There is nothing better than a coin with a good story, and it is safe to say that the 1856-S Seated Liberty dime is a good coin with an awfully good story.
The discovery of gold in California caused rapid changes in the state. But the effort toward opening a United States mint, however, did not move as fast. Some in the government didn’t want a mint there, probably because the trip to California by land or sea was long and dangerous.
But there was far too much gold in California to ignore, and finally a mint was approved. The facility began coin production in 1854.
The first San Francisco Mint was not exactly state-of-the-art. In fact, it was probably a health hazard. It was small and crowded. The sound of the machines made regular conversation difficult, and the smell of acid made regular respiration equally difficult.
Because the place could not make large numbers of coins, its priorities were lots of large gold coins. It would be 1856 before the Seated Liberty dime was produced, and even then the mintage of the 1856-S was just 70,000 pieces. As it would turn out, the 1856-S was the start of a number of low-mintage dimes. It wouldn’t be until 1860 before a San Francisco dime would have a mintage of even 100,000 pieces.
The chances of anyone saving a new 1856-S dime were not good since there were essentially no collectors in San Francisco at the time. Even as time passed there were likely to be few new collectors as there were just too many other things to do than hang around trying to assemble a dime collection.
Starting with just a 70,000 mintage, the 1856-S dime was not going to be readily available under any circumstances but with little or no saving it was going to be that much tougher.
If we look at the price of the 1856-S today it lists for $160 in G4, which is very fair given the 70,000 mintage. Factor in its historical importance, and the price seems that much better. It lists for $1,750 in AU-50 and is not even priced in higher grades since it is not seen often enough in the market in these grades.
Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen just 23 coins of which five were called Mint State. The Professional Coin Grading Service total is currently at 33 coins, and again only five were called Mint State.
That combined total has to be taken seriously, especially when you consider the G-4 price of $160. We can expect that lower grade Seated Liberty dimes are not often sent into grading services, but the 1856-S is not an ordinary Seated Liberty dime. It is more likely to be submitted for grading.
The 1856-S is historic and also seems to be tougher than expected. One can’t find a better combination of factors, and that makes the lesser-known 1856-S a very interesting coin.