The 1885 Trade dollar is one of the rarest and most enigmatic issues in all of American coinage.
The coins were almost certainly struck in the first half of 1885, but they only began appearing publicly early in the 20th century, 25 years after they were minted. Only five examples are known, making them just as rare as the celebrated 1913 Liberty nickel (five specimens accounted for), and much more elusive than their more famous 1804 dollar cousins (15 examples known). The coins are exhibited infrequently, since there are no examples in the great institutional collections at the Smithsonian, the ANS, or the ANA, and the last auction appearance of any specimen of the 1885 Trade dollar was in 2004, almost 15 years ago. Heritage Auctions is privileged to present the finest-known 1885 Trade dollar, from the fabulous Eliasberg Collection, in just its third auction appearance, as a part of our January 9-14 FUN Signature Auction.
Unlike their closely related 1884 counterparts, Mint records reveal nothing about the striking of the 1885 Trade dollars. They are not mentioned in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint for that year and the dies are not listed in the Straub Die Record Book, a telling omission.
However, we can narrow down the striking period for the 1885 Trade dollars by noting that R.W. Julian found records indicating the reverse die used on the 1884 Trade dollar was destroyed on January 2, 1885. The 1885 Trade dollar features a new reverse die that must have been produced after the 1884 reverse was destroyed. We can also reasonably assume the 1885 Trade dollars were struck before Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Archibald Loudon Snowden resigned at the end of June in 1885. Snowden’s replacement as Superintendent was Daniel Fox, a straight-arrow appointee who adhered strictly to the new rules about not selling patterns or restrikes to collectors for any reason. Therefore, it seems certain the 1885 Trade dollars were struck between January 2, 1885, and June of the same year.
All indications are the coins were struck in the Philadelphia Mint in the year of their date. The lack of documentation indicates they may have been struck clandestinely, but the Trade dollar was not officially discontinued until 1887, so it is still possible that the coins were produced for some legitimate purpose, such as inclusion in the proof sets of that year. The Mint had been producing Trade dollars in proof-only mintages since 1878 to satisfy collector demand and the order to not include Trade dollars in the 1884 proof sets only arrived after 264 proofs had already been struck the previous year. It is possible that the five 1885 Trade dollars we know about today are survivors of an aborted, but legitimate, proof mintage that was canceled at the last minute, like the 1884 issue. Then, the coins could have been purchased legally by Snowden and preserved for posterity.
In any case, the 1885 Trade dollars were struck on Mint equipment, in the year of their date, in the style of normal proofs of previous years, and on correct planchets, unlike the clandestine Class III 1804 dollars, 1827 Restrike quarters, and proof dollars of 1801, 1802, and 1803.
This coin was acquired by William Cutler Atwater sometime before 1923. Atwater compiled one of the most important collections of the first half of the 20th century. His holdings included two 1804 dollars and both the 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars. The lot realized a record price of $1,450, as collectors recognized the outstanding quality and absolute rarity of this specimen. The buyer was Baltimore financier Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.
Eliasberg was a true connoisseur of coins and he formed the only complete collection of U.S. federal coins in numismatic history. After he died, his collection was divided between his heirs and sold in a series of blockbuster auctions in the 1980s and ’90s. This 1885 Trade dollar was described in lot 2354 of the Eliasberg Collection, Part II (Stack’s/Bowers and Merena, 4/1997) in a four-page lot description titled “Incredible Gem 1885 Trade Dollar/Finest by Far of Just Five Known/Landmark American Rarity/A Highlight of the Eliasberg Collection.” The lot realized $907,500, a remarkable price at the time, when only two coins, the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty nickel, and the 1804 dollar from the same collection, had sold for more than $1 million.
This remarkable coin has changed hands a few times privately since the Eliasberg sale, the last time selling for $3.3 million in 2006, but it has never been publicly offered since.
The present coin is a delightful Premium Gem, the finest-certified specimen by three grading points. The design elements are sharply detailed in most areas but, like all examples of the 1885 issue, stars 5 through 9 show a touch of flatness on the centers. There is a tiny surface irregularity in the upper reverse field, between the final S in STATES and the O in OF and a tiny depression is evident between the M and E in AMERICA. The impeccably preserved surfaces include deeply mirrored fields that exhibit noticeable if undesignated, cameo contrast with the frosty devices. Highlights of champagne-gold toning enhance the terrific eye appeal of this spectacular piece.
Few coins can match the combination of extreme rarity, highest available technical quality, and tremendous visual appeal this coin possesses. As the finest of just five known examples, with an illustrious pedigree to some of the most famous collections of all time, this lot is one of the most important offerings in this or any other sale. The cataloger of the Eliasberg description noted: “The present coin, a highlight of the Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection, is one of the most important offerings of our generation. Its next owner will have a fantastic treasure.”
Off the market for more than 20 years, this coin may not become available again in the collecting life of most numismatists reading this catalog. The discerning collector will bid accordingly.
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