This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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It could well be said that the 1851 Seated Liberty dollar is not just a tough date but a coin that reflects the times in terms of silver dollars and their use and also the situation with silver itself. It all adds up to a very interesting story.
The early 1850s were a troubled time at the U.S. Mint. The discovery of gold in California had upset silver prices to the point where it was actually costing more than their face value to produce silver coins.
The problem was evident in circulation where people were hoarding silver coins, causing a national coin shortage.
The only answer to the problem was to reduce the amount of silver in coins, but Congress responded instead with a 75 percent silver 3-cent piece. It is hard to justify the action except to suggest that it would appear the lawmakers did not want to be the ones responsible for lowering the silver content, but a new denomination that came out in 75 percent silver would perhaps not seem so bad. It was the best they could do at the time.
The situation still left the Mint with a significant problem. To produce coins was to lose money, and that is not viewed as a desirable outcome. The other side of the matter was that not producing silver coins would do nothing to help a growing national coin shortage. However, even if the coins were produced and put into circulation, they would only end up being hoarded. There was really no good answer.
As for the Seated Liberty dollar, these problems were just the latest chapter in the continuing trouble of getting people to use silver dollars. There had been little demand for them since they returned to production with the first Seated Liberty dollar in 1840.
In the period since 1840, no Seated Liberty dollar had even reached 200,000. In fact, it would be the tip of the iceberg as in the years that followed 1850 with the arrival of gold dollars, the silver dollar would see even more limited use.
There was a definite drop in production at the Mint. In 1850 the Seated Liberty dollar mintage was just 7,500, although New Orleans had a mintage of 40,000. In 1851 New Orleans would have no mintage and the Philadelphia total would be a mere 1,300 pieces.
The mintage made the 1851 scarce and that was recognized later when there was a restrike. The restrike can be identified as its date is centered while the date on originals is higher. Even the restrike has not had a negative impact on interest in the 1851.
The mintage alone is enough to make the 1851 very unusual, even though the 1852 was even lower at 1,100 pieces. Also worth noting is that as silver dollars, the 1851 and 1852 were not likely to be heavily saved, leaving a very small supply today. This explains the 1851’s G-4 price of $4,000, which is $500 more than the lower-mintage 1852.
Actually the 1851 is slightly better in all grades except in MS-65, where its $150,000 price is the same as the 1852. In MS-60 the 1851 is $43,500, exactly $5,000 more than the 1852.
If we check the grading services, we find that Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen just 18 examples of the 1851, although most were Mint State. In fact, the 1852 is seen less at NGC and so far never in MS-65. The same is true at Professional Coin Grading Service where they have seen 23 examples of the 1851 with one reaching MS-65 and 22 examples of the 1852 with just one reaching MS-65.
Under the circumstances the close prices of the 1851 and 1852 Seated Liberty dollars are certainly justified although a case could potentially be made that the 1852 should perhaps be closer to the 1851 or even higher in price.
What is really significant, however, is that the total numbers graded are very small as in both cases the total is less than 50 at the two services combined. That is a low total for any coin but especially low for a silver dollar, and that is perhaps the most important thing to remember when considering the 1851 and the 1852.