Some coins are pretty straightforward. Others seem to raise a lot of questions, and the 1859-0 Seated Liberty dollar is one of those coins.
The 1859-0 Seated Liberty dollar was produced on the eve of a great national crisis. Something like the Civil War does not simply happen in early 1861. No, it was a storm whose clouds had been gathering for years, and by 1859 many knew the tragedy was very close to impossible to stop.
In 1859 the New Orleans Mint made an extraordinary number of silver dollars, with a total mintage of 360,000. No facility had made that many since 1799. The mint then turned around and made 515,000 more in 1860.
In 1859 there was almost no use of silver dollars outside of New Orleans. The likely reason for this sudden increase is export. Many silver dollars made after 1853 were made for export. As a port city, New Orleans was a great place to make the coins and then dump them on a boat for foreign ports.
Even with the high mintage, it is surprising that the 1859-0 is available in upper grades. It is $2,200 in MS-60, which is the cheapest along with the 1860-O.
The 1871 and 1872 are more expensive and they had higher mintages of more than 1 million. Moreover, they were produced in Philadelphia where examples were usually saved. Historically in New Orleans there was little or no saving of new issues. Also it must be remembered that if the mintages were primarily exported, those coins would not be saved.
The whole thing gets more complicated if you believe that there were bags of uncirculated examples of the 1871 and 1872 found in the Treasury vaults in the 1960s, as Walter Breen suggests. However, if bags do exist, we have yet to see them.
There is no evidence of large numbers of the 1871 or 1872. In Mint State combined, Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation have seen just over 250 examples of the 1871 and about 160 of the 1872.
In his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Q. David Bowers suggests that there may have been a bag of the 1859-0 and perhaps one or more of the 1860-0 found in the Treasury vaults. He notes that the 1859-0 coins that did turn up were generally heavily bagmarked or even abraided. That would eliminate some as candidates for at least MS-60 today, yet the grading services report a combined 495 Mint State 1859-0 dollars graded as well as 878 examples of the 1860-0.
Assuming there was more than 1,000 pieces of the 1859-0 in the Treasury vaults, it makes us wonder why they were quickly shipped north to Washington or Philadelphia. At the time, coins produced at New Orleans or San Francisco normally stayed in the area.
The 1859-0 is not rare under the circumstances, but it is certainly interesting. We rarely find so many questions surrounding one coin.