The First U.S. Mint
by John Barber and Kathy Lawrence
“UNKNOWN IN ANY COLLECTION”, THE PHANTOM EIGHT
U.S. COINS AND THE ALLURE OF THE BIG FIND “
By John H. MacMillan
Seven regular issue U.S. coin dates are unknown, although mint records report a mintage. Another coin is without a reported mintage, but private mint correspondence indicates one or more to have been struck. The possibility of an unexpected find of a great rarity is part of the enduring appeal of coin collecting. In 1978 a previously unknown 1870-S half dime was discovered in a junk box. No mint records known at that time indicated such a date to have been struck. Quite recently a new example of the extremely rare 1854-S half eagle came to light in California. The stories of the phantom eight are all different, making the possibility of a major find more likely for some than for others. They are described below in ascending date order.
1) 1804 “original” silver dollar, reported mintage 19,570
The story of the 1804 dollar has been told many times. All known examples are from dies produced in the 1830’s or later for presentation to foreign dignitaries. The known coins show beaded segments and raised rims, typical of Gobrecht dollars struck in the 1830’s. Early date dollars possessed elongated dentices around the edges (Ref 1 “A Guide Book of United States Coins”, by R.S. Yeoman, 58th edition, 2005, p 186). The usual explanation for the apparent non existence of “original” dollars is that they all were dated 1803 or earlier. Especially in the mint’s early years, dies were used until broken, with no concern if the date on the die did not correspond to the calendar year. Since no mint records mention these latter dates die usages, there will always be a theoretical possibility that an original could surface. An early legend that the coins were lost on a boat heading to China is apocryphal and has been discounted.
Figure 1, an authentic 1804 dollar struck from dies manufactured in the 1830's. The dentices conform to dollars struck in the 1830's, not early 19th century dollars from 1800-1803.
Figure 3 Reproduction of 1804 “original” dollar from the Gallery Mint Museum
2) 1827/3 quarter, original, reported mintage 4000
Only very rare proof coins have been traced of this date. Could all originals have been melted, or were they struck from left over 1825 dies? No one knows.
3) 1841-O half eagle, reported mintage, 50
The New Orleans mint reported 50 half eagles struck from one die in August, 1841 (Ref 2, Walter Breen, “Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins”, page 531). These all could have been melted after assay or, a more interesting speculation, possibly released and buried during the chaos of the civil war. Could a metal detector someday unearth an example? It is fun to fantasize. Breen warns “authentication of a purported 1844-O five dollar is mandatory”! A 1844-O half eagle could be altered by removing part of the second 4.
4) 1870-S quarter, reported mintage, none
I have already mentioned that a 1870-S half dime, with no reported mintage, was discovered in 1978. Recently discovered private mint letters (Ref 3, R.G. Kelly and Nancy Y. Oliver, “Find Granite Lady’s Treasure Trove”, Coin World, March 17, 2003) indicate examples of ALL 1870-S coinage to have been placed in the cornerstone of the first San Francisco Mint in 1870. The exact location of this cornerstone in the structure has been lost (Ref 3). If it is ever discovered and broken open a 1870-S quarter may very well be found there, as could another 1870-S half dime. These would no doubt go to the Smithsonian coin collection. But if an additional 1870-S half dime was found “out there”, could a 1870-S quarter be “out there” also?
Figure 2, The first San Francisco Mint. The cornerstone of this building could hold fabulous treasures such as a 1870-S half dime, three dollar gold piece, and the presently unknown 1870-S quarter.
5) 1873-S Half Dollar, No Arrows, reported mintage, 5000
During 1873 the weight of the half dollar was increased from 12.44 to 12.50 grams. Arrows were added to indicate the weight change. All non arrows 1873-S halves could have been melted, or the reported mintage could even be dated 1872-S. Breen (Ref 2, p 406) reports a “rumored” worn survivor. As arrows could be removed from a higher weight 1873-S, authentication of a purported specimen is required.
6) 1873-S Silver Dollar, reported mintage, 500
The comments and caveats on this coin are similar to the 1873-S half dollar described above. Unlike the dime, quarter and half, the weight of the silver dollar was not changed under the act of 1873, thus no arrows were added. Probably all were melted or dated 1872-S. To my knowledge, there are no rumors of surviving specimens.
7) 1895 Philadelphia Mint Morgan Silver Dollar, Uncirculated, Reported mintage, 12000
All known examples of this date are proofs. Early speculations concerning this date centered on the possibility that all 12000 (12 bags of 1000 each) could have been melted in 1918 with over 270 million other silver dollars under provisions of the Pittman act (Ref 1, p192). Numismatist Harlan J. Berk (Ref 4, “The Phantom Dollars of 1895”, see internet article http://www.harlanjberk.com/departments/articles/details.asp?inventorynumber=57&linenum=24) , presents strong circumstantial evidence that these 12000 dollars were dated 1894. Most tellingly, all requests to the mint from collectors for un circulated specimens were returned unfilled, while proof specimens were shipped. Authentication is of course mandatory, as with all members of the phantom eight. Many purported examples have been “spent” (circulated) proofs or a 1895-O or S mint dollar with removed mint mark.
8) 1964-D Peace Dollar, reported mintage, 316,076
The last member of the Phantom eight is in many respects the most interesting. It is well documented that these dollars were struck in January, 1965. When legislation authorizing this issue was never passed, all were supposedly melted according to U.S. Mint press releases (Yeoman, Ref 1, p 196). However, rumors of this date’s existence have persisted for decades. Since the Mint deems ownership of this coin to be illegal, it is an “underground” numismatic item, similar to the famous 1933 double eagle. Transactions on this coin, if it exists, would be conducted in private to prevent seizure. Walter Breen (Ref 2, p 461), who always enjoyed telling a good story, related a purported conversation between then Denver Mint superintendent Fern Miller and dealer Dan Brown. Supposedly various Denver mint employees had each purchased two of the new silver dollars. Upon their recall, no records were kept as to how many were sold to employees or if all were turned in. A very entertaining, but possibly apocryphal, story. If one or more do exist, perhaps one day a brave owner will risk a court challenge to the illegality of this coin!
Figure 4 Reproduction of 1964-D peace dollar from the Royal Oak Mint
The lack of 1975 dated quarters, halves and dollars despite reported mintage figures for these denominations in 1975 is due to the mint pre striking 1776-1976 bicentennial coins during that calendar year. As no mystery is involved in the absence of these dates they have not been included in the above list. Any supposed 1975 quarter, half or dollar is counterfeit.
While collectors can only dream of finding an authentic member of the phantom eight, three members have been faithfully reproduced to their specifications had they been struck. The Gallery Mint Museum has reproduced an “original” 1804 dollar; while the Royal Oak Mint has reproduced an uncirculated 1895 Morgan dollar and a 1964-D peace dollar (see illustrations above). These are pleasing conversation pieces for both collectors and non collectors.
I thank Q. David Bowers for helpful discussions during preparation of this manuscript.
John H. MacMillan, Ph.D., a collector for over 50 years, is a chemist and teacher who lives in suburban Philadelphia. His collecting interests are U.S. type coins, Civil War tokens, hard times tokens and ancient coins. His numismatic research centers on identifying trends, or statistics that have not been identified before in existing data. He would like to hear from collectors and researchers who may offer further insight on this article. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.