Q. David Bowers
In December 1902, 75,080 commemorative gold dollars were struck, a violation of government policy, as they were not produced during the year stated on the coins. However, the careful consideration of the same subject relative to the coining of the Lafayette silver dollars in 1899 (pieces which were to be dated 1900) apparently did not take place in the present situation. In January 1903 an additional 175,178 were made, completing the authorization. In total 250,258 pieces were struck, including 258 for assay purposes. Later 250 of the assay coins were melted.
One hundred specimens of each of the two designs were struck with Proof finish and were distributed to favored insiders as well as Exposition and government officials, not to the collecting fraternity. Proofs were affixed to imprinted cards, with the coins secured under a waxed paper window and secured with cords and a red wax seal. Each card included this notation: "This is to certify that the accompanying Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollar struck at the Mint of the United States, Philadelphia, in accordance with an Act of Congress approved June 28th, 1902, is one of the first one hundred impressions from the Jefferson [or McKinley, as the case may have been] dies."
Farran Zerbe single-handedly promoted the 1903-dated Louisiana Purchase Exposition commemorative gold dollars to the numismatic fraternity, offering them at $3 each, a nominal price to a later generation of readers but at the time a figure considered to be excessive, for it represented three times face value. Zerbe reasoned that regular issue gold dollars, which had not been minted since 1889 and which were selling at a premium, even for worn pieces, would set the pace for the sale of the freshly-minted Uncirculated coins. However, the commemorative gold dollars did not catch on, and interest lagged, despite the siren song of such lofty prose as the following (by Zerbe): (The Numismatist, November 1903. p. 337) "The Louisiana Purchase gold dollar is the fourth child in the numismatic family of United States commemorative issues; it is the diminutive member of that family but the most artistic and powerful, as it is the finest example of designing, engraving, and stamping and is of gold. The older members of the family are less fine and all in the baser metal, silver."
In an effort to increase revenue, Zerbe came up with the idea of mounting gold dollars into souvenir brooches and pins; and, apparently, quite a few of these were sold in this manner to those who attended the fair in 1904. Articles submitted by Farran Zerbe to The Numismatist paint an enthusiastic view of the fair and the various numismatic souvenirs sold in connection with it, specifically the commemorative gold dollars but also tiny gold-content tokens denominated as "1/2" and "1/4." Seeking to attract even more attention, Zerbe issued news releases outlining his proposal that the government produce a billion-dollar gold piece to exhibit at the fair. This mammoth "coin" was to be 40 feet in diameter, 30 inches thick, and weigh 4,480,000 pounds. "The 1904 date will be four and one-half feet high, the other letters 30 inches in height, each star measuring three feet across," noted a description published in the American Journal of Numismatics.
While Zerbe went full speed ahead with his promotion of the commemorative gold dollars, the selling of these coins at such a high premium and the peddling of virtually worthless tokens deceptively marked "1/4" and "1/2" (Zerbe hoped buyers would consider them to be coins worth a quarter-dollar and a half-dollar, respectively) caused some veteran observers of the numismatic scene to react negatively. In particular, Thomas L. Elder, a dealer whose business was just beginning to become important on the national scene, took offense at what he perceived as unconscionable exploitation and profiteering. Elder, outspoken on just about every subject imaginable, later wrote a virulent condemnation of Zerbe, stating that he was simply a huckster who engaged in misleading advertising and promotions, contrary to all standards of numismatic professionalism.
Writing in The Numismatist, January 1903, George C. Arnold, a well-known professional numismatist (and owner of the Arnold Numismatic Co. in Providence, Rhode Island), commented: "The Louisiana Purchase Exposition offers for sale 50,000 [sic] souvenir gold dollars for which the circular sent out by them reads that they will sell for $3.00 each .... They predict a big sale for the same, but the writer candidly believes that they will soon share the fate of the Columbian half dollars and the Lafayette dollars. Numismatists in general do not take kindly to such issues, and as one member of the Providence Curio & Numismatic Association said the other evening, he is 'not paying $3.00 for medals' and dealers are not taking many orders for them .... As this issue of the gold dollars or medals in question will be 25,000 [sic] of each variety, we believe they will shortly fall to the price of our regular issues in gold (Worn gold dollars of the 1849Â·1889 years.) which can be purchased at from $1.85 to $2.00 each, or even lower figures."
To the Melting Pot
Despite Zerbe's sales efforts, which can be described as enthusiastic or even heroic, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollars were a flop. Back to the Mint went the staggering quantity of 215,000 of the 250,000 intended for general distribution, leaving 35,000 as the number actually distributed. The melting took place circa 1914. In the meantime vast unsold quantities were available for a decade after the original issue.
No account was kept of how many McKinley portrait dollars were melted compared to those bearing the Jefferson portrait. Although it is popular to state that 17,500 were distributed of each, this has no substantiation in Mint archives. David M. Bullowa in 1938 stated the imprecise nature of the situation: "No record beyond the total number of the pieces which were melted was kept by the Treasury Department. Consequently, as an equal number of each type was coined, probably the same number of each type was melted. It has been estimated, however, that about 10% more of the McKinley portrait gold dollars were sold." This latter statement is just the opposite of the present writer's experience that Jefferson portrait dollars are slightly more frequently encountered than are those depicting McKinley (this is also borne out by PCGS Population Report data).
While fairgoers undoubtedly accounted for the purchase of several thousand of the 35,000 coins eventually distributed, by far the plurality of pieces went into numismatic channels. Within a year or so after the fair closed, the commemorative gold dollars were a drug on the market, and specimens in Mint State were readily available for $2 or even less, bringing much discredit upon Farran Zerbe, for it was taken for granted that he would maintain or even increase the market price later, protecting those who had purchased coins for $3 each. Much ill will was engendered. So widespread was the disaffection for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollars that sales of the next issue authorized by the government, the Lewis and Clark gold dollars, were severely impacted in a negative way.