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AMERICA’S 10 MOST CONTROVERSIAL COINS

By Ed Reiter


 Money lies at the root of many an argument; people often fight over just who owns it or how it should be spent.

 Coin collectors argue over money sometimes, too – but their fights often center on more specialized concerns: why a given coin is a certain size ... why a coin bears a particular date or design ... why a coin was issued by the government ... or whether it was issued – officially, that is – at all.

 Now and then, these arguments expand beyond the hobby to involve the public at large. A case in point is the Susan B. Anthony dollar, whose size proved so unpopular that most Americans simply refused to use it.

 A number of different United States coins have figured in disputes through the years. Any compilation of the “10 most controversial” would have to be regarded as arbitrary at best. Still, there are coins that obviously belong near the
top of any such list.

 The following compilation is perhaps as good as any. So here – for argument's sake – is my personal list of our 10 most controversial coins:

(1) The 1804 silver dollar.

 The 1804 dollar is frequently described as “The King of American Coins.” It surely is among the rarest and most valuable of all U.S. coins, and few if any coins from this or any country have been subject to more debate among collectors.

 Confusion surrounded this coin from the time it first appeared on the hobby scene. One puzzling aspect was the fact that its existence didn’t come to light until at least the 1830s. Mint records served to compound the mystery, for they showed there had been more than 19,000 silver dollars minted in 1804. This being the case, why was it decades before such coins turned up – and why were they so scarce even then?


 Much of the mystery has been resolved – to the satisfaction of most hobbyists – through numismatic research, notably the research of Eric P. Newman and Kenneth E. Bressett, who wrote a book entitled The Fantastic 1804 Dollar.

 Scholars have established that the 15 known examples of the 1804 dollar were struck not in 1804 but decades later. It’s now believed that eight of them were made in 1834 or 1835 for use in presentation sets given by the U.S. government – or intended to be given – to foreign heads of state. Several complete proof sets of all U.S. coins were ordered at the time for that purpose, and since silver dollars were not being made for current use, the Mint apparently struck a few and chose as their date the last recorded year of dollar production – namely, 1804. These coins are referred to, somewhat ironically, as “originals.”

 The seven other 1804 dollars, generally spoken of as “restrikes,” seem to have been struck in the late 1850s, a time when Mint employees were making extra money – quite literally – by producing copies of rarities for collectors.

 As for the 19,570 silver dollars listed as having been minted in 1804, those, it appears, actually had been dated 1803. It was standard practice at that time to continue using dies until they wore out – and even if the date on the calendar changed, the date on the dies stayed the same.

(2) The 1883 “without CENTS” Liberty Head nickel.

 The very first Liberty Head nickel had hardly left the Philadelphia Mint in 1883 when trouble started brewing for Uncle Sam. The Mint’s chief engraver, Charles E. Barber, had missed one detail in designing the coin: He had failed to include the word CENTS. And confidence men, seizing on this oversight, soon began plating the nickels with gold, reeding their edges and passing them off to unsuspecting merchants as $5 gold pieces.

 With the luxury of hindsight, we can scoff today and say the victims were naive. Conditions were far different, though, in 1883. Coins were being made in more denominations, new designs – and even new sizes – appeared with much
more frequency and gold and silver coins circulated side by side with coins made of nickel and copper. Given all this, the swindlers’ success was less surprising. The new nickels were, after all, very close in size to half eagles. They were unfamiliar to the public. And, above all, they lacked any statement of value beyond the letter “V” – the Roman numeral for “5” – on their reverse.

 One clever con artist passed off gilded nickels with a scheme that was particularly ingenious. He posed as a deaf mute when making a purchase, then paid with a gold-plated coin. If his victim took the coin to be a half eagle, the silent con
man then received change for five dollars. But, if he was challenged, he had a perfect alibi: He hadn’t implied by spoken word that the coin was a $5 gold piece, so he hadn’t done anything wrong and couldn’t very well be arrested.

 The Mint prepared a new design at once, this time placing CENTS in big, bold letters just below the “V” – and, with that (plus publicity in the press), the scam soon came to an end. By then, however, nearly 5½ million Type I nickels had been made, and many had been plated and passed. As evidence of this, it isn’t uncommon to find gilded nickels in hoards and collections today – though their numismatic value (except in a historical sense) is slight.

 Before the year was out, the Mint had produced more than 16 million nickels of the new variety – the kind that included CENTS in the design. The “no CENTS” version is far more common today, though, in every grade – and especially in choice mint condition. The explanation is simple. Learning of the change, people started saving the “no CENTS” nickels, figuring they would be scarce – and, conversely, they looked upon the Type II coins as common, and therefore didn’t
put them aside.

 (3) The 1913 Liberty Head nickel.

 The rarest – and most controversial – of all the “V” nickels came not at the beginning of that series but the end. And it’s one that wasn’t issued – at least not officially – by the Mint. The coin in question is the famous 1913 Liberty Head, a nickel of dubious pedigree but of undisputed rarity and value.

 Official Mint records make no mention of this 1913 nickel. As far as Uncle Sam was concerned, the Liberty Head series ended in 1912, with the Buffalo nickel taking its place beginning in 1913. It is known, however, that the Mint prepared dies for a 1913 Liberty nickel – just in case any problems developed with the new Buffalo coin. These were locked in a vault at the Philadelphia Mint, along with the dies for the Buffalo nickel, and presumably should have been destroyed.

 What actually took place is a matter of conjecture, but somehow at least five pieces – all of them proofs – were struck with the Liberty Head dies.

 The existence of these coins didn’t come to light for seven years. Then, in 1920, a former Mint employee named Samuel W. Brown announced that he had purchased them shortly after placing an ad in The Numismatist, the official
journal of the American Numismatic Association, offering to pay $500 for any such coin.

 Brown had been employed at the Philadelphia Mint from 1903 to 1913, and is thought to have had access to the dies for the 1913 nickels. In view of this, it is widely believed that he himself struck the coins, or had them made by an accomplice, and then held them secretly after leaving the Mint to avoid arousing suspicion. It is interesting to note that 1920, the year when he announced their “discovery,” also marked the end of the seven-year statute of limitations for
prosecuting anyone who might have removed the coins in 1913.

 Brown sold the coins for $600 apiece to a Philadelphia coin dealer, August Wagner – and Wagner, in turn, sold all five to Col. E.H.R. Green, son of Hetty Green, the eccentric financier reputed to have been the world’s richest woman. The
pieces were dispersed following Green’s death, and through the years they have grown in both stature and value. While some may dispute their legitimacy, no one can question their worth: Examples have changed hands in recent years for as much as $5 million apiece.

 (4) The “Godless” Saint-Gaudens gold coins.

 The motto “In God We Trust” has appeared on U.S. coinage since 1864. For more than 40 years, though, its use was not required by law; Congress merely authorized its placement on our coins.

 The motto’s legal status, or rather its non-legal status, came into focus in 1907, when the Mint introduced two new gold coins – an eagle and double eagle ($10 and $20 gold pieces) – designed by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. President Theodore Roosevelt had been the guiding light behind these coins – and, at his urging, the words “In God We Trust” were omitted from their designs.

 A motto of this sort should be saved, Roosevelt said, for use “on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and at buildings such as those at West Point and Annapolis – in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon.”

 “It seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins,” he wrote, “just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.”

 It soon became clear that a vast majority of Americans disagreed – at least in regard to placement of the motto on our coins. Roosevelt’s arguments, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, were drowned out by a roar of public protest. Congress reacted swiftly: On May 18, 1908, it passed legislation mandating use of the motto on gold and silver coins, excluding only the dime, where up to then it hadn’t yet appeared.

 The “Godless” Saint-Gaudens coins were modified at once – and, as a result, the 1908 eagle and double eagle come in both varieties: with and without the motto.  Both Saint-Gaudens coins are cherished by collectors as works of unusual beauty. Some, it is likely, find them even more beautiful, though, with the motto.

 (5) The 1909 VDB Lincoln cent.

 The familiar Lincoln cent seems far from controversial today – but in 1909, the year it came into being, it represented a major break with tradition. Up to that time, no regular-issue U.S. coin had portrayed an actual person.

 George Washington had set the tone in this, as in many other matters, by refusing to allow the use of his likeness on a coin.

 The storm of protest that greeted the Lincoln cent wasn’t touched off by the design, though; it was triggered by the designer. To be more precise, it was caused by the fact that Victor David Brenner, the sculptor who designed the coin, had “signed” it with his initials. The letters “VDB,” at the base of the cent’s reverse, stirred a wave of indignation. Critics besieged the Mint with complaints that the initials were, as one writer put it, “gigantic.”

 Within a matter of days, Mint officials bowed to this pressure and took the letters off the new coin. The slap in the face to Brenner was a shot in the arm to collectors, for it made the early strikes – the ones that bore the initials – very scarce. This was particularly true of the branch mint issues from San Francisco. Only 484,000 Lincoln cents were produced there that year with the letters VDB,
making that the scarcest coin (excluding error coins and varieties) in the whole Lincoln series.

 Brenner later gained a measure of vindication: In 1918, his initials were restored, and they’ve been on the cent ever since. But they’re much smaller now and it almost requires a magnifying glass to find them in their new location – etched into Lincoln’s shoulder.

 (6) The Variety I Standing Liberty quarter.

 Hobbyists rank the Standing Liberty quarter among the most beautiful of all U.S. coins. It’s said, though, that beauty is only skin deep – and skin, not beauty, was the thing some Americans noticed above all else about this coin.

 What they noticed, in particular, was a daring detail that the coin’s designer, sculptor Hermon MacNeil, had included: In depicting the figure of Liberty, he had left her right breast exposed.

 Moral indignation took a little while to build. Although the coin was launched in 1916, production didn’t start until late in the year and by year’s end, only 52,000 pieces had been struck. Awareness and outrage spread more rapidly in
1917, as more and more of the quarters made the rounds. And Mint officials soon beat a hasty retreat.

 By convenient coincidence, other design changes also were under discussion. It’s questionable, though, whether these would have been made if it weren’t for the moralistic outcry. In any case, the Mint made a series of changes: The eagle on the coin’s reverse was raised, the stars were rearranged – and, while Miss Liberty was under anesthesia, so to speak, a bit of minor breast surgery was performed. When next seen, she was tightly and modestly clad in a rigid coat of mail.

 (7) The 1933 double eagle.

 Politics and economics conspired to bring an end to U.S. gold coinage in 1933 – and one of the most intriguing victims of that demise was the 1933 double eagle.

 By the time the Mint began producing this coin, in mid-March of 1933, plans were already being made at a higher level of government to take this nation off the gold standard – a measure deemed essential to the economic recovery
program then being put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Meanwhile, amid the confusion of FDR’s first days in office, the Mint completed production of 445,500 double eagles and placed them in its vaults to await further instructions on their disposition.

 Those instructions never came. Instead, the coins were caught in the web of larger events, and the word from above – when it did come down – was to hold them and eventually melt them.

 As inevitably happens in cases such as this, several of the coins somehow eluded the melting pot. The U.S. Secret Service doggedly tracked down several of these coins, which then met the same fiery fate. But after a similar seizure in 1996, it turned out that the coin being confiscated had been sold during World War II to Egypt’s King Farouk – with an export license from the U.S. government. Rather than risk an adverse decision if the case went to court, the government agreed to permit the sale of just this one example, and in return it got 50 percent of the $7.59 million sale price – an all-time auction record for any coin.

 But that was far from the end of the case. Several years later, a Philadelphia family revealed that it had found 10 of the supposedly contraband coins in the effects of the family patriarch, a jeweler known to have handled a number of the 1933 “Saints.” The family sent the coins to the Mint, supposedly for authentication. The Mint decided that they were indeed genuine – but also said it wouldn’t give them back. The family sued for their return, and a legal battle has raged ever since.

 (8) The 1964 Peace dollar.

 U.S. coinage was in a state of turmoil in 1964. The nation was in the grip of a worsening coin shortage and the price of silver was rising, posing a clear threat to
continued use of silver in our coins.

 Under these conditions, a new silver dollar would seem to have been the very last thing the nation needed. As it was, a horde of collectors and speculators had stripped the Treasury’s vaults of virtually all their previously minted silver dollars – so what would be the point of minting new ones?

 Yet, against all logic, Congress appropriated $600,000 in August 1964 for the production of 45 million silver dollars, President Lyndon Johnson gave his blessing – and after months of resistance by Treasury officials and key members of Congress, the project did, in fact, get under way in May 1965. According to reliable sources, the coins were 90-percent silver, were dated 1964 and bore the same design as the last previous U.S. silver dollar, the Peace dollar.

 It’s not completely clear why the coins were ever authorized in the first place; special political interests, including those of senators from silver-mining states, seem to have played a very significant role. It’s clear enough, though, what happened when production began: Congressional opponents, furious at this folly, demanded and got an immediate halt to the project.

 By then, more than 300,000 of the coins – 30 trial strikes and 316,076 production pieces – had been made, all at the branch mint in Denver. None had been issued, though. Orders went out from Washington that no further dollars
should be made and those already struck should be melted, and Denver Mint officials followed these instructions to the letter.

 That may not have been the end of the story, though. There have been recurrent rumors that some of the coins left the mint – either through the actions of employees there or through official channels. And, if such coins do exist, their
value as collectors’ items surely would be well up in the thousands of dollars. Then again, it isn’t very likely that they’d ever come up for sale on the open market: According to a press release issued by the Mint in 1973, any such coins “are the property of the United States, which is entitled to recover [them].”

 (9) The 1974 aluminum cent.

 Copper gave way to zinc in 1982 as the predominant metal in U.S. “pennies,” and many Americans still don’t know the change took place. People would have noticed the difference immediately, though, if an earlier plan had been
implemented. That plan, formulated in 1973, called for a switch from copper to aluminum – and unlike the copper-plated zinc cents of today, the aluminum pieces would have been distinctive in color.

 The Mint was almost certain that the switch would be approved – so certain, in fact, that it struck more than 1.5 million of the new-style cents, all dated 1974 in anticipation of the changeover. It left 16 of these with key members of Congress to give them a close-up look at what was planned.

 The approval never came; objections from vending industry spokesmen and other critics, plus a drop in the price of copper, persuaded Congress to stick with the cent we had. End of story, right? Not exactly. The Mint promptly melted the aluminum cents in its vault – but Mint Director Mary Brooks found unexpected trouble when she went to Capitol Hill to reclaim the 16 “loaners” she had left. All but two recipients had trouble locating the coins – which, by then, had become potential rarities.

 Extensive publicity, including a detailed report by columnist Jack Anderson, succeeded in prying some of these coins from what Anderson labeled the “sticky fingers” of “distinguished members of Congress.” Some of them remain unaccounted for, though, even now.

 It’s unclear what will happen if they do turn up; their legal status is subject to some dispute. Anyone who’s knowingly concealing them, though, is well aware the Mint may seek to seize them.

 (10) The Susan B. Anthony dollar.

 No “Top 10” list of controversial coins would be complete without the Anthony dollar. This singularly unloved coin has probably caused more comment – most of it negative – than any other coin in U.S. history.

 The Mint had good intentions when it introduced the “Susie” in 1979. The Eisenhower dollar was bulky, a smaller dollar coin would be cheaper to produce in the long run and there seemed to be a need for a circulating coin of this face value. What the Mint failed to reckon with was the universal perception – almost from the moment the new coin first appeared – that the Anthony dollar looked too much like an Anthony quarter. The size the Mint had chosen – larger than the quarter but smaller than the half dollar – struck most people as simply too confusing, and the natural response was an unofficial nationwide boycott of the coin.

 Production was suspended after just three years, then halted altogether after one encore year in 1999. In 2000, the Mint introduced the Sacagawea dollar, another small $1 coin – this time with a “golden” color intended to make it easier to distinguish from the quarter. In 2007, it began making similar dollars in a special series honoring U.S. presidents. To date, however, neither of these has caught on.

 And no $1 coin of any size, color or design will ever win public acceptance, critics maintain, unless the government stops printing $1 bills. The American people have made it clear that given a choice, they’ll use the paper dollar every time.

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