Rare Coins: Likely Unique 1891-O Proof Dime, The Only Certified Proof Unlisted Variety
From the CSNS Heritage catalog as Lot 5574
Walter Breen called the early presentation pieces and pre-1858 dated proofs the caviar of proof coinage, and then compared them to the branch mint proofs that he called “dishes of peacock’s tongues.” Proof coins were struck at the branch mints for presentation purposes, to mark special occasions, or to test equipment, although the exact circumstances are not always known today. One example is the 1838-O half dollar that was struck early in 1839 to test a new press that arrived in New Orleans. In San Francisco, proof 1855-S quarters and half dollars mark the first coins of those denominations struck at that facility.
The New Orleans Mint struck proof silver coins in 1891, including this dime that was unknown to Breen, and proof 1891-O quarters that he recorded in his Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins. The occasion was most likely the resumption of those denominations at the New Orleans Mint, the first since before the Civil War. The facility was opened in 1838 and operated continuously until January 1861, when it fell into the hands of the State of Louisiana, and a short time later, the Confederate government. Toward the end of the war, the U.S. government regained control. However, the Mint remained dormant for many years. In 1870, a joint resolution was referred to the Committee on Commerce regarding the New Orleans Mint, recommending that the buildings and property revert to the City of New Orleans, which had originally conveyed the grounds to the U.S. in 1835. Nine years later, the Mint resumed operation, striking silver dollars and a small number of double eagles.
On July 26, 1891, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the resumption of dime production. The brief article tells us something of the production:
“The United States mint is now engaged in coining one million dimes a month. The dime banks and other causes have created a scarcity and Uncle Sam has ordered his money factories to the rescue. There is considerable demand for the dimes. They are the first coins of that smallness the mint has made, and the same presses with which the dollars were coined are used, the ingots being also of similar size. The new dies reached here about the 1st of the month, and the dimes commenced to roll out on the 5th.
“The mint has on hand the bullion representing 3,000,000 trade dollars, shipped from the Philadelphia mint about two months ago, and the 863,000 ounces of uncurrent money sent from various sub-treasuries; so that there is no lack of silver to keep the presses going.”
We have never seen or heard of another 1891-O proof dime, although one or two proof quarters are known, including the Dunham coin certified Specimen 66 NGC that we handled in our August 2013 Chicago Signature sale. We have also been unsuccessful in our attempts to determine the exact die variety of this piece as recorded at Gerry Fortin’s website, www.seateddimevarieties.com .
Gerry Fortin studied this piece, and determined that the obverse is unlisted and the reverse is his Reverse P. The obverse die is perfect, with no trace of date repunching, no clash marks, and no die cracks. There is no evidence of die lapping on the obverse. Similarly, the reverse die is perfect, also with no repunching of the mintmark, no clash marks, no die cracks, and no evidence of die lapping. The mintmark is close to the bow knot, and tilted sharply to the left.
This Premium Gem proof has exceptional eye appeal. The strike is absolutely full and complete, as expected for such a small coin struck on a large press intended for silver dollar coinage. This piece was almost certainly struck in the first week of July 1891, perhaps on Sunday, July 5, the day reported as the beginning of dime coinage at New Orleans. Light cameo contrast results from the combination of satiny, lustrous devices, and fully mirrored fields. The fields are warmly bathed in intermingled sky-blue, rose, and champagne toning. An extraordinary branch mint proof dime, likely unique, is destined for a specialized collection of Seated Liberty dimes.