1851 Three Cent Silver Piece in Proof. Image: PCGS / Adobe Stock.
1851 Three Cent Silver Piece in Proof. Image: PCGS / Adobe Stock.

By Jay Turner for PCGS ……
 

With a mintage of four examples the 1851 Proof Three Cent Silver is an American numismatic rarity. It has been written that these mere four coins were struck with the passage of the authorization of the Act of March 3, 1851, which authorized the United States Mint to produce silver three cent coinage.

The 1851 Proof Three Cent Silver became not only a rarity within its series but also in the context of all United States coinage.

The desire for the United States to produce a three-cent coin came with the Spanish and Spanish colonial silver redemption by the government proving to be unprofitable due to the discrepancies in silver, weight, and denominations of that nation’s coinage. With Three Cent Silver coins being struck in .750-fine silver rather than the .900-fine standard of higher-denominated coinage, legislation introduced by New York Senator Daniel S. Dickinson made striking three-cent coins profitable for the United States Mint; they cost two-and-a-half cents per coin to produce, with the difference in silver value compensating for the slick Spanish coins being underweight. While this legislation didn’t pass in 1850, postage rates being reduced from five cents to three cents allowed for Dickinson’s proposal for the three-cent coins to be legal tender up to 30 cents; the bill eventually passed both houses and was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore.

Director of the United States Mint Robert Patterson had known of the proposal for the three-cent coinage as early as 1849 when House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Samuel Vinton had written him about the consideration of instituting such a coin. From this, the United States Mint had produced pattern coinage as early as 1849 (Judd-111 thru 114a) and in 1850 (Judd-125) in preparation for the new denomination. Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, who went on to design the circulation-issue coin and follow through on Congress’ requirement that the coin be distinct from both the gold dollar and other silver coins. A star with its center bearing a shield of the Union was designed for the obverse and an ornamental letter “C” embracing the Roman numeral III circled by 13 stars was the design for the reverse.

With the passage of the act, four pieces were struck in Proof. Today the four known examples are the following:

  1. The Smithsonian Institution Example – From the United States Mint Cabinet Collection. Written up as this example is so heavily lacquered that its Proof status was in doubt by noted numismatic expert and author Walter Breen.
  2. The Elisaberg Example – Purchased as part of the John H. Clapp Collection. Sold in the Bowers & Merena Louis E. Elisaberg Sale May 1996 as lot 859. The coin was graded PCGS PR66 and, accompanied by a Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) sticker, was sold again in the Stack’s Bowers Galleries November 2012 Baltimore Sale, where it brought $176,250 USD.
  3. The Garrett-Maris Collection Example – This coin was purchased from the Maris Collection Sale held in 1886 in Philadelphia by Stan V. Henkels as lot 1363 and purchased by Harrison Garrett. The Elisaberg example had erroneously been published as the Maris coin. The Garrett-Maris example was sold as part of the Garrett Collection Sales for the Johns Hopkins University Sale 3 by Bowers & Ruddy Galleries October 1980 as lot 1549 for $32,500. The coin was graded in July 2020 as PCGS PR63.
  4. The C.E. Gilhousen Example – This coin was sold by Superior Auctions October 1973 as part of the Gilhousen Collection. The coin was lot 108 and sold for $4,200.

During the July 2020 PCGS Las Vegas Members Only Show, a crossover noted with the Garrett-Maris pedigree was submitted to PCGS for onsite grading. We confirmed the dies matched the Elisaberg example previously graded PCGS PR66 and matched the plates for the Garrett coin, and the coin is now graded PCGS PR63 with “Garrett-Maris” pedigree.

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