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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Incredible 1794 Silver Dollar to be Auctioned

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #149 ……
On Thursday, January 24, at a hotel in Manhattan, Stack’s Bowers will offer, at public auction, the amazing Amon Carter 1794 silver dollar, the best of fewer than 150 survivors of the nation’s first issue of silver dollars.

It is not an ordinary coin. This silver dollar has been certified as Specimen-66 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and is widely thought of as being among the most desirable of all U.S. coins. It is now part of an auction consignment by the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation, which includes the 1793 Chain Cent that I discussed on Monday.

In my view, this 1794 silver dollar is clearly one of the most important of all U.S. coins. I have been thrilled by it since I first held it in 2003.

It is often called the Carter 1794 dollar, as it was owned by Amon Carter Sr. and, later, by Amon Carter, Jr., for decades. The son was a particularly famous collector and the father was a very famous businessman in Texas. In general, the Carters are best remembered for their involvement in the newspaper publishing and airlines industries.

The pedigree listing in the auction catalogue does not mention that Andy Lustig bought this coin from Ed Milas and two associates in 1988. Andy consigned it to the (Goldbergs) Superior Galleries auction of May 1991. Jay Parrino was the successful bidder and he then placed it in the “Knoxville Collection.”

Now, in 2013, this same auction consignment features the Cardinal set of large cents and an NGC graded “MS-68” 1792 half disme, which was also formerly in the Knoxville Collection. (Clickable links are in blue.)

The purpose here is to dicuss the nature, quality and special characteristics of the greatest of 1794 silver dollars. I provide a detailed explanation as to why the Carter 1794 dollar is truly a Specimen, a special striking, rather than a business strike produced by ordinary means.

Background and Condition Rankings

U.S. copper coins were first minted in 1793; US. silver coin coins were first minted in 1794 and U.S. gold coins were not produced until 1795. In 1794, silver dollars, half dollars and half dimes were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, which was the only official U.S. Mint until 1836.

Flowing Hair Silver Dollars were produced for only two years, 1794 and 1795. At some point in 1795, Draped Bust Silver Dollars replaced those of the Flowing Hair design type. Although there are thousands of 1795 Flowing Hair Dollars in existence, 1794 dollars are very rare.

In 2004, in Martin Logies’ book on 1794 dollars, there was an estimate that around 140 survive. Other researchers have put forth estimates, ranging from 110 to 200. I doubt that there exist more than 155.

I have held seven of the nine 1794 dollars that grade AU-58 or higher. I have never seen the one that was formerly in the Jimmy Hayes Collection, which has been graded MS-66 by both the NGC and the PCGS. Experts who have seen the Hayes piece have described it to me and I have seen a few pictures of it. I am convinced that this Carter-Cardinal 1794 dollar is superior to the Hayes 1794 dollar.

The Lelan Rogers 1794 dollar has also been graded MS-66 by both the PCGS and the NGC. Stack’s (New York) auctioned it in late Nov. 1995, at which time it was not certified. Jay Parrino was the buyer and he later sold it to Chris Napolitano, who is currently president of Stack’s-Bowers Galleries. In 1996, Napolitano was an independent dealer in the Midwest and he then sold the Rogers 1794 dollar to a collector, who, I believe, still has it.

I have a clear recollection of the Rogers piece, which is wonderful. The Rogers 1794 dollar is, though, a business strike. I refer to the Carter 1794 as the finest known because it truly merits its Specimen-66 certification and it has incredible characteristics. The Rogers piece is probably of higher quality, strictly in terms of numerical grade, by a fraction of a grade increment. In terms of method of manufacture, production quality and overall visual impact, the Carter 1794 is vastly superior to the Rogers 1794 dollar. The Carter 1794 dollar is awe-striking.

In my view, the ranking of the seven finest 1794 dollars are, as follows: Carter, Rogers, Hayes, Norweb, Boyd, and then the French Family and Harry Bass pieces. I have never seen the Willig piece and thus cannot comment as to whether it is superior to the French piece, which Stack’s auctioned in Jan. 1989. The Willig 1794 is certainly not superior to the Boyd 1794, which Spectrum-B&M auctioned in Aug. 2010. The Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation sold the Boyd piece after acquiring the Carter piece.

The Quality of this 1794 Dollar

Almost every expert in classic U.S. coins agrees that the Carter 1794 dollar is stunning. The reverse (back of the coin) is very attractive, and the obverse (front) of the coin is more than very attractive. Moreover, when tilted under a lamp, this coin really becomes alive. It has a great deal of personality and captivates the viewer much more so than any other 1794 dated coin, of any denomination, which I have ever seen. The fields are so smooth, super-reflective and dynamic that they are mesmerizing.

Yes, this coin has many adjustment marks. I have seen dozens of 1794 silver dollars and every single one of them has adjustment marks. Evidently, all of the blanks made were overweight; these contained too much silver, notably exceeding the legal weight of a silver dollar. So, all (or most all) were adjusted, scraped with sharp tools to remove excess silver.

Quite a few 1795 half dollars and 1795 silver dollars contain silver plugs. Indeed, editors of the PCGS CoinFacts site put forth an estimate that 250 silver-plugged 1795 Flowing Hair Dollars survive.

A plug is added when a coin is underweight. A coin can become underweight when it is mistakenly over-adjusted, meaning too much silver from an overweight blank is removed. It is generally believed that the blank that was used to mint this 1794 dollar was over-adjusted and then plugged.

When this coin is viewed in actuality, the adjustment marks are not bothersome. Most of them are about the outer fields, outer devices and periphery, rather than towards the center of the coin. The reflective fields and pleasant toning really grabbed my attention. I had to consciously think about locating adjustment marks in order to really gauge their magnitude. The adjustment marks are much more noticeable in pictures of this coin than on the coin in reality. The colorful toning is much more noteworthy.

The toning is definitely natural. No colors have been deliberately added, and this coin has been stored properly during its life of more than two centuries.

The obverse (front) is mostly a mellow brown-russet color, somewhat creamy in texture. Furthermore, there is much blue, especially in the inner fields and on the head of Miss Liberty. In addition, there is a layer of brown-tan toning covering much of the inner fields. Plus, there are appealing green tints at various parts of the obverse and an orange russet color is present. When the coin is tilted under a light, more blue hues become apparent, and an orange-apricot shade covering much of Miss Liberty’s face and upper hair sort of glows.

The toning on the reverse is mostly a creamy gray-brown-russet blend. When the reverse is tilted under a lamp, the toning becomes secondary to the powerfully reflective fields, which really glisten.

Despite its attractiveness, this coin does have some noticeable imperfections. It is far from flawless. In addition to the indentations caused by the adjustment process, there are some real scratches here and there, though these are small. The contact marks below the neck and above the numerals of the date (1794) are the most noticeable of the technical imperfections.

The obverse has the eye appeal of a 67 grade coin and the technical characteristics of a 65 grade coin. The overall grade of the obverse, with excellent central detail being a consideration as well, balances out in the middle of the 66 range.

While the reverse is not quite as attractive as the obverse, it has fewer technical imperfections. There are hardly any contact marks on the reverse. The reverse, if it could be graded independently of the obverse, would grade in the middle of the 66 range in both the technical and eye appeal categories.

The Specimen designation is a different matter and a more important one.

Before discussing the reasons as to why a Specimen designation is merited, it is important to state that this 1794 dollar is definitely not a Proof. While it is true that the PCGS will not certify pre-1817 U.S. coins as Proofs, this PCGS policy is beside my point here. This coin does not meet minimum criteria to be a Proof.

Specimen Designation

A coin that is specially made, in a manner that is markedly different from the methods employed to produce relevant business strikes, and does not fulfill minimum criteria to be a Proof (regardless of whether it was ever intended to fulfill such criteria) is a Specimen Striking, provided that it exhibits truly special characteristics relating to aesthetics and the method of manufacture.

Of course, other experts have voiced or written reasons as to why this coin is a Specimen, rather than a business strike. While I agree that it is a Specimen, some of the reasons put forth by others as evidence are wrong. The fact that it has a silver plug is not evidence that it is a Specimen.

The fact that it is the only known 1794 dollar with very reflective surfaces is not a reason to believe that it is a Specimen. There could have been others that did not survive. Moreover, in general, only a small percentage of prooflike coins are Specimens. An explanation is required. Unlike the presence of a silver plug, however, very reflective (prooflike) surfaces constitute evidence, if accompanied by significant other evidence, of a Special Striking, Specimen status.

The fact that it is of a very early die state and thus among the first 1794 dollars struck, if not the first, is not itself a reason to believe that it is a Specimen or other Special Striking. After all, there is not a reason to conclude that the first 1793 half cent, the first 1794 half dollar, and the first 1796 dime are all Specimen Strikings.

A Specimen can be made at any time during the life of a pair of dies and, for most coin issues, there never were any Specimens or other Special Strikings. Indeed, an early strike from heavily polished dies may be well detailed and prooflike as part of ordinary procedures. (Please see my past analyses of the Proof 1876-CC dime and the Specimen 1853-O Eagle.)

The reasons why I maintain that this coin is a Specimen, a Special Striking, are inter-related and there is no one factor that conclusively demonstrates that it is a Specimen. A combination of factors prove that it is a Specimen.

A) Design Detail: The detail of the portrait of Miss Liberty on this coin is vastly superior to such detail on any known 1794 dollar. In regard to detail, the only comparable piece is the copper die trial of a 1794 dollar in the Smithsonian.

B) Traces of Semi-Cameo Contrast: A contrast between frosted-white (or frosted beige) design elements and reflective fields is a characteristic of many (though not nearly all) Proofs, some prooflike coins and a few Specimen Strikings. On this coin, there are noticeable traces of such frost on Miss Liberty’s hair and on the wings of the eagle. Clearly, the recesses of the dies, corresponding to Miss Liberty’s hair and the wings of the eagle, were treated with an acidic solution to bring about some such special frost (coating). There is an excellent chance that at least one employee of the U.S. Mint in 1794 had seen English or Dutch Proof coins with cameo contrasts. In 1794, U.S. Mint personnel probably did not know how to effect such a contrast on a silver coin. The fact, however, that this 1794 dollar has even a little bit of a cameo feature is further evidence that it is a Specimen.

C) Special Planchet: In a letter to Andy Lustig in 1989, and later on the PCGS site, David Hall states that the planchet (prepared blank) received special treatment that was not generally given to planchets for 1794 dollars. I agree. The planchet (prepared blank) was smoothed, to a substantial extent, prior to striking, mostly by hand polishing with primitive tools, perhaps with a brief application of a buffing wheel or an equivalent device.

The Philadelphia Mint personnel who operated the coining press were not the same as the people who adjusted the planchets, all (or almost all) of which were probably adjusted prior to the striking of the silver dollars of 1794. Indeed, it would be logical to theorize that every single such planchet had a substantial number of adjustment marks. There were thus no exemplary planchets to select.

Evidently, the batch of planchets for 1794 silver dollars was faulty. Mistakes in the planchet manufacturing process should not be surprising. This was the second year of operation for the U.S. Mint and the first year that silver coins were produced.

There are sensible reasons as to why a planchet with a silver plug, or one that would eventually be in need of a silver plug, would have been chosen for a Specimen Striking. Here, I put forth one explanation that I regard as likely. Even if this explanation is wrong, there are other, plausible explanations.

It is imperative to assume that the U.S. Mint personnel were learning ‘on the job’ and they really did not know how to make a Specimen or a Proof. It is likely that they had seen, read about, or heard about pre-1794 English or Dutch coins that are Proofs or Special Strikings. In all likelihood, though, they were not sure as to how to make one, and did not have the option of practicing first.

It is obvious that work done on the planchet, with the intention of making a superior coin, would reduce the weight of the planchet. The U.S. Mint personnel who worked on the planchet may not have thought about the weight loss before they began and/or their work resulted in an unexpectedly significant loss in weight because of their inexperience in making Specimens, Special Strikings. A few mistakes made with tools on the planchet probably had to be corrected. After all, grinding, lapping, buffing, sanding, filing and shaving all remove small amounts of metal. Therefore, too much silver was removed during the process of preparing the planchet for a Specimen Striking, and the process thus had to be interrupted so that a silver plug was added for the resulting coin to be of ‘legal’ weight.

So, after a silver plug was added, they continued to smooth the planchet, though reduced their efforts and became less ambitious in order to avoid much further weight loss or other mistakes. In theory, the planchet could have been smoothed to a much greater extent, though the U.S. Mint personnel working on the planchet did their best, given the limitations of their respective knowledge and of time available. There was much work to be done at the young, barely staffed U.S. Mint. Employees tended to be there ten hours a day.

It is also plausible that they knew that, because of the insufficient power of the available screw press, the outer design elements were not going to be well struck anyway and thus smoothing the outer areas of the planchet would not be a priority. In an era before electric tools were invented, their activities were probably far more time consuming than most collectors in 2013 would imagine planchet enhancement activities to be, especially since the U.S. Mint personnel then involved had little experience in producing coins.

D) Super-Reflective Fields: The U.S. Mint personnel who polished the dies and smoothed the planchet succeeded in bringing about smooth super-reflective fields on this coin. Though my point in regard to the texture of the reflective surfaces can never be fully explained, I emphasize that the respective reflective fields found on Proofs, prooflike coins and Specimens are often different.

Prooflike coins are usually accidental byproducts. These are typically business strikes that were struck shortly after dies were polished, as part of routine procedures.

The fields of deep-mirrored Proofs constitute a separate topic and such fields are not found on U.S. coins of 1794. In my view, the super-reflective fields of the Carter-Cardinal 1794 dollar are not those of a Proof and not those of a prooflike coin either. These super-reflective fields fall into a third category.

When this coin is tilted at particular angles under a lamp, there are aspects of the texture, consistency and vibrancy of the fields that are extremely special, yet different from the fields of prooflike coins. Some quarters of 1796 are prooflike and have thick mirrors. The fields on this 1794 dollar are super-reflective without being very mirrorlike. They exhibit a different kind of reflectivity. These fields are, though, complete and very dynamic. This coin has a hidden personality that really jumps out when light shines on it at specific angles.

Perhaps another way of communicating my point is emphasize that this coin has raised die lines, scratches, contact marks and some naturally rough areas, yet all these surface features are forgotten when the super-reflective fields come alive. When light is reflected at particular angles, the optical illusion of incredibly smooth fields is projected and stuns the viewer. The method by which the dies and the planchet were polished is different from methods of polishing for the production of business strikes.

E) Die Finishing Lines: I am surprised that other researchers, including those cited in Logies’ book, do not emphasize the presence of many die finishing lines on this coin. Amidst adjustment marks (really indented lines), a few hairline scratches, and toning streaks, there are die finishing lines of various lengths and reliefs. Indentations on the dies came about from the use of wire brushes or other tools used to enhance or otherwise ‘change’ the dies.

By the standards relating to die finishing techniques at the Philadelphia Mint in later eras, the die finishing lines on this coin seem sort of primitive. Their presence, however, suggests that additional, special work was done to the obverse die, work that is clearly unusual. Of course, the presence of die finishing lines on a coin does not demonstrate that it is a Specimen or other Special Striking. Taken into consideration with the super-reflective, extremely dynamic fields, the amazing sharpness of Miss Liberty’s hair, traces of cameo effects, and the prior smoothing of the planchet, the presence of a myriad of die finishing lines is strong additional evidence that this coin is a Specimen, not a business strike. I have never seen another coin from the year 1794, of any denomination, that I regard as a Specimen Striking.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

Note: This is the coin that sold for $10,016,875, a world record price for a single coin. The analysis above was written prior to the auction. Please click to read the first part of a review of the auction, on Jan. 24, 2013, of items consigned by the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation.

Early US Silver Dollars Currently Available on eBay


Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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