Where did some of the best U.S. coins ever made go? We have in many cases mintage totals, but in many of those cases totals seem to suggest that more coins of many dates and types should be available than is actually the case.
Naturally, the largest percentage loss for any U.S. coin is from normal use. Coins circulated and in the process they get worn out and sometimes they are even lost or destroyed. That is natural and expected. It can even happen with great rarities. For a reason still not precisely clear, a less than whopping total of 24 1894-S Barber dimes were produced. Why anyone would use or lose a dime when only 24 were made is hard to imagine today, but only about half the original mintage can be traced. It is similar with other great rarities and if routine losses are that high with coins noted for low mintages, the losses of regular not-so-rare coins are even higher.
Silver and gold coins have always had their own special threats to survival in terms of melting. The gold recall order of 1933 resulted in massive amounts of gold coins being turned in for melting. While it was not the only time gold coins were ever melted, the Mint reported that over 39 percent of all the double eagles ever produce were melted and some 37 percent of all the gold eagles. Other denominations had lower, but sometimes significant percentages of their totals being melted and even a bit more than one percent of the total mintage of $3 gold pieces found their way into a government melting pot.
Gold coins have been melted, but if anything, silver coins have faced even more periods of destruction than gold. Although the production of both the gold eagle and silver dollar were suspended in 1804 it was the silver dollar that was attracting the most notice as a coin being exported by bullion speculators. In the early 1850s there were virtually no silver coins in circulation as bullion value exceeded face value. The amount of silver being put in these denominations was lowered in 1853, but that meant coins still unreleased were melted and privately held coins of the older and heavier weights were also subject to melting.
With rising silver prices, the temptation to melt silver coins has always been present. When silver soared in the late 1970s on its way to a record $50 price in early 1980, the temptation to melt became more of an imperative and tons of silver coins of all types were destroyed. Refineries were backed up for months. Prices paid for silver coins actually fell far below bullion value during this frantic period. At its widest, 90 percent silver coins worth 36 times face value were bringing only 24 times face.
How many better dates or MS-65 full bell line Franklin half dollars might have been destroyed is anyone’s guess, but the number was certainly substantial as at the price prevailing at the peak, even better dates and uncirculated coins were all worth far more as silver than they had ever been worth to collectors and dealers.
Perhaps the most extreme situation in our history took place with a coin specifically designed with silver in mind: the Trade dollar.
Trade dollars were heavier than a regular silver dollars primarily to encourage the merchants of China to accept them, thus helping a growing trans-Pacific trade in the 1870s. It was not a bad idea, at least in theory. The Comstock Lode meant the nation had all the silver it need. If something was not done with it, the price might plummet.
If you total up all the years of production, there were nearly 36 million Trade dollars struck. Of that number, about 27.7 million were reportedly exported to China – with just over 2 million having returned to the United States. Any number of things could happen to a Trade dollar once it arrived in China, but to suggest that the number lost forever is likely well over 50 percent of the entire mintage would not be overstating the situation.
Moreover, the Trade dollar with its legal-tender status revoked shortly after routine issues ended caused problems in domestic U.S. commerce. Without legal-tender status, they changed hands for metallic value, which was below face value. This created a situation where unscrupulous people could buy them up and then try to use them at face value. More than a few people were taken advantage of in this way. In fact, the problem got so bad that the government offered to accept them at face value.
The coins the government bought back were melted, resulting in the loss of additional large numbers. As a result, when you look at Trade dollar mintages, they do not even begin to tell you the whole story of numbers unavailable to collectors today.
The Trade dollar was followed by the Morgan dollar. They too had their share of destruction. The Morgan dollar was another political creation. It was created to use large amounts of silver. Legislatively required large mintages caused them to back up in Treasury vaults. Additional space had to be added to hold them all.
In 1918 the Pittman Act authorized the melting of up to 350 million Morgan dollars. This greatly reduced the supply in vaults. As it happened, about 259 million were converted to bullion for shipment to India to support its currency. India was a key part of the British Empire, which at the time was our ally against Germany in World War I.
About 11 million more silver dollars were melted in order to use the metal in other silver coins.
Overall, 270 million coins went to the melting pot. It makes you wonder what might have happened to the silver dollar market if they still existed.
The numbers add up to significant losses of assorted U.S. coins in addition to routine losses from regular use. Over the years, however, there have been rumors of other losses sometimes of significant dates with the suggestion in many cases being that the coins were exported first and then lost.
In some cases, the stories are probably little more than rumors. The 1799 large cent had a mintage of just 42,540 pieces. That alone would have made the 1799 a very tough date, but as Bob Van Ryzin recounts in his book, “Twisted Tails,” there has long been a rumor that some of the mintage was lost when a ship bound from Salem, Mass., to the coast of Africa was lost.
The story does not really stand up as the 1799 is tough as its mintage would indicate. It was produced on dark, narrow planchets from an American supplier, Coltman Brothers, and the best guess is they would not have survived well in circulation.
Another tough date that has been reported lost just about everywhere at one time or another is the 1844 Seated Liberty dime. The 1844 Seated Liberty dime had a mintage very similar to the 1793 Wreath large cent with a total of 72,500, fewer than 10,000 more pieces than the 1793 Wreath cent reverse. Perhaps it was a symptom of the times that an already low mintage coin from the 1800s had to somehow be made all the more inviting with reasons presented to explain how a low mintage managed to come close to vanishing entirely.
In the case of the 1844 dime, there might be more stories and rumors than there were dimes from the entire mintage. Van Ryzin goes down the list in his book. They range from being lost at sea, which seems to be a favorite theme, to being seized by bandits as well as falling victim to an assortment of natural disasters.
One story, however, seems to be a regular crowd favorite, which was that the 1844 mintage was used to pay troops headed to Mexico in the 1846-1848 war. Those troops then supposedly gave all the 1844 dimes to the local beauties for the pleasure of their company.
As with the 1799 cent, there seems to be very limited support for the idea of large numbers of the 1844 dime having vanished.
At $200 in G-4, the 1844 is more expensive than the lower mintage 1846, which is $150, but that might simply be due to the notoriety of the 1844. Besides, in higher grades, the 1844 actually sells for far less than the 1846 dimes in the various higher grades. That would hardly be the case if the 1844 had disappeared in large numbers.
While the interesting stories for the 1799 large cent and the 1844 Seated Liberty dime may not really stand up to careful study, the idea of significant numbers of U.S. coins being lost in some fashion has more validity than some might expect.
There is no doubt that the U.S. dollar travels the globe. You can find U.S. dollars and get them changed into the local currency in almost any country. In fact, some even use them as the regular currency as is the case in Panama. Coins of the U.S. traveled the world in the past, especially gold coins. In a number of cases, they did not return.
Clearly the Trade dollar was expressly made for international travel. That urge to trade with China was not specific to the 1870s as ships had been making the journey there and to other Asian nations for decades before the first Trade dollar was ever struck.
Coins have headed in the other direction as well. Europe became the destination of many $20 gold pieces. These paid for imported goods. Stories of assorted dates emerging in small hoards from Swiss banks are many and some small European hoards have supplied significant numbers of top grade double eagles of some dates.
A date often mentioned is the 1867, where a small European hoard was supposed to be the source of many somewhat “baggy” uncirculated coins seen in the market.
In the case of other double eagles, the popular notion of being lost at sea has turned out to be true. Thanks to the salvage of the “S.S. Central America” and “S.S. Brother Jonathan” there are some top grades examples of dates such as the 1857-S and 1863-S as well as others in top grade as they were recovered from below the waves where they had vanished shortly after being produced. While the number of ships with large quantities of double eagles may be small, the fact remains that the shipment of gold in various forms from California would involve some ocean travel and that always carried risks.
It would be natural for a variety of reasons that some numbers of U.S. coins have over time traveled south of the border. We know that after a century of involvement that U.S. coins are not only in use in Panama, but there are also reports of U.S. coin collections there. They were assembled from circulation and those collections involve things like silver dollars and sometimes surprisingly good dates.
Most think of the U.S. involvement in Panama because of the Panama Canal as being unique, yet in fact the Central American nation where U.S. involvement has been most frequent is the country of Nicaragua. This began back in the mid 1850s when an American by the name of William Walker and his forces took over the country. He was briefly installed as president. After that there was an assortment of U.S. economic and military incursions, leaving the country ripe as a potential place for American coins to have gone missing.
Not far from Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, there is the large San Antonia sugar mill. Still in operation, the mill harkens back to a time when agricultural products of the country were a magnet for businessmen from all over the world Product was shipped through the port of Corinto, about 40 miles away. They came for cotton and fruit and around the region the United Fruit Company plantations sprang up. It was common practice among the rich plantation administrators to use U.S. gold coins. In many cases, these coins have not left.
You do not bother looking for a coin shop in a place like Chichigalpa. If you have a guide like Mauricio Soto, who travels Central America in search of coins, you simply let his instincts lead you and in this case it is to the Cortez-Zuniga jewelry store where sure enough, after some questioning, two double eagles are produced wrapped in cloth as there are no coin holders in the town.
The two coins have a story in that an old man brought them in claiming they came from a card game. That does not have a ring of truth in a country where many try to live on a couple of hundred dollars a month. A card game involving two double eagles would be a high stakes game to say the least.
The two double eagles, an 1896-S and a 1916-S, are remarkably nice as opposed to the other U.S. gold coins, but they all have one thing in common in that they are all from the San Francisco Mint. “These coins all came through the Pacific port of Corinto,” Soto observed, who over the years has become not just an expert at finding coins, but also at figuring out how they ended up in their present location.
You do not read much about Masaya or the American occupation of Nicaragua from 1923-1935, but according to Pavel Duarte, who owns the Pavel antique shop, that occupation resulted in the unusual supplies of American double eagles found in Masaya.
Pavel’s father at one point sold a group of 32 double eagles and the store frequently has U.S. $5 to $20 gold coins
Duarte explained, “The soldiers had the coins and they used them to pay for food or senoritas or other things so the coins stayed in Nicaragua even after the soldiers left.”
With such a story it is a temptation to ask about 1844 dimes, but the earliest American-related items Duarte remembers are three military bonds of the 1850s from William Walker.
The trend of San Francisco gold continued in Chinandega, but this time in the local pharmacy, which has a large sign saying they buy antiques, coins and bank notes. The gold in this instance was an 1893-S $5, which had seen a reasonable degree of circulation.
There were also a number of Morgan dollars, a 1908 Liberty nickel, but no stories except for an 1856 half dime.
“That half dime,” observed Soto, probably came here with one of William Walker’s troops when they invaded the region.”
It is not an idle comment as the defeat of Walker and his troops is the subject of many holidays in Central America. Even after 150 years, it is one topic that can basically unify the peoples of the various countries.
For Soto, it is even personal as on both sides of his family were members of the combined Central American forces that defeated Walker. He sports not one but two extremely rare medals from Costa Rica to prove the family role in the historic conflict.
The presence of so much gold from San Francisco in Nicaragua has little impact on the market, which has already factored in the missing coins. Moreover, most of the $5, $10 and $20 San Francisco dates are relatively common. The same could be said of the many silver issues that also appear, but in the case of a selected date or two there might be an impact.
The 1894-S gold $10, for example, had a mintage of just 25,000 pieces, lower than either the 1799 cent or 1844 dimes. If any quantity of the 1894-S were to be found, that could have an impact.
The silver dollar does not seem to follow a pattern as rigid as the gold, but the San Francisco connection during the 1890s could prove very interesting as the 1893-S and 1895-S were both low mintage from the right mint at the right time.
Certainly in the case of Latin America there was a well known flow of coins both to the north and to the south, meaning stories such as the 1844 dime while perhaps not appropriate in that instance would not be at all surprising. Almost any shop in the region will have some U.S. silver coins.
The stories as to why some coins seem to be tougher than their mintages suggest are not limited to soldiers and shipwrecks. The versatile rumor mill around the 1844 dime also suggests losses in the Chicago Fire and the Johnstown Flood. While neither is likely, it may well be that certain Barber coins were buried in the rubble of San Francisco by the earthquake of 1906.
It would not be out of the question to suspect that the 1901-S quarter with its mintage of 72,664 and a G-4 price of $5,200 suffered losses in the earthquake. It is far more expensive than the 1913-S with a mintage of just 40,000 pieces.
The only conclusion is that something happened to the 1901-S mintage, but we can only speculate unless someday some appear in a store in a remote part of Nicaragua, or in a foundation of an old building in San Francisco.
Historically speaking, the travels of U.S. coins have been many and varied. From Trade dollars to dimes and double eagles, there is little doubt that U.S. coins spread out across the world and for one reason or another many are still missing in action.