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The Storied 1804 Silver Dollar
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
January 03, 2012

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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From comic book ads to encyclopedia articles and reference books, the 1804 dollar has generated more written material than any other U.S. coin. Much of the factual information about this rarity has come to light in the past 50 years. But bits and pieces of the true story appeared in print as far back as the 1800s, waiting to be sifted from the myths and legends.

Government records indicate the Mint struck 19,570 silver dollars in 1804. It wasn’t until many years later that collectors realized the mintage consisted of earlier-dated dollars.

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Today, numismatists designate 1804 dollars as Class I, Class II or Class III. Class I dollars were struck in 1834. They were placed in proof sets intended for foreign dignitaries. Class II and Class III dollars were struck after 1857.

Fifteen genuine 1804 dollars are known. There are eight Class I dollars, one Class II dollar struck over an 1857 Bern shooting taler, and six Class III dollars. Countless altered-date, counterfeit and replica 1804 dollars also exist.

In 1999, a Class I 1804 dollar sold for more than $4 million. A Class III dollar brought $2.3 million in 2009. The unique Class II 1804 dollar is in the Smithsonian.

Reliable or not, newspaper articles helped make the 1804 dollar famous and valuable. The following examples might have been pasted in a vintage 1804 dollar scrapbook.



Thousand-Tongued Tradition

One of the first steps in untangling the 1804 dollar mystery was the realization that Mint records were not always accurate. The Mint reported production on a fiscal year basis. Outdated but serviceable dies remained in use beyond the calendar year.

The 1883 edition of Dye’s Coin Encyclopedia said the discrepancies might explain the 1804 dollar’s rarity:

“There is no authentic history of the 1804 dollar. Tradition, however, is ‘thousand-tongued’ in its regard. The writer of this was told by an old bank cashier in Salem, Mass., at one time the most extensive tea-importing place on the continent, that the scarcity of the 1804 dollar was owing to the sinking of a China-bound vessel having on board almost the entire mintage of 1804 dollars, shipped in lieu of ‘Spanish milled dollars,’ instrinsically more valuable.

“He believed there were not more than eight genuine 1804 dollars, and certainly not more than ten.

“Owing to the fiscal year ending in midsummer, it is claimed by some that the report entered on the register of the Mint in 1805 included the mintage of dollars of the months of 1804 subsequent to the fiscal report and entry of that year.

“Others claim that old dies were sometimes used in years subsequent to the date they bore.

“Others still, claim that many of the 1804 dollars offered for sale are ‘restrikes.’ This, however, is not likely, as it would imply surreptitious work on the part of employees of the Mint which could not be substantiated.

“The rarity of the piece and the almost fabulous prices offered for it are patent facts.… The publishers make this special notice because it is most notable, and commands the first place and highest price of all American silver coins.”



Mistaken Identity

Wishful thinkers sometimes mistook other 1804-dated coins for the 1804 Draped Bust dollar. In 1898 the British publication Spink’s Numismatic Circular said:

“In the estimation of coin collectors, the most valuable of all American coins today is the perfect silver dollar of 1804. That particular coin is worth whatever an enthusiastic collector is wiling to pay for it.…

“Only 13 of them are known to exist, and each has a record of ownership. There are probably several hundred mistaken claims made each year by persons who think that they have one of these dollars.

“The mistake arises from a confusion of other coins bearing the same date with the United States silver dollar. The Spanish-American eight-reales piece, or dollar, is dated 1804, and the Bank of England has an 1804 issue, which is stamped ‘Five Shillings or dollar.’”



Sacred Reverence

The 1893 edition of Harper’s Popular Cyclopaedia of United States Coins provided a short history of the silver dollar. It included information about the 1804 dollar. Much of it was factual, but the writer was unaware 1804 dollars were struck at later dates. The article said:

“The silver dollar was not coined until 1794.… These dollars continued to be coined at the Mint until the close of the year 1803, when their coinage was stopped, it is said, by President Jefferson, because it stimulated the exportation of silver from the country.

“Yet during the years 1804-5 there were issued from the Mint silver dollars of the coinage of former years to the amount of $19,891. The dies had been prepared for issuing the dollars of 1804, but not more than 20 pieces were struck. These are held in the most sacred reverence by the few fortunate collectors who possess them.”



Valuable Ornaments

Fiction writers loved to work the 1804 dollar into their stories. Zion Rhodes’ “The Great Stone God” appeared in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in 1891. One of the characters in the story quotes a newspaper article about 1804 dollars:

“Many stories are told to explain the disappearance of these coins, the most plausible being the entire issue was sent to Africa, to pay our soldiers in the war with Tripoli, and that the savage natives conceived such a violent fancy for the bright new coins that they offered very advantageous trades for them, converting them into ornaments.”



Trickery

In 1893, Current Opinion published a variation of the 1804 Tripoli dollar legend:

“It is said that the dollars coined that year were sent out to pay off our seamen. As the coins were new and bright, the natives ashore took a great fancy to them when ‘Jack’ would ring them down in payment for some jimcrack for his ‘Nancy’ at home.

“The chiefs of the tribes, as soon as they heard about these gleaming white dollars, coveted them for ornaments and tokens and took measures to get possession of all they could. It appears from the scarcity of the dollars in this country that they were unusually successful, and must have either robbed or tricked away the pay of about every man in the American fleet.”



A Florida Mystery

Albert Payson Terhune used the 1804 dollar to enliven his mystery novel Black Caesar’s Clan: A Florida Mystery (1922). In the story, the fictional Secret Service agent Gavin Brice says:

“A sailor I used to know who was dead-broke was passing the Gloucester waterfront one day and saw a dockfull of rotting old schooners that were being sold at auction for firewood and for such bits of their metal as weren’t rusted to pieces.

“He read the catalog. Then he telephoned me to wire him a loan of $100. For the catalog gave the date of one schooner’s building as 1804. He knew it used to be a hard-and-fast custom of shipbuilders to put a silver dollar under the mainmast of every vessel they built —a dollar of that particular year.

“He bought the schooner for $70. He spent $10 in hiring men to rip out her mast. Under it was an 1804 dollar. He sold it for $3,600.”

Brice offered an unusual explanation for the 1804 dollar’s rarity:

“The commonly accepted story goes that practically the whole issue of 1804 dollars went toward the payment of the Louisiana Purchase money, when Uncle Sam paid Napoleon Bonaparte’s government a trifle less than $15 million (or less than four cents an acre) for the richest part of the whole United States.

“Payment was made in half a dozen different forms, in settlement of anti-French claims and in installment notes, and so forth. But something between $1 million and $2 million of it is said to have been paid in silver.”



Double or Nothing

In 1909, The Banker’s Magazine reprinted an item from Pearson’s Weekly that seemed to corroborate the schooner legend:

“At Liverpool some years back, a derelict Yankee schooner, bought for a song, yielded an 1804 dollar, the rarest and most eagerly sought-after of all American coins. It sold readily for 1,500 pounds ($6,000), and would be worth today at least double that sum, for it was in perfect preservation.”



Epidemic

Information about 1804 dollars was often unreliable. In 1899, The Numismatist understated the number of 1804 dollars known. Uncorroborated “discoveries” and a profusion of counterfeits added to the confusion:

“So far as the opinion of experts go, there are only three genuine silver dollars coined in 1804 in existence. One of these belongs to the city of Omaha, having been presented by the late Byron Reed, who paid $750 for it at auction.

“The second belongs to J.C. Randall of Philadelphia, who paid $570 for it in 1888.

“Mr. Ellsworth bought his from the Stearns collection, of Salem, Mass., and paid for it $1,025. “There are a number of other coins bearing the date of 1804, but their genuiness is doubted. Only recently a bartender named Billy Seymour, at Chateau, Mont., offered an 1804 dollar for sale for $2,000. He does not know its history, but claims to have taken it in over the bar for drinks.

“Mr. B.H. Collins, who is one of the highest authorities on coins and was connected with the Treasury for many years, tells me that some years ago there was an epidemic of 1804 dollars among bartenders throughout the country.

“It was ascertained that they were very skillfully manufactured by a man named Kennedy, in Lowell, Mass. He sold them through the agency of men looking like tramps, who claimed to have inherited fortunes and wasted them in dissipation, with the exception of one valuable coin, which was worth thousands of dollars. They found saloon-keepers the most credulous customers.

“Mr. Collins does not believe any of the dollars bearing the date 1804 were coined in that year. Mr. Preston, for many years Director of the Mint, who is also an authority on such subjects, believes the records are correct, and that 18,570 were coined, as the books show. His theory is that they all went to Central America and that a few of them drifted back to this country.”



Mysterious and Tantalizing

Coin collectors weren’t the only ones to refute 1804 dollar myths. The following item appeared in The Art Collector in 1891:

“The most mysterious and tantalizing coin known to numismatists is the 1804 dollar. It is continually being ‘discovered’ by lucky collectors, and only lately it came to the front again through the medium of the following paragraph, which has been quoted all over the country:

“‘The missing dollar of 1804 is said to have turned up. In that year, but four silver dollars were coined. The whereabouts of three of these have long been known to coin collectors, but the fourth has been missing.

“‘Dr. Edward Walthier of St. Paul, Minn., is now advertised to have found the long lost piece in the possession of an aged Norwegian living in the southern part of the state, who had kept the piece in the depths of a stocking for many years. The doctor paid $150 for the dollar. It is quoted in the coin catalogues at $300.’

“There is about as much false information published to the world in the above as is possible in so few lines, writes F.G.M. in the Meriden, Conn., Republican. It is time someone who knows should correct these statements and let the public know the facts about the celebrated 1804 dollar.

“It is true there is some difficulty in obtaining the facts, and some obscurity as to the number of these dollars that have been minted.”

The writer noted that no silver dollars were struck in 1804. He mentioned the Stickney 1804 dollar, acquired in a trade with the Mint in the 1840s. He also wrote that many electrotypes and altered-date 1804 dollars existed. The values of genuine 1804 dollars ranged from $400 to $1,200 at that time.



Lost and Found

Disagreement about the number of 1804 dollars in existence enabled writers to play up the “missing” 1804 dollar. The stories had everyone looking for the long-lost coin. They also made reports of 1804 dollar discoveries seem more believable. In 1896 The Reporters’ Nosegay reported: “The generally accepted belief that only seven silver dollars bearing the date of 1804 are in existence has been dispelled, and the eighth coin has turned up in Kensington.

“It is in the possession of Rosenthal Brothers, dealers in old iron, on Berks Street near Second, and the authorities at the Mint to whom it has been submitted pronounce the precious coin genuine without a doubt.

“The Messrs. Rosenthal acquired it in a peculiar way. A Virginia man owed them a bill of $500, which they had been trying to collect quite a while. A short time ago he sent them the 1804 dollar, with the proposition that if it could be sold for the amount of the bill they were welcome to it, with any margin they might gain on the sale.…

“The Rosenthals have been offered $350 for the coin by a local coin dealer, which offer they have wisely refused. Stanley V. Kenkels, the well-known auctioneer, enjoys the distinction of being the only auctioneer who has ever handled an 1804 dollar.”

Actually, many auctioneers had handled 1804 dollars. Newspapers across the country covered the sales, and auction catalogs provided lengthy descriptions.



Wrapped in Silk

H.G. Brown’s 1804 dollar, formerly owned by J.B. Dexter and inscribed with a “D” on the reverse, crossed the auction block in 1904. The Numismatist reported:

“The new owner of the 1804 dollar is W.F. Dunham, a Chicago druggist, who is a numismatist with a large collection of silver and old Greek and Roman coins. Since his father put the coin collecting bee in his bonnet years ago, he has had one ambition—the ambition all coin collectors have—to own the ‘King of Rarities.’

“On Oct. 11, Mr. Dunham bought the dollar in New York at auction. It cost him $1,100, but even at that figure he bought it cheap. He had set a value of $1,650 on it and was prepared to pay that much for the old coin. But the other bidders dropped out when the $1,000 mark was passed, and the coin came to Chicago.

“There is no other dollar just like this one. While there are a dozen so-called 1804 coins of this denomination, they are renegade in a way. Most of them show the telltale marks of a varied career.

“They have at times gone for bread and beer. Some of them have dangled at the end of watch chains or done service as a medium of advertising in display windows. Others have kept company with younger and more worthless coins in the pockets of old coin cranks.

“The ‘King of Rarities’ has not had to keep company with money that is made to spend. For a century it has remained wrapped in silk and tissue paper, waiting all the time, says the present owner, to come into the possession of someone who never would part with it again.

“In a way, the action of the present owner in buying the coin was a patriotic deed. He bought it for the city and says it shall never leave here. When the Field Columbian Museum is housed downtown, he will give his collection to that institution. It will never again be for sale.”

However, Dunham did not donate his 1804 dollar to the Field Museum. B. Max Mehl auctioned it in 1941 after Dunham’s death. In 2000, the Dexter-Dunham 1804 dollar brought $1.8 million.



Modern Frauds

Some collectors found it difficult to accept the 1804 dollar’s popularity. After all, the coins were not struck in 1804. They weren’t intended for circulation, and the so-called restrikes appeared to have been struck clandestinely. The Historical Collections of the Topsfield (Mass.) Historical Society (1920) said:

“The so-called ‘King of United States Coins’ has caused more discussion and been the subject of more popular interest than any coin in America. It has been the object of much newspaper comment and innumerable absurd stories.

“These coins have been found, according to distant newspapers, in stockings of old-time hoarders, dug up in the most improbable places and in the possession of persons as family heirlooms and not to be parted with at any price.

“The facts in the case are that although the Mint records give 19,570 silver dollars coined in 1804, the records are made up in such a way that the actual issues bearing different dates do not always correspond with the annual reports.

“Old dies were often used until worn out and past the date they bore. Therefore it is not always possible to be sure of the actual coinage of a certain date by depending on the Mint records. “Numismatists differ regarding the 1804 dollar, and some assert the entire lot now in collectors’ cabinets ‘are modern frauds, charitably called restrikes.’

“Thirteen coins of that date are known in collections, of which six are considered as genuine so far as there is genuineness to any.”



Home in Kansas

Like a celebrity in the society page, the 1804 dollar’s comings and goings made the news. In 1904, James Hoyt’s Seen and Heard by Megargee said:

“Last week one of the rarest cons in the United States was produced in evidence in Kansas City. It was a silver dollar bearing the date of the year 1804. It was sold to George H. Wilkes of Clyde, Kansas, who, after satisfying himself of its genuineness, paid $250 for it.

“In securing an 1804 dollar for this sum, Mr. Wilkes got a veritable bargain. The last recorded sale of one of these pieces was made in November last by R.G. Marvin, of Denver, Colorado, and the price paid was $2,000. The same dollar was previously sold for $1,200.

“The coin which Mr. Wilkes obtained had been in the possession of the man from whom he purchased it for 35 years.

“According to authorities on rare coins, there are only seven 1804 dollars in existence. Two of these are in the Mint in this city, and the others are in private collections, from which they do not depart without the knowledge of all the numismatists in the country.”



Alert

It wasn’t a typical Sunday school topic, but the 1804 dollar made it into Every other Sunday in 1903. “Coin collectors are always on the alert for a United States silver dollar of the date 1804,” it said, “for it is today a very valuable piece of money, and it would only take a few to make a man rich. A numismatic manual quotes the price at from $1,200 to $1,500, according to the condition of the coin.”



King of American Coins

By the 1880s, the 1804 dollar was known as the “King of American Coins.” People around the world marveled at the incredible prices paid for 1804 dollars. They searched their old coins trying to find one, and absorbed the stories that were concocted to explain the “mystery” of the 1804 dollar.

Time has disproved most of the tales. But they are still interesting to revisit and possibly no more of a fabrication than the 1804 dollar “restrikes” themselves. Long live the “king.”



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Comments
On January 13, 2012 kekhrie said
hey i have seen this coin recntly wit one of my uncle.
On September 10, 2012 george salazar said
my name i george and i have stumbleupon a 1804 silver dollar the only thing is that i cant tell if its real or not. ive been reading ur article and i believe the coin i hold is a 1795 flow hair coin

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