USA Coin Album: The 1860 New Orleans Mint Silver Dollars

Posted on 9/14/2021

This popular issue is a favorite with type collectors.

Throughout its history, the United States of America has had a love-hate relationship with the silver dollar. Considered an essential component of our nation’s coinage lineup when the US Mint was authorized in 1792, the dollar was the largest of the various silver denominations and then had no equivalent coin in gold; the latter would not appear until 1849.

Fewer than 2,000 examples of the silver dollar were produced when coining began in 1794, due to the inadequacy of the Mint’s largest press. Once a more powerful press was obtained the following year, the number of silver dollars minted annually rose to six figures during 1798-1800. Once it became evident that most of the new coins were being exported for their bullion value and thus lost to domestic commerce, these figures slumped below 100,000 for 1801-03, and their production was suspended by executive order the following year. Dollar coinage would remain just a memory for more than 30 years.

The marvelous dollars dated 1836-39 were patterns for the most part, and only their Seated Liberty obverse design proved salvageable. In 1840, this was paired with a fairly conventional “sandwich board” eagle for the reverse, and mintages ranging from a high of 184,618 in 1842 to a low of 20,000 just two years later were achieved during that decade.

By 1850, it was evident that the silver dollar was not a coin desired by the public, and production slumped until 1859. In that year and again in 1860, production rose dramatically, as American merchants sought a suitable replacement for the Mexican “dollars” (eight reales pieces) that dominated commerce in the lucrative East Asia trade. Forced to purchase the Mexican coins at a premium from that nation’s mints, American traders appealed to their own government for a suitable alternative.

Some of the United States dollar coins evidently were shipped to Asia, as intended, though the reception they enjoyed there was limited. Had the move been successful, the San Francisco Mint likely would have dominated this production, instead of striking just 20,000 dollars in 1859. Asian merchants still preferred the old Spanish colonial and Mexican coins, and the minting of silver dollars fell dramatically during the years 1861-67.

New Orleans Mint Postcard

The largest mintage during 1859-60 was the 515,000 silver dollars struck at the New Orleans Mint in 1860. This issue was produced in such quantity that uncirculated and lightly worn survivors have become a mainstay of US type collecting. These coins are the most affordable pieces for the Seated Liberty type prior to the addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST in 1866. Many examples surfaced during the early 1960s, when the drawdown of silver dollars in Treasury vaults finally hit the oldest coins, including the many CC Morgans later auctioned by the General Services Administration.

1860-O $1
Click images to enlarge

Some ten die marriages have been identified for the 1860-O silver dollar. These resulted from multiple pairings of four obverse dies with six reverses. There are no varieties of particular interest, though it may be observed that some examples have the mintmark punched quite boldly, while on other coins it is rather shallow and could almost be missed.

As a very young collector, I had an opportunity to obtain a nice specimen of the 1860-O dollar, though I learned later that this good fortune may have been tainted. One of my school friends, knowing of my interest in old coins, offered to sell me several Morgan silver dollars at $1.75 apiece, which even then was below their market value. All were common dates, and I accepted his offer. Then he showed me one more coin — a very lustrous and just faintly worn 1860-O Seated Liberty dollar. For this he wanted more — two dollars!

Never questioning my good fortune, I jumped at the chance. It was only later that I learned there was trouble in his home, with suggestions of parental abuse and mental illness, things I could barely comprehend at the time. When I showed the coins to my own parents, Mom commented they were probably stolen — something which, in my youthful naiveté, had never occurred to me. I asked what I should do, and they said “nothing” — the situation was messy enough already.

Conflicted about my purchase, I hastened to trade in the 1860-O on a similar coin dated 1843 that didn’t carry any personal history. This was later sold and replaced with the wonderful 1850-O dollar that I consider to be among my most prized specimens.

A much more pleasant story concerns the remarkable “Chimney Hoard” that came on the market some years ago. This was a run of 11 Mint State 1860-O silver dollars that all had attractive old toning. It seems that several children had found them in 1935 within the chimney of an old New Orleans house that was being demolished.

Purchased by local coin collector Edwin M. Katten, they remained unknown to the hobby until consigned by his son to Heritage Auctions’ September 1997 sale. All were certified by NGC, and it was my privilege to write Photo Proof® custom portfolios for each coin that were presented to the winning bidders. A single example graded NGC MS 62, three graded NGC MS 64, five were certified as NGC MS 65 and two received grades of NGC MS 66.

In what was something of a down market: the two finest coins realized $33,350 and $37,375, respectively. The NGC Price Guide now lists this grade at $110,000, and its Census reveals just three certified at that level and none finer.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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