On the night of August 9, 2013, Heritage Auctions sold what is known as the “King of American Coins” at their Platinum Night Sale prior to the ANA convention in Rosemont, IL. An “original” or Class I 1804 Silver Dollar, graded Proof-62 by PCGS realized a final price of $3,877,500 including buyer’s premium. On the auction block was the Mickley specimen of one of the world’s most famous coins, which has captivated collectors ever since the coins were first struck…in the 1830’s.
To the casual reader this particular fact might require some explanation. Silver Dollars were first minted in the United States in 1794, and continued to be struck until 1804, when a hiatus in production started that would last over three decades. This would never have received a major deal of attention since such production lags were normal in the early days of the United States Mint, but due to a Mint employee overlooking a simple fact, a true numismatic rarity was created.
In 1804, Silver Dollars were struck as Mint records confirm, however they must have been backdated, as no 1804-dated silver dollars entered commerce in the 30 years afterwards. Once again this would not have received much attention, but 1834 came along and the government decided that it was time to present some foreign nations with a gift: a presentation piece of every circulating coin issue made in the United States, as per the Mint act of 1792. This meant that proofs were struck for every 1834 issue except for the silver dollar and ten dollar gold piece, which had not been produced since 1804. For those two denominations, back-dated proofs would be struck.
Since 1804-dated ten dollar gold pieces had actually been struck, a few extra pieces were minted thirty years later. In the case of the silver dollars, the coins minted in 1804 had been dated a previous year, most likely 1803. As such, in 1834, the US Mint inadvertently created a small number of 1804-dated silver dollars, representing the first of their kind. These were assembled into presentation sets given to foreign dignitaries, with a small number of extra pieces also made. Then, word about them eventually got out, and the craziness began.
Collectors wanted to get their hands on their own example, but with the mintage in 1834 probably less than a dozen, the supply was obviously very limited. The Philadelphia Mint struck unauthorized restrikes (as was relatively common during the late 1850’s until the early 1870’s) sometime during 1858 and 1860, and these would become known as the Class II (which is unique and overstruck on an 1857 Swiss Shooting Thaler) and Class III restrikes (of which six are known).
The offering by Heritage was an original Class I example whose pedigree can be traced back to the 1850’s. Reportedly it was first found in a cash register at a Philadelphia bank before being sold to noted numismatist Joseph Mickley around 1858. His collection was eventually sold in 1867 when this coin brought $750 at auction, a large sum of money at the time. Sold a few more times, it resided in the collection of the Massachusetts historical society from 1905 to 1970 before reappearing on the market. It was included in three more collections (an anonymous Chicago collector, the Hawn Collection, and the Queller Family Collection) before being purchased by the consignor of the Heritage auction.
This was a very rare opportunity to purchase an 1804 Silver Dollar at auction and the price certainly attests this. Many 1804 silver dollars have been impounded permanently in museum collections making public offerings less frequent. While not the finest example of the Class I coins, it remains a prime numismatic rarity that is well-published and will forever remain popular. Heritage Auctions devoted a 60 page auction catalog (pdf version) solely for this particular coin, an item that should prove to be a valuable reference for future scholars of this enigmatic American coin, and it’s a catalog that is well worth picking up, even now that the coin has been sold.