A new type of the 1804 Dollar, which is often referred to as “The King of American Coins,” was certified by PCGS at the 2011 American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Chicago on August 19. This is an historic electrotype copy of the unique “Class II” specimen of the 1804 Dollar which is part of the National Numismatic Collection now held by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
There are three “Classes,” or varieties, of 1804 Dollars. The coin, from which this electrotype copy was made, was transferred directly to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia in 1923 and is believed to have never left the Mint before that time. Therefore, the expert consensus is that this electrotype copy was made at the U.S. Mint and is believed to have been made in 1860.
The unique “1804” dated silver dollar from which this electrotype has been made was originally struck over an 1857 Swiss Shooting Thaler. Several of the details of the Thaler are visible on the coin, such as the gun stock, parts of the wreath, rays protruding from the cross, border dentils, etc. Some of these details are also visible on the electrotype copy authenticated by PCGS, and the electrotype has a plain edge, just like the unique Class II 1804 Dollar struck over the Swiss Shooting Thaler.
The grading service is calling this piece “Genuine,” meaning that it is a genuine electrotype made at the U.S. Mint, rather than a counterfeit made outside the Mint, intended to deceive collectors. This distinction is important! The PCGS label reads, “PCGS Genuine Electrotype said to be made at Mint circa 1860.”
The U.S. Mint regularly made electrotype copies of coins between 1860 and 1880 for collectors, museums, and their own uses. The Mint sold electrotype copies of important coins, and it often traded coins or electrotype copies of coins for other coins the Mint did not have in its collection. An electrotype copy of a coin looks like the real thing to casual observers, and these copies have often fooled collectors. Even if electrotypes were made at the Mint, the others would be nearly impossible to trace back to the Mint, which is one reason this electrotype is so significant.
Electrotype reproductions of coins are created, first by impressing a coin in a pliable substance, such as wax, which is then coated with graphite or some other material that is able to conduct electricity. Through the electro-deposition process, this material is then plated with a thin coating of copper which is removed and backed with a stronger base metal for firmness.
When reproducing a coin this process results in creating a “shell” for one side of the coin which is then mated with one for the other side. They are joined together creating a true-to-life copy of the coin. The telltale sign of this process is a seam around the edge of the reproduction of the coin.
Many different types of U.S. coins have been reproduced this way through the years, but primarily for coins of early vintage. Rare date half cents, which were minted between 1793 and 1857, are one example of popular coins that were duplicated by the electrotype process. These were frequently collected and were considered “semi-official replicas.”
The significance of the electrotype 1804 Dollar just certified by PCGS is that it is considered an historic U.S. Mint product, one that represents a rare coin of the greatest numismatic importance. It is not a reproduction of just any coin used for daily commerce. But, it is nevertheless controversial.
“1804” dated silver dollars weren’t really struck in the year 1804. Some of them, the “originals,” were struck in 1834 and others, the “restrikes,” were struck between the late 1850s and the late 1860s. Therefore, some collectors don’t consider 1804 Dollars to be legitimate coins struck for a coin’s real purpose – daily commerce.
In reality, coins are just pieces of metal formed into specific shapes and designs, much like paintings are just paint on canvas. They mean very little without their history and artistic appeal. For coins, this history comprises such elements as quantities struck, reasons for creating them, and the stories behind individual coin issues. 1804 Dollars have one of the greatest stories in numismatics, which is what makes these silver dollars so desirable and valuable. They are now selling for millions of dollars each when they come on the market.
But, not all collectors who are able to invest this amount of money in a coin would be happy to do so. Some collectors consider 1804 Dollars to be fantasy pieces because they were never intended to be used in commerce and were struck many years after the year 1804. The same is true of this electrotype copy of the 1804 Dollar, just recognized by PCGS. Some wealthy collectors would pay very little money, if any, for this electrotype, while others view this as a chance to own a “real” U.S. Mint made 1804 Dollar for much less money than one of the “struck” pieces.
The history of this piece is what makes it so important. It’s conceivable that someone would be willing to pay in excess of a million dollars to own this electrotype because of its history. The current owner values this piece of history at par with the rare proof dollars of 1801, 1802 and 1803, at which the electrotypes of 1804 traded during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
This electrotype is now owned by ANA Past President H. Robert Campbell who purchased it about 15 years ago from another Past President of the ANA, Kenneth Bressett, who obtained it in 1993 from the Detroit Money Museum. The museum displayed this electrotype from 1960 to 1993 after acquiring it from Detroit collector Nate S. Shapero.
-The piece has an elongated light area on its reverse from a display stand used to exhibit it at the Detroit museum. It was first sold at auction on July 25, 1883 by William Jenks, a well-known numismatist from Philadelphia, for which it was the first specimen to be photographed.
Bressett, who is editor of A Guide Book of United States Coins, famously known as the “Red Book,” wrote in a letter to Campbell in 2007, “I will show clearly that the electrotype 1804 dollars were indeed made at the Mint, and that they are just as respectable as any of the other varieties. Because of that, I am going to list them in the Red Book right along with the silver pieces.”
The certification of this electrotype reproduction of an 1804 Dollar is controversial to say the least. Before PCGS certified the piece, several noted experts met to examine it and make the determination whether to encapsulate it. It is doubtful that PCGS would certify just any electrotype. This one is important because it was undoubtedly made at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. It is an historic piece of monumental importance!
Editors Note: CoinWeek will be following up on this story with additional comments and opinions from several experts, along with two videos produced at the Chicago ANA . We will cross link the two articles accordingly.
Mark Ferguson was a coin grader for PCGS , a market analyst for Coin Values and has been a coin dealer for more than 40 years. He has written for the ANA, Coin Dealer Newsletter, Coin World, Numismatic News, , Coin Values, The Numismatist and currently has a weekly column on CoinWeek. Mark can be reached at Mark Ferguson Rare Coins ( www.mfrarecoins.com)