In addition to all the other events this year, U.S. coins also have made the news in a big way. A rare 1971 President Dwight D. Eisenhower prototype silver dollar fetched $264,000 at auction Jan. 14. The coin is one of only three known, according to Heritage Auctions.
Jim Halperin, co-chairman of Heritage Auctions, told the U.S. Sun that the rare coin was discovered by a collector at a coin show in California.
According to numerous press reports, coins are not circulating like they used to and some businesses are having difficulty making change. It seems the American public has inadvertently been hoarding coins, tossing them into drawers only to be ignored for years and years.
It's a modest way of saving money, I suppose, but mostly it stems from the perception that coins just don't buy what they used to. Bubblegum is no longer a penny, and a good breakfast certainly can't be had for twenty-five cents. Pay phones have all but disappeared, and vending machines rarely offer anything for less than a dollar.
U.S. coins, however, have a long and storied history, and none more so than the American silver dollar.
The world's earliest coins pre-date the U.S. by more than two millennia. Coins first appeared some 2,500 years ago, initially in Lydia, a kingdom located in modern-day Turkey that was tied to ancient Greece. The first coins were made of a mixture of gold and silver and featured the head of a royal lion. They proved immediately popular, eventually standardizing trade and creating a system of common value. Before long, coins of all sorts were in circulation throughout the world and remain so today.
Prior to American independence in 1776, most coins circulating in the New World were Spanish coins known as 8 Reales. These were the "pieces of eight" first minted in the 16th century and became something of a universal currency in the western hemisphere until being discontinued in the 1860s. Their size and weight were well-known to America's founders and used as templates for the first American silver dollar and all later dollars for the next 180 years.
The first one-dollar coin struck by the U.S. Mint has become known as the Flowing Hair dollar and was produced for only two years (1794-1795). It was replaced by the so-called Draped Bust dollar (1795-1804) and that, in turn, was supplanted by the Seated Liberty dollar (1840-1873). All three of these early-dollar coins are very scarce and a few dates are exceedingly rare. Several have sold at auction for more than $1 million each.
As for the silver dollars most of us are familiar with? Following the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant adopted the gold standard for American coinage and no silver dollars were minted for several years. However, new legislation after his term put silver dollars back on track and the now legendary Morgan dollar was released in 1878.
The front of the coin ("obverse") featured Lady Liberty, an image patterned after a schoolteacher known to the coin's designer. It also included the motto "E. Pluribus Unim" ("From Many, One"), 13 stars to honor the original states, and the year of mintage. The reverse featured the American eagle, originally shown with eight tail feathers but later reduced to seven to align with more standard representations of the nation's iconic bird.
During its 27-year history (1878-1904 and again in 1921), millions of Morgan dollars were minted, the intrinsic value of its 90% silver content effectively guaranteeing its worth. In 1921, it was finally replaced by the Peace dollar, a design meant to commemorate the Allied victory during World War I. The Peace dollar featured the same general elements of the Morgan: a now-crowned Lady Liberty on the front and a sitting eagle on the back.
While only about a third as many Peace dollars than Morgans were minted during its run (1921-1928 and 1934-1935), it never captured the imagination of the public as did the Morgan. Today, it remains relatively easy to acquire a full run of Peace dollars whereas a complete set of Morgans can take years to assemble.
Following the demise of the Peace dollar, no American dollar coin has succeeded to any great extent. The Eisenhower dollar (1971-1978), Susan B. Anthony dollar (1979-1981 and '99), Sacagawea dollar (2000-present), and Presidential dollars have all been met with tepid reviews.
In particular, the Presidential dollar program began in 2007 with a coin honoring George Washington and has continued since then. However, there has been little demand from the public and more than $1 billion of these coins remain unwanted in federal storage.
None of these recent coins include a significant silver content and that certainly accounts for much of the limited demand. All the same, the heights reached by American coin designers in the earlier part of the 20th century have never been surpassed. Indeed, the American Silver Eagle, a bullion coin introduced in 1986 with a $1 face value but featuring a 99.9% silver content, has been wildly successful in no small part due to its stunning design copied from an early half-dollar coin.
If you're looking to collect coins, consider starting with old-school silver dollars. When you hold one in your hand, you're in touch with American history.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalogue publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he's the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Antiques: Looking to collect coins? Start with silver dollars