A rare 1794 American silver coin possibly touched by George Washington, Thomas
Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton was sold Thursday night by an Irvine auction
house for a record-breaking $10 million.
Experts agree that the pristine "flowing hair" silver dollar coin is among the first few dollars produced by the United States and is likely to be the literal first U.S. dollar ever created. Paper money wasn't authorized by Congress until the Civil War.
The 1794 coin is a national treasure, a milestone of a fledgling new country.
"Coinage is peculiarly an attribute of sovereignty," Jefferson told Congress in 1790.
The price paid is the highest ever drawn at auction for a single coin, according to Stack's Bowers Galleries. The previous record was $7.6 million for the sole known specimen of a 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle $20 gold coin.
Stack's auctioned the "flowing hair" silver dollar in New York City for its owner after transporting it from Orange County in a Brinks armored truck.
"To be a part of this historical occasion is nothing short of amazing," said Chris Napolitano, president of Stack's. Folks in the audience were on the edge of their seats as bidders competed fervently until at last there was just one remaining, he said.
Legend Numismatics, a rare-coin firm based in New Jersey, bought the coin. The firm was prepared to bid higher than $10 million and has no plans to sell the coin in the near future, the company said in a statement.
Nationally-recognized silver coin expert Wayne Miller said the consensus of the sharpest minds in the historical coin field is that this coin is the earliest silver dollar known today, is definitely among the first handful ever produced by the United States and is most likely the first. Why?
-- A copper prototype of the first dollar exists at the Smithsonian Institution, and the two coins have a perfect die match not seen in any known specimens of the 1794 silver dollar. Back then, considerable differences on coins showed up quickly from die wear and subsequent repair.
-- Evidence on the coin shows that the silver metal disk that became the coin was polished before it was pressed and that the coin was immediately removed after being minted.
-- Of the 135 or so 1794 silver dollars known today, all but this specimen show evidence of die imperfections.
-- The lack of virtually any wear on this coin suggests it was never placed in circulation.
It was likely one of the "master coins" held by David Rittenhousen, the first director of the U.S. Mint, in the government's Cabinet Collection. It is speculated that a subsequent mint director traded the coin in the mid-1800s for pre-Revolutionary War coins in order to fill gaps in the mint's collection.
It shows up in records in 1890 as part of the collection of a Col. Green, and its official pedigree history begins with it becoming part of the Virgil Brand Collection in 1945. But it wasn't until this century that it was recognized as being among the first of its kind.
The coin reclaimed its perch of historical relevance thanks to the instincts of Steven Contursi, president of Rare Coin Wholesalers in Irvine, who bought it for $2.5 million in 2003. He believed the coin was special -- more special than anyone thought.
Contursi, who has been collecting coins since childhood, said the pristine hair detail, the sharpness of the stars and the mirrored surface on the coin told him that this was no ordinary coin meant for circulation. The 1794 silver dollar has a silver plug in the center, probably is there to make sure that the weight of the coin met exact government specifications. There are adjustment marks as well, on the right side, to even more finely tune the exact weight.
In front of the 40-millimeter coin are 15 stars around the head of Lady Liberty, with her long, flowing hair. On the reverse side is an olive tree branch and a scrawny-looking eagle that was enhanced in subsequent silver dollar designs.
Contursi noted that every other example of the coin that collectors know of has weak stars on the left side. These are strong. The hair detail on Miss Liberty is razor sharp. On the other side of the coin, the finely wrought breast feathers on the eagle are visible.
He knew the coin was destined for a higher purpose -- to be preserved, cherished and displayed for posterity, he said.
He was right. He and other numismatists conducted forensic research on the coin and proved his hunch that it was the first or very close to the first U.S. dollar ever cast, he said.
There is a good chance that Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson held this coin because it was pressed at a significant, historical event, Contursi said. All 1,758 of this first design of dollars minted were struck on the same day, he said. That was Oct. 15, 1794.
Though he truly cherished the coin, Contursi sold it, reluctantly, for $7.85 million -- more than three times what he paid for it -- in a private sale to Cardinal Collection Education Foundation in 2010.
"It was my favorite coin," he said. "I never planned to sell it. But it was tough times, with lots of debt and uncertainty. And Cardinal Collection approached me, so I sold it. Looking back, I didn't have to."
The Cardinal Foundation consigned the coin to Stack's, which auctioned it Thursday.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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