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Collecting Trade Dollars Challenging and Fun
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
April 03, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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As collector coins, silver dollars are extremely popular. After all, they’re big, they contain a significant amount of silver (more than three-quarters of an ounce), and many collectors would say they’re beautiful, particularly in high grades. (Note that I’m talking about real silver dollars, not such ersatz coins as Eisenhower dollars, Anthony dollars, Sacagawea dollars, and Presidential dollars.)

In terms of popularity, Morgan dollars almost certainly rank first, with Peace dollars not far behind. One reason for the popularity of Peace dollars is the brevity of the series, with just 24 different date/mintmark combinations. Another silver dollar series, with even fewer circulation-strike date/mintmark combinations (17), is much less popular with collectors. It’s the Trade dollar series.

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Trade dollars were minted between 1873 and 1878, with dwindling numbers of proof-only pieces thereafter until 1885. The purpose of the coin was to facilitate trade with China, as the standard American silver dollar (the Seated Liberty dollar at the time) was underweight compared to such China-favored coins as Mexican pesos.

As a result of this, American exporters to China often had to pay a premium to purchase Mexican pesos to use as payment to their Chinese suppliers. Thus, friends of the exporters petitioned Congress for the production of a slightly heavier silver dollar to compete with Mexican coins.

Originally called “Commercial dollars,” the Act of Feb. 12, 1873 authorized the minting of “Trade Dollars,” and the name stuck. As Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins states, “Nearly the entire 1873 issue from all mints (except proofs) went to China, where merchants chopmarked them with characters representing names or personal trademarks. Top grade 1873’s of any mint are now rare.” Also, Trade dollars are frequently found with chopmarks, and Breen notes, “a complete set was exhibited at the 1985 ANA Convention.”

The Act also included the provision that Trade dollars could be used as legal tender in the U.S. for amounts up to $5. This provision had unforeseen consequences when the price of silver dropped to the point at which the coins no longer had $1 (or more) worth of silver in them.

At this point, some employers purchased Trade dollars for their bullion value and used them at face value to pay workers. Breen writes, “In communities where company stores were the sole retail sources for goods, storekeepers either accepted them only at the lower values, or more often raised prices; elsewhere merchants and banks either accepted them only at bullion value or refused the coins altogether.…” In other words, workers were cheated by their employers because of the legal-tender status of Trade dollars.

As a result, Congress revoked the legal-tender status of Trade dollars on July 22, 1876. Breen pithily summarizes the Trade dollar series in the following:

“The issue of this coin was an expensive mistake its motivation mere greed, its design a triumph of dullness, its domestic circulation and legal-tender status a disastrous provision of law leading only to ghastly abuses, its repudiation a source of hardship for Pennsylvania coal miners and other laborers held in virtual peonage by company stores, its recall a long overdue but very mixed blessing, and its collection a source of decades of frustration.”

The Trade dollar’s designer was William Barber, father of Charles Barber, who is well known for his dime, quarter, and half dollar series, and also for Liberty Head nickels. The obverse design shows a seated figure of Liberty facing left (toward the Orient). A contemporary reporter described the design as follows: “a female figure seated on bales of merchandise, holding in her left hand a scroll bearing the word ‘Liberty.’ At her back is a sheaf of wheat, expressing, with the bales of goods, the commercial character of the coin: the right hand extended holds the olive branch.”

On the reverse is a depiction of a bald eagle (required by law), holding an olive branch in its left claw and three arrows in its right claw. Most other silver coins of the period have the locations of the olive branch and arrows reversed from those of the Trade dollar.

As a collectible series, there is one huge problem with Trade dollars. The series ends with two great numismatic rarities: the 1884 and 1885 proof Trade dollars. It is generally believed that there are just ten of the former and five of the latter, making their acquisition nearly impossible, even if the collector has no limit on his or her numismatic budget.

According to the Professional Edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins (PE Red Book), “Neither [date] was produced openly, and examples were sold for the private profit of Mint officials, going to John W. Haseltine, a Philadelphia dealer who was a favored outlet for such things. The existence of [the 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars] was not generally known to numismatists until 1907-1908, when examples began to appear on the market.”

So set completion, if the 1884 and 1885 are required, is well nigh impossible. Fortunately, there are other ways to approach the Trade dollar series.

The simplest possibility is to collect the series by type. Using this approach, you only have to purchase either one coin (circulation type) or two coins (circulation and proof varieties).

As long as you’re willing to settle for a circulated specimen, there are several Trade dollars with retail values of $330-$365 in About Uncirculated-50, according to a recent issue of Numismatic News “Coin Market.” The least expensive examples are 1875-S, 1876-S, 1877-S, and 1878-S, all valued at $330. Mintages of these four dates range from slightly over 4 million to more than 9.5 million.

If you want a less common date for your type selection, then there are several dates with mintages below 1 million that are priced at less than $400. Of these, the one with the lowest mintage is the 1873, of which just 397,500 were struck. It lists for $360 in AU-50.

If you must have an uncirculated coin, then you’re going to find the values pretty shocking, as the range for the lowly grade of Mint State-60 is from $1,050 to $13,500. The top price is for an 1878-CC, with a mintage of 97,000, which is the lowest mintage by far of the circulation-strike Trade dollars. In MS-63, the range is from $2,000 (1876-S) to $25,000 (1873-CC). In MS-65, Trade dollars are worth between $12,500 and $120,000.

The reason for these astonishing values in high grades is that “Very few of the circulating issues were saved by numismatists, with the result today that assembling a collection in choice or gem Mint State can be a great challenge,” according to the PE Red Book. Bruce Amspacher, writing in John Highfill’s The Comprehensive U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia, lists three factors as being responsible for the rarity of high-grade pieces, either circulation strike or proofs: low mintages, extensive melting, and chopmarks or other mishandling (for example, harsh cleaning).

If you want a proof coin for type as well as a circulation strike, you’ll find that many of the proofs saw some circulation, which means that you may be able to find one in AU-50. [They’re also available in lower grades, but their values in these grades are not different enough from the AU-50 prices to warrant their purchase.] Not counting the 1884 and 1885, values in AU-50 for the proof-only issues (1878-1883) range from $1,300 to $1,400. Mintages range from 900 (1878) to 1,987 (1880). In Proof-65, values for all of the proof issues, including those minted from 1873 to 1877, range from $10,250 (most dates) to $15,000 (1875, mintage of 700).

If you decide to tackle the entire series, circulation strikes and proofs, you’ll be encouraged by the following comment in the PE Red Book: “Beyond the [1884 and 1885], a complete collection of trade dollars of the 1873 to 1883 years can be formed with some effort.” In Very Fine-20, the range of values for the circulation strikes is between $160 (1875-S, 1876-S, 1877-S, 1878-S) and $1,475 (1878-CC). In fact, the CC-minted Trade dollars are almost always more expensive than their Philadelphia or San Francisco counterparts.

The only exception I could find was the 1875-CC, which had a lower value than the 1875. Mintage accounts for the difference, as only 218,900 of the 1875 were coined compared to 1,573,000 of the 1875-CC. The values for the two in VF-20 are $425 and $350, respectively.

A complete circulation-strike Trade dollar set seems doable in AU-50, as values range between $330 (the last four San Francisco dates) and $4,000 (1878-CC). Actually, most of the coins are valued well below $1,000, with only 1873-CC ($1,875), 1876-CC ($2,000), and 1878-CC over that mark and 1876-CC ($985) close to it.

As for mint-state coins, values rise precipitously, as I indicated earlier. If you want to work on a set of proof Trade dollars, you’ll find that all are valued above $1,000, even in well-circulated condition. Still, with mintages between 510 (1877) and 1,987 (1880), it’s surprising that values are not higher than they are.

The PE Red Book lists a number of varieties in the circulation-strike series. For example, there are several dates with hub doubling on either the obverse (1876-S, 1877) or reverse (1876-CC, 1876-S, 1877-S, 1878-S). In addition, 1877-S is known with a repunched date, and there’s even an overmintmark date (1875-S/CC). Values are typically elevated for the varieties relative to the normal dates.

Of course, it’s easy for me to write about all the Trade dollars that are somewhat inexpensive in circulated grades and give prices from “Coin Market.” The question remains: Are such coins actually available?

Amazingly enough, the answer is yes. I did a search for U.S. Trade dollars on eBay and found 750 active listings. In fact, when I examined each of the dates in the series, the only ones that weren’t available were 1884 and 1885. Actually, I would have been astonished to find that the latter two dates had been auctioned on eBay, as their rarity makes them candidates for sale through the largest numismatic auction houses.

Of course, just because a particular variety is listed for sale on eBay, it doesn’t mean that you would want to purchase it. Many of the listed coins I found there had some sort of problem, usually cleaning. As Amspacher puts it, “…enormous numbers of Trade dollars have suffered mishandling and abusive cleaning.”

This said, if you decide to tackle the Trade dollar series, either as circulation strikes or proofs or both, lack of availability in the marketplace doesn’t appear to be an insurmountable problem. I would probably look for the circulation-strike series in a VF grade and seek coins with a nice, natural color from extensive circulation. With one exception (1878-CC), all the values are well below $1,000 in VF-20.

No matter how you approach the series, as type, date/mintmark combinations, as proofs, with or without varieties, collecting Trade dollars is likely to be both challenging and fun. And what more could you ask of a series than that?

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