A mid-19th-century fantasy earned its place in US numismatic history
A unique copper specimen of the famed “Washington Dollar Fantasy” was recently certified by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). Despite its date of 1794, the piece was actually produced in the early 1860s. It is referenced in Breen-1251, Judd-C1794-1, Baker-28A, and Musante, GW-358.
In the early 1850s, U.S. Mint director James Ross Snowden took a special interest in the Mint Cabinet — a collection of coins, tokens, medals and related items preserved by the Mint as examples of the past. Mr. Snowden was especially interested in Washingtoniana, which refers to coins, tokens and medals featuring a portrait or the name of our nation’s beloved first president. Wanting to build a complete collection for the Mint, he distributed a flyer offering to buy or trade for Washington pieces that the cabinet didn’t have.
Washington Fantasy Dollar. Images courtesy NGC
The culmination of his efforts came in 1860, when the “Washington Cabinet” was dedicated as the highlight of the Mint collection. A year later, he published a volume on the medals of Washington — which would prove to be a valuable resource for collectors. This and the Civil War helped create a stir among collectors for pieces bearing the likeness of George Washington.
It was around this time that a most interesting “dollar” surfaced. The demand for new discoveries of Washington pieces prompted someone to fabricate a “1794” dollar featuring a portrait of Washington, and a reverse almost identical to a 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar. Perhaps the maker wanted to fool collectors into believing it was some sort of pattern produced by the mint, which would have been extremely desirable and valuable.
Walter Breen notes that it could have been “mistakable for a British speculative issue of the 1790s.” The seller demanded $300 for an example in silver, which was an extremely high price at the time. Then, a copper specimen (the one featured here) surfaced, leading to the revelation that these were recently made.
The copper example was struck first, upon which the die immediately cracked. When the silver piece was struck, the die broke completely and was rendered useless. Both the copper and silver examples are the only surviving pieces. The first auction record was the McCoy sale in 1864, where this very copper specimen sold for a whopping $55, an astonishingly high price for an admitted fantasy of “modern” origin. The silver example was described in the sale by W. Elliott Woodward as occupying “a prominent place in a choice and valuable collection, and is esteemed by its owner.”
In his book Medallic Washington, Neil Musante writes that “Woodward elevated the copper piece to a nearly equivalent status.”
While most references state that there are two copper specimens, the other has never come to light, and Musante confirms its original 1864 status as unique. This certified copper example was in the Norweb collection, which was auctioned by Stack’s in November 2006. The piece, lot 2029, sold for $46,000. The silver specimen belonged to William Sumner Appleton, and was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was apparently stolen in the 1960s, but was relocated and featured as the plate in Musante’s reference (which is quite refreshing considering the copper example is plated in all the others). If the silver specimen ever came to auction, there is no telling the level of excitement it might command.
The graders at NGC assigned this copper specimen the grade of NGC MS 64. The piece has lightly touched surfaces, while a spot above the “O” on the reverse and other imperfections keep it from Gem. The surfaces are very clean, and the piece has an attractive moderate brown color, with hints of red near the devices.
Woodward’s catalog calls this piece “proof” (he used this term inconsistently), but NGC recognizes this, like other Washington medals of the period, as Mint State. The minor pitting on the surfaces is a result of poor planchet preparation and not corrosion or damage. The die crack on the obverse begins in the center, extends up through Washington’s cheek, and protrudes from his forehead, extending prominently to the rim. It is, without a doubt, quite remarkable in-hand.
Whether Director Snowden refused to buy the piece, or was out of office by the time it was offered, we may never know. But despite it being a fantasy, even Snowden could not have anticipated the legendary Washington piece it turned into. While it may be rare and obscure to many collectors, this piece is highly desirable among collectors of Washingtonia for its elegant design and interesting story.
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