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Top 10 Most Controversial US Coins

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

PCGS Encapsulates Legendary 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle
GreatCollections’ Ian Russell holds the only legal-to-own 1933 double eagle.

The 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 Gold Double Eagle

Sold in 2021 for $18.87 million USD, this is officially the most expensive coin in the world. But that’s not what makes it so controversial.

Shortly after the United States Mint struck 445,500 double eagles in the spring of 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102 banning the private ownership of gold coins. Supposedly the Mint melted down all but two examples, which were donated to the Smithsonian. Yet in 1937, a total of 20 pieces were illegally taken from the Mint, bought by Philadelphia coin dealer Israel Switt, and later resold. While the government was able to seize and destroy nine of the coins, one was purchased by King Farouk of Egypt before being legally exported in 1944, and 10 were hidden in a safety deposit box.

When the Farouk coin was returned to the United States by British coin dealer Stephen Fenton, the US government arrested Fenton and seized the coin. After some back and forth, the US had to acknowledge that the Farouk sale had been legal and returned the coin to Fenton. The government agreed to monetize the coin and forced the next owner to pay a face value fee of $20 – on top of the over $7 million it brought in its 2002 sale.

Currently, it is the only surviving example of the issue that is legal to collect.
1916 Standing Liberty Quarter Obverse Bronze Cast, Uncertified

The Type 1 Standing Liberty Quarter

Designed by sculptor Hermon MacNeil and first released into circulation in 1916, the Standing Liberty quarter faced immediate public backlash. Why? Public nudity. MacNeil depicted Lady Liberty standing proudly between two pedestals, wearing a flowing gown over her left shoulder and with her right breast uncovered. These early Standing Liberty quarters are the first circulating US coins to include female nudity.

While it is unknown why MacNeil chose to depict Liberty exposed, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice quickly began lobbying Congress in an effort to force a redesign. Without input from MacNeil, the design was changed in late 1917 and Liberty was clad in a chainmail undergarment. It has, however, been suggested that the change was due more to internal complaints from the Treasury Department than from the public outcry. Regardless, these coins are quite collectable and fetch a large premium over the Type II Standing Liberty quarters.
The Mystery of the 1964-D Peace Dollar

The 1964-D Peace Dollar

Prior to the 2021 issuance, the Peace dollar was last released into circulation in 1934. As such, this coin is perhaps one of the most controversial in modern US numismatics; in fact, PCGS has a standing $10,000 reward to be paid simply for viewing an authentic 1964-D Peace dollar.

Due to the post-WW2 economic boom, the US Mint was facing increased demand for silver coinage in the early 1960s. In order to satisfy it, the Senate allocated $600,000 to begin striking Peace dollars again for the first time in 30 years. When news of these coins leaked to the public, collectors went mad and began offering up to $7.50 per coin if and when they were ever released. On May 25, shortly after the Denver Mint struck over 316,076 pieces, they were all supposedly melted. Nevertheless, it’s possible that several may have been taken by mint workers.

But even if an example were found today, it would be illegal to own since the coin was never officially monetized.

The 1804 Dollar

You could be forgiven for thinking that the 1804 dollar was struck in 1804. But in fact, they were struck by the order of President Andrew Jackson in 1834 to be used as diplomatic gifts for foreign leaders like the Sultan of Muscat and the King of Siam. While there may have been as many as 19,570 examples produced by the Mint, there are only eight known examples surviving today.

Here is where the controversy comes in.

A Mint official named Theodore Eckfeldt began illegally producing restruck 1804 dollars in 1857 (known as “Class II” 1804 silver dollars) and selling them privately to collectors who believed that they were from the original 1834 issuance. This first came to light in 1861 when collectors at the Boston Numismatic Society complained that the Mint was selling restruck coins to several dealers.

While four of the five Class II coins were returned to the Mint and melted, this is not the end of the story. In fact, during the mid-1860s, several more 1804 dollars were struck illegally. Known as the Class III type, six examples are known to have survived. These coins are still illegal, and while the Treasury Department will, most likely, not attempt to seize them, you never know.

The 1946 Roosevelt Dime

When the Mercury dime was retired in 1946, the US Treasury introduced the Roosevelt dime to honor the recently deceased president. On this design, below the truncation of Roosevelt’s neck and to the left of the date, can be seen a small “JS”. Meant to be the designer’s initials, this was not at all unusual on numismatic designs.

However, some members of the public interpreted things a little differently.

As this was the beginning of America’s post-WW2 Red Scare, a conspiracy theory spread that accused various mint workers of being communists, and to honor Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, they had stamped his initials on the design. So pervasive were the rumors that when Sinnock next included his initials, they were written as “JRS”, and the Mint issued a press release to dispel the controversy.

Additionally, there were accusations that Sinnock did not actually create the obverse design but instead took it from a bas relief by Selma H. Burke. Sinnock denied these allegations, stating that his design was a composite from several of his own life studies of the president.

The 1909-S VDB Cent

When released, the first issuance of Victor David Brenner’s Lincoln cent was incredibly popular. In fact, at the initial release, examples were being resold for up to 25 cents apiece. Interestingly, Brenner was not responsible for putting his initials on the reverse and they were actually included as an official honor for the designer.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the public to begin protesting.

When complaining to the Mint, people claimed that because Brenner was paid for his work and essentially a government employee, that he did not deserve or need any recognition. In response, the Mint quickly replaced the offending dies and roughly 60% of the year’s issuance did not contain the VDB. It is thought that this happened after only five days of production.

Brenner’s initials returned to the Lincoln cent in 1918.

The 1793 Chain Cent

As the first coin struck by the US government on their own machinery, the 1793 Chain cent presents a striking image.

Over the first 12 days of March 1793, the Mint struck a total of 36,103 one-cent coins. Just 14 days after the coin’s release, a Boston newspaper published a scathing review decrying the poorly executed obverse design and the perceived negative symbolism of the chain motif on the reverse. When Chief Coiner Henry Voigt designed it, he had intended the chain on the reverse to represent the unbreakable bonds holding the brand-new Union together. But instead, many people though the chain was reminiscent of slavery.

Additionally, Lady Liberty’s hair was poorly and unrealistically illustrated–perhaps because Voigt had never engraved a coin die before. But when the Mint used all of its blank planchets and ceased production of the Chain cent, they quickly moved on to the new Wreath cent design.

The $1,000,000,000,000 Platinum Coin

As what could be called the Coin That Never Was, the trillion-dollar coin can more realistically be thought of as a political gimmick.

Originally proposed during the 2011 US debt-ceiling crisis, it was suggested that the Mint strike a one-trillion-dollar platinum coin to help secure the national debt. Legally this was possible since Congress had passed a bill in 1997 allowing the Mint to strike platinum coins of any denomination without prior congressional approval. The coin would employ the concept of seigniorage, the profit a government makes by issuing physical currency. By striking a coin from 1 oz of platinum but denominating it as one trillion dollars, the government would immediately have made $999,999,999,999!

Naturally, this idea was immediately controversial, with Republicans claiming that such a coin would produce massive inflation, since it is essentially the same as printing more money. Also, by taking the power of the purse from Congress, it would erode the separation between the three branches of government. So ridiculed was the idea that one public commentator stated that the design should depict the scam artist Charles Ponzi.

The 1921 Zerbe Morgan Dollar

Farran Zerbe, noted numismatist and President of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), ordered a small quantity of Proof 1921 Peace dollars from the San Francisco Mint in 1920. However, when he visited the Mint, the dies that had been shipped from Philadelphia were the older Morgan dollar design. As a result, the Mint struck a number of 1921 “S” Morgan silver dollars with a Proof-like finish.

Zerbe quickly distributed the coins and while there were probably between 20 and 200 struck, only around five to 10 are known to survive today. These coins are hard to distinguish from Chapman Proofs, and while both ANACS and PCI use the designation “Struck from Zerbe dies” on their labels, PGCS and NGC do not. These coins are surrounded by questions. Are they real Proofs, or simply presentation strikes? Were they all struck in San Francisco? Regardless, many of the coins labeled as “Zerbe Proofs” are not true Proof coins.

Famous Hawaii Five-O 1913 Liberty Head Nickel Sold for Over $4 Million by Stack’s Bowers

The 1913 Proof Liberty Nickel

One day in 1913, after the Liberty nickel had been discontinued, the US Mint struck five more Proof examples. The problem was that they were produced illegally by two Philadelphia Mint workers using official dies without authorization.

It wasn’t until 1919 that the public became aware of their existence when coin dealer Samuel W. Brown published a front-page advertisement offering $500 per coin ($8,562.89 adjusted for inflation). Shortly thereafter, the wealthy collector Edward H. R. Green acquired all five pieces, which were subsequently sold when he died in 1936.

Two coins were acquired by public collections: one by the Smithsonian and a second by the ANA Money Museum located in Colorado Springs.

Of the three held in private collections, one was supposedly lost in 1962. It was, however, owned by the Walton family and was thought to be fake. That is, until Bowers & Merena offered a $10,000 reward to view the coin. One of the other examples, named the Eliasberg Specimen, was the first US coin to sell for over $1 million when it hammered for $1,485,000 in 1996.

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Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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  1. I like articles like this…simple, easy-to-understand for the layman. Gets people interested in the hobby.

    Good job, Tyler !

    Wouldn’t mind seeing follow-up articles giving out more details about the historical sales and background history of each coin or the ones that were disallowed or deemed illegal. Would make for a nice series over time (maybe one article a month ?). For instance, on the 1933 you can go into the sales of the coin in the 1930’s and 1940’s before the current one became the only one legal to own/sell.


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