Background and History
In the year 1794, the United States Mint in Philadelphia produced three different denominations in silver, the half dime, half dollar, and silver dollar. It is the latter, the 1794 Silver Dollar, which has become to be the most famous of the group. It had an almost minuscule mintage, saw heavy circulation, and served as the image of the young United States to the outside world. While the type, named the Flowing Hair design for the representation of Liberty on the obverse, was only used for two short years, it has become a popular image of late 18th century America.
The Silver Dollar was authorized by the coinage act of 1792 as the prime unit in the American monetary system. Being worth 100 cents, it was based on the continental Thaler, a coin whose history goes back to the 15th century. The word comes from the High-German word for valley, thal (modern word tal), and in particular the Joachimstaler, a large silver coin which was first struck in the early 16th century in Sankt Joachimsthal, the German name for what now is Jáchymov in the Czech Republic. The Thaler, as it was called, became a popular coin throughout Europe and circulated in the American colonies as well.
Robert Scot is believed to have designed the 1794 Silver Dollar. He was also responsible for the majority of the early coin designs of the United States, introduced in the late 18th century. The obverse features a representation of Liberty, with flowing hair, hence the name Flowing Hair Dollar. The reverse displays an image of an American Eagle. While the reverse would be used, in modified form, on various denominations until a few years later, the obverse was only used on the silver half dollars and dollars of 1794 and 1795. However, it did become an inspiration for later coin designs which featured modified representations of Liberty.
The 1794 Silver Dollar recently gained even greater fame when the an example graded PCGS SP66 was sold for $10,016,875, representing the highest price ever paid for a coin at auction.
Key Date Coin Mintage
Production of the 1794 Silver Dollar took place in early October 1794, despite some challenges for the early United States Mint. Primarily, the Mint did not yet have a coinage press that would be fully capable of striking the large silver dollar denomination. However, since they did not want to delay production, they utilized a screw press which was usually only used for copper cents and silver half dollars. This small press would cause various problems during striking.
Some numismatic scholars, in particular Walter Breen, have suggested that the mintage of the 1794 Silver Dollars was initially 2,000 pieces. Records show that a total of 1,758 silver dollars were delivered on October 15, 1794. Presumably, this means that 242 pieces of the original mintage were considered unfit for release. This could have been due to several reasons, such as extremely weak strikes or planchets that were badly off-weight.
It is believed that the majority of the 1794 Silver Dollars were released into circulation, with only a very limited number of coins kept as souvenirs. While a relatively high number of coins appear to have survived (approximately 10% of the original mintage, or 150-175 coins), the majority of survivors are found in circulated condition. It is very well possible that a number of survivors were saved from the melting pot in the 19th century, when it was realized that they were the first year of issue for the silver dollar.
The coins that have survived up to the present day are found in various die states. These die states have been closely studied by Martin Logies, who wrote the major reference on the 1794 Silver Dollar. Early in the production process the dies clashed, were later lapped, with the clash marks partially removed, after which the dies were lapped again, fully removing the clash marks. Most of the coins that are known to exist were struck after the dies had been lapped the first time. Coins struck from perfect dies are extremely rare, with only three pieces presently identified as such. Additionally, the study has proven that early in the production process the dies shifted, which resulted in weak strikes, especially notable on the left side of the obverse.
Finest Known and Values
With such a low mintage for the 1794 Silver Dollar, it should not come as a surprise that the population of graded coins is very low. Yet, proportional to the mintage, it appears that a relatively high number of survivors are known to exist, at approximately ten percent of the mintage.
The single finest known coin is classified as a specimen striking by PCGS. Graded as SP-66, it is the only example with a silver plug, and obviously is something special. With an above-average strike, proof like surfaces, and excellent eye-appeal, some believe this to be the first silver dollar ever struck in the United States. It is different in appearance from all other known examples, struck in the same die state as a copper trail striking, which was presumably used to set up the dies before striking. Known as the Neil/Carter/Contursi specimen, this coin sold in a private transaction in the summer of 2010 for the amazing amount of $ 7,850,000, setting a new world record as the highest price paid for a coin.
The record was broken less than three years later when the same coin was sold for $10,016,875 at auction. The 1794 silver dollar gained even greater fame as the very first coin to sell for more than $10 million at auction. The buyer of the coin was Legend Numismatics of Lincroft, New Jersey who indicated no plans to sell the coins.
Other uncirculated examples of the 1794 Silver Dollar have not sold for such extraordinary amounts, but are certainly rare. PCGS has graded two individual specimens MS-66, and single specimens in MS-64, MS-63, MS-63+ and MS-62+. This comprises the entire list of all uncirculated 1794 Silver Dollars graded by PCGS in almost 25 years.
The highest grade awarded by NGC was for a single coin in MS-64, which last sold in August 2010 for $1,207,500. A few more uncirculated specimens are known to exist, but the condition census of all uncirculated 1794 Silver Dollars contains less than ten examples in all uncirculated grades.