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Lafayette Dollar First Silver Commemm
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
August 29, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Prior to the release of the Los Angeles Olympic silver dollars in 1983, the United States had only one other prior silver dollar commemorative and that was the Lafayette dollar.

Just how there came to be a Lafayette dollar dated 1900 is an interesting question as is the question of why after it was issued no additional commemorative silver dollars were struck for over 80 years.

The situation needs to be examined literally from the start. In 1892 and 1893 there were the first authorized U.S. commemoratives in the form of the Columbian Exposition half dollars and the Isabella quarter. You can make a case that the 1848 gold $2.50 stamped “CAL” is the first U.S. commemorative, but it was never authorized by Congress.

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Having already had a half dollar and a quarter, the Lafayette Memorial Commission proposal for a silver dollar probably did not seem all that unusual as there was really no pattern or guidelines as to what commemorative programs should involve. A silver dollar probably seemed as good as any other denomination, much like gold dollars would seem fine a couple of years later.

Designing the Lafayette dollar was the task of Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who produced an obverse with the conjoined heads of Lafayette and George Washington while the reverse shows a statue erected in Paris as a gift of the American people.

In a very real sense, the design did create history as prior to the Lafayette dollar no former American President had ever been on any U.S. coin. There had been patterns with such portraits, but Washington’s own opposition to the use of his portrait on circulating coins had a lingering impact. The tradition became no President or any other American would appear on coins. The Lafayette dollar broke that tradition.

Sales were interesting. Price of the coin was $2. A total of 50,000 were struck. The Treasury melted 14,000 in the 1940s. Why 36,000 sold and 14,000 didn’t is hazy.

What we do know is anyone who paid $2 for one felt foolish just a couple of years later as the price dropped.

Some 10,000 examples sent to the 1900 Paris International Exhibition were returned. One numismatist reported paying $1.10 each for four. Virgil Brand acquired a cloth bag of 1,000 while others actually reached circulation.

Of those that were melted, there were photographs showing them in front of bags upon bags of Morgan dollars. Omaha, Neb., dealer Aubrey Bebee tried to buy them in the mid 1940s and was willing to pay well over face value, but it was too late.

With a mintage of 36,000 surviving and many of these circulated, the Lafayette dollar was on its way to becoming a tough coin. As grading standards evolved, top grades became tougher still.

Today, the Lafayette dollar can be found for $950 in MS-60. In MS-65, it is $11,500. There are not many at that price. The Professional Coin Grading Service reports that fewer than 10 percent of coins examined attain this grade. For a commemorative, that is a low number, assuring continuing high prices.


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