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Gobrecht Dollars Deserve Recognition
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
March 03, 2014

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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In the lengthy history of U.S. dollars, there are several series that are fun to collect. Morgan dollars are widely popular, for example, as are Peace dollars. And Anthony dollars have their fans, as do Eisenhower dollars, Presidential dollars, Sacajawea dollars, and even such early series as Seated Liberty dollars and Trade dollars. One series that does not spring readily to mind as fun to collect is that of Gobrecht dollars, minted between 1836 and 1839.

One reason for their lack of popularity is obvious when you look at their values: You’ll be hard pressed to find one, in any decent condition, for less than the low five figures. Another problem is that they were long considered to be pattern coins and thus not part of the list of coins minted for circulation and needed for a type set.

Apparently, this is no longer the case. According to the 5th edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins (Professional Edition), “…in recent decades research by R. W. Julian…and others, has revealed that the vast majority of 1836 and 1839 silver dollars originally produced went into circulation at face value. Accordingly, they were coins of the realm at the time, were freely spent, and are deserving of a place among regular coinage types.”

An overview of U.S. silver dollars reveals that Flowing Hair dollars were produced in 1794 and 1795. These were followed by Draped Bust, small eagle dollars (1795-1798) and Draped Bust, heraldic eagle dollars (1798-1803). Although some silver dollars were minted in 1804, these are believed to have been dated 1803 rather than 1804, with dollars dated 1804 actually minted many years later.

Because of exportation of U.S. silver dollars out of the country, President Thomas Jefferson called a halt to their production after 1803. Although this suspension of production was lifted in 1831 by President Andrew Jackson, resumption of efforts to produce a new dollar didn’t begin until 1835. That’s when Mint Director R. M. Patterson told Mint engraver Christian Gobrecht to prepare dies based on Thomas Sully and Titian Peale designs.

Earlier, Patterson had contacted Sully and Peale and asked them to prepare Seated Liberty designs. To guide him in his work on the Seated Liberty figure, Patterson sent Sully a package of British coins and medals. Of course, the main device on these coins was Brittania, the British version of Liberty.

Britannia, incidentally, was first used on British coins during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). In Q. David Bowers’ Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States, R. W. Julian notes, “There is a story that the king, in choosing to recreate Britannia on the coinage, was also honoring one of his mistresses.… The story is quite in character for Charles II.”

Gobrecht dollars as a group are ranked as coin No. 69 in Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. According to the authors:

“The obverse shows Miss Liberty in a flowing gown sitting on a rock. Her left hand holds a staff surmounted by a Liberty Cap; her right hand steadies a shield and holds a band bearing the word LIBERTY. The date appears at the base of the obverse, below the rock. Depending on the year and variety, the designer’s name will either be missing from the coin, below the base of the rock, or on the base of the rock. The reverse features an eagle in flight heading towards the left side of the coin. Surrounding the eagle are the legends UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and ONE DOLLAR. Depending on the year and variety, the fields surrounding the eagle will be either plain or filled with 26 stars.”

On 1836 coins, the designer’s name appeared as “C. GOBRECHT F.,” the F. standing for the Latin word fecit, meaning that Gobrecht made it or did it (designed the coin). A thousand coins were minted for circulation with the name on the base of Liberty.

Early the next year, the weight of the dollar was reduced, with more coins struck from the 1836 dies. These have the obverse and reverse in medal relation to each other, that is, the obverse and reverse in the same orientations. This is the opposite of coin orientation in which the reverse design is upside down relative to the obverse and vice versa. The purpose of the medal orientation was to distinguish this second coining from the first.

The so-called “original issue” of Gobrecht dollars, struck in late 1836, has coin orientation, and the eagle appears to be flying upward rather than being in level flight. Additional coins minted for circulation in 1837 and 1839 have different die alignments. As detailed in the Guide Book (Professional Edition), Die alignment I has the head of Liberty opposite DO of “DOLLAR,” with the eagle flying upward; die alignment II has the head of Liberty opposite ES of “STATES,” with the eagle flying upward; die alignment III has the head of Liberty opposite N of “ONE,” with the eagle in level flight; and die alignment IV has the head of Liberty opposite F of OF, with the eagle level. Die alignments I and III have coin orientation, the other two have medal orientation.

The Guide Book (PE) further notes, “From the late 1850s to the 1870s the Mint continued to strike Gobrecht dollars to satisfy collector demand. Mules [coins with obverse and reverse designs not usually seen together], which had mismatched designs or edge devices, were made in that period and are very rare.” In addition to all the other differentiating features I’ve mentioned, some Gobrecht dollars have no stars on the obverse, with stars on the reverse, and vice versa.

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Although the 1836 Gobrecht dollars were struck as proofs, they often circulated, and the Guide Book (PE) states, “Most in the marketplace range from PF-50 to 62.” Amazingly, in my search of the Heritage Auction archives, I actually found two recent sales of a Gobrecht dollar that had circulated until it reached the grade of PR-4. The same coin brought $5,875 in a September 2013 sale, and then in December it found a new owner for $6,463. Also in the September sale, a Gobrecht dollar graded PCGS Genuine, with Good details, realized just $2,820.

Obviously, if you’re not too fussy about condition, there are coins in the marketplace that can be yours for less than $10,000 apiece. But you know the old saying: You get what you pay for.

In his Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States, Bowers has a chapter called “Guide to Collecting and Investing [in] Gobrecht Silver Dollars 1836-1839.” He begins by noting that there were really only two Gobrecht dollars minted for circulation; the rest are patterns and thus not necessary for inclusion in a complete collection of silver dollars.

The two coins he’s talking about are “…the 1836 with name on base, plain edge, and starry reverse field; and the 1839 with reeded edge and starless reverse field.…” Despite the pattern status of all the other Gobrecht dollars, however, “…many collectors have included them among the regular series in their cabinets, much as the pattern 1856 Flying Eagle cent is desired by collectors of small cents, and the pattern $4 gold stellas of 1879 and 1880 are included in many holdings of regular gold coins.” Actually, they couldn’t be included in “many holdings,” as they’re too scarce, but his point is certainly valid.

Like the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, a sizable number of the 1836 “original” Gobrecht dollars were minted. “As R. W. Julian has related, 1,000 of these were delivered on December 31, 1836.…” Furthermore, “600 of these were deposited in the Bank of the United States…and passed into circulation. Probably, many of the remaining 400 went into circulation as well.” Undoubtedly, one of the ones that made it into circulation was the PR-4 specimen that sold twice in 2013.

Bowers also notes that the word “LIBERTY” is embossed on the shield of 1836 Gobrecht dollars rather than being incuse as on the later Seated Liberty dollars (1840-1873). Because of this difference, the grading standards used for the later series cannot be used to grade circulated Gobrecht dollars, as the letters of “LIBERTY” wore off quickly. This rapid wear was also experienced on the short-lived 20-cent pieces for the same reason. Bowers believes that the 1836 and 1839 Gobrecht dollars are the only instances in which the Mint made proof coins for circulation.

As for the 1839 Gobrecht dollar, Bowers writes:

“On December 31, 1839 the coiner delivered 300 1839-dated Gobrecht silver dollars. Most of these went into circulation. However, the dies were kept on hand, and as is the case with dollars dated 1836 and 1838, restrikes exist in several varieties. Presumably, these were coined 1858 to summer 1860, 1867-1869, and perhaps other times as well. Gobrecht dollars were an excellent commodity and source of profit for insiders at the Mint during the late nineteenth century.”

Bowers concludes the main part of his discussion of collecting and investing in Gobrecht dollars by once again pointing out the importance of the 1836 and 1839 issues. He notes, however, that “…superb Proof originals of these are exceedingly rare.… A feasible alternative is to acquire lower-range Proofs or lightly circulated specimens of either or both.”

But are such pieces readily available? On eBay, I found four Gobrecht dollars listed, all examples of the 1836 original issue. Two are graded by NGC, one in PR-61 and the other in PR-62. The Buy It Now (BIN) prices are $29,500 and $39,500, respectively, and both have an OBO (or best offer) indication. The other two coins have circulated: One has a PCGS-grade of EF-40 (really PR-40) and a CAC sticker, and the other is certified by ANACS as cleaned, with AU-50 (PR-50) details. BIN prices are $21,495 and $16,995 OBO, respectively.

As for recent sales of Gobrecht dollars, I found four listings, although two were of the same coin. This was an 1836 graded EF+ by an off-breed service. It sold for $9,100 on Nov. 17 and then again for $3,550.75 on Dec. 29. I suspect the original buyer returned it for a refund, and the seller then relisted it.

The other two sales involved a well-circulated coin with a sort of reddish-pink color and a PCGS-certified PR-35 example. The uncertified coin sold for $5,655, whereas the PCGS example brought some amount below $12,000. (That was the BIN price, but the seller accepted a lower, unspecified amount.)

It does appear to be possible to buy a Gobrecht dollar if you have the funds and are willing to settle for an 1836 example. As you can see, prices are likely to range from the low four figures to the low five figures for coins ranging from well-circulated to low proof levels. You can also find these for sale from the major numismatic auction houses, such as Heritage Auctions. If you’re working on a type collection of U.S. dollars that includes early dollars, I think a Gobrecht dollar belongs in it. Good luck on finding a decent specimen for a reasonable price.

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