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The Most Valuable Three-Cent Silver Coin

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #138 …..

U.S. Three Cent Silver coins date from 1851 to 1873. These are smaller than dimes and are often called trimes. The auction record for any Three Cent Silver was set in 1996. The “Proof” 1851 Three Cent Silver in the collection of Louis Eliasberg then sold for $61,600. On Thursday, Nov. 15, this same Eliasberg 1851 trime will be offered during a Stack’s-Bowers Rarities Night event at the Baltimore Convention Center.

I spent more than ten minutes viewing this coin on Friday, Nov. 9. As a matter of policy, Stack’s-Bowers shows lots in New York before the coins to be auctioned travel to Baltimore.

The purpose here is to discuss the rarity, physical characteristics and overall importance of this coin, which is PCGS certified “Proof-66.” Although its Proof status is debatable, as I explain, this is one of the most interesting U.S. coins ever struck. Moreover, it is the only Three Cent Silver that is worth a six figure price in the present. Importantly, I hope that an analysis of this coin will contribute to a greater understanding of Proofs, Specimen (Special) Strikings and business strikes of the 19th century.

Those who have never heard of Three Cent Silvers may wish to read the piece that I wrote one year ago on Assembling Sets of Three Cent Silvers. (As usual, clickable links are in blue.) Also, Three Cent Silver coins are much different from Three Cent Nickels.

I. Types of Three Cent Silvers

Three Cent Silvers are smaller than Three Cent Nickels, which do not contain any silver. Three Cent Nickels were minted from 1865 to 1889. There were Three Cent Nickels before there were five cent nickels, which did not enter commerce until 1866.

Except for the 1851-O issue, all Three Cent Silvers were minted in Philadelphia. The 1851-O issue was struck in New Orleans.

There are three different design types of Three Cent Silvers. Those of the first type date from 1851 to 1853 and are very clearly of a design type that is different from those minted in 1854 and later. A third type or subtype dates from 1859 to 1873.

The design differences between Type 1 Three Cent Silvers and Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are greater than the differences between the second and third types of Three Cent Silvers. These differences are apparent in pictures.

Regardless of the precise differences among types, collectors assembling type sets of Three Cent Silvers, of 19th century coins, or of silver U.S. coins in general, typically acquire a Three Cent Silver of each design type, three in total. Furthermore, collectors of Proof or Specimen Strikings from the 19th century would certainly be curious about this coin. From the perspective of many collectors, the Eliasberg 1851 Three Cent Silver coin is especially noteworthy.

Even people who cannot afford to collect specially struck, 19th century coins may enjoy viewing them or reading about them. Besides, studying Proofs and Specimen Strikings contributes to an understanding of minting techniques in the 19th century.

Also, Type 1 Three Cent Silver coins are 75% silver and 25% copper, while Type 2 Three Cent Silvers are 90% silver and 10% copper, as are almost all U.S. silver coins minted from 1837 to 1964. This difference in alloy reinforces the notion that Type 1 Three Cent Silvers are an important type, which are much different from Type 2 Three Cent Silvers.

II. 1851 Three Cent Silvers

Business strike 1851 Three Cent Silvers are not rare. It is the special nature of the Eliasberg piece that causes it to be particularly important. It is different from business strikes of 1851.

An 1851 in Good-04 grade could easily be found for less than $35. Maybe an Extremely Fine-40 grade coin would retail for around $70, perhaps just $60. In Aug. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded MS-64 1851 for $334, and another in Sept. 2011 for $420.

Less than a month ago, on Oct. 20th, Heritage auctioned five 1851 Three Cent Silvers that are certified as grading MS-62 or higher: a PCGS graded MS-62 coin realized $176.26; a PCGS graded MS-63 1851, with CAC approval, sold for $282; a PCGS graded MS-64 piece brought $367.78; an NGC graded MS-64 coin realized $381.88; and a PCGS graded MS-65 1851, with CAC approval, went for $2115.

So far in 2012, Heritage has auctioned three PCGS graded MS-66 1851 Three Cent Silvers, for $1668, $1725 and $1763, respectively. In Aug. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers sold Richard Jewell’s, PCGS graded MS-67, 1851 Three Cent Silver for $5175. There are more than ten, different 1851 Three Cent Silvers that most relevant experts would now grade as MS-67. The 1851 Three Cent Silver in the “High Desert Collection” type set is PCGS graded “MS-67+,” and is the highest certified.

Someone behind the PCGS CoinFacts site estimated that “25,000” 1851 Three Cent Silvers exist, in all grades. I suggest that this number is an over-estimate. It is fair to conclude, though, that there are more than 12,000 around, most of which grade less than Extremely Fine-40. More than five hundred different 1851 Three Cent Silvers grade in the MS-63 to MS-64 range and finding one of these is not difficult.

III. Business Strikes and Proofs

Business strikes are coins made by ordinary or routine means. Mints are essentially factories that make coins and it is typical for a large number of coins to be struck every hour. When Mint personnel devote a considerable amount of time and effort to a particular coin, it is usually being specially made and intended to be different from business strikes.

Not all special strikes are Proofs. A set of criteria must be fulfilled for a coin to be a Proof. Generally, 19th century Proof coins are struck at least twice from heavily polished dies on specially prepared blanks (planchets). According to R. W. Julian, “all Proofs prior to 1894 were struck on a screw press.”

There is a revisionist theorythat asserts 19th century Proofs were typically made with one-slow forceful strike, rather than struck at least twice as most other researchers concluded. So far, I am adhering to the traditional multiple-strike theory, though I have an open mind on this matter. Either way, at least some design elements and other devices have a relationship with respective nearby fields (relatively flat areas) on each Proof that differs from corresponding relationships on business strikes.

Indeed, for a coin to be a Proof, there must be a special relationship between some design elements and nearby fields. In particular, the formation of junctions between design elements and adjacent fields is more formally structured on Proofs, and some (or all) devices (raised elements) meet the fields at angles that are much closer to 90 degrees (“right angles”) than such angles are on business strikes.

On Proofs, at least some such junctions are relatively squared, while, on business strikes, devices tend to ‘look like’ they are flowing into the fields or were sprang from them. Such features are sometimes subtle, depending upon the characteristics of individual dies and the technical issues relating to the setup of coining presses.

The edges, rims and border elements are often different on Proofs as well. For a coin to be a Proof, however, not all Proof criteria must be fulfilled. Some strong Proof characteristics may offset the absence of others. Besides, there are borderline cases as to Proof status of specific coins, some of which will be forever controversial.

Researcher Breen maintained, in his classic book on Proofs, that nickel coins are often exceptions to general rules regarding Proofs. In my view, Proof nickels are a distinct topic, which requires separate treatment.

A common mis-understanding about Proofs, of all metals, stems from the oft-held belief that coins with fully mirrored fields are necessarily Proofs. A coin may have mirror fields and not be a Proof, and not all 19th century Proofs have deep mirror fields.

When dies are very much polished and then used to mint business strikes, the first few business strikes made may have strongly reflective surfaces. Usually, however, these reflective surfaces, no matter how intense, are different from the reflective surfaces of true Proofs. Usually, dies used to make Proofs are polished in a manner that is different from the polishing of dies used to make business strikes. There may never be a way, however, to explain such differences. Coin enthusiasts who carefully examine the surfaces of many Proofs and of prooflike business strikes tend to learn to identify such differences.

Additionally, the textures of the fields are different on Proofs. Business strikes typically have mint luster, which stems from the flow of metal as the coin was being struck. Business strikes also often have a graininess in the fields that is generally not present on Proofs, partly because planchets (upset blanks) are specially prepared. In contrast, design elements and sometimes open fields on Proofs may have a pebbly texture, from special treatment of devices on dies, which non-experts may confuse with the graininess of business strikes.

The main reason that the fields of each Proof are typically very smooth is that multiple strikes (or perhaps in theory movements of one slow-strike) powerfully impress the polished fields on Proof dies on the planchet in such a way that graininess and/or metal flow is obliterated or prevented from coming about. Consequently, the surfaces of a Proof reflect light in a manner that is different from how the surfaces of relevant business strikes reflect light.

Unfortunately, there is no simple definition of a Proof. Please refer to some of my previous articles, especially including the third part of my recent three part series on 1841 Quarter Eagles. To some extent, I define the meaning of a Proof in my analysis of the Farouk 1907-D Double Eagle. I put forth directly relevant points in my article on the Turtle Rock Collection of Proof Capped Bust Dimes.

When reflecting upon the meaning of a Proof, it is important to remember that there are coins that are neither Proofs nor business strikes. By the way, it is wrong to refer to business strikes as circulation strikes, as is often done in some widely distributed books.

The concept of a business strike relates primarily to methods of manufacture, not to the reason why a coin was manufactured. There are large numbers of business strikes that were primarily made for reasons other than for circulation. Put differently, many business strikes were never intended for circulation or were made with the idea that circulation was a secondary objective. (Please see my article on Carson City Mint Morgans for some discussion of this point.)

Conversely, many Proof coins have circulated. It was and still is legal to spend them.

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.

On the PCGS CoinFacts site, Specimen Strikings are now termed “Special Strikings,” which is really a difference in semantics, a play on words. The term ‘Specimen’ is superior, in my view, as, logically, Proofs are ‘Special Strikings,’ too.

For Specimens or non-Proof ‘Special Strikings,’ the ‘SP’ designation is used by the PCGS and the NGC. (I am not implying that I agree with all such ‘SP’ designations, and experts at the PCGS and the NGC often disagree with each other regarding ‘SP’ designations.) The same coin may receive an ‘SP’ designation from the NGC, though not from the PCGS, or vice versa. Furthermore, a coin that is denied an ‘SP’ designation at one time may receive such a designation at a later time. There are more than a few cases of coins being designated ‘MS’ in the past and ‘SP’ later. Also, there are coins that the PCGS formerly designated as Proofs that are now PCGS designated as ‘SP,’ such as 1894-S dimes.

In regards to Specimen Strikings, I devote a whole article to the recently auctioned Special 1839-O Liberty Seated Dime. Earlier, I wrote about the NGC certified SP-61 1853-O Eagle. (Reminder, clickable links are in blue.)

IV. The Eliasberg 1851 Trime

The Eliasberg 1851 Three Cent Silver is the only Type 1 Three Cent Silver, of any date, that is PCGS certified as a Proof. The NGC has not certified any. Moreover, as far as I know, neither the PCGS nor the NGC have awarded a Specimen (SP) designation to a Type 1 Three Cent Silver. The Eliasberg 1851 could thus be the only ‘Special Striking’ of an entire design type, or, perhaps, the only one that has survived.

The Garrett 1851 Three Cent Silver was catalogued as being a Proof when it was auctioned by Bowers & Ruddy in Oct. 1980. Richard Burdick attended this sale and he emphatically maintains that the Garrett 1851 “is not a Proof.” I have never seen it.

A grading service other than the PCGS and the NGC has certified an 1851 as “Proof-63.” My impression, which is unsubstantiated, is that experts at the PCGS and at the NGC do not regard this coin as a Proof. In any event, I have seen this SEGS certified “Proof-63” 1851 and I maintain that it is definitely NOT a Proof.

There is a need to emphasize that there are many coins that have reflective surfaces, even deeply mirrored fields, and are not Proofs. This is one reason why I include here a discussion of the concept of a Proof.

V. Is it a Proof?

In my view, the Eliasberg 1851 is a Specimen (or ‘Special Striking’) and not a Proof. It is the only Type 1 Three Cent Silver that I regard as a Specimen. I doubt that a Proof Type 1 Three Cent Silver ever existed.

“Except restrike silver dollars,” Richard Burdick has “never seen a true Proof dated 1851!” Burdick has been carefully studying 19th century Proof coins for around four decades and has owned Branch Mint coins that are now PCGS or NGC certified as Proofs.

Andy Lustig agrees with my assertion that the Eliasberg 1851 should be certified as a ‘Specimen.’ Lustig’s reasons, though, are not the same as mine. Andy says, “1851 trimes do not come prooflike or semi-prooflike, so it’s very likely that this piece was specially made. I call it ‘Specimen,’ but that’s an academic call. Practically, the coin is a one-of-a-kind and deserves a ‘Specimen’ designation,” asserts Lustig.

Is Andy implying that, if a group of six prooflike 1851 Three Cent Silvers surfaced, then he would withdraw his opinion that this coin “deserves a ‘Specimen’ designation”? If so, I disagree with his premise.

In my view, even if one hundred prooflike 1851 Three Cent Silvers surfaced, then I would still regard the Eliasberg 1851 as a ‘Specimen Striking.’ The Eliasberg 1851 is not all that prooflike and it has features that are not usually possessed by prooflike business strikes (or by other non-Proof prooflike coins).

Before explaining why I contend that it is a Specimen, I list some reasons as to why it is not a Proof.

  • 1) It was struck just once. While there are some devices that have characteristics that could be represented as indicating a second strike, the low relief and fuzziness of many design elements demonstrates that this coin was struck just once. Plus, some of the U.S. Mint caused imperfections on this coin would not be apparent or would be less pronounced if successive blows to the dies had better smoothed the fields and brought about better definition of the design elements.
  • 2) While the dies were ‘worked on’ to a great extent, and the planchet is a little special, this coin does not have exceptional detail. Many business strike 1851 Three Cent Silvers exhibit sharper numerals, letters, and reverse (back) stars. Most likely, a true Proof would have more detail and better formed design elements than are found on the Eliasberg 1851.
  • 3) At some angles, this coin seems to have mirrors that approximate the mirrors found on Proofs. Even at these angles, however, the mirrors are not quite like the mirrors of Proofs; they appear wavy and not fully layered. Moreover, at other angles, this coin reflects light haphazardly due to varying roughness in the surfaces and varied blends of raised lines on the coin from striations (grooves and other indentations) on the dies. The surfaces of this coin reflect light in a fascinating manner, though not as a Proof would. This coin is semi-prooflike, though fully special.
  • 4) The rims do not provide much evidence of Proof status. While many Proofs lack so-called Proof rims and thus this is not a necessary criterion, the structure of the rims of a coin sometimes testify on behalf of a coin’s Proof status. In this case, there is not much testimony. While the rims are mildly broad and feature somewhat of an outer wire, there are many business strike Three Cent Silvers, including some in this same auction, which have similar rims and edges.

I now list some (not all) of the reasons as to why I contend that the Eliasberg 1851 is a Specimen Striking:

A) It was struck on a screw press and in an unusual manner. Though it is not known just how large a percentage of business strike 1851 Three Cent Silvers were produced on steam presses, it is known that, during the 1850s, specially made coins would definitely have been struck on a screw press.

The dramatic inconsistency of detail and the very much three-dimensional nature of the layers due to die polish on the surfaces suggest that this coin was unevenly struck for a period that is longer (in time) than a business strike trime would have been struck. The Eliasberg 1851 just does not have the appearance of an assembly-line product, as most business strike trimes do.

B) As Lustig indicates, the texture of the surfaces on this coin are unlike that of any business strike 1851 Three Cent Silver. In my view, the overall fabric of this coin is not quite like that of any other Three Cent Silver of any date. It is something different. Different layers of polish on the dies resulted in unusual multi-dimensions to the surfaces and different parts of each die (obverse and reverse) were treated differently. On the obverse (front) especially, different portions of the coin have markedly different textures.

C) While the planchet (upset blank) was not buffed as the planchets intended for Proofs were often (though not always) buffed, my impression is that was treated with some coin of unusual liquid or paste. The relative roughness of a typical planchet would not have been as receptive to the dazzling array of die finishing lines, ground patches and variously polished layers on the pair of dies used to strike this coin. Plus, the surfaces seem to be a hybrid of a pre-existing unusual texture of the planchet and the textures added by the dies when this coin was struck.

D) The die finishing lines on this coin are extensive, peculiar and fascinating. Indeed, they are deep, varying in dimensions, and very entertaining. A glass with at least ten times magnification is needed to thoroughly enjoy them, though many are apparent at three times magnification.

When metal brushes and other tools impart lines in the dies, or sandpaper-like patches, raised lines and bumps appear on the coin that is struck with such dies. There are areas on the coin that indicate that portions of the dies were unusually treated such that patches of small, raised shapes resulted.

On this coin, there are an astonishingly large number of die finishing lines, of varying lengths, densities and angles. In some areas, the die finishing lines are somewhat parallel and are spread apart. In other areas, they are close together or even lumped. Many die finishing lines on this coin crisscross. Some die striations are much higher than others (thus in greater relief); some are wider; some are shorter.

Yes, there are many die finishing lines on a large number of Proof Three Cent Silvers and on an even larger number of business strikes. Indeed, die finishing lines are often found on Three Cent Silvers. The groups, patterns, shapes, and variations of die finishing lines and other die treatment evident on this coin, however, are dramatically different, especially when the overall fabric of the coin is contemplated.

I cannot fully explain the fabric of the Eliasberg 1851 Three Cent Silver. There are factors that cannot be articulated.

The individual or group that polished and otherwise treated the dies used to make this coin seemed to have had a great deal of fun. Areas on the dies corresponding to portions of the coin were given different treatments, including differences of degree and differences ‘in kind.’ The result is very cool.

VI. The 66 grade

This coin is moderately brilliant and mildly toned. It scores relatively high in the category of originality. Moreover, pictures on the Stack’s-Bowers website and the PCGS CoinFacts site are not thorough representations of this coin, though may be well suited for pedigree research in the future. In reality, the Eliasberg 1851 is much more attractive and its fields have more multi-dimensional characteristics than most coins.

The features of this coin cannot be fairly conveyed in images. It must be seen in actuality.

While there are a very small number of hairline scratches among the large number of die finishing lines, and the U.S. Mint caused anomalies on this coin may irritate some collectors, the overall dazzle and coolness of this coin easily elevates its grade to the middle of the 66 range. The proper certification, in my view, should be SP-66.

Although I am somewhat opposed to the “Proof” designation, I understand the CAC approval of the PCGS ‘Pr-66’ certification. This Eliasberg 1851 Three Cent Silver is not a business strike and, so far, it seems to be in a class by itself. Plus, it is truly a marvel.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

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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