By David Provost for CoinWeek …..
When the Lafayette dollar was approved by President William McKinley on March 3, 1899, it was little more than a year from the planned opening of the Paris Exposition and just 16 months from the scheduled dedication of the Lafayette Monument as part of the fair on July 4, 1900.
As the Lafayette Memorial Commission (LMC) anticipated that the premiums earned on sales of the commemorative coin would be a significant contributor to the money it needed to raise in order to erect the monument, it quickly set about the task of drafting potential coin designs.
Records from the United States Mint indicate that Chief Engraver Charles Edward Barber and the LMC were quickly engaged regarding potential designs and that one of the designs the Commission was considering was a depiction of the monument. The Commission was also interested in exploring the use of Lafayette’s Prayer for the United States of America as a potential design.
Another potential design offered by the Commission was one featuring “the faces of Washington, Lafayette, Lincoln, Grant and McKinley … and that, if practicable, the signatures of Lafayette and Lincoln be given in facsimile.” This complex design concept appears to have been almost immediately dismissed as no further discussions of it appear in Mint records. Likely contributing to its quick removal from consideration was McKinley’s desire to not be featured on the coin in any form.
On April 12, 1899, Barber sent multiple design sketches for the coin to George Roberts, Director of the Mint. One, based on a “tentative sketch” of the proposed monument, depicted an equestrian statue of Lafayette mounted on a pedestal, He also provided two sketches of Lafayette as a “single figure” in the event the equestrian statue was not approved by the French committee assigned to review the monument’s design and the Commission had to move forward with a standing figure statue instead.
Barber also provided a sketch featuring Lafayette’s prayer at the request of Robert J. Thompson, the man who had conceived and championed the idea of preparing a monument to Lafayette as a gift from America to France. Barber was quick to criticize the design, however, stating “I do not think it a suitable subject for a coin and would be sorry to see it used as we could lay no claim to beauty or originality.” Barber’s objection is easy to understand when the length of Lafayette’s prayer is considered:
“May this immense temple of freedom ever stand a lesson to oppressors, an example to the oppressed, and a sanctuary for the rights of mankind! And may these happy United States attain that complete splendor and prosperity which will illustrate the blessings of their government, and for ages to come rejoice the departed souls of its founders.”
Mint records indicate that Thompson, upon being informed of the difficulty in creating a coin with such a lengthy inscription, raised the possibility of increasing the size of the coin. Barber objected to the proposal based on the technical difficulties it would introduce during the striking of the coins. Had the Commission insisted on including the prayer, however, it is likely that the Mint could have made the inscription-heavy design work on the dollar. It had recently produced a small 13-millimeter medal featuring a readable Lord’s Prayer for the Columbian Exposition, so the 38.1mm diameter of the Lafayette dollar would have provided a working “canvas” more than 7.5 times as large (1.33 cm² vs. 11.40 cm²). It would not have been a design of high artistic merit, but the prayer would have been readable on the coin and reminded those who saw it of Lafayette’s admiration and fondness for the United States.
All of the above designs appear to have been competing for the same side of the coin, as a design featuring the now-familiar conjoined portraits of George Washington and Lafayette was already a likely selection for one side. Barber noted this in his letter to Roberts when expressing his objection to increasing the size of the dollar coin beyond standard specifications, stating “we would find it impossible to obtain a perfect impression from the dies [using a larger, thinner planchet], and more especially as there is a probability of you selecting the design having two heads, the one laying over the other, which will of its self make it difficult to design to coin, as it increases the relief.”
In May, Barber wrote to the director and indicated his intent to base his portrait of Washington on the one depicted by Benjamin Duvivier on his Washington Before Boston medal (which, in turn, was based on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Washington) and his Lafayette portrait on that as presented by François Augustin Caunois on his 1824 medal of the general.
While these medals were very likely consulted, many numismatists believe that an “undocumented” model for Barber’s design is Peter L. Krider’s 1881 Yorktown Surrender Centennial medal. It feature’s conjoined portraits of Washington and Lafayette from an essentially identical perspective. Whether due to superior engraving skills or simply the artistic freedom offered by preparing models for a high-relief medal, Krider’s depiction of Washington and Lafayette appears more life-like and engaging. Such a level of execution on the Lafayette dollar would have raised its artistic merits manyfold.
On June 16, 1899, Barber updated Director Roberts regarding the coin’s designs and informed him that after meeting with Ferdinand Peck, the Commissioner-General of the United States for the Paris Exposition and honorary vice president of the Lafayette Memorial Commission, the design featuring Lafayette’s prayer was no longer under consideration. The prayer remained important to the LMC, however, and found its way to a prominent place on the pedestal of the monument.
Peck also conveyed to Barber the LMC’s preference for having Lafayette’s statue depicted without the pedestal or other adornment. Barber developed the design that ultimately appeared on the coin based on sketches and photographs from Paul Wayland Bartlett, the artist selected by the LMC to sculpt the statue.
The depiction created by Barber appears to be based on one of Bartlett’s early sketches for the statue rather than on the final one used to create the monument unveiled on July 4, 1900, as part of the Paris Exposition. Between the versions, Bartlett changed the horse’s stance multiple times and also repositioned Lafayette’s right arm (and the sword it supported) so that it appeared raised as if in salute or acknowledgment to those Lafayette was approaching. In the end, the version used to craft the statue for Paris offered a more noble presentation of Lafayette and gave the viewer the impression that it captured the general while he was taking part in a ceremonial parade.
The statue unveiled during the Exposition, however, was only a temporary piece put in place specifically for the dedication ceremonies. As Bartlett was not able to complete the bronze statute in time, he prepared a full-scale plaster model. He enlisted several work crews in Paris to assist him, with each crew working on a distinct section of the statue. The individual pieces were completed and assembled just days before the scheduled unveiling. Painted bronze, the plaster statue was mounted on its pedestal and stood 50-feet tall from base to tip.
The final bronze statue was not completed and put in place until nearly eight years later, in June of 1908. By then, Bartlett had made additional changes to the model, including removing Lafayette’s tri-corner hat, simplifying his overcoat, raising his right arm even higher, and reversing the orientation of the sword so that it would be held tip-up rather than hilt up. The horse’s stance was also changed to a more natural gait versus the “parade gait” seen on the plaster version. Bartlett also added a small tortoise to the base of the statue as a symbolic reminder of the delays encountered before the final bronze version was completed.
Barber’s final designs for the coin were sent to Director Roberts on June 20, 1899, and approved by him 11 days later on July 1 – the coin went from legislative approval to final design in less than four months.
With the LMC pushing to receive its coins as quickly as possible, work on engraving the dies began immediately. Early indications were that the coins might be struck as early as October 1899. A delay was introduced, however, when controversy arose over the LMC’s request for the coins to be dated “1900” even though they would be struck in 1899. Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Judson Gage refused the Commission’s request, citing US coinage laws which required coins to indicate the year in which they were struck, but a compromise solution was soon reached. The coins would bear a reverse inscription indicating the location and date of the Exposition – “PARIS 1900” – but would not feature a traditional obverse date to indicate when they were struck. In this regard, the Lafayette dollar can be considered an undated coin.
At 11:15 am on December 14, 1899 – the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s death – a Mint press struck the first of the 50,000 coins authorized. It was removed from the press and inspected by Mint Superintendent Henry K. Boyer and Chief Engraver Barber who pronounced it “perfect.” The coin was shown to Robert Thompson and then given to Mint Director Roberts who placed it in a protective case.
The LMC had received an offer of $5,000 for the first coin struck but refused as it had already been decided that the coin would be given to President McKinley who, in turn, would send it to Paris for presentation to the president of the French Republic as a gift from America.
Once the “first strike” ceremonies were completed, the balance of the 50,000 coins was struck (plus 26 coins for assay) on the same day. Numismatic tradition contends that all of the coins were struck on a single press – an old Merrick press that had traveled to a number of fairs and expositions where it was used to strike souvenir medals. The Merrick press was capable of striking coins at a rate of 80 per minute (4,800 per hour). It was thus within its mechanical limits to strike the entire 50,000 mintage over the course of 10 or 11 hours. However, as it is known that more than one set of dies was used to strike the coins (see below), it is very possible that more than one press was used.
Coin #1 was delivered to Paris by Robert Thompson, who served as McKinley’s Special Commissioner for the presentation. An ornate sterling silver presentation case mounted on an oval rosewood base was created for the first coin; the case was reported as having cost $1,000 to produce. It featured engraved portraits of Washington and Lafayette encircled by wreaths, with a depiction of the allegorical symbols of the United States and France, Columbia and Marianne, respectively, on its lid. The head of an American (Bald) eagle projected from each end of the container, appearing almost as handles. The receptacle’s wood base featured an elaborately engraved shield with the inscription: “First Lafayette dollar, presented to the President of the French Republic, M. Emile Loubet, by the President of the United States of America, William McKinley, 1900, A.D.”
The coin was presented to Loubet on March 3, 1900, by Commissioner Thompson, along with US Ambassador General Horace Porter, during a brief ceremony in Élysée Palace, the official Paris residence of the French president. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. Delcasse, and General Baillaud, Chief of the President’s Military Cabinet, were also in attendance. It was hoped that the presentation could take place on February 22nd, the anniversary of Washington’s birth, but it was not to be. Thompson addressed Loubet and those in attendance with a brief statement on behalf of President McKinley, which included “I voice the sentiments of my countrymen when I express the hope that this memorial dollar, stamped with the likenesses of Washington and Lafayette, may remain always, as it is today, an emblem of the amity of purpose of two great Republics of the world.”
Loubet was said to be “deeply touched by the kind thought of America’s President and people, and particularly by the gracious manner in which the coin was presented to him.” He also expressed his pleasure in it being presented to him by Thompson, in view of the central role he had played in the monument’s creation and funding.
With his trip to Paris for the coin presentation ceremony, Thompson had achieved his long-standing ambition of traveling to Europe. His position within the LMC kept him in Paris during the Exposition and gave him the opportunity to play a significant role in the dedication ceremonies at the formal unveiling of the Lafayette Monument. He addressed the crowd on behalf of “the children of America, who, assembled in their various study rooms throughout the United States, gave in a single day the funds necessary to insure the success of this monument, long deferred, but inevitable from the very logic of history.”
The Lafayette Dollar as a Fundraiser and Collectible
As discussed in Part I of this story, the Lafayette dollar came about, in large part, because the LMC’s fundraising drive in America’s schools fell short of the estimated $125,000 or more needed to complete the Commission’s planned monument. In the months following the school drive, the cost projections for the statue and pedestal were refined and a new target figure of approximately $110,000 was established.
The school drive generated $45,858, New York State contributed $10,000 and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) gave about $1,460* giving the Commission approximately $57,318 – just over half of its target (*Note: DAR records indicate that it raised $1,866 for the Lafayette monument, but LMC records show the lower figure stated).
With the $50,000 Congress appropriated to the Commission in the form of commemorative silver dollars, the LMC had more than 95% of the money it needed. The premiums raised from sales of the coins would put them over the top and provide them with a cushion for unanticipated expenses.
The LMC set the selling price for their coin at $2.00. It initially handled the coin’s distribution out of its Chicago headquarters, but with its focus shifting to its on-site presence at the Paris Exposition and the unveiling of the monument, the processing of coin orders was transferred to Chicago’s American Trust & Savings Bank.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger, in a piece documenting the small ceremony that accompanied the striking of the first Lafayette dollar, reported that Robert Thompson claimed the Commission had already received orders for 30,000 of the coins (60% of its total authorized mintage) from New York alone. Based on the coin’s final sales figures, it seems clear that Thompson’s bold claim was more a piece of promotional “fiction” offered up to create a false sense of scarcity and to drive demand than it was a factual accounting of received orders.
In The Paris Exposition of 1900, a book documenting the fair, it was stated that 22,000 of the souvenir coins were sold during the first month of availability. This information, provided by the LMC, clearly refutes Thompson’s earlier claim of 30,000 pre-orders.
The Commission sent 12,000 of the coins to Paris to be offered for sale during the Exposition, enough to cover roughly 1,700 requests per month for the duration of the fair. Sales proved disappointing, however, and approximately 10,000 coins were sent back to Chicago after the Exposition closed.
Total sales for the Lafayette dollar amounted to 36,000 coins. In its report to Congress, the Memorial Commission provided a financial statement (as of December 1, 1900) in which it listed $34,247 as the premium it had realized on sales of the coins. As each coin was priced to generate a $1.00 premium, this indicates that 34,247 coins had been sold to date. It also listed 15,753 as the number of coins still on hand with the Commission. As 14,000 of the coins were eventually returned to the Mint for melting, it appears that an additional 1,753 coins were sold or otherwise distributed after the report was filed. Taken together, these figures indicate that all (or nearly all) of the coins sold by the Commission were sold at the $2.00 figure they had established at the outset and that it didn’t discount its selling price even in the face of slower than anticipated sales.
Within the collecting community, however, the coin’s market value showed little appreciation.
While a Lyman Low auction in November 1900 included a Lafayette dollar that sold for $2.60, the coin’s value began to decline soon thereafter. The April 1902 issue of The Numismatist reported that “Lafayette dollars seem to have taken a tumble” with confirmed selling prices noted at $1.75 for individual coins and $1.50 for groups of 10. The slide continued, and by January 1903, The Numismatist included reports of the coin being sold by dealers for as little as $1.10. It would not be until 1919 that dealer ads in The Numismatist would feature prices over $2.00.
The market value of the Lafayette dollar has appreciated greatly since then. Today, in Gem Uncirculated (MS-65), the Lafayette is by far the most expensive coin among the silver issues of the US classic commemorative series, with typical selling prices in excess of $9,000 for attractive examples. For comparison, the next two most expensive coins at the same grade level are the 1922 Grant with Star variety at ~$6,000 and the 1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial at ~$4,250. The coin loses its “most expensive” ranking in lower uncirculated grades, however, and drops out of the “Top 5” once the grades of XF and AU are reached.
The “common” nature of circulated Lafayette dollars today points to collectors being underwhelmed by the coin at the time of its release. As its market value fell to near face, many of the coins entered circulation as their owners tired of them and/or needed to use them for day-to-day expenses. Today, attractive AU examples can be found with diligent searching for approximately $500 to $600 – a fraction of the cost of a Gem Uncirculated coin. Lower-grade examples (e.g., VF) generally command prices within the $300 range.
True “lowball” Lafayette dollars (i.e., heavily circulated FR/AG examples) also appear on the market at times. Though avidly pursued by lowball collectors, the current supply of these pieces appears to match or exceed demand and so FR/AG coins can be acquired for prices in line with VF examples. This contrasts with some later issues within the classic US commemorative series, wherein a heavily circulated example of a given coin can command a price on par with a choice or gem uncirculated example due to the scarcity of circulated pieces in the marketplace.
Collecting Die Varieties
While die variety collecting is avidly pursued in several series of US coins – most notably Bust half dollars and Morgan dollars – it is not a significant endeavor among collectors of the classic commemoratives, as varieties have only been found on a small subset of the issues and they are generally minor doubled dies or repunched mint marks (RPMs). These fall into the category of what noted die variety expert John Wexler refers to as “Unintentional Die Varieties.”
If one can afford it, however, the Lafayette dollar offers the variety specialist a significant opportunity to collect “intentional” die varieties.
George H. Clapp was the first to take notice of a Lafayette die variety. He recalled, “In 1925 I discovered a Lafayette Dollar which differed from the one figured and described by Howland Wood in The Commemorative Coinage of the United States … On taking the question up with Mr. Wood, he looked over a large number of the dollars and found two more varieties.”
Wood, the curator of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) collection at the time, examined examples both within and outside of the Society’s collection. He found evidence for the Mint’s use of three obverse dies (identifying them with numbers 1-2-3) and four reverse dies (identifying them via A-B-C-D). Wood’s efforts identified four different die combinations that were used to produce coins. Clapp presented their findings in the November 1934 issue of The Coin Collectors Journal. He described the characteristics of each die used and provided a representative photograph (in actual size) of a coin from each.
The differences in the obverse dies are generally variations in the inscriptions (i.e., positioning of letters or letters that have been double punched or repunched); the reverse varieties have to do with the size of the leaves of the palm branch below the statue along with the positioning of its lowest leaf relative to “1900” in the inscription.
The four originally discovered die combinations are classified as 1A, 1B, 2C, and 3D.
The original Clapp-Wood designations have been supplemented by the discovery of two additional varieties. The first is an additional combination of previously-known dies. It was first reported by noted commemorative specialist and author Anthony Swiatek in 1980 – it is classified as 1C. The second variety is a coin struck from two dies not previously known – it is classified as 4E. Frank DuVall, an advanced commemorative collector and Member #1 of the Society for United States Commemorative Coins (now defunct), discovered the 4E variety in 1988. The two new reports make for a total of six different varieties of Lafayette dollars, though only the original four are considered “collectible”.
In terms of rarity, 1B at an estimated 53% and 2C at 39% are the most common of the variety combinations, together they account for roughly 92% of the Lafayette dollars in the market. The remaining 8% is believed to be split as follows: 3D – 6%, 1A – 2%, 1C – possibly unique and 4E – two reported.
It is possible the scarcity of the 1A and 3D combinations, along with the ultra rarity of the 1C and 4E coins, can be tied to the 14 bags of unsearched Lafayette dollars returned by the Commission to the Mint to be melted. We will never know what die combinations were represented among the returned coins or if additional die combinations might have been included.
Today, the variety designations (i.e., 1A, 1B, etc.) used for the Lafayette dollar are referred to as “DuVall Numbers” rather than “Clapp-Wood” numbers even though the pioneering work in the area was done by those two numismatists between 80 and 90 years ago.
The Lafayette dollar represents many “firsts” within US numismatics. It is the first US commemorative coin of the dollar denomination, it is the first US legal tender coin to depict George Washington (or any US president) and it is the first US coin to depict the same person – the Marquis de Lafayette – on both the obverse and reverse.
It is also the first US commemorative coin issued to raise funds for a memorial to be placed on foreign soil.
Today’s collectors should be thankful that the schoolchildren of 1898 America were not able to be more generous. Think what would have been missed!
© Copyright D. Provost 2021. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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 Barber, Charles E. Letter to George Roberts. March 25, 1899.
 “The Lafayette Dollar”, Los Angeles Herald, April 2, 1899: 3.
 ibid, 3.
 ibid, 3.
 Barber, Charles E. Letter to George Roberts. April 12, 1899.
 Report of the Commissioner-General for the United States to the International Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900. Senate, 56th Congress, 2nd Session, February 28, 1901. 178.
 Barber, Charles E. Letter to George Roberts. April 12, 1899.
 Barber, Charles E. Letter to George Roberts. April 12, 1899.
 Stover, Frances, “Lafayette Will Ride Again!”, The Milwaukee Journal. November 9, 1956: 20.
 Report of the Commissioner-General for the United States to the International Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900. Senate, 56th Congress, 2nd Session, February 28, 1901. 174.
 ibid, 174.
 ibid, 180.
 “The Lafayette Dollar”, The Numismatist. January 1900: 14.
 Boyd, James Penny. The Paris Exposition of 1900. Chicago: Dominion Publishing, 1900. 568.
 “New England Notes – A Gold Dollar Proposition”, The Numismatist. January 1903: 24.
 “With the Editors”, The Numismatist. April 1902: 107.
 “New England Notes – A Gold Dollar Proposition”, The Numismatist. January 1903: 24.
 Clapp, George H. “The Varieties of the Lafayette Dollar.” The Coin Collectors Journal. November 1934: 180.
 Swiatek, Anthony. Encyclopedia of United States Commemorative Coins. Chicago: KWS Publishers, 2012. 64.
Note: Cited letters from Charles E. Barber are as presented in Taxay, Don. An Illustrated History of US Commemorative Coinage. New York: Arco Publishing Company, Inc., 1967.