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The Liberty Seated Dollar (1840-1873)

By Greg Shishmanian ………..

Let’s begin this article by revisiting a few significant events that occurred during the 1840 through 1873 period in United States history. The United States mint began producing the Liberty Seated dollar series only three years after the 1837 financial crisis. This crisis triggered a prolonged economic depression that lasted until the mid-1840’s. During the 1840’s, a silver dollar had considerable value, for example, a routine doctor’s visit would typically cost about two dollars.

The weight of Liberty Seated dollars was unaffected by The Coinage Act of 1853.  However the Act did reduce the silver weight of subsidiary half dime through half dollar coins by 6.9%. The new half dollar weighed 192 grains and contained 90% pure silver. This meant that two half dollars contained 345.6 grains or 0.72 troy ounces of pure silver. Since a Liberty Seated dollar contained 0.77344 troy ounces of pure silver, businesses could make easy profits by melting down the dollar coins, and exporting the resulting bullion abroad. The result was a large number of silver dollars minted in the 1840’s and early 1850’s being melted and lost to commerce and eventually, collectors. The Comstock Lode was made public in 1859; it was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States. The silver mined from the Comstock Lode was used to produce many of our country’s silver coins.

In 1861 our nation burst into a war between the states known as the Civil War. This brutal war lasted until 1865, the same year President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. This bloody war led to the death of over 600,000 soldiers and destroyed much of the South’s infrastructure. Despite the war, the Philadelphia mint produced 193,440 Liberty Seated dollars during the war years. The coins struck during the Civil War have always been very popular and they continue to elicit strong collector demand.

Perhaps motivated by the brutality of the Civil War, a Pennsylvania minister asked the Secretary of the Treasury to consider the minting of coins that would pay tribute to God. The Director of the Mint, James Pollock, chose the words “In God We Trust,” and the motto first appeared on the two-cent piece in 1864. This motto was added on the ribbon or scroll above the eagle on the reverse of all Liberty Seated dollars beginning in 1866, with the exception of two proof examples dated 1866 with no motto.

The total reported production of all Liberty Seated dollar business strike is 6,487,747. The Philadelphia mint produced the vast majority minting 5,465,463 coins. In fact during 1871 and 1872, the Philadelphia mint struck a total of 2,179,300 coins. Conversely in 1851 and 1852 they produced a meager total of only 2,400 coins. The rising price of silver resulted in dollar coins melt values that exceed their face value. Interestingly each of the three branch mints struck coins in only four years: the New Orleans mint in years 1846, 1850, 1859, and 1860; the San Francisco mint in years 1859, 1870, 1872, and 1873; and the Carson City mint in years 1870, 1871, 1872, and 1873.

During 1859 and 1860 the New Orleans mint coined 875,000 Liberty Seated dollars. These New Orleans pieces have by far the highest mint state survival rates of the series due to the 1962 through 1964 United States Treasury release. It is believed that one to three mint-sealed bags of one thousand uncirculated 1859-O and 1860-O dollars were found among the bags of Morgan and Peace silver dollars sold to the public during this period. The vast majority of these coins are heavily bag-marked Mint State specimens because they were moved around in bags for a century.

Mint records show that seven hundred 1873-S Liberty Seated dollars were struck. The mystery surrounding these coins continued for 135 years. Their fate was thought to be confirmed in 2008 when National Archives researchers discovered a June 13, 1873 telegram from Director Linderman to San Francisco Mint Superintendent Oscar LaGrange ordering the melting of all 1873-S dollars. If an example were to exist and appear on the market, it would draw worldwide attention and would certainly realize

a record price for the series. The 1870-S Seated dollar mintage is unknown; estimates range from 25 to 300 pieces. Today’s confirmed population is just eleven specimens, consequently its rarity and high price put this date beyond the reach of all but a small number of fortunate collectors. This leaves only the 1859-S and the 1872-S to choose from if one wishes to own a Seated dollar struck at the San Francisco mint.

The Carson City mint produced a total of only 18,584 Liberty Seated dollars during four years of production. The 1870-CC accounts for 63% of the total mintage. The remaining three dates are very rare and usually command strong premiums when offered for sale. In addition to their rarity, Carson City coins enjoy great popularity and demand due to mystic and allure of the Wild West.

Table 1 illustrates the general rarity of this series by comparing the three dates with the highest and lowest mintages to Trade dollars and Morgan dollars. The Morgan dollars minted in 1921 were not included because of their abnormally high mintages. In addition, the 1870-S Seated dollar was not included because of its unusually low mintage. Figures 1 through 4 show the total mintage of Seated dollars for each date and mint. Comparing the mintages of the entire series yields the same results, and with very few exceptions Liberty Seated dollars have dramatically lower mintages than the silver dollars that followed them. Since Seated dollars are the earliest of these three silver dollar series, one can reasonably conclude that their survival rate is lower, in some cases much lower.

The population reports published by PCGS, NGC, and CAC, all support a low Seated dollar survival rate.  In general, these census reports are a good indication of rarity and survival rate. Unfortunately for many rare coins including Liberty Seated dollars, the surviving population is often inflated because the same coin has been submitted multiple times and the old inserts were not returned and removed from the census report. I am convinced that as the number of Liberty Seated dollars in the CAC census grows, this population reference will prove to be the most accurate gauge of surviving problem free and premium quality coins.

My analysis indicates that only a small fraction of all Seated dollars struck remain in existence today. High quality business strikes are especially rare since dollars coins were used in daily commerce predominantly west of the Mississippi. The silver dollar was appreciated in the south possibly because after the civil war confederate paper money was worthless, but a silver dollar was still good. Their large size and weight caused them to be easily damaged by normal circulation issues such as being dropped or being stored in bags with other coins. Large numbers were shipped overseas and melted for their silver value significantly reducing the population.

The small number that did survive faced an even greater obstacle. The long-time practice of cleaning coins is the major reason why survivors with original surfaces are extremely rare. Very few have survived with little or no wear and naturally toned pristine surfaces. Sadly the cleaning and doctoring of coins still continues today.

Many people do not understand the importance of original surfaces and the harm done by tampering with coins. Regrettably some people choose to dip or enhance coins in efforts to get higher grades and realize higher prices. Natural toning of a coin occurs gradually, which then stabilizes the silver coin’s original surface. Unfortunately the

loss of natural toning is a result of many types of cleaning. The longer a coin was in circulation the lower the probability of it surviving with original surfaces and without damage. Actually it is a miracle that early dollar coins were carefully stored and retained their natural surfaces. Naturally toned Liberty Seated dollars are rare numismatic treasures that should be carefully preserved as part of our numismatic heritage.

Why am I so passionate about studying and collecting Liberty Seated dollars? Series rarity is an important reason. The challenge of finding and acquiring examples with natural toning and premium quality surfaces is very rewarding. In addition I have always preferred large coins. This series of forty-three coins seemed to be a manageable collecting objective. Thankfully I was naive when embarking on the series and did not understand how scarce and expensive many Seated dollars are. Had I known this, I likely would have chosen a much less demanding series.

In the late 1980’s a friend introduced me to Seated dollars. After examining and discussing examples in his collection, I decided to search for and purchase a few nice specimens grading EF or AU. I had no clue that my journey would be so challenging, long-term, and rewarding. I hope the following stories illustrate my passion for this series.

Recently I located a superb example of an 1859-O graded AU-58. Although this is the second most common date in the series I was thrilled to purchase it for my collection. Every time I examine it my adrenaline begins flowing because it is the finest example grading AU-58 I’ve ever seen, and perhaps one of the finest that exist.

This adrenaline rush was even more intense when I successfully acquired two pristine uncirculated examples minted during the civil war. Both coins were carefully preserved for nearly four decades in an old-time collection. Their lengthy stay in paper envelopes yielded naturally toned surfaces that exemplify originality.

Several years ago I was very excited when finally locating an affordable example of the 1851 date. This original strike with high date was holed between stars 10 and 11. The hole was carefully placed to ensure that the reverse legend was not disturbed. The surfaces display CH AU detail with a wonderful natural old-time patina. This coin was found in a box of loose coins purchased at auction by a picker. The anticipation of examining it and the memory of purchasing this extremely rare specimen will remain with me for a lifetime. I had resigned myself to owning an example of this key date, making this a truly memorable acquisition for my collection.

Meeting and getting to know fellow collectors that share the passion for numismatics continues to inspire me. I was very fortunate to have several expert mentors early in my journey that helped me build a solid foundation of knowledge. We formed long lasting friendships that continue today and I am forever grateful for their guidance. I especially enjoy sharing information on this series and the countless fascinating stories associated with numismatics.

Publishing articles in the Liberty Seated Collectors Club’s Gobrecht Journal and being awarded their Kamal M. Ahwash literary award was an honor that I cherish. I’ve learned so much from other club members and formed many valuable friendships.

Developing my grading skills and the confidence to accurately grade and identify coins that are in the top ten percent for the grade is both challenging and empowering. I enjoy studying the different characteristics from the minting process, the strike, surface quality, and toning of each date and mint, doing research, and building the knowledge to accurately determine a coins current market value.  Studying and trading these historic coins continues to be a refreshing and rewarding addition to my engineering job.

I especially enjoy the adventure of examining old-time collections built and left undisturbed for decades. It’s a great feeling when owners or numismatists ask for my opinion on their coins or for advice regarding their collections. I feel great satisfaction when I am able to find and place a coin that fits nicely into a high quality collection knowing that the new owner is thrilled with their acquisition. Helping novice collectors find and develop their passion is also enjoyable. Setting goals aids the relative newcomers to the series in avoiding common mistakes. Watching their interest and knowledge grow is personally gratifying.

Over the past few decades the Liberty Seated dollar series has continued to grow in popularity and increase in value as numismatists begin to appreciate the true rarity of natural toned and premium quality specimens. Current auction prices seem particularly strong for better dates. For example, an 1863 graded EF-45 by PCGS and approved by CAC realized $5,875. An 1865 graded MS-62 by PCGS and approved by CAC realized $8,812. An 1870-CC graded AU-58 by NGC realized $18,800.

Although this series has not been studied as thoroughly as the other earlier series or its fractional contemporaries, it has its own interesting varieties that lend themselves to serious numismatic scrutiny. Veteran numismatist and friend Dick Osburn is working diligently on a much-anticipated Liberty Seated dollar book that I am confident will present a large amount of new information and will prove to be an extremely valuable reference. I encourage numismatists to help Dick by sharing Seated dollar variety information with him. After several decades of studying and collecting this series, my passion and interest continue to grow.

©2013 Copyright CDN Inc. Reprinted with permission from the Coin Dealer Newsletter, PO Box 7939 Torrance, CA 90504 (310) 515-7369

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