The 1900-dated Lafayette silver dollar represents the first United States commemorative coin of that denomination and the only silver dollar commemorative to be minted until decades later in the 1980s. Interestingly, from an official viewpoint the “1900” designation appearing on the Lafayette dollar is not the official date of the coin. Indeed, apparently, the coin has no official date.
In 1899 the Lafayette Memorial Commission sought to raise funds to erect in Paris in 1900 (in connection with the Universal Exposition to be held there) a statue of General Lafayette on horseback, to be sculpted by Paul Wayland Bartlett. This was to be a gift of the American people to honor the Frenchman who in 1777, when he was not quite 20 years old, risked his life and fortune when he paid for French troops to come with him to America to aid the colonists. Although he was wounded in the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette, who received the designation major general, served until the end of the war. In 1824 the French hero of the American Revolution visited the United States once again, was given a grand welcome, toured all 24 states, and was designated by Congress as “the nation’s guest.” The relationship between America and France has been close ever since that time, as evidenced, among other things, by France’s gift to America of the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886.
In early 1899 the Commission petitioned Congress for an appropriation to coin 100,000 commemorative half dollars. By the time the legislation was approved on March 3, 1899, the authorization was for 50,000 silver one-dollar pieces, to be known as Lafayette dollars, to bear designs selected by the director of the Mint, with the approval of the secretary of the Treasury. The Treasury was authorized to purchase in the open market $25,000 worth of silver bullion or as much as might be needed to coin such pieces. Subsequently the quantity of 38,675.875 ounces of fine silver was purchased for $23,032.80, making possible the striking of 50,000 coins per the legislation, plus an additional 26 pieces for the assay. It was intended that the coins be sold for $2 each to the public.
The die work for the Lafayette dollar was accomplished by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, who, according to conventional history, took the portrait of Washington from the famous bust by Jean Antoine Houdon (the same portrait that was to be utilized years later by John Flanagan when the 1932 Washington quarter dollar was created). Lafayette’s portrait, which appears behind and slightly forward of Washington’s, was said to have been taken from an 1824 “Defender of American and French Liberty” medal made in France by François Augustin Caunois.
However, as historian Arlie Slabaugh has pointed out, the conjoined portraits of Washington and Lafayette on the obverse of the 1900 commemorative dollar were almost certainly plagiarized by Barber from the obverse of the Yorktown Centennial medal of 1881, made from dies engraved by Peter L. Krider. Stated more kindly, the Yorktown medal was an intermediary between the commemorative dollar and the earlier work of Houdon and Caunois. The shadow relief of Barber’s work is but a travesty of Krider’s extremely detailed high-relief artistry.
On the reverse of the Lafayette silver dollar was shown Bartlett’s statue of Lafayette on horseback, a representation taken from an early model that differed in certain respects from that eventually erected in Paris. Bartlett’s surname appeared on the coin.
The project had its inception when a Chicagoan suggested that a statue honoring Lafayette be paid for by a subscription among American schoolchildren, and that an American sculptor be commissioned to do the work. Karl Bitter (who had supervised the sculpture exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition) was contacted, but he suggested that Paul Wyland Bartlett, who had spent much of his adult life in Paris and who had close ties with France, would be a better choice. On July 4, 1899, the architect of the Louvre, then visiting New York City, approved Bartlett’s sketches, which the artist had created in New York. The actual work of sculpting in plaster was done by the artist in the small French village of St. Leu. Exhibited at the Louvre, the finished plaster model was widely admired. This was the version depicted on the 1900 Lafayette dollar.
In the meantime in 1899 schoolchildren all over the United States engaged in fund raising, many of them contributing coins from their savings toward the sum of $50,000 needed to create the statue and present it to France in time for unveiling in connection with the 1900 Exposition in Paris. The Paris Exposition, or Exposition Universelle, was France’s equivalent of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago seven years earlier and showcased the achievements of the French nation. Certain of the settings were designed by Alphonse Mucha, master of the Art Nouveau movement.
As quoted by Lorado Taft, Bartlett described the first version of his statue as follows: “Lafayette is represented in the statue as a fact and a symbol, offering his sword and services to the American colonists in the cause of liberty. He is shown sitting firmly on his horse, which he holds vigorously…. Lafayette’s youthful face is turned toward the west, his sheathed sword being slightly uplifted and delicately offered. He appears as the emblem of the aristocratic and enthusiastic sympathy shown by France to our forefathers. His youth, his distinction, his noble bearing, the richness of his costume and of the trappings of his horse – everything serves to emphasize the difference of his race and his education. The statue was desired for the Fourth of July, 1900, but the order was given so tardily that it was impossible to have the bronze ready. Indeed, the one-third sized model was completed but six weeks before the date of unveiling. A colossal plaster model was therefore prepared and used upon the occasion. That even this could be accomplished in six weeks is remarkable, but the French are at home in such problems. The ‘working model’ was sawed into pieces and distributed in several establishments in Paris; thus the horse and rider developed in various parts of the city at the same time.... These scattered fragments were brought together only a day or two before the ceremony but fitted perfectly.”
Bartlett, however, was dissatisfied and set about making major changes. Lafayette’s three-cornered hat was discarded as was his coat, the position of his arm and sword were changed, and a severer figure was created. A different type of horse was also employed, one less dashing and flamboyant. The new statue in bronze was installed in 1908 in the Place du Carrousel in the court of the Tuileries adjacent to the Louvre.
A problem arose concerning the dating of the Lafayette silver dollar, for the Lafayette Memorial Commission desired that the pieces be struck as early as possible in the year 1899, but bear the date 1900 to coincide with the date of the Paris Exposition. Mint practice did not permit the antedating of a coin, so the issue was circumvented by placing on the reverse an inscription which read as follows: ERECTED BY THE YOUTH OF THE UNITED STATES IN HONOR OF GEN. LAFAYETTE / PARIS 1900. Actually this legend referred to the date the statue was erected, not to the striking of the coins, so it can said that the coins themselves bore no date, a curious footnote in American numismatics.
Another aspect of the Lafayette silver dollar is that it depicts Washington for the first time on a legal tender coin made for public sale. Washington’s portrait had been proposed for use on coins on numerous occasions including in 1791-1792 when United States coinage was being formulated prior to the opening of the Philadelphia Mint. In the 1860s his portrait was utilized on several varieties of pattern pieces. However, it was not until the Lafayette dollar became a reality that Washington’s portrait actually appeared on a coin that achieved public distribution.
Still another interesting feature is the appearance of the denomination of the coin as LAFAYETTE DOLLAR, per the obverse inscription, rather than the standard ONE DOLLAR used before and since. This may have been inspired by the use of such wording as COLUMBIAN HALF DOLLAR and COLUMBIAN QUAR. DOL. to express the denomination of the commemorative half dollars and quarters issued for the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Production of the Coins
Striking of all 50,026 Lafayette dollars was accomplished in one day, on December 14, 1899, at the Philadelphia Mint, utilizing an old press which spewed out the pieces at the rate of 80 per minute, equal to 4,800 coins per hour. After striking, Lafayette dollars were mechanically ejected into a hopper. No care was given to preserving the surface quality for collectors. As a result, specimens with pristine surfaces are very elusive today.
An account from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, date not stated, described the striking on December 14, 1899:
“There was very little ceremony Friday, only a small group of Mint officials, members of the Memorial Association and representatives of the press being present. The coin press used was an old one in the Mint, and had been exhibited all over the country at international and state expositions. It was made years ago at Merrick’s. It was operated by Miss Gleary.
“As the first coin, heated by tons of pressure put upon it, was taken from the dies, she handed it to Superintendent Boyer, of the Mint, and it was then inspected by the engraver [Charles E. Barber] and pronounced perfect. After showing it to Robert J. Thompson, secretary of the Lafayette Memorial Commission, it was given to Mr. Roberts, Director of the Mint, who had come on from Washington to be present on this occasion. After placing it in a suitable case it will be given to president McKinley, who will send it to the president of the French Republic.”
An offer of $5,000 was made to the Treasury Department for the first Lafayette dollar struck, a reflection of the $10,000 offer that the Remington Typewriter interests had made for the first 1892 Columbian half dollar struck earlier in the decade. However, as noted, it was decided to send the first specimen to President William McKinley, who had it encased in a special presentation casket, which cost $1,000 and forwarded it by sea on the S.S. Champagne to France. Robert J. Thompson, secretary of the Lafayette Memorial Commission, delivered the coin to President Loubet in a special ceremony intended to be held on Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, but which took place in the Elysée Palace on March 3, 1900.
Distribution of Lafayette Dollars
Relatively few Lafayette silver dollars were sold to coin collectors, and not much excitement appeared in print concerning them in the American Journal of Numismatics, The Numismatist, or in dealers’ catalogues of the day. By a year or two later examples were available on the market for less than the $2 issue price. Reporting in The Numismatist, January 1903, on a meeting of the Providence (Rhode Island) Curio & Numismatic Association, George C. Arnold noted: “Another member stated that early in November when over to New York, he had purchased four Lafayette dollars for $1.10 each, and these you remember were issued at $2.00 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 dollars were distributed. It is believed that some of the pieces were released into circulation at face value, and it is a certainty that many who acquired them at a $2 premium subsequently tired of them and simply spent the pieces, for today it is not unusual to see examples in grades such as Extremely Fine and AU. The unsold remainder, amounting to 14,000 coins, went to the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., where unknown to collectors the pieces were stored in cloth bags of 1,000 each in the same vault used to store large bundles of currency (including $5,000 and $10,000 notes). In the meantime Lafayette dollars had become desirable numismatic items.
In 1945 the Treasury Department converted the pieces to silver bullion, not realizing that the coins could have been sold at 10 times face value or more. Aubrey and Adeline Bebee, dealers who specialized in commemoratives, learned of the cache from government records, but, upon contacting the Treasury Department, found that their inquiry did not come in time to save their destruction.
Collecting Lafayette Dollars
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. AT in STATES is cut high.
Obverse 2: With left foot on the final A in the AMERICA recut, and with the A in STATES high. Second S in STATES repunched (this is diagnostic).
Obverse 3: With AT in STATES recut and final S low. The letters F in OF and LAFAYETTE are broken from the lower tip of the crossbar and to the right base extension, and AMERICA is spaced as A ME RI C A. 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 in 1900.
Reverse B: With 14 shorter leaves and short stem. Tip of lowest leaf over space between 1 and 9 in 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 9 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.
As a professional numismatist I have never received a want list for die varieties of Lafayette silver dollars – probably because the cost of Mint State coins is such that most collectors are satisfied with owning just one example to illustrate the type.
Lafayette dollars are fairly plentiful today. The majority of specimens encountered are apt to grade from AU-50 to MS-60. Cleaned and polished coins are common. MS-63 and finer examples are very elusive, and pristine MS-65 coins are rare and highly prized. In face, of all silver commemoratives, the Lafayette dollar in higher Mint State levels is one of the most elusive.
GRADING SUMMARY: As noted in the preceding commentary, no care was taken at the time of striking to create or preserve carefully pieces for collectors, and most Lafayette dollars showed planchet contact marks particularly at the centers of both sides, before they left the Mint. By the time they were distributed, most coins were in a grade less than what we would call MS-63 today. Many seen on the present market have imperfect lustre and dull finishes. Most have marks due to handling and storage in bags. The reverses of many often lack detail. Some people have searched for a “rounded, full boot” on the Lafayette statue depicted on the reverse of the coin. Nearly all coins show friction and/or contact marks on the cheek of George Washington. To a lesser extent, such evidences will also be seen on Lafayette’s bust on the obverse and on the higher parts of the statue on the reverse. Most coins have fields that are somewhat satiny, a characteristic of the reverse, in particular. Watch out for cleaned, polished, or overdipped coins, and beware of deeply toned coins which mask friction or wear. Attractive Lafayette dollars are very difficult to find, and you may have to reject quite a few before you find one that is aesthetically pleasing. This coin is quite underrated in this regard.
SUMMARY OF CHARACTERISTICS
Commemorating: Erection of a statue of Lafayette in Paris in connection with the 1900 Paris Exposition
Obverse motif: Portraits of Lafayette and Washington
Reverse motif: Statue of Lafayette on horseback
Authorization date: March 3, 1899
Date on coins: 1900 (actually, the date of the statue’s intended erection in Paris)
Date when coins were actually minted: December 14, 1899
Mint used: Philadelphia
Maximum quantity authorized: 50,000
Total quantity minted (including assay coins): 50,026
Assay coins (included in above): 26
Quantity melted: 14,000
Net number distributed (including assay coins): 36,026
Issued by: Lafayette Memorial Commission through the American Trust & Savings Bank of Chicago, Illinois
Standard original packaging: Coins were mailed in large manila envelopes bearing return address of OFFICE OF COMMISSIONER-GENERAL FOR THE UNITED STATES TO THE PARIS EXPOSITION OF 1900. LAFAYETTE MEMORIAL COMMISSION. CHICAGO. with certification that the envelope contained a certain number of Lafayette dollars. Such certification appears in the lower left corner and is signed by two individuals (appearing to be M.W. Buckley and A.W. Clark), most likely employees and not Commission members.
Official sale price: $2
Designer of obverse and reverse: Charles E. Barber
Interesting facts: Struck the year before the date appearing on the coin, on December 14, 1899, the 100th anniversary of Washington’s death; Lafayette and Washington pictured on obverse, Lafayette on horseback on reverse, thus the first U.S. coin with the same person depicted twice on the same coin; first commemorative silver dollar; first depiction of a president on a publicly distributed legal tender U.S. coin.
 Caunois (June 12, 1787-1859), a pupil of Dejoux, enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in 1813. Later he became a medalist who was well known for his portraits.
 Krider was a prolific medalist during the late 19th century. He is also remembered for assisting with restriking 1861-dated Confederate States of America cents in 1874.
 A smaller version of this statue was later displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.
 Taft was one of America’s best-known sculptors; unfortunately, he was never associated with coinage. Taft was interested in numismatics, particularly in medals, and on at least two occasions welcomed groups of visitors consisting of American Numismatic Association convention attendees. The quotation is from The History of American Sculpture (New York, 1930), as in turn quoted by Cornelius Vermeule in Numismatic Art in America (1971, p. 101). Trygve Rovelstad, designer of the 1936 Elgin Centennial half dollar, studied under Taft and was considered to be an especially brilliant pupil.
 Per Revised Statutes, 3517, which stated that coin inscriptions were to include “the year of the coinage.” Among later commemoratives, particularly for certain issues minted in 1930s and onward, this statute was widely ignored. For example, 1938-dated New Rochelle half dollars were minted in 1937.
 Contemporary accounts mention only one press. If just one press was used, minting would have continued into the evening.
 As quoted by Tom Culhane, writing in The Commemorative Trail, Fall 1988, page 29.
 Including at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where it had been used to strike brass medals which were sold for 25¢ each.
 The general descriptions given here are from The Commemorative Coins of the United States, David M. Bullowa, 1938, p. 20. Also see The Encyclopedia of U.S. Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins, Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen, 1980, pp. 129-130.
 Variety 4-E was unknown to Swiatek and Breen in 1980 but is mentioned by Walter Breen in his 1990 appendix to the second printing of the work.
 The Commemorative Trail, Fall 1988, p. 14.
 Most such marks seen on otherwise high-grade Mint State coins seem to be planchet abrasions, from the original blank planchet surface still visible at the center, due to incomplete striking up in that area (per a comment from Bill Fivaz to the author, February 3, 1991).