The first major auction of 2013 is the Heritage auction held in conjunction with the FUN (Florida United Numismatists) convention in Orlando, FL from January 10th to the 13th. Always an exciting event, this year’s auction is highlighted by an extensive collection of early Bust coinage in high grades, including a remarkable number of Proof strikings of early half dollars. Proofs were not produced for and marketed to collectors until 1858, making these early Proof strikings extremely rare and valuable.
For collectors of early bust coinage as well as Proof coinage, lot 5723 was without a doubt the true highlight of this auction. Offered was one of the finest known Proof striking of an 1803 Bust Dollar, one of only four confirmed examples in existence, which sold for $851,875.00 including buyer’s premium.
The coin’s provenance only goes back to 1991, when it was first offered for sale at the ANA convention after turning up in Texas. It had last sold for $672,500 in February of 2007. This coin is part of a very limited run of Proof silver dollars from 1801-1804. This short set is of course highlighted by the famous 1804 dollar, a classic American rarity that has been called the “King of American Coins.” Most collectors will be familiar with the story that the first 1804 dollars were not struck until 1834 and restrikes were made later in the 1870s. But fewer collectors will be aware of the fact that the 1801, 1802 and 1803 dollars were also restruck in Proof format, sometime in the late 1870s. From that striking period comes the Proof dollar that was offered in the Heritage auction. Interestingly enough, the three Proof issues from 1801 to 1803 were struck from the original reverse die that struck the earliest 1804 (class I) dollars back in 1834, which means the reverse die must have stayed in storage at the Mint for an amazing four decades.
None of these three dates appeared in Proof format on the numismatic market until 1876, when collectors were first offered the opportunity to purchase them. These collectors, according to the excellent auction description in the Heritage catalog, “noticed the high quality of the coins and the absence of wear, toning, and signs of contact.” This would indicate that the coins had been struck quite recently. Other evidence for a striking date sometime in the early 1870s comes from the weight of the planchets, which indicates that trade dollar planchets were used. Since the trade dollar denomination was not introduced until 1873 a striking date shortly thereafter seems very plausible.
While it appears that collectors were first offered complete sets of 1801, 1802 and 1803 Proof bust dollars, these sets have all been broken up. Of these, the 1802 and 1803 Proof bust dollars are known by four individual examples of each; of the 1801 only two examples are known to exist. As such it seems likely that the total mintage was no higher than four or perhaps five at most, before the dies were permanently destroyed. Since the minting of these coins was a very unofficial affair that happened outside of the books (mostly for personal gain of the Mint employees) very little official information has come to the knowledge of present-day numismatists.
Much of what is known about these unofficial Proof strikings of America’s most famous coins is included in the auction description. Such Proofs come up for auction very infrequently and this offering was a true highlight of the auction, making the catalog a worthwhile addition to the library of the advanced collector of America’s earliest Federal coinage. Research on these coins is an ongoing process, and as new facts are unearthed we might be able to get an even better picture of the reasons why we have such a limited number of these special Proof Draped Bust Dollars. Until a new reference is published, however, the information contained in the Heritage auction description is among the most complete that is available to collectors and researchers.