This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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There are some awfully good coins that get very little recognition. That statement could be applied to a large number of gold dollars, one of them being the 1857-C.
It’s fascinating to consider how much attention we spend on Morgan silver dollars, for example. It is many times overlooked that in the 1850s the dollar coin being used by much of the U.S. was not a silver dollar but rather the small gold dollars that had been produced since 1849.
The gold dollar had been a result of the great gold discovery in California. Even though gold dollars were a practical denomination, the U.S. had shown no prior interest in producing them. For a long time the U.S. was determined that dollar coins should be silver even though they were not really popular. This was in large part because of their size.
We can be sure that the gold dollar was popular by its mintages that dwarfed the silver dollar totals during the 1850s. The Philadelphia 1851 was more than 3.3 million, the 1852 was more than 2 million and the 1853 was more than 4 million. No silver dollar would even reach 1 million pieces before 1870, and during the 1850s gold dollars would routinely be produced at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans and later San Francisco.
Gold dollar mintages were not always in the millions. That was especially true at small frontier facilities in Charlotte and Dahlonega, where lower mintages were closer to the rule than the exception.
The 1857-C gold dollar was an average Charlotte issue even though its mintage of 13,280 was on the high side. Charlotte routinely had gold dollar mintages of less than 10,000. Despite its relatively high mintage, the 1857-C lists for $900 in F-12 today, and that is not all that different from the $950 price in the same grade for the 1857-D that had a mintage of just 3,533. Even more interesting, the 1857-C lists for $13,250 in MS-60 while the 1857-D is at $11,000.
These prices suggest that something unusual must have happened to the 1857-C. The Mint State price is fairly easy to explain as the coin was likely not saved in any numbers. However, it is unusual for a higher mintage Charlotte date to be less available than a Dahlonega.
The first reason for this is that the 1857-C is famous for its lack of quality. Charlotte and Dahlonega both had more then their share of troubles, so standing out as being especially poor is not easy.
According to gold coin expert David Akers, “The planchets used for striking 1857-C gold dollars were downright atrocious, as was the quality of minting. Even the best available specimens look terrible and are very difficult to grade.”
In terms of scarcity, we find that the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has graded 89 examples, of which just eight were called Mint State. None of these was graded higher than MS-62. The Professional Coin Grading Service has graded 129 examples, but only two were called Mint State. The better of the two was an MS-61.
The 1857-C is not an exceptionally rare gold dollar, but nice Mint State examples cannot be found. Find an 1857-C with any eye appeal at all and forget about the grade since it can be ugly in any grade.