The 1804 Silver Dollar is often considered America’s most famous rarity. Not only it is extremely rare, but it has a fascinating historical context as well. In fact, the unusual story behind the famed 1804 silver dollar largely takes place before and after 1804.
In the early days of the American Republic, coinage was relatively scarce and the nascent US dollar was not the only silver coin in general circulation. In fact, the Coinage Act of 1792 legally defined the value of the dollar in terms of the extant Spanish dollar, and the Washington Administration allowed the Spanish dollar to become legal tender in the United States the following year. However, due to a slight miscalculation, the new American silver dollars contained more silver than many circulated Spanish dollars. The more valuable American dollars were thus hoarded or exported to Europe and Asia, where they proved popular in commerce.
At the time, almost all US Mint production was a result of private actors submitting their silver in exchange for minted coins, as they were permitted to do by the Coinage Act. Because of the popularity of the one dollar coins for export, most of those submitting silver to the Mint requested their silver to be returned to them in this form. By 1800, this led to a shortage of the smaller denominations in general circulation, and the Mint ceased production of the one dollar coins after 1803. Mint records suggest some coins may have been struck in the 1804 calendar year, but all are now dated 1803; this was the subject of debate among numismatists until the early twentieth century.
Thus, the story of the 1804 silver dollar itself actually begins some thirty years later. In 1834, American trade envoy Edmund Roberts was due to return to Asia to conclude successful trade negotiations with various nations. Roberts requested suitable gifts to present to foreign dignitaries and suggested a complete set of US coinage. Though no silver dollars had been produced for some time, the US Mint did indeed produce complete sets of proof coins – including silver dollars! The coins, intended to be backdated to the most recent year of production, which was mistakenly established as 1804. Since no silver dollars had previously been struck with an 1804 date, these eight coins became the first in existence up to this point.
There are three known classes of 1804 silver dollars: Class I specimens are the eight known to have been struck in 1834-5 for Roberts’ proof sets; Class II and III specimens are believed to have been struck around the late 1850s. At that time, it was not uncommon for US Mint employees to produce unsanctioned copies of existing coins, often for numismatic purposes. Among the clandestine restrikes were a number of 1804 silver dollars. The first of these restrikes lacked the edge lettering of the Class I dollars; this plain-edged coin is the Class II variation. There is only one in existence today, the others having been quickly destroyed on the orders of US Mint Director James Ross Snowden. Class III dollars were struck around the same time as the Class II, but were modified to add the edge lettering, perhaps in an effort to imitate the Class I coins and prevent their seizure by the government. There are six known Class III specimens; thus, a total of fifteen 1804 silver dollars are known to exist today.
Numismatic interest in these coins has been continuous since their production. Each of the fifteen 1804 silver dollars is known by a name, usually pertaining to a notable collector who possessed it at some point. The finest known, the “Watters-Childs” specimen, was graded Proof-68 by PCGS and sold in 1999 for over $4 million. The rich history of the 1804 dollar has earned it a weighty title among collectors: “The King of American Coins.”