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1869-S dimes possess interesting past


Struck in small numbers, the 1869-S Seated Liberty dime has a proportionally high population of Mint State examples. Did these coins all originate from a small hoard discovered in Europe?

It’s amazing to consider how many stories there are regarding lost or missing coins. There are also numerous stories about coins that suddenly appear in places where they should not be. One of these stories involves the 1869-S Seated Liberty dime.

It’s worth taking a trip back in time to learn about the coin. In 1869, the nation was still basically without circulating silver and gold coins, which had all disappeared during the Civil War. Moreover, gold and silver issues made during and in the immediate years after the war had basically stayed in vaults.

There was an exception, however. Out in California, there was gold in a wide variety of forms, and people there never saw any real reason to hoard coins as had been the case back East. Also, the Civil War was a distant matter to those on the West Coast.

In terms of commerce, things in California remained basically as they had been for years: an animal skin here, a pinch of gold there, and perhaps a U.S. coin every so often. Even that hardly exhausted the list of options, as there were privately made gold coins and foreign coins as well.

In the middle of all this merriment was the San Francisco Mint, a rather unhealthy shack that was trying to turn out the coins needed in the West. Miracles were being accomplished in the inadequate building, but probably not enough of them. While San Francisco seems to have had priorities in terms of production, dimes were not one of them.

San Francisco began coin production in 1854, but its first dime was not seen until 1856, with a mintage of just 70,000. While quantities slowly and surely did begin to rise, the 1869-S was the first San Francisco dime to even approach a mintage of half a million at 450,000.

Even with that unusually high amount, it is not wise to expect large numbers of the 1869-S Seated Liberty dime at the next coin show. There was simply little or no saving of these coins at the time. In fact, there was not much saving of San Francisco dimes at any time. Most collectors then, and for years to come, were collecting only by date, so they did not need a San Francisco dime.

Prices for the 1869-S Seated Liberty dime today are $25 in G-4, which is only a slight premium, and $400 in MS-60, a very modest premium for a San Francisco date. The reason for that modest premium, besides mintage, may well come from a source far from San Francisco.

In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, numismatic researcher Q. David Bowers writes this about the 1869-S: “Several dozen or more of these turned up in the early 1990s in Europe in a former communist country. One piece examined by the author was choice Mint State.” He goes no farther in his discussion, but the story is certainly interesting.

The Professional Coin Grading Service reports 41 examples of the 1869-S Seated Liberty in Mint State, while the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation reports 45. These are high numbers for a San Francisco dime of that period.

The conclusion has to be that Bowers is correct, although the total in the hoard was probably small. Just why the coins migrated to Europe is unknown, but it makes any Mint State 1869-S Seated Liberty dime an interesting coin with a past that is potentially most unusual.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

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