Q. David Bowers:
The following narrative, with minor editing, is from my "Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia" (Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1993).
Carson City: The Carson City Mint was coming on stream rapidly by 1871, although its glory days of coining silver would not occur until the advent of the trade dollar in 1873. In 1871 the mintage of Liberty Seated silver dollars was quite small and amounted to only 1,376 pieces. The distribution arrangement of these is unknown, but based upon the relatively large percentage of surviving coins in relation to the original mintage, I believe that most were used domestically.
Circulated grades: The 1871-CC has the lowest mintage of any Carson City Mint coin of this design. However, today specimens are more available than of the higher-mintage 1873-CC, for many of the latter presumably were melted.
Of the 1,376 1871-CC dollars struck, probably 85 to 125 exist today in circulated grades. This remnant, amounting to 6% to 9% of the original issue, indicates that the rarity of the 1871-CC was recognized at an early date. Most likely, specimens were saved by knowledgeable bank tellers and others. It probably also indicates that most were used domestically, for had the mintage been shipped to China, most would have been destroyed. It is difficult to estimate the number of known pieces, for, in my opinion, most 1871-CC dollars have changed hands privately and have not appeared in auction sales (private sales data are not available to researchers, who rely mainly on auction figures). Estimates by several students in the field are given below.
The 1871-CC is quite famous and has been admired for decades. Examples are highly prized in any grade.
Mint State grades: Mint State 1871-CC dollars are extremely rare, and any estimate of how many exist is guesswork. My ideas are given in the Summary of Characteristics below. Auction records prior to about 1986 are of little or no use in computing the rarity of Mint State coins, for it has been my experience that many CC dollars of various Liberty Seated issues 1870-1873, described as Uncirculated years ago, are usually AU or less when seen today. Quite possibly the finest known is the MS-63 1871-CC dollar sold in the Norweb Collection sale, November 1988.
Rarity estimates: A number of commentaries about the 1871-CC have appeared over the years in The Gobrecht Journal, the prime forum for such discussions among collectors and students in the field.
Writing of EF-grade coins in July 1982, Donald Vettel noted that the 1871-CC is seen well struck, with very "baggy" surfaces, and that about 50 are known. In July 1984, John Kroon estimated that 50 to 75 coins of this variety survive today in various grades. Writing in March 1983, Weimar W. White gave the opinion that no MS-65 coins exist, that fewer than 10 MS-60 or so coins are known, and that in all grades fewer than 50 survive. In a letter dated May 15, 1992, Dale R. Phelan estimated that about 175 coins exist in all grades.
In correspondence with the author, Harry Salyards, M.D., noted the following concerning this and another Carson City issue: (Letter to the author, November 2, 1992.)
Regarding the number of extant 1871-CC and 1873-CC dollars-continued observation of auction appearances of these two coins, vis-a-vis the 1793 S-13 cent, since my Gobrecht Journal article of March 1985, has not changed my overall estimate of 175 1871-CCs and 165 1873-CCs in existence. Much of the difficulty in widely differing estimates, by different knowledgeable observers of the same market, comes from the lack of a "benchmark" against which their observations can be compared: I still contend that, for coins between Rarity-6 and Rarity-4 on the Sheldon rarity scale, or a population of 13 to 200 overall, the best benchmark is to compare an item to another item, ideally a "type coin," identifiable at arm's length, whose quantitative estimate of rarity has stood the test of time -- thus, I chose the S-13 Liberty Cap cent. If, as you contend, "most 1871-CC dollars have changed hands privately and have not appeared in auction sales," this would only tend to make the date commoner than auction dates would suggest. Perhaps many low-grade examples have traded hands in that manner (as, no doubt, have many low-grade S-13s); but once you reach the Fine to Very Fine range, I believe both coins tend to be auctioned. And enough different plated examples of each turn up at sales over a decade or so, to solidify the contention that the number extant is closer to the upper end of that vast 13-200 range.
1. Normal Date: Breen-5489. Obverse: With the numerals 71 close together. Reverse: With CC widely spaced; Reverse B of 1870.
Dies prepared: Obverse: 1; Reverse: 1 (left over from 1870)(CC dollars and is Reverse B of that year.)
Circulation strike mintage: 1,376, all in August 1871
Estimated quantity melted: Unknown
Characteristics of striking: Usually sharp; some with lightness at stars 12 and 13. As is the case with other CC Mint Liberty Seated dollars, the word LIBERTY on the shield is not as prominent as on Philadelphia coins, and it tended to wear away especially quickly once the coins saw circulation.
Known hoards of Mint State coins: None
This is the lowest mintage Carson City Mint Liberty Seated dollar (but not the rarest today; that distinction goes to 1873-CC).