1870-S Seated Liberty Dollar, XF40
1870-S $1 XF40 PCGS. The 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar is the
rarest regular-issue silver dollar ever coined at any United States
mint. Having a surviving population of only nine confirmed
examples, the 1870-S is rarer than the more famous 1804 dollar (15
survivors known) and much more elusive than the 1794 Flowing Hair
dollar (about 130 known), an example of which recently sold for
more than $10 million. The 1870-S is also one of the most enigmatic
issues in the U.S. federal series, as no official record of its
mintage has ever been discovered. The mystery associated with this
coin, and its absolute rarity, make it incredibly popular among
numismatists from many collecting disciplines. The 1870-S is listed
as number 47 in the third edition of the 100 Greatest U.S.
Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, and at least one example
has sold for more than $1 million at auction. Private treaty
transactions have been reported as high as $1.3 million. Heritage
Auctions is pleased to offer this attractive XF40 PCGS-graded
example from the famous Alfred and Jackie Ostheimer Collection, one
of the most important offerings in this memorable sale.
Rarest Regular-Issue Silver Dollar
As mentioned above, there are no mint records attesting to the striking of the 1870-S, but Richard Kelly and Nancy Oliver have found a few clues in their extensive research in the National Archives at San Bruno, California. In "The Saga of the 1870-S Silver Dollar" published in the May 2005 issue of The Numismatist, Oliver and Kelly suggest a plausible theory for the origin of this mysterious issue.
The key to the creation of the 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar is found in the construction of the second San Francisco Mint and the laying of its cornerstone on May 25, 1870. Some months before the groundbreaking, it was decided that a time capsule would be placed in the cornerstone of the new Mint building. Warrant 738 of the "Warrants Issued for Ordinary Expenses 1865-1873" specifies a complete-denomination set of U.S. coins dated 1870 be included among the cornerstone items. Unfortunately, this requirement had been unforeseen when San Francisco Mint Superintendent A.H. LaGrange requested dies for the 1870 coinage in the fall of 1869. The San Francisco Mint had struck no silver dollars since 1859, and no plans were made to strike them in 1870 until the matter of the cornerstone ceremony arose. Accordingly, no silver dollar dies were requested or sent from the Philadelphia Mint in the fall of 1869. The requested 1870 coinage dies were received in December 1869, but silver dollar dies were excluded. In addition, some important omissions were discovered on the dies that were sent. The gold dollar and three dollar dies lacked an S mintmark. The Philadelphia Mint was requested to send proper reverse dies of those denominations with the S mintmark, but the request was confusing. Because there were no plans to coin silver dollars at San Francisco that year, LaGrange thought it unnecessary to specify whether gold dollar or silver dollar reverses were needed; without seeking clarification, the Philadelphia Mint obligingly sent both.
Of course, once the reverse dies were received from the Philadelphia Mint and production began in earnest on all of the coins for the time capsule, it was discovered that there was no obverse die on hand for striking the Seated dollar. Oliver and Kelly discovered documentary evidence of a close working relationship between San Francisco Mint Superintendent LaGrange and Carson City Mint Superintendent Abraham Curry. They theorize that LaGrange asked his colleague for an unused obverse die from the Carson City facility, and Curry obliged by sending him one. Unfortunately, vast amounts of Mint data that could have confirmed this ingenious theory were destroyed some 30 years ago as a cost-cutting measure -- the answer will never be known for certain. One surviving telegram from Curry to LaGrange supports the theory and demonstrates the facility with which the Western mints interacted. Dated March 2, 1870:
"I have this day to acknowledge the receipt of silver dollar radius plates, and take this occasion to renew my thanks for your kindness."
Oliver and Kelly also speculate that an S-mint silver dollar would have served as an excellent memento for the groundbreaking ceremonies of the new mint building, providing a motive for striking more than one coin. A study of the roster of the known 1870-S dollar specimens supports the idea that the coins were intended as mementos. Most appear to have been carried as pocket pieces, and show evidence of many years' ownership by non-numismatists. Only one of the nine known examples has been carefully preserved in Mint State condition. Some pieces are scratched, one features a test mark, another is pitted, and still another tooled.
Much has been made over the years about the small S mintmark of the 1870-S. Some researchers have suggested that the mintmark was hand-engraved because it differs from the punch used on other Seated dollars, but the letter seems too well-formed to be cut by hand. It is unsurprising that Philadelphia Mint had no dollar-sized S punch available in 1870, since no silver dollars had been struck at San Francisco for more than a decade. In size and shape, the mintmark on the 1870-S dollar closely resembles the mintmark on the half dollar of the same year. In their reference on Seated Liberty half dollars, Randy Wiley and Bill Bugert observed about the 1870-S half, "All tail dies are marked with a very small S mintmark." When the Philadelphia Mint was faced with the last-minute task of providing a silver dollar reverse die with an S mintmark in 1870, they may have felt the best option was to use the half dollar punch to impress the mintmark into a reverse die that was originally intended for coinage of Philadelphia Seated dollars. More study is needed to confirm this theory.
The figure most often quoted for the mintage of 1870-S dollars is 12 pieces. Other estimates have ranged as high as 500 examples, but we believe that such a large mintage could not have been omitted from the annual Mint Report because of the amount of bullion involved. A small emission of a dozen or so presentation pieces might fall through the cracks in the annual report without raising red flags, but any larger production would have to be documented somewhere. With Mint records silent or destroyed and no other credible contemporary testimony, we fall back on the empirical evidence of the coins themselves. With nine known examples; another reported but unverified specimen, circa 1990; and an 11th piece that is presumably still entombed in the lost cornerstone of the San Francisco Mint building, we are extremely close to the target figure of one dozen pieces. If we accept that one example is lost, our total would come to the accepted figure of 12 specimens. Whatever the original mintage might be, in absolute terms, the 1870-S Seated dollar is one of the rarest of all U.S. coins struck for any purpose, and it remains one of the great classics of the American series.
Surprisingly, the 1870-S was unknown to the numismatic community for 44 years after its striking. Apparently the unnamed recipients of the coins at the cornerstone ceremony were casual collectors. They probably held their coins as souvenirs for a number of years and then spent them or passed them on to their descendants, who parted with them when favorable opportunities arose. The numismatic community placed little emphasis on mintmarked issues in 1870. Most collectors tried to acquire an example of each date in their series of interest, but few attempted to secure a specimen from each mint every year. The most authoritative collector of mintmarked issues in the 19th century was Augustus Heaton, who studied Mint records diligently and popularized the collecting of these issues through his well-received treatise on mintmarks in 1893. However, because there was no listing for the 1870-S in the official records, Heaton was unaware of it when he wrote his book. Thus, even after collecting mintmarks became popular, no one was looking for the 1870-S dollar. The coins were rare enough that no example accidentally crossed paths with a serious numismatist, who would have recognized it as something special, and the few ordinary citizens who did come in contact with one assumed it was just another Seated Liberty dollar. Apparently the coins just hid in plain sight, circulating in the Western economy, until H.O. Granberg exhibited his coin at the 1914 ANS Exhibition. Although Granberg was a resident of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, he had important mining interests in the West and traveled extensively in the region. He may have formed a network of bank tellers and bullion brokers to look out for special coins and sell them to him for a small profit when one turned up. Any Seated Liberty dollar would have been an uncommon sight by 1914, so anyone looking for unusual coins would automatically save the 1870-S when it surfaced, even if they did not recognize its true rarity (or see its small mintmark). Another eight specimens have appeared over the years, bringing the confirmed surviving population to its current total of nine examples.
The present coin is probably the fourth-finest known example of this elusive date, which is usually seen well-worn or in impaired condition. It offers light silver-gray surfaces with hints of pale gold and lavender toning. Prooflike luster is evident in the protected areas, and the design elements are well-detailed and show only faint traces of wear. The small S mintmark is placed just below the end of the stem in the correct location, which matches the other known examples. Examination reveals several faint pinscratches in the left and right obverse field, a few also cross the lower drapery of Liberty, and a small nick occurs between stars 3 and 4. A shallow planchet flaw appears on the edge past star 7. These markers will serve to identify this rarity in the future. On balance, the coin has a decidedly pleasing appearance, and the surface marks are minimally distracting. An incredible rarity in any grade, and one of the rarest American coins produced in business-strike format.
The roster of known specimens of the 1870-S Seated Liberty silver dollar is expanded from the census published in the Stack's March 1987 catalog, with the assistance of Wayne Burt, John Dannreuther, and Saul Teichman. Michael Spurlock generously supplied information from the Colonel Green inventory.
Roster of 1870-S Seated Liberty Dollars
1. James A. Stack Specimen, MS62 PCGS. Morton and Joseph Stack; James A. Stack (1944); James Stack Collection (Stack's, 3/1995), lot 212; Rudolph Collection (Stack's, 5/2003), lot 2136, realized $1,092,500; Legend Collection of Seated Liberty Dollars, displayed at the 2005 ANA Convention in San Francisco.
2. Norweb Specimen, AU58 PCGS. Colonel E.H.R. Green; Col. Green estate until 1942; Burdette G. Johnson; Anderson DuPont Sale (Stack's, 11/1954), lot 2551; Art Kagin; Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb; Norweb Collection, Part III (Bowers and Merena, 11/1988), lot 3825; Jim Jessen Collection; offered as part of a silver dollar set in Coin World, January 1996.
3. Eliasberg Specimen, AU53 PCGS. Henry O. Granberg; illustrated in the 1914 ANS Exhibition; William H. Woodin; Waldo C. Newcomer; exhibited at the 1916 ANA Convention; Col. Green; Col. Green estate; possibly George H. Hall Sale (Stack's, 5/1945), lot 1576; Will W. Neil Sale (Mehl, 6/1947), lot 202; Stack's; Louis E. Eliasberg; Eliasberg Collection (Bowers and Merena, 4/1997), lot 2243; Stanford Coins and Bullion; Certified Acceptance Corporation (John Albanese, purchased for $1.3 million in 2/2008).
4. Ostheimer Specimen, XF40 PCGS, formerly XF40 NGC. Compton Collection; M.H. Bolender; Alfred and Jackie Ostheimer; Ostheimer Sale (Merkin, 9/1968), lot 372, bought in; Gilhousen Sale (Superior, 10/1973), lot 1339; 1975 ANA Sale (Superior 8/1975), lot 1125; Julian M. Leidman; Gary Sturtridge; ANA Sale (Bowers and Ruddy, 8/1978), lot 1160; James E. Pohrer; 1983 ANA Sale (Kagin's, 8/1983), lot 2707; Leon Hendrickson and Sal Fusco; private collection; Phoenix Rare Coin Galleries(7/1992); Richmond Sale (David Lawrence, 11/ 2004) lot 1497; Jack Lee III Collection (Heritage, 11/2005), lot 2226; Central States Signature (Heritage, 4/2009), lot 2581; Boston Rarities Sale (Bowers and Merena, 8/2010), lot 1089; the present coin.
5. Eureka Specimen, F/VF scratched. Reportedly discovered by an 18-year old man from Eureka, California, before 1922, who kept it until the 1970s. Numerous scratches and nicks; Donovan II Sale (Steve Ivy, 7/1978), lot 1128; Auction '85 (Paramount, 7/1985), lot 1270; Manfra, Tordella, and Brooks fixed price list, spring 1987.
6. Queller Specimen, XF40 NGC. Possibly Charles M. Williams; Adolphe Menjou Sale (Numismatic Gallery, 6/1950) lot 2181; possibly Clinton Hester; Abe Kosoff FPL 1955; Ben Koenig; Fairbanks Collection (Stack's, 12/1960), lot 617; Samuel Wolfson Sale (Stack's, 5/1963), lot 1431; R.L. Miles, Jr. Sale (Stack's, 4/1969), lot 1612; Autumn Sale (Stack's, 9/1978), lot 345 ; David Queller; Queller Family Collection (Heritage, 4/2008), lot 2129, realized $805,000.
Note: Walter Breen believed this coin once belonged to 19th century collector Matthew Stickney, but it did not appear in the 1907 Henry Chapman sale of his collection, and his daughters insisted that offering was completely intact. It may be that the coin was sold privately before Stickney's death, but this seems dubious. It is possible that Virgil Brand owned this coin at some point.
7. Carter Specimen, VF. B. Max Mehl; Colonel E.H.R. Green; James Kelly; Jack Roe; James Kelly again; Jerome Kern (B. Max Mehl, 5/1950), lot 941; Amon G. Carter; Amon Carter Sale (Stack's, 1/1984), lot 285; L.R. French Sale (Stack's, 1/1989), lot 56; James Stack, Sr. Collection (Stack's, 11/1989), lot 546.
Note: This coin has often been listed as a Waldo Newcomer duplicate, but the Newcomer inventory owned by PCGS lists only one coin. Newcomer's notes, written in the late 1920s or early 1930s, include, "Reported that seven were struck but only these two known. Granberg and Woodin specimen (mine) was the only known specimen. Hesslein has one about fine with initials scratched on one or both sides. Mehl is negotiating in another, making three in all. Hesslein offered me his in April 1928 for $1300.00." Thanks to John Dannreuther for this information. The Carter coin is probably the one Mehl was "negotiating in."
8. Schultz Specimen, VF25 PCGS. Norman Schultz Mail Bid Sale (12/1935), lot 1302; B. Max Mehl; King Farouk; The Palace Collections (Sotheby's, 2/1954), lot 1676; Hans Schulman, per Gaston DiBello's annotated catalog of the Farouk sale; 1960 ANA Sale (Conn and Whiteneck, 8/1960), lot 1168; Fall Festival Sale (Ben's Coin Company, 10/1961), lot 430 (Ben Dreiske was one of the founders of RARCOA the following year); 10th Anniversary Sale (Kreisberg-Schulman, 4/1967), lot 1253; Herman Halpern Collection (Stack's, 3/1987), lot 1203; private collection; 72nd Anniversary Sale (Stack's, 10/2007), lot 5294; Baltimore Auction (Bowers and Merena, 2/2008), lot 2035.
9. Boyd Specimen, VF Details PCGS, tooled to remove initials F.H.I. engraved before Liberty. Drake and Munro Collections (William Hesslein, 12/1926), lot 900; F.C.C. Boyd; World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 5/1945), lot 271; Southern Sale (Hollinbeck, 2/ 1951), lot 1248; Earl M. Skinner Collection (New Netherlands 11/1952), lot 162; Charles A. Cass; Empire Collection (Stack's, 11/1957), lot 1759; Quarter Millennium Sale, Part III (Hollinbeck Coin Company, 3/1964), lot 519; 274th Sale (Hollinbeck, 11/1967), lot 1162; Ancient, Foreign and U.S. Coins (Stack's, 6/1996), lot 1940; 73rd Anniversary Sale (Stack's, 10/2008), lot 457; Baltimore Auction (Bowers and Merena, 11/2009), lot 3086.
10. San Francisco coin, Mint State (unverified). San Francisco Mint employee, 1870; family of preceding Mint employee; owned by San Francisco-area military officer, examined by dealer Sam E. Frudakis who was unable to retain the coin for verification and identification.
11. A specimen rumored to be in the cornerstone (whereabouts today unknown) of the "Granite Lady" second San Francisco Mint, unverified.
From The Usibelli Collection.(Registry values: N1) (NGC ID# 24ZF, PCGS# 6965)
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