Grading Trade Dollars (1873-1885)
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The trade dollar was introduced in 1873 as a coin that would allow American merchants to compete effectively in the lucrative East Asia trade. Slightly heavier than the standard silver dollar it replaced, it was hoped that this new coin would be accepted at par with the Mexican Dollar, which was then the preferred medium of exchange among the merchants of coastal China and Southeast Asia. In this role it did achieve limited success. The trade dollar's undoing, however, was the legal tender status it enjoyed in domestic circulation. As coins that were not redeemable at face value above five dollars, they accumulated to the point where holders had to sell them at a discount to brokers. Their legal tender status was revoked in 1876, but the coins remained a nuisance in domestic circulation until 1887, when Congress finally opted to redeem them at full face value. The recovered silver was used in the coining of both standard silver dollars and subsidiary dimes, quarters and halves.
The trade dollar was coined for circulation only from 1873 to 1878, though proofs were offered to collectors through 1883. The rare proofs of 1884-85 were produced clandestinely, and they are not necessary for one to have a complete set.
Circulated trade dollars are quite simple to grade using the text and illustrations found in The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins. Mint state and proof coins are another matter, as they offer a number of challenges. For certain dates, particularly the San Francisco Mint issues of 1875-78, a large number of uncirculated trade dollars have survived to the present day. These typically have numerous contact marks, probably as the result of having been moved repeatedly within canvas bags. Since trade dollars were purchased from the mints at their bullion value, they were viewed by holders as a simple commodity and were afforded no special care.
Collectors of these coins were very few before 1900, and this series has never been in the spotlight. Even today, trade dollars are viewed primarily as potential type coins, the number of collectors seeking them by date, mint and variety being relatively small. While several dates, as noted, are common in mint state, gems of any date are genuinely rare.
In addition to being heavily "bagmarked," the typical mint state trade dollar exhibits one or more points of weak striking. The most problematic areas are Liberty's head, the bundle or wheat, the eagle's left leg (viewer's right) and the upper part of its right wing. Another common problem is lackluster surfaces. Most trade dollars as made displayed a mixture of satiny and frosty textures, but these have been impaired over the years by careless handling and, in some instances, improper cleaning. Many trade dollars were recovered since World War II from the East Asian ports to which they'd been shipped decades earlier. Stored for years in humid climates and exposed to salty sea air, these coins were frequently scrubbed clean by the Asians offering them for sale to American dealers or by the dealers themselves. It's thus easy to see why pristine, gem trade dollars are so rare. It's likely that the few such coins seen today never left the United States.
Proof trade dollars were minted in fairly small numbers through 1878. After that time, their mintages soared well past the 1,000 mark almost annually, as a speculative trade developed in these proof-only dates. Even today, the most commonly encountered proof trade dollars are from these years. As the objects of collector interest, gems are far more common than for the currency strikes. Even so, any proof trade dollar should be inspected carefully for the presence of hairline scratches and other signs of improper cleaning. These are always a cause for downgrading and, if severe enough, may preclude a coin from being certified by the major grading services.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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