PCGS sat down with one of numismatics' most notable collectors, Bruce Morelan, to talk about the record-setting 1794 Specimen Dollar and the rest of his Early Dollars Collection, which will be on display at the Long Beach Expo, February 16-18, 2017. The entire set is impressive, to say the least, but it's the crown jewel of the set that has everyone talking.
PCGS: What was your motivation to acquire the 1794 Specimen Dollar?
Bruce (BM): I have loved that coin since I saw an image of it in the late 1990s. I had just gotten back into coin collecting in 1996, and that image has haunted me, or stuck in my mind, forever since then. Just the beautiful, glowing fabric of the coin, it seemed impossible that a dollar of that date could be that pristine.
PCGS: What is it about early dollars fascinates you so much?
BM: I have collected coins since I was six. My great grandmother gave me three coins that she had saved in her teapot for many, many years. One of those coins was a trade dollar. That was my favorite of the three – it was the biggest. Eventually I decided that I was going to build a great trade dollar set. And I like the cartwheel luster of the big silver coins, and so the natural extension was to do the Seated Dollar set, the Gobrecht Set and the Early Dollar set.
PCGS: How does the 1794 Specimen Dollar's history add to the coin's importance?
BM: The silver dollar was very important to the United States at the time. We were a fledgling country. We'd been in existence for less than 20 years, and to mint a dollar-sized coin cemented our stature as a nation on the world stage. And so, it took them a long time because they didn't have the facilities to mint these coins, and that's one reason why 1794 Dollars simply don't look that good, because they were minted on a substandard press, the dies were cocked, many of the stars are weak and have poorly struck lettering around the edges. And so they were scrambling to get this big, heavy coin out there so we would be respected as a nation.
And to have the processes and the trials and tribulations they went through to get this thing in production, it just shows how important it was to the nation. And that makes me respect the coin that much more.
Did Founding Fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, handle this coin?
BM: There's no doubt in my mind that this coin was a specimen. Whether or not it was a specimen to show the first coin struck, or it was a specimen to show what they could do with the silver plug, it matches the die state of copper trial perfectly. It was struck around the same time as that copper trial, and so it's logical that a coin of this importance to the nation would have been shown to the dignitaries of the time. Certainly, George Washington is a possibility.
What is the pedigree of the 1794 Specimen Dollar?
BM: Well this coin was in an auction catalog in the mid-1940s – the Neil Collection– where it was purchased by Amon Carter, Sr., passed to his son, Amon Carter, Jr., and then in 1984, it sold in the Amon Carter Family sale, by Stack's. It was called, at that time, quite possibly the first ever dollar struck by the United States. It passed several intermediaries and ended up in the Knoxville collection, which was a fantastic type set, silver type set, of United States coins. And when the Knoxville Collection was dispersed, in 2001 I believe, Steve Contursi held it personally for many years. And then Martin Logies purchased the coin from Steve Contursi and did a fantastic research book showing that the die state matched exactly the copper die trial, proving that this is, in my mind, the first silver dollar struck for the United States. And when it became available in the Stack's auction of the Cardinal collection, I was determined to purchase the coin.
It epitomizes everything that I feel is great about the style of coin collecting I do, which is to build these spectacular sets. And what better coin to build a spectacular set of early dollars around than this coin?
PCGS: So it's safe to say it is one of your favorite coins?
BM: It's absolutely a dream come true to own this coin. It is indeed, one of my all-time favorite coins. It would have to be to have spent that much money. But for me, I think the sets that I own eclipse individual coins. I get a lot of pleasure out of building a great set more than owning a great coin.
What is your philosophy in building sets?
BM: It's difficult to do, and sometimes you have to make compromises, but I try not to make compromises. I try to identify which coin is the finest coin known for each date and mintmark, and acquire that coin. And when there are disputes, I try to acquire both of them; hold them next to each other and determine which one I think is the best. I have sometimes upgraded a coin within the same grade as many as four times. I've purchased entire sets, just to get the four or five coins that I want to add to my set, and then sell off the rest.
PCGS: Why see these coins at the Long Beach Expo?
BM: I'm excited that PCGS is putting this collection on display. I've actually never seen this entire collection on display. It's been split up between bank vaults in different areas of the country. And so if I haven't seen it all on display in one place, then other people haven't seen it all on display in one place. And so the opportunity is unequalled.
If you're passionate about coins like I am – I love great coins, even if they aren't my great coins, I would travel to see them– you'd realize the opportunity might not be repeated. PCGS and I had to make special accommodations to get this on display because of the value of the set. And so, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a spectacular early dollar set on display.
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The 1794 Specimen Dollar, along with the entire 12-coin PCGS Set Registry© collection of Early Dollars, will be displayed at the Long Beach Expo Coin Show, Thursday through early Saturday afternoon, February 16-18, 2017.
Can't make it to Long Beach? View a digital version of the set on the Set Registry, here: http://www.pcgs.com/setregistry/album.aspx?setid=87430.
Read Part II of PCGS' interview with Bruce Morelan.