By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
In May 2000, Frank Wallis of Mountain View, Arkansas, found what has been called the “Holy Grail of U.S. Mint errors” and “the find of the millennium” in a 25-coin roll of uncirculated business strike Sacagawea dollars withdrawn from the local First National Bank & Trust. This was the first official mule error known to have been found on a U.S. coin and was what Dave Camire of NGC described as “a historic ‘first’ for the coin hobby”. This mule, with the 50 States Quarter dollar obverse and the same year Sacagawea dollar reverse, was struck on the Sacagawea dollar planchet. While this error does not actually include a date on either face, since they were first discovered in 2000, which was also the first production year for the Sacagawea dollar, it was only possible for them to have all been struck in 2000.
After significant public attention, which included stories being published in mass media sources like Good Morning America and CNN Headline News, the error was selected to be the cover coin for the first edition of 100 Greatest Error Coins (2010) by Nicholas Brown, David Camire, and Fred Weinberg.
The story as to how this fascinating error came to be is nearly as interesting as the error itself.
Basically, in 2000, all new dies in the Philadelphia Mint facility were stored with a protective plastic cover placed over the face – which obscures the design unless removed. Apparently it was not in this case, and when a coin press operator requested a new Sacagawea dollar obverse die, they were instead given a Washington quarter obverse die. Consequently, when installed in the press, the machine began striking this mule error.
There are two plausible reasons for this happening. The first, and most well-known is that the two denominations are extremely similar in diameter (the Sacagawea dollar at 26.5 mm vs the Washington quarter at 24.3 mm). This means that if the die cover were not removed, then both would look very similar if not indistinguishable.
The second explanation was brought to light by leading error coin expert Fred Weinberg. Between 1998 and 1999, the United States Mint created an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule, which forced certain employees to rotate periodically between roles. Apparently one of these rotations occurred in the Die Room sometime between April and May 2000, and the new mint workers may not have been as familiar with the equipment and not been as careful checking the product before releasing them to the coin presses.
On August 4, 2000, shortly after the initial discovery of this error, the Mint issued a statement acknowledging the error as real. The statement reads:
“The U.S. Mint goes to great lengths to avoid making mistakes when it manufactures coins. In fact, in its 208-year history, coin errors are a rare occurrence, but occasionally, misstrikes [sic] happen. … Of the 29 billion coins we’re producing this year, at least one billion Golden Dollars will be struck. As of today, there have been four confirmed error Golden Dollar coins found. Recently, there were unconfirmed reports that another 15 were discovered. To put this in perspective, if 19 error coins have been found, based on production figures, that means there is a 0.0000019 percent chance that an error Golden Dollar has been produced this year.”
Once the Mint realized what had happened, they undertook an extensive effort to find and destroy all error strikes. As part of this, they destroyed three entire bins of Sacagawea dollars, equivalent to thousands of dollars, yet obviously were not entirely successful. Since most known examples were found in new bank roles and general change, it can be assumed that most of the mules were released accidentally through the normal distribution channels. However, a number of pieces made their way out of the Mint under more illicit means. The two guilty workers, James Watkins and Raymond James, took a total of five coins. Watkins took four and sold them for $9,200, while James took one, which he sold for $5,000. Placed under investigation, charged, and found guilty, Watkins and James were both sentenced to probation, house arrest, and subject to a number of fines.
Anita Eve, Assistant U.S. Attorney, stated after the sentencing on March 10, 2005, that while the Mint wanted to both “punish the defendant[s] and to deter theft by current and future Mint employees and other government employees”, they had no intention to reclaim the errors as government property (Gilkes, 2017).
Currently there are 19 known examples, of which only between five and 10 have been found since 2010. Interestingly for such a unique error, Camire discovered that there are three distinct die pairings:
- Die Pair 1: The obverse of this pairing exhibits a sunburst pattern of radial lines caused by the striking of two slightly different sized dies. Additionally, there is a small die crack extending from the in the F in OF in UNITED STATES OF AMERICA to the Eagles wing tip. As of today, most known examples belong to this Die Pairing, with at least 13 known examples.
- Die Pair 2: Unlike the other two pairings, the obverse of Die Pair 2 shows no distinguishing marks. However, there are three reverse die cracks: one located on the the star above the E of ONE, the second next to the star above the D in Dollar, and the last crack running over the eagle’s wing above the same letters. Of the 19 known examples, here are only three coins known from this die pairing.
- Die Pair 3: The last pairing, the obverse only shows slight radial lines, and a small die gauge or flaw on Washington’s lips. The reverse has no die cracks. The rarest die pairing, there are only two known examples.
Anyone looking to acquire an example will have to contend with a man named Tommy Bolack. This New Mexican collector owns at least 16 of the 19 known examples, and, in his own words, has “got the market cornered” and “could name my price” for any of his pieces (Gilkes, 2014). Despite having lost a few at auction, mainly due to missing the sales, Bolack has spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars putting together his collection.
As such, in addition to the several pieces that have sold privately, there are only a handful of public auction records for these errors:
- MS66 PCGS. Die Pair #1. Philadelphia ANA (Bowers and Merena, 8/2000), lot 148, realized $29,900. The “Discovery” coin.
- MS67 NGC. Die Pair #2. Sold on eBay by Delaware Valley Rare Coin Co., Bromall Pennsylvania, for $41,395; Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 6/2001), lot 6737, realized $56,350.
- MS66 NGC. Die Pair #2. Philadelphia Signature (Heritage, 8/2000), lot 6452, realized $31,050.
- MS67 NGC. Die Pair #1. Philadelphia ANA (Stack’s Bowers, 8/2012), lot 11642, realized $158,625.
- MS66 PCGS. Die Pair #1. FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2013), lot 5756, realized $88,125.
- MS67 NGC. Die Pair #1. Baltimore Auction (Stack’s Bowers, 3/2018), lot 2382, realized $192,000.
- MS67 NGC Die Pair #1. FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2019), lot 4605, realized $102,000.
- MS65+ PCGS Central States U.S. Coins Signature #1344 (Heritage, 5/2022), lot 3832, realized $144,000.
Looking at these records, where recent sales average between $100,000 and $200,000, it can be estimated that if an example were to come to market today, it would probably sell for roughly $150,000.
Intriguingly, this is now not the only mule error to include the Sacagawea dollar coin. Sometime in 2014, the Denver Mint struck a cross type mule with the Sacagawea obverse and the Presidential dollar reverse. This unique type sold for $70,000 (plus buyer’s fee) in Heritage Auction’s Platinum Night auction on April 24, 2021, in Dallas.
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Gilkes, 2014 – https://www.coinworld.com/news/us-coins/tommy-bolack-ana-worlds-fair-of-money-mule-error-coins-coin-world-stacks-bowers-auctions-numismatics-coin-collecting-hobby.html
Gilkes, 2017 – https://www.coinworld.com/news/us-coins/collection-of-double-denomination-mule-errors-expands.html
NGC, 2000 – https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/2661/
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).