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The misunderstood dollar: Gobrecht coins cause confusion

The Gobrecht silver dollars of 1836-1839 have proven to be among the most contentious and, at the same time, the least understood coins of our numismatic history. Actually the story is rather straightforward but the clash of conflicting theories has made the matter confusing.

The story begins in early July 1835 when Dr. Robert M. Patterson replaced Samuel Moore as Mint director. Moore had served since 1824 but had become increasingly disenchanted, thinking of all the extra work that would fall on his shoulders because of the new branch mints decreed by Congress in March 1835.

Patterson, on the other hand, wanted new challenges. It was not entirely new to him, however, as his father, Robert Patterson, had been director from 1805 to 1824 and the younger man had grown up surrounded by Mint officers.

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One of the new director’s pet projects was improving coinage designs. Samuel Moore had been of the same opinion but the building of a new mint from 1829 to 1833 occupied most of his time, leaving little for questions of new designs.

The younger Patterson had gone to school in Paris and London in the early 1800s and was well aware of the quality of the coinage in those two countries. He was determined that the United States would have designs that would meet international standards of excellence.

He contacted artists Thomas Sully, for the obverse figure of a seated Liberty, and Titian Peale, for the reverse depiction of an American bald eagle “rising in its flight.” Peale had the most difficulty but at length satisfied the director with a fine sketch.

A series of pattern dies cumulated in dollar coinage that began in early December 1836. Some 400 pieces were struck and distributed among those Philadelphia citizens who wanted a specimen of the new coinage. Demand was sufficient that another 600 pieces were struck in late December and deposited in a local bank.

The 1,000 pieces of December 1836 were struck on a screw press, using burnished planchets. The new steam press had been put into operation the preceding February but the largest coin it was capable of striking was the half dollar. For this reason Patterson had ordered the large screw press used for this show coinage of the first silver dollars coined since 1804.

In March 1837 another round of coinage was carried out, using dies of 1836. The dies were inverted 180 degrees from normal, however, so that the reserved pieces could be distinguished—from those struck in 1836—at the next Assay Commission meeting.

The 1837 mintage was carried out on a newly delivered steam coining press designed for larger coins. The test was something of a disaster as the coins did not strike up well. The screw press coinage had been well done, the coins having been struck twice in most cases, but the high relief on both sides of the coin meant that the steam coining press was not powerful enough to bring up the designs in one blow.

The dollars struck in 1837 were at first laid aside but by the fall of 1837 it had been decided not to issue them. The director wanted only the highest quality and these coins did not meet his standards. The entire issue was kept on hand, however, and not melted until November 1839. The few proofs made for collectors are today of extreme rarity.

To remedy the problem of two opposing sides in high relief, the dollar dies were modified in 1838 though only a relatively few pieces were struck at that time.

The larger press was modified in 1839 and Patterson decided to make one last effort for the Gobrecht design. Three hundred silver dollars were struck on Dec. 28, 1839, and carefully examined by chief coiner Franklin Peale and Patterson. It was decided to scrap the entire issue as had been done for the 1837 coinage. The steam coining press still could not properly bring up the designs on both sides of the coin. In April 1840 all of the 1839 dollars were melted.

The original 1839 dollars were made the same as modern U.S. coins, turning end-over-end to show the reverse properly oriented. These 1839 coins had the eagle flying upward at a 30 degree angle, as is seen on all original Gobrecht dollars. They were not struck in proof but rather in ordinary uncirculated condition.

The most interesting part about the 1839 dollar is its resurrection. That all of them struck in December 1839 were later melted is a known fact yet dollars dated 1839 are currently being advertised and sold as “originals” as if the Mint records do not exist. Restrikes of the 1839 dollar were, however, made in the late 1850s and it is these pieces that are today offered as original coins struck in 1839.

Restrikes of the 1850s may easily be detected by noting that the eagle flies level when the coin is properly rotated, on either the horizontal or vertical axis.

At present no original 1839 dollar is known to exist although there is always the possibility that one may yet appear. If so, it should easily bring a million dollars or more due to its being the sole known survivor of a type coin. Only time will tell if an original coin is ever to be found.