional silver coins. By 1857, this redemption could be accomplished safely, for there was now an abundance in circulation of United States silver coins of the lightweight standard as minted since early 1853.
Circulated grades: In circulated grades the 1857 is very rare, somewhat approaching the 1854 and 1855 in this regard, but not quite in the same league with them. As 94,490 were minted and as only a few hundred exist today, most must have been melted, probably in China. Others may have been melted at the Philadelphia Mint in 1861 to provide bullion for subsidiary coins.
Apparently, all 1857 business strike dollars were made with at least a degree of prooflike surface. Examples in grades such as EF and AU show prooflike surface when seen today.
Mint State grades: In this grade the 1857 dollar is quite rare but still is one of the most available (with 1853) Philadelphia Mint issues of the 1850s up to this point. When seen, Mint State coins almost always have a prooflike surface and are nearly always lightly struck, particularly at the upper part of the obverse. In years past it was common practice for collectors and dealers alike to call such coins "Proofs," a situation which skews the historical data concerning this date.
There are a few better strikes, very few. One was described by James C. Cray. (Letter to the author, June 19, 1992.) "The specimen in my collection is frosty Uncirculated without even a hint of prooflike surface. It is fully struck on the head, the obverse stars, and the eagle's legs and talons. The only area of weakness is a softness at the top of the eagle's left wing."
Another remarkable exception is a specimen David W. Akers owned in 1993, which exhibited sharply struck stars and lustrous frosty surfaces.
Proofs: I believe the Proof 1857 silver dollar to be more available than the 1855 Proof, but scarcer than the 1856 Proof. This analysis does not fit with the conventional wisdom that the number of Proof sets minted increased year by year beginning in the mid- 1850s.
While some Proof 1857 dollars were undoubtedly sold with silver sets, others were probably sold singly. At least two pairs of dies were used. Beware prooflike business strikes being sold as Proofs; see No.2 in the Prooflisting below. For this reason, censuses based upon early auction appearances and other transactions are meaningless. When collecting this series in the 1950s I found that the majority of pieces offered to me as Proofs were in reality business strikes.
During the same year, the Mint made quite a few Proof 1857 large cents, the last year of regular issue of the large cent format, probably to supply the demand from collectors. The passing of the large cent is widely cited (e.g., in the reminiscences of pioneer dealer Edward Cogan) as being the jumping-off spot for a widespread interest in coin collecting in America and the beginning of serious professional dealerships.
1-2. Normal Date: Breen-5455. Two pairs of dies were made for business strikes. All higher grade examples I have seen are prooflike, sometimes with fully mirrorlike surfaces, but flatly struck (due to non-parallel die alignment) at Miss Liberty's head, the upper stars, and (sometimes but not always) on certain areas of the reverse, particularly the upper parts of the eagle. One example seen (B&M Somerset Collection sale, May 1992, Lot 1145; an MS-63 coin) was lightly struck on Miss Liberty's head and most stars, but was well struck on the reverse; this piece had an area of die roughness between the denticles and the lower left base of Miss Liberty, and a similar area of roughness on the right.
1. Proof issue: Breen-5455. Obverse: With large numerals impressed rather shallowly in the die. "Beard" below chin. Shield point right of the left upright of 1 in date. Left base of 1 slightly right of the left edge of a denticle. Reverse: From the die used in 1854 and 1856 (No.2). The ANS specimen shows die rust on L in DOL. and on the rim below that letter. Cf. Starr:601, stars lightly struck on right.
2. Proof issue: Breen-5455. Obverse: With large numerals lightly impressed, similar to foregoing. Die file marks at the left of the rocky base and Miss Liberty's foot. Always seen with Miss Liberty's head struck flat. Reverse: With irregular raised (on the coin) die file marks above UNITED and OF AME. Business strikes exist from this obverse die, possibly in combination with this reverse. The delineation between prooflike business strikes and true Proofs is fuzzy in catalogues offering mirrorlike specimens of this date. This reverse die was also used to coin some 1858 Proofs.