This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The 1859-S Seated Liberty dollar was a coin that was both ahead of its time and a sign of the times. This unusual combination is part of the reason it is so interesting today.
Silver dollars weren’t in much use back in 1859. Throughout the 1850s, the gold dollar mintages were much higher than the mintages of silver dollars. No silver dollar had a mintage close to 1 million pieces yet such totals were almost common for gold dollars. Sometimes branch mint totals for a gold dollar date were on par with the Philadelphia silver dollar mintage of the same year. We might like silver dollars today, but back in the 1850s Americans clearly were not overly thrilled about using silver dollars, preferring instead the small gold coins.
San Francisco might have been 3,000 miles away from most of the country, but it appeared to follow the same pattern. In fact, the new mint in San Francisco had been producing coins since 1854, but until 1859 it had never produced a single silver dollar. That was probably not all that surprising since gold was everyone’s favorite in San Francisco, and gold was available in all forms. That there were no silver dollars being made in San Francisco in the 1850s was certainly a sign of the times.
There was, however, a lively group of banks and merchants in San Francisco back in the 1850s ,and they were somewhat ahead of their time in that they wanted the 1850s version of free trade with China. The goal was to buy silk, tea and other desired items from China and import them to the U.S. for sale. If that sounds a little like major stories today, it is because it is basically the same. The problem was that the Chinese, for some reason no one in San Francisco could understand, wanted to be paid in silver and preferably Mexican silver. Payment in Mexican silver meant paying extra for the money-changing, which made the cost of goods more expensive.
Sometime in the late 1850s the merchants organized and approached San Francisco Mint officials about producing a silver dollar. The merchants probably made no bones about the fact that they wanted to use the silver dollars in China. That would have probably seemed innocent enough and about 15 years later that would become the basis for the idea of a Trade dollar, so they were ahead of their time.
In 1859, the San Francisco Mint produced a rather modest total of 20,000 1859-S Seated Liberty dollars. They were the first silver dollars to be minted there. That fact alone makes them historic coins, but with that mintage they could not be easily found.
Of course, the mintage may paint a more optimistic picture than is really the case as some numbers of the 1859-S Seated Liberty dollars almost certainly left the country, never to return. You could very fairly say that they were the first Trade dollars. Today the 1859-S is $330 in G-4, $15,000 in MS-60 and $36,500 in MS-63. Those prices all show some gain since the late 1990s.
In fact, the 1859-S is probably better than the prices suggest. Professional Coin Grading Service has seen 155 1859-S Seated Liberty dollars, and of that total just 15 were Mint State and none higher than MS-63. At Numismatic Guaranty Corporation the total is 81, of which 17 reached Mint State with a single MS-65 being by far the best.
With a 20,000 mintage and perhaps a few hundred at most known today, the 1859-S is a good deal in virtually every grade. When you buy an 1859-S, you can’t expect major price increases with the currently limited demand. That said, the 1859-S is a low-mintage silver dollar and that by definition makes it a desirable coin.
More to the point, the 1859-S has a fascinating history and that is really priceless. Not only was it historic and a true reflection of the times in San Francisco when no one cared about a silver dollar, but by being produced specifically to end up in China trade it really was ahead of its time. As it was, the 1859-S was the test of an idea that would later end up as a U.S. coin, so it is truly a pioneer coin.