Q. David Bowers
Minting and Marketing
Striking of the Lafayette dollar was accomplished in a single day, December 14, 1899, at the Philadelphia Mint, utilizing an old press which turned out coins at the rateof 80 per minute, equal to 4,800 per hour-according to contemporary accounts. In order to coin 50,000 pieces, production of the coins would have had to continue well into the evening. The same press had been exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, where it struck brass medals as part of a government display.
As strange as it may seem today, in 1900 there was relatively little numismatic interest in the Lafayette dollar. Not much appeared about it in print in the two contemporary periodicals, the American Journal of Numismatics and The Numismatist, or even in dealers' catalogues. The idea of paying double face value for a commemorative silver dollar did not fit well with many, especially after the government sold many 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollars at double face value, or $1 each, to fairgoers and the general public, and then unceremoniously dumped the remainder of unsold pieces into circulation at face value. Who was to guarantee that the same thing would not happen with Lafayette dollars? Collectors and the public were not eager to be burned again.
Sure enough, before long it was possible to buy Lafayette dollars for less than the $2 issue price. Reporting in The Numismatist, January 1903, George C. Arnold, reporting on a meeting of the Providence (Rhode Island) Curio & Numismatic Association, wrote this: "Another member stated that early in November when over to New York, he had purchased four Lafayette dollars for $1.10 each, the total issue being only 50,000." Arnold went on to relate: "Some 1,800 were left in the hands of the committee, 10,000 being returned from France."
Over a period of time, approximately 36,000 Lafayette silver dollars were distributed. It is believed that some were released into circulation at face value, and without question numerous people who paid $2 each for them simply spent the coins once the novelty had faded. This accounts for the numerous pieces seen today in EF and AU. Probably, mixed bags of Morgan and other dollars contained Lafayettes up through the 1930s, when such coins continued to have little premium. By the 1950s, however, no Lafayette dollars remained.
The unsold remainder of Lafayette silver dollars, amounting to 14,000 coins, went to the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., eventually the home of other treasures, including millions of undistributed Carson City Morgan dollars. Unknown to collectors, the Lafayettes were stored in cloth bags of 1,000 coins each in the same vault in which large bundles of currency (including $5,000 and $10,000 notes) were kept. In the meantime, Lafayette dollars had become desirable numismatic items.
In 1945 the Treasury Department converted these coins to bullion, not realizing that they could have been sold for 10 times the face value or more. Aubrey and Adeline Bebee, Chicago dealers who specialized in commemoratives, learned from government records that these were still on hand, but when they contacted the Treasury Department it was too late. The pieces had just been destroyed.
Interestingly, the Lafayette silver dollar was produced in several different die combinations, which have been described by George H. Clapp, Howland Wood, David M. Bullowa, and other numismatists." The following is adapted from the descriptions given by David M. Bullowa in 1938:
Obverse 1: With a small point on the bust of Washington.
The tip of Lafayette's bust is over the top of the L in DOLLAR. A.T in STATES is cut high.
Obverse 2: With left foot of the final A in AMERICA recut, and with the TA in STATES high. Second S in STATES repunched (this is diagnostic).
Obverse 3: With AT in STATES recut and the final Slow.
The letters F in OF and LAFAYETTE ate broken from the lower tip of the crossbar and to the right base extension: and AMERICA is spaced as A ME RI CA. The period after OF is close to the A of AMERICA. The tip of Lafayette's, vest falls to the right of the top of the first L in DOLLAR.
Obverse 4: With C in AMERICA repunched at the inside top (this is diagnostic). With CA in AMERICA differently spaced from the obverses just described.
Reverse A: With 14 long leaves and long stem. Tip of lowest leaf over 1 of 1900.
Reverse B: With 14 shorter leaves and short stem. Tip of lowest leaf over space between 1 and 9 of 1900.
Reverse C: With 14 medium leaves and short, bent stem.
Tip of lowest leaf over 9 in 1900.
Reverse D: With 15 long leaves and short, bent stem. Tip of lowest leaf over space left of 1 in 1900.
Reverse E: Tip of lowest leaf over space left of 1 in 1900.
The rarity ratings, slightly modified from those assigned by Swiatek and Breen, are as follows:
1-B: Most often seen variety.
1-C: Very rare. Reported by Anthony Swiatek in 1980.
3-D: Very rare.
4-E: Very rare. Discovered by Frank DuVall and first published in 1988. (The Commemorative Trai4 Fall 1988, p. 14.)
Little care or attention was paid to Lafayette dollars during the time of distribution. In an era' in which collectors were riot particularly conscious of conditions-Uncirculated was Uncirculated, and such distinctions as MS-61, MS-63, and MS-64, etc., had not been devised-the coins were handled quite casually. Indeed,' even if they had been devised carefully by collectors, by the time they were coined, dumped into hoppers,' counted, and bagged at the Philadelphia Mint,' they were apt to be in what we would call about MS-63 grade today.
Down through the years, Lafayette dollars survived in two basic ways-by descent in families and others who acquired them as part of the statue subscription drive, and by passing from collector to dealer to collector in a traditional numismatic chain. Neither 'way was particularly conducive to maintaining coins in high grade: The result is that today the average Lafayette silver dollar is apt to be from AU-55 to MS-60 or slightly higher grade. Even MS-63 coins are elusive. MS-64 and MS-65coins exist, per the certification services. Some of these are dusky, dark coins of which the true grade has been masked by heavy toning. Perhaps if dipped, some of these unappealing pieces would not even make MS-60.
Desirable are certified issues that art fully brilliant or with attractive light toning, and are clearly in the grades stated. MS-64 and MS-65 coins are rare, with the latter being especially so. I recall at one of the Florida United Numismatists conventions circa 1988 being offered a MS-65Â·Lafayette silver dollar, riot certified, at 50% more than the current "bid" price. Considering the possibility back and forth in my mind, and knowing that in this grade the beauty was probably worth two or three times the bid price- but could I convince a customer of this? â€“I finally declined. Later in the afternoon of the same day had second thoughts. I approached the dealer, but it had been sold elsewhere. While perhaps the quality of piece has taken on a richer aura in my memory than the coin actually had, today I remember it as the nicest Lafayette dollar I have ever seen. It had silvery surfaces with a touch of gray at the center, and electric blue toning around the rims.
The Lafayette dollar was the only United States commemorative silver dollar for many years. Decade after decade elapsed, collectors came and went, and the Lafayette dollar stood alone. Finally, in 1983, another appeared. See the following.