The following was published in the March 2016 edition of the Numismatist, all rights reserved.
Among the great mysteries in numismatics are the odd die alignments observed on silver dollars deaigned by U.S. Mint Engraver Christian Gobrect and dated 1838-39. In 1954 author/researcher Walter Breen first proposed that the alignments could be used to distinguish original issues from restrikes. However, collectors and dealers quickly noticed that his theory did not seem to apply to the surviving examples (Breen refined his theory in his 1977 Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Proof Coins, 1722-1977.
Arguments continued back and forth until 2012, when the present authors conclusively determined that the rim nicks seen on the reverse of the 1836 “Name on Base” specimens (which display C. Gobrecht F. on the rock upon which Liberty is seated) are actually “die markers”. Consequently, we created the first die-state descriptions and emission sequence for “Name on Base” issue. That sequence clearly shows that the alignments arose not from some secret method of identifying originals from restrikes, as Breen had proposed, but rather from the U.S. Mint personnel rotating the dies in an attempt to figure out and solve the nicking problem!
This article concludes our study of the original issue pieces with a discussion of the 1838 and 1839 “Name Removed/Starless Reverse” dollars and their die states. We are finishing the die states and emission sequences for the restrikes and fantasy pieces, and will present our findings, along with a few very interesting surprises, in the near future.
The 1838 and 1839 Gobrecht Dollars
Upon its introduction in 1836, the Gobrecht dollar was not exactly a resounding success. In fact, it was pretty much of an abject failure. Not only was the design publicly criticized for its medal-like appearance but also, as a July 1838 letter from Mint Director Robert M. Patterson to Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury reveals, the banks were not thrilled with the prospect of a new denomination, having designed their accounting and handling procedures around the half dollar during the dollar’s 30-year absence.
With the failure of the initial “Name On Base/Starry Reverse” design, the 1838 “Name Removed/Starless Reverse” pattern was a last ditch effort to rescue the basic motif. Exactly when these pieces were struck is unknown as Patterson does not appear to have written Woodbury about the new design or samples. However, we do know the changt took place sometime after July 1838 as Woodbury wrote twice that month requesting more samples of the 1836. Patterson obliged, sending him pieces leftover from the December 1836 striking.
As we noted in our presentation at the 2012 ANA World’s Fair of Money in Chicago, both the 1838 patterns and 1839 business strikes were struck using Die Alignment IV. This is irrefutable, as both the 1838 and 1839 pieces from the Mint Cabinet (now in the Smithsonian Institution) display this alignment. The reason for alignment IV is quite straightforward. The Mint evidently retained the alignment IV die holder in use when it fixed the nicking problem that plagued the December 1836 striking.
The DTS Theory
While the DTS Theory (named for Dannreuther, Teichman and Sholley) has certainly widely accepted (as the emission sequence data clearly established the reason for the various alignments), no historical records supported it. In fact, the U.S. Mint records did not address the issue at all!
However, everything changed with a very recent and incredible discovery by David Stone, a cataloger for Heritage Auctions. While researching items for an upcoming auction, Stone uncovered a series of four letters from Assistant Assayer of the Mint William E DuBois to prominent collector Matthew A. Stickney, offering the latter various coins, including several Gobrecht dollars!
In the first such letter, written on July 12, 1843, DuBois noted the enclosure of 15 coins, most of them dated 1843, but also some rarer pieces, one of which was an 1838 dollar. As assurance to Stickney that the very rare pieces are originals, DuBois wrote that the 1793 half cent was supplied by Adam Eckfeldt and the 1804 dollar was a duplicate from the Mint Cabinet.
While DuBois does not mention the source of the 1838 dollar, his comments on some of the other pieces provide a clue. DuBois stated that the two pattern half dollars of 1838 were restrikes, thus we can conclude that the 1838 dollar was not, as DuBois would have said so. Add the fact that he was the curator of the Mint Cabinet, and the source becomes clear: the dollar was a duplicate from the collection.
In an Oct 8, 1846 letter, DuBois thanked Stickney for a 1572 papal medal and encloses yet another 1838 dollar! While he again does not mention the source, he states that it was “obtained by coaxing”. He also wrote, “I believe [Lewis] Roper has not got it.” While there is no way to tell for sure, DuBois hinted that Roper, a dentist and collector, wanted one and this might have been the piece represented in Roper’s 1851 sale.
The third letter, dated April 14, 1854, confirmed the mysterious source of the dollar. In this correspondence, DuBois offered Stickney several coins, including “a series of flying eagle dollars (master coins) of 1836, 8, & 9, which I procured from [the administrators] of Adam Eckfeldt [deceased].” Stickney purchased the coins, and DuBois wrote on May 2, 1854, that he has sent them via “Adams’ Express to-day.” That Adam Eckfeldt is DuBois' source for the three Gobrecht dollars along with the 1793 half cent (and probably some of the other pieces) really should come as no surprise as DuBois was Eckfeldt’s son in-law, having married his daughter Susanna!
Thus, we now know of at least three 1838 dollars directly traceable to Adam Eckfeldt - the one from 1846 that DuBois said he had to “coax” out of someone (and which, we have concluded, was a duplicate from the Mint Cabinet), and the two he purchased from Eckfeldt’s estate. These 1838 “Eckfeldt-DuBois Originals” would have very specific characteristics. Since DuBois notes them as “master coins” (as they were called by the U.S. Mint at the time), they would have been fully struck from fresh dies that showed no trace of rust or harsh polishing.
We have identified two coins meeting this criteria: the U.S. Mint Cabinet/Smithsonian Institution specimen; and the Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. example (now residing in the American Numismatic Society collection.) The former displays Die Alignment IV, while Eliasberg/ANS coin shows Alignment III.
The reason for the alignment difference is simple: not surprisingly, the Mint used the 1838 patterns to test the strike capabilities of the two alignments. The Mint Cabinet/Smithsonian piece shows the Alignment IV gave a considerably better result than Alignment III, and thus the business strikes were produced using Alignment IV.
With the discovery of the DuBois-Stickney letters, we can now add the supporting historical evidence to the die state and strike characteristics data. In addition, the fact that the 1838 and 1839 Smithsonian specimens display alignment IV refutably establishes them as originals, finally closing the door on the alignment controversy.
As far as the 1839 dollars that DuBois states are “master coins,” we have found two candidates in alignment IV, but have not yet confirmed them. We also note that Dubois’ “master coin” assertion ties nicely to the 1836 “Name On Base/Starry Reverse Original” (cataloged by J. Hewitt Judd as Judd [J]-60 that we identified in our presentation at the 2012 ANA as the only true proof of its type! This is the Korein/ANS coin, which is so obviously different than any other J-60 that everyone who has seen it has remarked on its obvious proof status.
Distinguishing Originals from Restrikes
The major thrust of this article is to establish die state criteria for numismatic researchers and advanced collectors. However, in the course of study of our research, it became very clear that, as with J-60, the originals can be quickly distinguished from the restrikes using very simple diagnostics.
For example, the criteria for the 1838 Judd-84 Gobrecht dollar is clear-cut. The DuBois-Stickney letters, combined with the three extant coins clearly show that all J-84 originals are in alignment III and IV; free of rust and harsh polishing, and originated with Eckfeldt and DuBois. A couple of other J-84 specimens with Alignment III might be originals, but we have not confirmed them.
Determining 1839 Judd-104 originals is nearly as easy. All original J-104s specimens are business strikes using Alignment IV and can be readily identified by an overall satin luster, with slightly mirrored surfaces, and a typically weakly struck foot on Liberty. Conversely, Alignment IV restrikes are proofs and thus show high, often harsh polish with deep mirrors and usually a fully struck foot.
We should clarify that we found two Alignment IV restrikes poor definition on Liberty’s foot, but both of those are on flawed planchets, which caused the weakness. Likewise, we know of two high grade Alignment IV originals with a fully struck foot, but again these feature the typical satin luster and show no trace of the die rust or heavy polishing present on restrikes.
It should be noted that the die state markers, especially those for originals, are essentially microscopic. This is to be expected, as there were so few coins struck that more obvious markers did not have time to develop. Examination requires magnification or very high resolution photographs. Because of these issues, we have not included many images here, option to post them on uspatterns.com. If you visit the website, be aware that you will need an equally high resolution monitor (at least 1280 x 1024) to clearly see the markers.
Original Issue Die States
Collectors of Gobrecht dollars likely are familiar with the die cracks visible on the reverse at ITE of UNITED, MERI of AMERICA, and LLAR of DOLLAR. However, these are not diagnostic with regard to die state or distinguishing originals from restrikes. These stress cracks appear on the earliest state, albeit very faintly, and occurred during die hardening or initial striking. They are very sensitive to strike and, of course, polishing. The only point that can be made conclusively is that coins showing strong cracks are certainly restrikes.
• State A (Mint Cabinet Specimen)
This piece is extremely hairlined, thus it is very difficult to see the details clearly. In fact, it might be the same state die state (B) as the Eliasberg example described here.
This piece represents the earliest die state currently known. It has a small lump below Liberty’s elbow and perhaps some light rippling in right field opposite the forearm (from die clashing).
Visible on all states is a dash-like raised line between Stars 9 & 10 angled up to the right and pointing to the second dentil left of point of Star 10. The obverse shows a characteristic wire rim (known as “finning”) from about 2 to 6o’clock. The reverse has a few small die lumps between Stars 10 and 11, with very faint cracks at ITE and MER. At least 15X magnification is required to clearly see these cracks.
• State B (Eliasberg Specimen)
As noted, the Eliasberg coin has Alignment III. Small lumps on obverse between Stars 10 and 11, with a dash-like die defect between Stars 9 and 10. The reverse displays a few small lumps between the first T and A of STATES that appear to be spalling (chipping or flaking) caused by a die clash corresponding to Star 10. This side also shows faint cracking at TE, MER, and LAR, with a fine die line above T toward the top left serif of E that develops into an elongated lump or wrinkle near the dentils above the space between STATES and OF. (This diagnostic likewise is both sensitive to strike and polishing, and might not be visible). Very light horizontal polish lines are evident from NITED to field around eagle’s head and throat and in front of its left wing. Scattered light die lines and clash marks behind the wing.
1839 (Judd 104)
As noted, all 1839 originals have Alignment IV and a satiny luster, week mirrored finishes and, typically, a weakly struck foot on Liberty.
• State A
The earliest pieces seen to date show light clashing in the obverse fields, most notably on the right side in the crook of Liberty’s elbow at the pole and below. In addition, dull lines to right of date caused by dies clashing very early in the striking process or during set-up. The reverse has been lightly polished to reduce lumps at TA and the clashing behind the wing. Very faint cracking is noticeable at ITE, MER, and LAR. A faint die line extends from second dentil above T toward the top left serif of E in UNITED. The elongated lump or wrinkle above S and O has been obscured by polishing.
• State B
The dies have been finely polished, eliminating the clashing at the elbow and in the obverse fields, but scattered traces still visible. The reverse features fine, curved polish lines, particularly noticeable through the lettering. The lumps at TA are further reduced.
Later state restrikes often have similar die polish and reduced lumps. However, they can be distinguished from originals by a combination of rust pitting on Liberty; a rough patch at the junction of the eagle’s wing and tail; and/or heavy polish lines that cause “dishing” around the lettering.
• State C
Several clash lines appear on the obverse in the right field opposite the forearm. The reverse has strong, arcing polish lines that are especially noticeable through STATES OF AM; larger lumps between T and A of STATES, apparently from repeated clashing; and several clash lines behind wing. The die line (actually a crack) from the second dentil over T toward the top left upper serif of E is stronger. The Elongated lump or wrinkle above SO near the dentils becomes more prominent in late state Judd-104 originals and typically remains so for all restrikes and “mules”, although it may be partially obscured by polishing.
Some Final Points
Before concluding, it is necessary to address two issues raised by numismatists who support Walter Breen’s aforementioned theories. First is their assertion that the U.S. Mint experienced striking problems because of the Gobrecht dollars’ supposedly high relief. However, Mint records do not mention any challenges with the relief. Additionally, photographic overlays and measurements with an optical comparator (a device that applies the principles of optics to the inspection of manufactured parts) clearly show that, aside from the removal of the name on the obverse and a touch-up of the neck feathers on the eagle, no changes were made to the central devices and that the relief is exactly the same as on the 1836 coins. How the Breen Theorists arrived at this conclusion is unknown.
The second issue is the assertion that although 1839-dated dollars were delivered, Patterson later changed his mind and melted them in 1840. In support of this proposition, Breen Theorists cite an April 30, 1840 record found on page 108 of the Mint’s “Bullion Ledgers” showing a return of $325.00 in coining scrap from the Chief Coiner. They argue that since the dollar amount is even and close to the 300 dollars struck in December 1839 (with the other 25 being explained as set-up pieces), this record must be the 1839 dollars, and thus all were melted.
While there are several problems with this argument, the most obvious and serious is that this scenario would create an accounting conflict on the very ledgers they cite! Looking at the account book, page 106 shows that the Chief Coiner has already been credited with the delivery of 300 dollars on December 30, 1839. This begs the obvious question: If he had been credited with the 300 dollars in December 1839, how can he then be credited again for the same 300 again (plus the 25 supposed “set-up pieces”) as coining scrap in April of 1840? The answer, of course, is … he couldn’t. If the mint credited the same items twice, the accounts would not balance. However, the accounts most certainly did balance. (In fact, the Mint balanced the accounts both quarterly and yearly.)
Lastly, the dollar amounts of the scrap records are not a “face value” as Breen Theorists suggest. This can be easily seen from the fact that several “whole dollar” returns in the account books even when dollars were not being struck, such as the $780.00 return in July 1839. Even more telling, the scrap returns are mostly “odd amounts” such as the $942.86 in scrap returned in May of that year and the $2103.01 scrap returned in December along with the 300 dollars and other coinage delivered at that time.
Thus, unless it is proposed that the Mint was surreptitiously striking silver cents or some other strange denomination, the dollar value of a scrap return was simply a calculated value of the metal by weight. This should come as no surprise, since determining the value of scrap in this fashion is exactly the method mandated by Sections 28 and 29 of the coinage act of 1837.
The “Annual Report of the Director of the Mint” for 1839, as well as the mint’s quarterly reports to the Treasury, show that the mintage of 1839-dated dollar was 300. Supporters of Breen’s theories do acknowledge that the production of the 300 dollars is noted in the reports, and that Patterson never issued a statement to the Treasury correcting what they term “a mistake”. However, their proposition that the $325.00 entry represents the “melt record” for the 1839 dollars would mean that the Mint ignored an accounting irregularity in its own books and knowingly created one in the Treasury accounts – and no one ever noticed !
In the end, the $325.00 return by the Chief Coiner in April 1840 is clearly nothing more than a periodic recycling of scrap, including strip trimmings, planchet cuttings, and the occasional mis-struck coin, that just happened to yield a whole dollar amount. Furthermore, the 300 dollars shown as the mintage for 1839 in both the mint and Treasury reports is not a “mistake” as the Breen Theorists claim. Rather it is unquestionably the delivered mintage of the 1839 Gobrecht dollars.
Since our presentation at the ANA’s 2012 World’s Fair of Money, the DTS Theory has been widely accepted by experienced collectors, dealers, researchers, auction houses, and standard references such as the A Guide Book of United States Coins (the "Red Book”). The current discovery of the DuBois-Stickney letter, the development of criteria for quickly distinguishing 1838 and 1839 originals from restrikes, and the determination of the die states for originals certainly prove our case. Later this year, we plan to publish a follow-up to this article, detailing the die states and emission sequences of the restrikes and fantasy pieces, which will further cement the DTS theory as the true history of the Gobrecht dollars.
Finally we are in the process of developing “The DTS Photographic Guide to Die Stating Gobrecht Dollars.” The guide will be arranged by Judd number, with descriptions and color photographs of all the die states, plus high resolution blow-ups of key features. The guide is available at gobrechtdollars.com
The authors wish to thank Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (NGC) and Heritage Auctions for their assistance in providing high-resolution photographs of many Gobrecht dollars for study. We would particularly like to acknowledge NGC Vice President Scott Schechter for his help in obtaining photographs of the Norweb specimen (Judd-84); American Numismatic Society Assistant Curator of American Coins and Currency Matthew Whitman and Photographer Alan Roche for their assistance in viewing and photographing the Korein specimens now in the ANS collection; U.S. Coin Cataloger David Stone of Heritage Auctions for providing the Dubois/Stickney letters; and Chief cataloger Mark Van Winkle of Heritage Auctions for all his help, questions and comments. This article (and those that will follow on this topic) would not have possible without everyone’s contributions.
The Regional Archives at Philadelphia. Record Group 104. “Records of the United States Mint at Philadelphia”. Entry 96. “Bullion Ledgers”. Volume 9, pp. 106 – 108.
United States Mint Archive. “Act of January 18, 1837”. Retrieved February 17, 2015 from https://www.usmint.gov/education/historianscorner/?action=DocDL&doc=legactjan1837.pdf