The 1804 class I or “original” draped bust silver dollars are widely known as the “King of American Coins”, and with good reason. For there are few coins in the American catalogue that have been so much talked about, speculated over and extensively researched as this iconic coin.
But why has it's myth not only persisted but grown over the centuries, why does this particular coin so fascinate us and why has it become one of the most valuable coins in the world, easily selling for millions of dollars on those rare occasions that one becomes available?
Well there are many ways to tell this story, but to try and keep things as concise as possible I'll start in 1832 when New Hampshire native Edmund Roberts became the nation's first Special Envoy, or an ambassador of sorts, to the far east by appointment of President Andrew Jackson.
He wasted little time in his new position and soon reached, what would be the modern equivalent of a free trade agreement with the Kingdom of Siam in 1833 and a similar agreement concluded with the Sultan of Muscat the following year.
Upon his return to the United States he bemoaned the fact that he had little in the way of diplomatic gifts to present to his counterparts, and expressed concern that what little he had may even be seen as insulting to his royal hosts. In a letter to the State Department dated October 8, 1834 he wrote :
“I am rather at a loss to know what articles will be most acceptable to the Sultan, but I suppose a complete set of new gold & silver & copper coins of the U.S. neatly arranged in a morocco case & then to have an outward covering would be proper to send not only to the sultan, but to other Asiatics”
Clearly his concerns were taken seriously as President Andrew Jackson himself ordered such sets to be produced. In a letter dated November 11, 1834, Secretary of State John Forsyth writes the following :
“The President has directed that a complete set of the coins of the United States be sent to the King of Siam, and another to the Sultan of Muscat. You are requested, therefore, to forward to the Department for that purpose, duplicate specimens of each kind now in use, whether of gold, silver, or copper.”
This order was later amended to include additional sets for the rulers of Cochin-China and Japan as well for a total of presentation 4 sets.
There was however, some disagreement as to how Secretary Forsyth's order should be interpreted. Mint Director Samuel Moore and Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt both then agreed that this should include two coins which were not actually being minted at the time but were authorised by Congress, namely the silver dollar and the gold eagle coins.
A moratorium on the production of silver dollars imposed three decades earlier by the then Secretary of State James Madison was lifted in 1831, but mint records reflected that the last such coins were struck in 1804, when 19 570 coins were delivered. What those records did not reflect was the common mint practice to keep using older dies until they were worn out, and that the nearly 20 000 coins struck in January of 1804 were all dated 1803 instead. Thusly - no 1804 silver dollars actually existed.
The deep irony of the situation is that the main reason why Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt argued to use the last minted date for legal tender, which he believed to be 1804, and not the actual date of mintage which was 1834, was to avoid exiting the numismatic community by creating an ultra rarity. Which is of course exactly what he ended up doing anyway.
So that is how these special proof dollars, minted in 1834 came to bore the date of 1804 instead.
There is no record of exactly how many of these 1804 dollars were minted, but today 8 coins are known to exist. And based on what is known it is likely, even probable, that the original mintage figure matches the surviving number of examples today.
Four coins were of course included with the presentation sets that accompanied Mr Edmund Roberts back to the 'Orient' as it was known in those days. Where two sets were in fact presented to the Imam of Muscat and the King of Siam as planned to finalise the respective trade agreements.
However, the two remaining sets intended for the Emperors of Cochin-China and Japan were never delivered to their intended recipients. Mr Roberts contracted dysentery while on his journey and died in Macao on June the 12th, 1836, before reaching his destination. The sets were then returned to the care of the State Department aboard the USS Peacock in the same year. What precisely happened to the two sets after that point is a matter speculation, as all evidence of them ends there.
Meanwhile the small community of coin collectors were blissfully unaware that the 1804 dollar even existed, that is until 1842 when son of former Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt Jacob Eckfeldt and William DuBois published “A Manual of Gold and Silver Coins of All Nations”. In this book they used a pantographed illustration of one of the 1804 dollars in the Mint's Cabinet collection to illustrate the Draped Bust Dollar coin. Astute collectors such as Matthew A. Stickney quickly took notice and in 1843 he made a trip to Philadelphia and traded a rare gold Immune Columbia coin for one of the 1804 dollars.
From there the coin's legend only grew and by the late 1850's there was a healthy reward awaiting anyone who could locate such a coin for sale. Naturally this drew the attention of the mint's more opportunistic employees.
By 1858 a number of reproductions were struck by these “midnight minters” as they are politely referred to. Even though the same obverse die was used, a different reverse die was employed and these coins lacked edge lettering as well. Making them easy to distinguish from the genuine article.
This led to a minor scandal and congressional enquiry at the Mint, which saw Mint Director James Snowden hunting down and recovering these coins. These are today known as the Class II examples and only a singe coin remains extant. Currently curated by the Smithsonian Institute it was apparently over-struck on a 1857 Swiss shooting thaler, similar to the one illustraded below.
Things remained quite for a number of years then until again around 1869 to 1876 a number of re-strikes appeared on the market, most notably from Philadelphia coin dealer John W. Haseltine. Again struck with the second reverse die, but this time edge lettering was added, albeit rather inconsistently so. Today these are known as the Class III 1804 dollars and a total of six coins are known.
Some of these were given fantastical back stories to make them seem more legitimate. Like the Ellsworth specimen, which first shows up in 1893, was said to be the property of a freed slave and his son. Or the Berg Specimen which was actually sent to Vienna to appear more authentic.
From there we jump ahead nearly 70 years to 1962. Eric p Newman and Ken Bresset had just completed their academic study of the 1804 Dollars in time for the 1962 ANA Convention when British numismatist David B. Spink, shocked the numismatic world by announcing that he was in possession of the original King of Siam Presentation set, which of course included a 1804 Dollar.
In a letter to Dr Sarah Freeman, Eric P Newman writes :
“You may, by now, realise the shock I received when a new 1804 dollar turned up. The book I wrote was just about to be released and after being missing for 128 years the coin in question makes it's dramatic entrance. I spent last weekend rewriting all phases of the book which needed it on account of the new information ...”
The set was still in it's original presentation box, and according to the story promulgated by Spink himself, although the complete veracity of which has been challenged since, is that he bought the set from two elderly English ladies who were descendants of Anna Leonowens. The famed English Governess upon whose life story and memoirs the fictionalised novel “Anna and the King of Siam” was based. A story which then inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. She was later portrayed on the big screen by Irene Dunne in 1946. By Deborah Kerr alongside Yull Brenner in 1956 and finally by Jody Foster in 1999.
In terms of value the Sultan of Muscat specimen managed to set the record in 1999 when it sold for $4 140 000. More recently though in 2013, the Mickley-Hawn-Queller specimen managed to sell for $3 877 500.
There is of course much, much more to be told about the 1804 dollars, but I think that this will have to suffice for now.
For those interested in a bit of further reading I can highly recommend “The Fantastic 1804 Dollar” by Eric P Newman and Ken Bresset or “The Rare Silver Dollars Dated 1804 and the Exciting Adventures of Edmund Roberts” authored by Q David Bowers as excellent resources.
It was in 1885 when an original 1804 dollar became the first coin to sell for more than a $1000 when Henry Chapman coined the moniker “the King of United States Coins” - a nickname that persists to this very day.