By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez, Editor
Early American coins are among the most widely collected and studied issues in all of numismatics. Of the federal issues that the United States Mint coined in the 1790s and 1800s, perhaps no other silver coins have captured the hearts of collectors in the way the early American dollars have. Struck from 1794 through 1804, these so-called “Bust” dollars, which include the Flowing Hair and Draped Bust types, have maintained a prominent place in numismatic cabinets since at least the mid 19th century.
It was in the mid 19th century that the most famous Bust dollar of all was struck. The 1804 dollar, a few of which were first made in 1834 for inclusion in special proof sets that were presented as diplomatic gifts for royalty and political leaders overseas, became one of the rarest, most treasured of all United States coins. This seven-figure trophy rarity, long known as “The King of American Coins,” is the poster child of the Draped Bust dollar series and has helped popularize all early American dollars.
Mystery shrouds the series – including why the “1804” date was even employed on a coin made three decades later. Though many scholars believe it has something to do with 1804 being the last date the coin was struck – mint records reveal 19,570 dollars were struck in 1804, though these were likely of the 1803 date, or perhaps even 1802. And the mystique behind these early American dollars doesn’t stop there.
Mystery Meets History With The Draped Bust Dollar
For years, numismatic scholars have conjectured the story of the female model who appears on the Draped Bust dollar. Lore points to Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing Bingham as the model for the matronly woman seen on the Draped Bust dollar. However, according to historian R.W. Julian, that story is little more than lore. “The Ann Willing Bingham story was invented by Don Taxay, who speculated that she might been the model,” says Julian. “Taxay’s speculation became a fact for later writers.”
Julian remarks the only known reference to the Draped Bust design was made by Mint Director James Ross Snowden on page 177 of his 1861 work A Description of the Medals of Washington, which states: “The [Draped Bust] head of Liberty on the dollar of 1795 was designed by [Gilbert] Stuart, the celebrated portrait painter, at the request of the Director [Henry William DeSaussure], as we learn from a relation of the family; Stuart facetiously remarking that Liberty on the other coins had run mad – referring to the disheveled hair on the [Flowing Hair] head of Liberty on the previous coins – we will bind it up and thus render her a steady matron.”
Adds Julian, “I have no doubt that Stuart did in fact design both sides of the new Draped Bust dollar in 1795 but doubt that Director DeSaussure was involved. The director had begun his term of office in early July 1795 and knew few people in Philadelphia,” he says. “It is more likely that the change of design was undertaken for President Washington, who knew Stuart well. The designs were sent to John Eckstein, an artist who specialized in plaster models; Eckstein prepared models of both sides and these were given to Engraver Robert Scot as guide in preparing the dies.”
Production of the Draped Bust dollar began in the fall of 1795, replacing the Flowing Hair dollar type. It was a period when something of a scandal had befallen the young United States Mint. “Director David Rittenhouse, at the request of Assayer Albion Cox in the summer 1794, had illegally changed the fineness of the silver planchets from .8924 to .900 without changing the weight,” explains Julian. “This cheated depositors out of about one percent of their bullion value. The matter became public knowledge in late October 1795, when Elias Boudinot became director and was to cause serious problems.” This led to a decrease in silver deposits and in turn relatively low mintages of the silver dollar in 1796 and especially 1797. “It was not until late 1797, and an agreement with the Bank of the United States, that silver bullion became more plentiful at the Mint,” says Julian. Also causing decreased production of silver dollars in 1797, a year when just 7,776 were made, was a breakout of yellow fever in Philadelphia.
“One interesting point not generally known is that Mint Director Boudinot kept $10,000 of his own funds continually circulating through the Mint,” notes Julian. “He brought silver to the Mint and used the coins obtained to buy more silver. All, or most at any rate, of the coins he obtained were dollars.” Collectively, he deposited a total of around $140,000 in 1798 and from 1800 through 1803, which coincides with the period of the greatest production of Draped Bust silver dollars – which means that approximately 140,000 silver dollars were struck from Boudinot’s own funds.
Draped Bust Dollars Scarce by Today’s Standards
Mintage records show more than 1.2 million Draped Bust dollars were made between 1795 and 1804. To be exact, 1,284,143. Make that 1,284,158 if counting the 15 known original issues and restrikes of the 1804-dated dollar. The highest-mintage issues are the 1798 and 1799 dollars, with production totals of 327,536 and 423,515, respectively. The 1800 dollar, with its mintage of 220,920 represents the only other six-figure mintage in the Draped Bust dollar series. With the exception of the aforementioned key-date 1797 dollar, with its mintage of just 7,776, other Draped Bust dollars have production figures ranging between 41,650 and 85,634.
Going by these figures, one may think Draped Bust dollars are plentiful. But as is so often the case with early Federal-era coinage, mintages don’t even come close to approximating the number of survivors. W. David Perkins, a Colorado dealer who specializes in early American silver dollars, say historical references to the survival rate of United States silver dollars minted from 1794 to 1803 typically range between 3% and 5%. “This low survival rate is not surprising given that as the price of silver increased, Bust dollars were melted,” he says. “In fact this is why the Mint stopped issuing silver dollars after 1803 – the price of silver had increased, and many of the early dollars were disappearing shortly after they were struck and entered circulation.”
Considering that a bit more than 1.4 million dollars were struck between 1794 and 1803, there are between 42,000 and 70,000 of these early silver coins remaining – using the estimate of 3% to 5% remaining. “This is pretty low when compared to Morgan dollars!” exclaims Perkins. “We can be pretty specific as to the survival rate for 1794-dated silver dollars. The mintage of 1794 dollars is 1,758 coins,” he says. “Between 140 and 150 different examples of the 1794 dollars have been identified and documented, with a previously unknown example showing up on occasion. Assuming that there are around 150 examples known today, the survival rate for 1794 dollars is approximately 8.5% of the total mintage of 1,758.”
Truly Original Bust Dollars Are Rare
Why is the survival rate so much lower for the Draped Bust dollar? “It is reasonable to assume 1794 dollars survived at a higher rate than those dated 1795 to 1803,” Perkins explains. “1794 dollars were the first silver dollars struck at the new Philadelphia Mint and the silver dollar was the largest denomination of silver coin in the United States.” While there may be 50,000 or more early dollars around, many of them have some major surface problems, including holes, scratches, rim bumps, discoloration, and past cleanings. Says Perkins, “the late John Haugh surveyed 14 collectors and dealers of early dollars around 20 years ago, asking two questions. The first question was ‘how many early dollars have been lightly cleaned at one time in the past?’ Answers averaged 79% of the ‘raw’ early dollars and 76% of the certified ones.”
The second question? “How many early dollars have been dipped at one time in their past?” Perkins notes most came back with the affirmative. “74% of the raw ones and 71% of the certified early dollars.” The bottom line? Haugh’s conclusion was that “contrary to popular belief all services will holder and grade, without net grading down, Flowing Hair and Draped Bust dollars that have been lightly cleaned or lightly dipped. They generally draw the line at coins where the cleaning or dipping has been conducted in such a way that the fields have been damaged, showing hairlines visible under low magnification, dull fields, or appear lifeless because of harsh treatment.” Haugh further stated that “a good number – experts opine 20% to 35% of the Flowing Hair and Bust dollars which survive – have been damaged or abused, then reworked (IE holed and later plugged, initials or scratches removed).”
Are there any early dollars with totally original surfaces and toning? “I’m in the camp that says that in 200+ years, nearly all early dollars have been lightly cleaned and/or lightly dipped at one point,” declares Perkins. “I’ve seen a number of early dollars that likely haven’t been touched in over 100 years (with very original toning and look). Most of these are seen when old collections come on then market, for example the early dollars and other silver coins in the [Louis] Eliasberg sale in 1997,” he notes. “I was a consultant to Bowers & Merena in the cataloging of these and was able to view them both ‘raw’ and before the sale. Expect to pay a premium for a choice, originally toned coin.”
For more insight on pricing, varieties, and collecting strategies for Draped Bust dollars, please read Part II of this series.