The Eisenhower Dollar is widely regarded as America’s last silver dollar, but it’s also the first United States series struck entirely during the copper-nickel clad era, which began in 1965. As a modern coin, the Eisenhower Dollar is popular with many younger collectors and is earning appreciation among more seasoned hobbyists who have slowly warmed to more contemporary coinage in recent years.
Eisenhower Dollars are enjoying a surge of popularity these days, in part because collectors are realizing just how rare some of these coins are, especially Gem (MS65 or better) specimens and certain scarce varieties. But a tiny handful of Ike dollars are creating major headlines these days, and they’re specimens that were never even supposed to enter the public arena.
In 2008, collector Lee C. Lydston and his wife, Denise, were at the Long Beach Expo in California perusing dealer inventories. Denise summoned Lee to a table featuring tubes of Eisenhower dollars, and as Lee inspected the tubes of Ikes labeled as regular San Francisco-minted 40% Eisenhower dollars struck from 1971 through 1974, he noticed one didn’t appear to be quite normal.
This 1971-S Ike bears surfaces that appear to be a combination of proof and uncirculated finishes, and there were several other characteristics that seemed out of the ordinary for a regular-issue silver Ike dollar, including unfinished burring on the lettering, heavy die polishing marks, and even device doubling. Yet, the coin also evidenced having once been housed in a cellophane-style pliofilm package, as 40% silver S-minted Ike dollars were normally sold along with their outer blue envelopes by the United States Mint from 1971 through 1974; the coin was covered in a haze commonly encountered on Blue Pack Ikes. Something was amiss, and Lee went on to investigate.
In the many years that have passed since Lee’s discovery of this unusual Ike dollar, it has been determined that his and two other similar specimens of Eisenhower dollars are prototype pieces struck for use by the coin’s designer, Frank Gasparro, who served as chief engraver of the United States Mint from 1965 through 1981. The Ike dollar was a major point of pride for Gasparro, who began his career at the U.S. Mint in 1942 and also designed the reverses of the Lincoln Memorial Cent (1959-2008) and Kennedy Half Dollar (1964-present) as well as both sides of the Susan B. Anthony Dollar (1979-81; 1999). After a long and winding road of research and attribution for these pieces, all three known 1971-S Eisenhower Dollar prototypes are now in PCGS holders, with the recent encapsulation of two pieces owned by collectors Charles Chatham and David Frohman.
These two newly PCGS-certified prototype Ikes join the third PCGS-encapsulated specimen, bought on eBay in 2013. The Lydston discovery specimen, purchased in 2019 by David Frohman for an undisclosed amount, represents the first of these unusual Eisenhower dollars ever sold while attributed as a prototype.
Frohman on the Lydston Discovery Coin
“Where do you begin to describe this coin?” asks Frohman, a 60-year old numismatist who began collecting coins in 1969 – incidentally the year legislation authorizing the Eisenhower dollar was introduced in Congress. Frohman describes the extremely rare prototypes as works of art he believes were manufactured by Gasparro himself, with each example sharing common though individually unique characteristics. “You can imagine Gasparro telling an associate what to do with each piece as they were struck, ‘let’s take a little striking pressure off here, plane this burring down there, buff it up there’ as the models were coming together before the actual coins began production.”
These pieces carry an extraordinary amount of mystique and mystery, invoking more questions than they do offer clear answers. And with Gasparro having passed away in 2001 at the age of 92, perhaps the only person who could have provided all the information collectors would ever want to know about these amazing coins took his secrets about the Ike prototypes to the grave. But Frohman offers his theory on how these coins escaped the United States Mint.
“Anybody who knew anything about Frank Gasparro knew he was a different sort of character. At the Philadelphia Mint he was revered as a bit of a god,” remarks Frohman on the iconic engraver who was born, raised, and classically trained in art in Philadelphia. "Maybe [Gasparro] wanted to create a lottery for collectors by sending out these prototypes in the Blue Packs?” Frohman ponders. “He was a unique guy and not known to be wasteful – it wouldn’t surprise me if he pulled this off somehow... It’s such an astonishing thing.”
The seemingly miraculous discovery of the first prototype by Lydston isn’t lost on Frohman. “It was Lee Lydston who deserves all the credit for discovering this prototype of America’s last silver dollar,” he says of the Ikes, which were struck from 1971 through 1978 as the last circulating large-size dollar coins that were also struck in a silver composition, if even only for numismatists. “Without his discovery and intellectual curiosity, the coins may have been lost forever!”
Frohman says he is now good friends with both Lydston and Chatham, and he remarks they’ve become quite popular among the folks in the Ike Group, an organization of like-minded Eisenhower dollar collectors who specialize in attributing and collecting all manner of Ike varieties. The camaraderie among fellow Ike dollar collectors has also allowed the owners of these rarities to more closely compare their examples, noting similarities and differences between them.
"Lee found an example in 2008 at the Long Beach Show and then Chuck found his at a pawn shop in 2010 – his has a unique obverse and the [Lee] Lydston reverse,” he explains. Adds Frohman, “It’s the ultimate treasure hunt story – a modern coin that can be purchased for $5 at a pawn shop.” And for Chatham, that pawn shop find was very much a treasure – one that the retired Army veteran didn’t even know was out there to be waiting for him.
Lightning Strikes Twice
“It was out of the blue,” he says of his 2010 find, then the second 1971-S Ike prototype to be located. “It felt great to make that discovery.” He submitted three Ikes he purchased at the time to an alternative grading service, and before long expert attributor John Roberts noticed one of Chatham’s dollars resembled the Lydston prototype he had handled not too long earlier. “John kicked my dollar off to Dr. James Wiles of The Combined Organization of Numismatic Error Collectors of America (CONECA) and informed the Ike Group that they had found a second prototype.”
Chatham notes that while all three of the known prototypes have similar reverses, matching the reverse of the 1970 Galvano residing at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, the other two coins have matching obverses, while his is different. “We saw some different things we were dealing with between my prototype and Lee’s. Mine has a lot of drill marks on it, so whoever the guy was making changes on the coin to see if it could be used for production had a real difficult time on the production of that Ike dollar,” he hypothesizes.
Meanwhile, Chatham believes the planchets used for making the three coins may be slightly different from each other. “I’m thinking a little less silver than 40%. It has a bit of a yellower color, which makes me believe it may have more copper in it than usual.” He and Frohman have been waiting anxiously as PCGS ascertains metallurgical and other details on their coins. But the long journey from discovery to complete attribution doesn’t faze Chatham, someone who has seen many other Ike varieties – one of his collecting loves – take months, even years, to be officially recognized by numismatic scholars.
“That’s something people need to know about attributing something like this. It takes time – it’s been 10 years from the time I’ve found the coin to getting it attributed and graded by PCGS.” Having been a collector since he was a child in the early 1960s, Chatham has arrived at a personal realization, saying there are two types of people involved when it comes to the discovery and attribution of varieties and other unusual rarities.
“You’ve got finders and researchers,” he observes. “Finders have a unique ability to look at something and say there’s something not right with a particular coin. Then you’ve got the researchers who take measurements and examine the background of a coin.” He credits Rob Ezerman as one of the key researchers behind the attribution of the Ike prototypes. “He really knows what he’s doing,” Chatham says of Ezerman. “And David [Frohman] made things happen on getting these coins certified by PCGS. I’m pleased to have relationships with them both – they’re really unique assets to the hobby.”
PCGS Certifies Two Outstanding Rarities
When the two Ike prototypes crossed the desks at PCGS, they turned plenty of heads. “I remember the day vividly that Joe Pielago, one of our business development managers, told me that we were getting a prototype Ike in for grading,” recalls PCGS Director of Numismatic Education and Outreach Steve Feltner. “First of all, I had never heard of anything like that before and was very excited to see it. Upon initial inspection, there was no denying that the coin was special,” he says.
Feltner noted the Ikes have a bolder strike than the typical 40% silver Blue Ikes that are commonly seen. “I remember the first place that my eye gravitated to was the Moon on the reverse. It was an unforgettable experience being able to hold this piece of history and see what Gasparro’s vison was for his dollar,” Feltner adds. “Then to have a second example come through the grading room was the cherry on top!” Both coins were processed through various stages of authentication and research at PCGS, including metallurgical testing to determine the weight and metallic composition of the planchets.
“Using our in-house X-ray fluorescence analyzer to check the elemental composition of the planchets – and utilizing a standard 1971-S Blue Pack Ike as a test coin – the two prototype coins were found to be within a close tolerance of the standard,” explains Feltner, who reported that the compositional material of the outer silver-clad layer of the coins were within normal tolerances of the copper-silver alloy and showed no real deviation from the standard test coin. The coins were also expertly conserved by the PCGS Restoration team to remove their pliofilm-related haze before being sonically sealed in their protective slabs.
At the end of the day, the attribution and encapsulation of these two prototype Eisenhower dollars by PCGS helps further cement the significance of the series in the eyes of numismatists – and not just those who already have an affinity for these large modern coins, but perhaps also collectors who haven’t paid much attention to post-1964 United States coinage. “It’s a great thing for the series,” Frohman says of the Ike prototype discoveries. Chatham agrees, saying it could help inspire other collectors to spend more time looking at Eisenhower dollars and even take on the series as a full-time collecting objective. “There are a bunch of Ikes out there that have not been discovered, and it’s very possible that one or two more prototypes might be found.”
What are the Eisenhower prototypes worth? Both Chatham and Frohman speculate on that matter very carefully. Chatham references the five 1913 Liberty nickels, each of which is a seven-figure coin nowadays and, while exceedingly rare in their own right, are still technically more numerous than the number of known 1971-S Eisenhower dollar prototypes. Meanwhile, Frohman points to a 1921 Peace dollar prototype that sold at a Stacks-Bowers auction in 2014 for $129,250.00. “It’s a fully-quantifiable initial comparable valuation to place on each of the three Eisenhower Dollar prototypes, he adds.
Frohman claims that, in reality, they are priceless coins. “They represent the three earliest-known Eisenhower dollars. They are the only three prototype Eisenhower dollars ever discovered since being struck for Frank Gasparro's personal use at the Philadelphia Mint a half-century ago.” He also believes the three coins hold even greater significance still as the prototypes for America’s last silver dollars and merit a place in institutional hands. “Maybe the Smithsonian, the Eisenhower Presidential Library, the New York Treasury office…” he says, reeling off places he hopes the coins could be showcased for public enjoyment. "These are national numismatic treasures."