The Fabulous 1804 US Dollar

The Fabulous 1804 U.S. Dollar.

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

How very strange to realize that the most expensive coin in world is far from being the rarest; that it was not struck in 1804 but rather decades later – and on two occasions at that; that it never circulated as a coin but rather exists only as presentation and collectors’ pieces and that all of them are in the top conditions, even up to and including proofs.

This is a lesson in shrewd marketing with demand always massively exceeding supply. Right from it’s first appearance, the 1804 silver dollar commanded a value approaching a small fortune and today any that reach the auction block can expect to fetch seven figures U.S.

Obv. and Rev. of “Original” 1804 Dollar.

Extensive research carried out by collectors over the past 150 years or so has resulted in what we now believe to be the truth. It wasn’t helped along by some of the early collectors and dealers who tended to be rather fuzzy with the facts, even when they were completely in the “know”. Everything regarding their “uncertainties” and lapses of memory tended toward the impression these were “real”, “original”, “extremely rare” coins – with the price to match. In large part, that is the way things went as well. It was only with Eric Newman’s definitive book, The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, that conventional belief came into accordance with the probable truth. But it never affected the market value; if anything, the increased publicity caused it to rise even more.

Obv. and Rev. of “Restrike Draped Bust” 1804 Dollar.

The 1804 dollar was first struck in 1834/5 for inclusion in proof presentation sets; there are eight of this first mintage known. This was the period when the U.S. Mint had converted from hand-operated coining equipment to steam-powered mechanization. In common with the mints of other powers, a standard gift to visiting dignitaries was a proof set of current coin, what we now call the V.I.P. Presentation sets.
However, in 1834/5, a complete set of U.S. coins would have lacked a silver dollar, none having been struck (as their records showed) since 1804. Therefore a set of dies were made up in imitation of the last dollars they could find – in this case, those dated 1803. But, of course, the new dies were dated 1804, Mint records showing that 19,570 dollars were coined in that year. It just wasn’t known that those “1804” dollars were dated “1803”.

Over the years, there has been scattered assumption that “some” of the rare 1804 dollars were actually from this time – but there is one feature that tends to prove none were. The 1804 dollars all have rim beading, just like the patterns of 1836-9 and the regular dollars of 1840 and later would have; silver dollars up to and including 1803 all have rim denticles. No, all 1804 dollars are 1834/5 strikes or later.

The initial striking was intended for presentation to visiting heads of state or their designated representatives; it’s been said that one such set – including a proof 1804 dollar – turned up in the holdings of the King of Siam years later. For a while, none of these dollars were known to the collecting public. Then, on May 9, 1843, Col. M.A. Stickney acquired one from a “high Mint official” in exchange for a unique Immune Columbia piece of 1785 in gold. This set off a “publicity explosion” to the extent that a few more showed up, in response to very high offers by well-heeled collectors.

In the 1840s and ’50s, some Mint officials and a selected company of wealthy collectors/dealers formed a sort of coterie. During this period, a lot of odd things happened. One of these was the quiet restriking of the 1804 dollar in about 1859. These were no true restrikes; something had happened to the older reverse die and a new one was made up. On the “originals”, the second T of STATES at the top sits almost directly on the center of one of the small oval “cloud puffs”, which are themselves largely separated; on the “restrikes”, the same letter is much to the left of center – almost over a join – and the tops of the line of “cloud puffs” is nearly solid. The obverse used was the same as before, all of them having a small crack running through the tops of LIBERTY at the top. None are known without it and it seems that the increased pressure needed to strike proofs caused the crack to appear at once. Of the restrikes, six are known today.

Within this already rare and pricey group is a unique piece: this is a restrike made on a Swiss shooting thaler, now residing in the Smithsonian Institute.

So, the score is: “Originals” – 8; Restrike on thaler – 1; Restrikes – 6 for a total of 15. Considering how many coins there are that are much rarer, publicity has pushed the “selling price” well out of norm. But it’s always been that way; even in 1885, any of them – “original” or “restrike” were considered to be worth in excess of $1,000. A lot of money when so many were earning $1 per day or less.


Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-02, Issue-08