This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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There is a great deal to be said about any branch mint of the United States, but San Francisco is special. While there are important and interesting coins that have been produced at other mints, San Francisco stands alone for the number of important rarities and the number of coins that have had a real impact over the years. In addition, with its longevity, the story of the San Francisco Mint is a long and interesting one. It all comes together to make San Francisco a special facility with a very special place in the hearts of most collectors.
It all started with gold. The bonanza discovered in the late 1840s saw the representatives from California and the West begin an immediate effort to have a branch mint. California became a state in 1850, just two years after the gold strike. It was natural to focus on the idea of a mint. Charlotte, N.C., Dahlonega, Ga., and New Orleans, La., all had mints and they were all much closer to Philadelphia than San Francisco was.
The distance to California from Washington and Philadelphia probably entered into the picture as authorization for the mint was slow in coming. While lawmakers tried to decide what to do, the people of California simply made do with a bizarre assortment of coins from all over the world as well as gold in almost every possible form and anything else they could trade.
Finally, in 1854 the San Francisco Mint located on Commercial Street was opened for business. Just why anyone wanted to go into the place is another question entirely as the facility was the former Moffat & Company headquarters. When Moffat & Company moved out, the building probably should have been torn down, but in the interest of speed, which had previously been lacking, the United States took over the building if it could be called that and converted it into a mint.
Literally from the day the doors were opened the officials of the facility were attempting to get Congress to authorize a new facility. They had good reason. The building was small and impossibly crowded. There were complaints about the ventilation, which was important as the smell of acid was everywhere. The noise from the machines was also a problem and the unpleasant situation resulted in employees being tough to keep or at least to keep healthy and happy.
The mintages the first year reflected the situation at the facility and in San Francisco. The facility could not possibly produce large numbers of different denominations so in the true spirit of the booming times in San Francisco the only coins it produced were gold.
Also in the spirit of the booming times the gold coins it produced in the greatest numbers were large denominations, with the 1854-S mintage of double eagles standing at 141,468 while the gold eagle total was 123,826. Other gold denominations had much smaller totals and in the case of the quarter and half eagle, which had mintages of 246 and 268, respectively, there is legitimate reason to question why anyone bothered to make any of those denominations.
Literally in the first year of operation San Francisco had produced not one but two major rarities. Of course, the mintages while extremely low are not the sort that would cause a coin to become a major rarity, but this was San Francisco in 1854 and it is probably a minor miracle any survived at all.
The Mint State coins we have from the San Francisco Mint during those early years are usually ones recovered from sunken ships which had been taking the gold coins of the San Francisco facility and private minting facilities to the East when they met their sad fates. The number of coins actually saved by someone in San Francisco at the time was very small to say the least. In fact, if there was any serious collecting activity in San Francisco at the time there is little evidence of it and gold coins were particularly unlikely to be collected because of their high denominations. Another factor was that most who were collecting at the time were doing so only by date and not by date and mint, meaning there was no real effort on the part of collectors in other parts of the country to attempt to obtain and save those first issues from San Francisco.
For years there was no record of either an 1854-S quarter eagle or an 1854-S half eagle. In fact, the quarter eagle was first mentioned in a collection around 1911 when an example discovered in a Western bank ended up in the collection of H.O. Granberg of Oshkosh, Wis. Slowly but surely others would come to light with perhaps half a dozen being known in the 1950s and about twice that number today.
What has not come to light, however, is an example in Mint State as the best is probably the AU-50 from the Harry Bass Jr. collection sold in 1999 by Bowers and Merena for more than $135,000.
The situation is very similar with the 1854-S half eagle. In fact, despite it's higher mintage the 1854-S half eagle is the tougher of the two. In all probability the 1854-S is one of the least recognized great rarities of the United States as most put the number known as just three, which makes it tougher than almost any great rarity you could name.
The 1854-S half eagle, however, is rarely offered for sale and that lack of publicity as well as potential natural confusion with the 1854-S quarter eagle has probably kept the 1854-S half eagle from receiving the attention it truly deserves.
The great rarities from the original San Francisco Mint seemed to come in groups and 1870 was without a doubt the most remarkable year for rarities from a branch mint in history. It was actually a very happy time in San Francisco as the cornerstone was being laid for the new San Francisco facility that would become known as the “Granite Lady.” The new facility would be everything the old one was not in that it would be large and modern. Of course, as things tended to still move slowly in San Francisco, it would not begin production for a few years, but at least there was light at the end of the tunnel for the workers and officials who had toiled in what were certainly far from ideal conditions.
It was decided to have ceremonies marking the start of work on the new facility and it was decided that an appropriate thing to do would be to put an 1870 coin from San Francisco of all denominations in the cornerstone. The idea was fine but it presented a problem as working out of the old building San Francisco was not planning on producing all denominations that year. The problem was quickly solved by a decision to make at least one example even of the denominations not being produced for inclusion in the cornerstone.
One of the denominations not being made for circulation in 1870 was the silver dollar. It now appears that perhaps a dozen or so 1870-S Seated Liberty dollars were produced probably to be given to invited guests to mark the occasion. What we know is that there is no mention of an 1870-S dollar in the Mint records but perhaps 10 exist. The finest known 1870-S is the James A. Stack Sr. specimen, which was sold in the L.K. Rudolph collection sale by Stack’s in 2003 for over $1 million. As the finest known, it might be too much to assume every other 1870-S would also bring $1 million especially as all the others are thought to be lightly circulated probably a result of careless handling back in 1870 when they were given to the special guests. However, the AU-53 Eliasberg specimen brought $1.3 million in 2008. In any grade, however, the 1870-S is a special coin.
The 1870-S $3 gold piece is even more special. It was another of the denominations that were not being produced for circulation that year and it was thought that only one $3 1870-S had been produced and that the coin was sitting in the cornerstone.
Once again the Mint records show no production of 1870-S $3 gold pieces and Edgar Adams was perhaps the first to make the suggestion that not one but two had been made. The proof that either there were two or that the one never made it into the cornerstone appeared in the William Woodin collection in 1911 where S.H. Chapman bought the coin for $1,500.
Eventually the one known 1870-S $3 made its way as most great rarities did to the Louis Eliasberg Sr. collection and from there it was sold for nearly $700,000 despite the fact that it was graded Extremely Fine-40 with indications of jewelry use. That idea of a unique gold coin being used as jewelry has always been fascinating, but probably no more so than the fact that the one $3 1870-S exists when it should be sealed forever in the cornerstone of the Granite Lady.
The final of the three great rarities known from San Francisco in 1870 is the 1870-S half dime. It was certainly no surprise that San Francisco was not planning to produce half dimes in 1870 as the silver half dime was on its way out and San Francisco had never exactly shown much interest in producing half dimes. The surprise is that the 1870-S half dime was not known to exist for a century and then one appeared in the 1970s with RARCOA of Chicago announcing the discovery. The 1870-S was an immediate sensation with the question being what it was worth. Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards explained an interesting pricing decision that centered around the fact that at the time Bowers was engaged in the sale of the Garrett Collection and it was decided that the 1870-S half dime should be priced at whatever the Garrett 1804 dollar brought in the Bowers sale plus $25,000.
As it turned out, the Garrett Sale broke any number of records including the 1804 dollar, which brought $400,000, making the sale price of the unique 1870-S half dime $425,000. The next time the 1870-S sold it was a much slower market and the always astute Martin Paul snapped it up for just $176,000. Since that time, however, the 1870-S has moved to much higher ground with Bowers reporting, “It is rumored that around 1995 the coin changed hands privately for in the $1 million range.”
The future of the 1870-S half dime is certainly likely to be one written in seven figures as being unique it has to be seen as a solid $1 million or more coin. ($1.4 million when Legend Numismatics sold it in 2009). When it will be sell again is another question, but the fact that one remains to go along with the one known 1870-S $3 gold and the 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar makes for a trio that establishes San Francisco in 1870 as the branch mint where the greatest group of rarities in a single year were produced.
In fact there is still another possible 1870-S rarity and it along with at least one other missing San Francisco coin are a couple major mysteries from the San Francisco facility. We know of 1870-S dollars, $3 gold and half dimes but there could potentially be an 1870-S quarter as well. There are not many records to judge the situation by but as another denomination not made for regular production the possibility has to be seen as real that at least one 1870-S quarter was made for the cornerstone. Whether there were any others is the mystery as so far no example has surfaced, but if a half dime can be found after a century the possibility that there is also a quarter cannot be completely ruled out.
There is a similar question regarding an 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar. This time the official records suggest that one was minted with a total production of 700 pieces. Of course, it was 1873 when the Seated Liberty dollar was replaced by the Trade dollar and that probably explains the situation as the best guess is that all of the 700-piece mintage of 1873-S Seated Liberty dollars was melted. San Francisco coins at the time did have a poor survival rate, but even so a couple should be known leaving melting as the only likely conclusion unless an 1873-S surfaces.
The opening of the new San Francisco Mint would certainly make the employees happier and the Granite Lady could produce far higher mintages of more denominations than could take place in the old building. In fact it was in a nick of time as soon there would be Morgan dollars with large mintages mandated by law.
San Francisco would have some large mintages of the cartwheel, such as the 1881-S Morgan, but in fact the quality of the 1881-S and not its mintage would be the story as the 1881-S would become the Morgan dollar most often associated with quality even though that year San Francisco had a mintage of 12,760,000 1881-S dollars.
Despite having larger mintages San Francisco was still capable of having unusually low mintages as well. The 1893-S Morgan dollar with a mintage of just 100,000 would gain fame as the lowest business strike Morgan dollar. Realistically, the Carson City Morgans might be more famous but the fact remains that of the business strikes in almost every grade the 1893-S ranks as the key Morgan dollar with probably fewer than 10 examples known in grades of MS-65 and up.
San Francisco also did not lose its touch when it came to creating great rarities in the new building. In 1894 there was a mintage placed at just 24 Barber dimes, making the 1894-S Barber dime an immediate great rarity. In fact, the 1894-S also has the traditional San Francisco element of mystery as no one can really explain why the estimated 24 coins were produced in the first place. Some have suggested they were just balancing the books, but there are easier ways to do that, making the suggestion that San Francisco Mint Superintendent John Daggett had them struck under pressure from friends and collectors who wanted an 1894-S dime seem like the more likely reason for the presence of a few examples. Though in an era where collectors supposedly cared nothing for mintmarks, perhaps this story marks the birth of the idea of date and mintmark collecting.
The 1894-S dime has had many interesting stories over the years, including one that has Daggett giving a few examples to his daughter Hallie, telling her to keep them until she was old when she could sell them for a lot of money. There is a belief that Hallie Daggett did sell two many years later, but the favorite part of the story for most is that Hallie spent the third of the three she received from her father for ice cream.
Whether Hallie Daggett spent an 1894-S on ice cream or not, the fact remains that probably less than one-half of the generally accepted mintage of 24 pieces are known today. There have been many attempts to turn up additional numbers but so far without any luck. In fact, owning an 1894-S would be luck enough for most as the 1894-S has now topped the $1 million mark ($1.9 million as of 2007), putting it in the small group of $1 million coins of the United States.
In the past century, San Francisco continued to play a major role in coin production and a central role when it came to producing the best coins of the 1900s. There is little competition that the best silver coin produced for circulation in the 1900s turned out to be one of the first, the 1901-S Barber quarter with a mintage of 72,664. In fact, in almost every grade the 1901-S Barber quarter ranks as the most expensive and certainly one of the most avidly sought silver coins of the past century. In fact, one of the very few coins which can be called a serious challenger to the 1901-S is the 1913-S Barber quarter, which had a mintage of just 40,000, making it the lowest mintage silver coin released into circulation in the 20th century.
Rarity is not everything and when it comes to importance San Francisco would also dominate the past century with the cents of 1909. The year started with a 1909-S Indian Head cent, which with a mintage of 309,000 ranks as the lowest mintage small cent in the history of the United States.
There was also a relatively low mintage 1909-S Lincoln cent, but the big story of that year was the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, which had a mintage of 484,000.
The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent is basically a legendary coin as it was the coin generation after generation of young Lincoln cent collectors hoped to find in circulation. In fact, the 1909-S VDB is not even the most difficult Lincoln cent in some grades because it was heavily saved when it was released, but the fact remains that there are few if any more famous and more important coins in the history of the United States.
San Francisco’s checkered history continued in the mid 20th century when it was supposedly closed permanently in 1955 and then reopened in the 1960s when the national coin shortage hit with full force.
Since 1975 the latest versions of the San Francisco Mint rarity has been the limited edition proof-only coins in the yearly proof sets and some other special issues.
The proof-only coins are increasingly taking on added importance as collectors include them as part of their regular sets and it seems like an appropriate legacy for if San Francisco is to continue coin production, those coins should be special as that has always been the case for it is the coins of San Francisco which have made the facility famous.
The “S” mintmark also appears on a number of commemoratives. The first of these were the Olympic issues of 1983 and 1984. The 90-percent silver dollars of that program were the first to come out of San Francisco since Peace dollar production ended in 1935.
Gold coinage even made a comeback of sorts at the mint founded on gold when the Olympic $10 coin of 1984 was produced in San Francisco in proof.
The generations who were trained to think of the “S” coin as the rare one bought 50 percent more of the “S” $10 coins that the Philadelphia version, which had a mintage of 33,309 proofs. Denver struck 34,533.
The 48,551 mintage for the 1984-S proof $10 is a tangible measure of just how much more desirable collectors think “S” coins are.
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