Grading Draped Bust Dollars (1795-1803)
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The first type of United States silver dollar, which featured a nude bust of Liberty with long, flowing hair, proved unsatisfactory on a number of counts, and it was discontinued toward the end of 1795. Replacing it was the much more polished portrait of a Draped Bust Liberty, this design said to have been supplied by famed painter Gilbert Stuart. The reverse of the silver dollar was modified only slightly to show a somewhat more natural looking eagle perched atop a cluster of clouds.
Though the Draped Bust Liberty lasted through 1803, the Small Eagle reverse described above was used only with the dates 1795-98. The final year, 1798, was transitional with a new reverse depicting a modified rendition of the Great Seal of the United States of America. Coins having this Heraldic reverse were made in far greater numbers, though neither type is rare in circulated grades.
Draped Bust dollars, particularly those having the Small Eagle reverse, are often found with adjustment marks. These are irregular arrangements of incised lines on either side of the coins. They are the result of the planchet having been filed prior to striking to bring its weight to within legal tolerance. Since this was a natural part of the coin making process at that time, such lines do not affect a coin's grade unless they are severe. It's important to learn to distinguish between adjustment lines and scratches that were suffered by a coin subsequent to its being made. The latter do affect grading. While a few, very shallow scratches will not prevent these coins from being certified by the major grading services, obvious ones will preclude such certification.
Draped Bust dollars were coined for every date from 1795-1803, inclusive. None of these dates are rare in circulated grades, though 1798 and 1799 are easily the most common, as they were simply made in greater numbers. While no coin of this series is common in mint state, a collector desiring to own such a piece will likely focus on one of these dates.
Like most United States coins made before the 20th Century, these early dollars are scarce in "original" condition, a term referring to coins that have never been cleaned. However, the percentage of pieces surviving in original condition is higher for dollars and halves than for the lesser denominations, since the higher value coins were more likely to be placed into storage as a cash reserve. While light cleaning, particularly when it occurred generations ago, will probably not prevent a coin from being certified by the major services, harshly cleaned and artificially toned coins are pariahs that should be avoided. I urge collectors to seek original examples whenever possible, as these will always be more pleasing to the advanced numismatist.
The Draped Bust dollar series proved to be a fairly short one. In the 1790s the coining of a silver dollar or crown piece was recognized throughout the world as a symbol of sovereignty. Unfortunately, our silver dollars were valued more for their use in foreign exchange than for domestic commerce, causing them to be extensively exported. This drain of our dollars led President Jefferson to suspend their coinage after 1804. The last examples were dated 1803, though proof examples bearing the date 1804 were made years later for presentation and collecting purposes.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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