Few numismatic experiences have been more enlightening for me than the two-week internship I spent at the Nevada State Museum this past August. Nevada history has been an area of focused study for me over the past couple of years. The state’s rich history in mining and numismatics correlates perfectly with my interests. The Nevada State Museum itself is even located in the historic Carson City Mint building.
In short, I had the opportunity to handle items there that made my knees weak. My days there were riddled with exclamations ranging from, “Oh man, that’s cool,” to “I cannot believe this is in front of me!”
I was able to help out the museum in many ways in their numismatic department, mostly in organization and appraisal of coins and paper items.
I believe the biggest contribution I was able to make was with the collection of Dr. S.L. Lee, with the discovery of two tremendous error pieces. Both are arguably the most dramatic errors for their respective series: an 1873 obverse die cap with reverse brockage Trade dollar, and an 1873-CC with Arrows reverse die cap Seated Liberty half dollar. Both pieces are currently being graded by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., courtesy of Northern Nevada Coin.
The pieces carry an intriguing history that almost convinces me that the Trade dollar is also of Carson City origin. The history of Dr. S.L. Lee, the Nevada State Museum, and how these errors were discovered are deeply intertwined.
Simeon Lemuel Lee was born near Shobonier in Fayette County, Ill., on Sept. 4, 1844. He grew up on a farm, and at age 19 joined the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry under General Ulysses S. Grant. He later went through Mississippi with General William Tecumseh Sherman, and also went on to serve under General Canby at Du Valls Bluffs in Arkansas.
In September 1866 he entered the Physico-Medical Institute at Cincinnati, and graduated with an M.D. degree in 1870. He married Lola Montez Watts in November 1868, and over the course of his life had three sons and one daughter with her.
He was a man known for his remarkable oratorical skills. He was quite charitable, incredibly knowledgeable, a Mason and a Republican. He had an immaculate appearance, always with a fresh boutonniere and clean clothes. His good health, robust physique and vigorous mentality made him well suited to start a life in the western states.
He moved to Carson City in October of 1870. He practiced as a doctor there for two years, earning a gleaming reputation for himself. He was known as one of the best doctors in the town, and was called upon by people all over the region. He moved to Pioche, Nev., in December of 1872, and continued his practice there until June 1879, when he went to Eureka, Nev. He worked as a doctor in Eureka until September 1879, when he returned to Carson City, where he lived out the remainder of his life, working as a doctor for much of it. He died on Jan. 12, 1927.
Dr. Lee was a collector – a hoarder, actually – for almost all of his life. He started collecting arrowheads as a young boy, and collected everything from ore samples, semi-precious stones, rare ceramics, fossils, guns, stamps, coins, Native American baskets and water jugs up to his death at age 82.
He estimated he spent roughly $40,000 (inflation not taken into account) throughout his life on his collections. Today, a number of the pieces he acquired are worth over $400,000 individually. His collections were donated to the State of Nevada by his wife on Feb. 15, 1934, only about a month before she herself died. The collections were displayed at the Nevada State Capitol prior to being transferred to the Nevada State Museum shortly after it opened in 1941.
The sheer quantity of the material in the Lee collection presented an imposing challenge to those who were given the task of cataloging and organizing it. It was a difficult task, and judging by the descriptions written down on the accession cards for some of the coins in the Lee collection, the humble Nevada State Museum did not have anyone with an extensive numismatic education at the time. The two errors were given brief and vague descriptions: the Trade dollar error being described as “Imprint of Trade Dollar dated 1873 and marked CC” (in reality, the piece bears no CC mintmark). However, it is important to keep in mind that error collecting had not yet become popular in numismatics, so even a seasoned numismatist may not have been able to give a particularly accurate description of the piece.
Someone believed the errors were interesting enough to be exhibited, so shortly after being catalogued they were put on display. The pieces spent almost 10 years on exhibit, before finally being stored in the museum vaults in January 1950. Whether the pieces were exhibited “front row center” in a case, or visually buried in a display is unknown. The fact that their significance was not realized during this stint in the public view suggests the latter.
In April 1943 the vast majority of the Lee coin collection was sent to the Smithsonian Institution for a professional review. The response from the Smithsonian stated that the “coins in the Lee Collection, are, on the whole, not very satisfactory examples of American coinage.” Such a statement is well justified, as most of the U.S. coins in the Lee collection are very low grade examples of common-date copper and silver series.
Records suggest, however, that the two error coins were not included in the shipment to the Smithsonian, probably because it would have been too troublesome to remove them from their exhibit. As a result of the comments from the Smithsonian, the U.S. coins in the Lee collection were cast in a demeaning light and likely were skipped over whenever numismatists wished to examine the U.S. coin holdings of the Nevada State Museum. A number of truly impressive donations in the decades to follow included an almost complete collection of CC coinage. Their arrival buried the Lee coin collection even deeper. Who would want to view the low-grade Indian Head cents of the Lee Collection when rare CC double eagles were present?
This was my attitude as well as I worked through the numismatic holdings of the Nevada State Museum. The Lee coin collection was one of the last batches of coins I went through. The mainstream U.S. coins were fairly unimpressive, although the collection did have some interesting medals and fantasy pieces.
I vividly remember when I found the first of the two errors: the Trade dollar. It was almost at the end of the day and I was about ready to head back to the hotel. Much of what I was going through was tiny copper coins or aluminum tokens, so it was a good feeling to pick up the tiny manila envelope (all the coins in the collection were in such envelopes) and feel the weightiness of a large silver coin.
When I slid the coin out of the envelope, my first response was that it was a fantasy piece, or perhaps some type of die trial. Nothing I had seen so far in the collection was spectacular, so I was metally calibrated for this set of coins to think of most things there as not of any particular significance.
Seeing a touch of solder near 12 o’clock on the obverse, I mistook this for the remnants of a casting process. I put the coin back in its envelope and opened the next coin.
This time the die cap Seated Liberty half dollar fell into my hands. This piece, with frosty mint luster and all characteristics indicating it was a genuine coin, made my heart begin to beat fast. I immediately took a second look at the Trade dollar. The edge disturbances at 12 o’clock on the obverse were not the result of a casting process, but were instead the remnants of where a chain had been soldered onto the coin, probably to be used on a necklace or watch fob, which would explain the light wear across its surfaces.
Further examination made me quite certain that it, too, was a genuine piece. The weight was correct for both pieces as well.
My immediate inclination was to call a friend of mine who is an expert in errors: Andy Lustig. Seeming excited about the find, I agreed to send him some photos of the pieces. His response the following day was that, based on the photos, both pieces appeared to be genuine. I also contacted David McCarthy, who agreed with this.
I proceeded to complete my assessment of the coins in the Lee Collection, finding nothing else of particular mention.
The fact that Dr. Lee was a well known man in the Carson City area, that the two error coins are excessively rare, that one of the pieces bears a CC mintmark (and the other – the Trade Dollar – has none of the reverse design present, so no mintmark could be possible), and that both of the pieces wound up in a collection with few other coins worthy of any mention at all, leads me to believe the pieces were given to Dr. Lee by a Carson City Mint employee.
This contention is supported by the fact that Dr. Lee had an 1876-CC 20-cent piece, which was sold at auction in New York in 1899. It would be very difficult for anyone to acquire an 1876-CC 20-cent piece who did not have inside connections to the Carson City Mint. However, when the pieces would have been given to Dr. Lee is a mystery, since he was not a resident of Carson City from 1872 to 1879. Perhaps they were a present when he returned in 1879, or were compensation for a medical service.
The Trade dollar error is of particular interest to me. In an attempt to prove its origins at the Carson City Mint, I searched for any die diagnostic I could find. The die was totally pristine – no cracks, gouges, scratches, chips, clashes, etc. However, there was a pair of abnormalities I have not seen present on any other Trade dollar. It appears that a tiny berry and tiny extra leaf were etched into the die’s surface surrounding olive branch. Whether it was indeed intentionally done by a Carson City Mint employee, or simply was a random result of some Mint process, I cannot say for sure.
The necessary procedure for errors such as these to be produced is impressive. In order for the reverse die cap Seated Liberty half dollar to be made, a planchet would need to have entered the coining chamber with the collar in its normal position. When the coin was struck, it stuck to the reverse die. Either during this strike or one of the strikes following it, the collar became jammed in the down position. This allows for the piece to have a reeded edge, but still have a huge diameter. With each successive planchet that entered the chamber and was struck, the coin that stuck to the anvil die was smashed far beyond the normal diameter of a half dollar and the details on the obverse of the coin become flattened and distorted.
The coin was removed from the anvil die before all the obverse detail was lost, but after enough strikes to have the diameter expand to roughly 37mm. The coin is substantially cupped, concaving on the reverse side, but is not at all like one of the “thimble” die caps often seen in modern times.
The process for the Trade dollar error to be produced is even more complex. A planchet was fed into the coining chamber, struck, and it then became stuck to the reverse die (this is known as a “capped die”). The collar then became jammed in the down position. A second planchet – the planchet that was to become the error coin being discussed here – was fed into the coining chamber, struck and stuck to the obverse die.
However, since the reverse die was capped with a freshly struck coin, the second planchet receives an inverted image of the obverse where the reverse design would normally be. The coin that results from the second planchet has what is known as “brockage,” but it is very rare that a coin with brockage sticks to the remaining uncapped die (in this case, the obverse die).
However, in this case the brockaged coin did stick to the uncapped die and proceeded to strike more planchets as they were fed into the chamber, smashing the coin outwards and expanding its diameter to 45mm. This is the most drastic Trade dollar error I am aware of. The technical term for such an error would be an obverse die cap with reverse brockage.
My internship at the Nevada State Museum was a wonderful experience. The staff was a delight to work with and extremely supportive. I had the opportunity to work with and view some amazing pieces of history, and I’m ecstatic and proud that I was able to make such a valuable contribution for bringing these coins to light.
William Robins of Westchester County, N.Y., has been a collector for 13 years. His main interests are in Pioneer gold, Carson City and San Francisco coinage.