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One of the First Dollar Coins Struck at the U.S. Mint Sells for $840,000

The 1794 copper coin served as a prototype for the famed “Flowing Hair” silver dollar

The copper prototype dates to 1794, the year that the U.S. Mint first struck its famed "Flowing Hair" silver dollars. (Heritage Auctions)
smithsonianmag.com

A one-of-a-kind coin struck at the United States Mint in 1794 sold at Heritage Auctions last week for $840,000—significantly more than its estimate of $350,000 to $500,000.

As the Associated Press (AP) reports, the copper token is a rare prototype for the nascent nation’s first silver dollar. Unlike the final 1794–95 design, which depicts Lady Liberty encircled by a ring of stars, this early specimen places the emphasis on Liberty and her luxurious locks. For this reason, the coin is referred to as the “Flowing Hair” silver dollar.

“It’s all in the stars,” says the dollar’s former owner, Bob R. Simpson, in a statement. “Similar ‘starless coins,’ such as a copper half dime, are held in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection and this copper dollar is considered the companion piece to the half dime.”

According to the auction listing, the coin—dubbed the “No Stars Flowing Hair” dollar—“has a strong claim to being the first dollar struck by the U.S. Mint.” Its obverse, or front side, was minted from a different die than the famed Flowing Hair coins, making it unique among an already singular class of coin.

Of the 1,748 Flowing Hair dollars issued by the Mint in 1794, just 140 to 150 survive today. An exceptionally well-preserved specimen sold for $10,016,875 in 2013, marking the highest price ever paid at auction for a single coin, as Thomas Martinez reported for the Orange County Register at the time.

1795 "Flowing Hair" silver dollar
This 1795 "Flowing Hair" silver dollar shows Lady Liberty encircled by a ring of stars. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Citing research conducted by numismatist, or coin expert, Michael Hodder, Heritage Auctions argues that the copper prototype reflects “an early vision for American silver coinage.” In 1792, Congress passed legislation establishing the first U.S. Mint, in the then-capital of Philadelphia, and calling for the creation of uniform currency. The Coinage Act outlined what designs had to include, from “the figure or representation of an eagle” to “an impression emblematic of liberty,” but made no mention of stars, which nevertheless appeared on the majority of early American coins.

Hodder suggests that the No Stars Flowing Hair dollar and the similar half dime housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History “represent the original types of our nation’s coinage as stipulated by Congress and understood by the Mint.”

The scholar adds, “[T]hey become the only survivors from 1794 that show the originally intended appearance of our very earliest silver coinage,” before the Mint decided to add stars to its designs.

Per the listing, the copper dollar first appeared at auction in 1890, when its condition was deemed “good for the period.” Records indicate that the coin was excavated from the site of the Philadelphia Mint sometime prior to 1876, meaning that it likely spent decades buried underground. As Jacob Lipson of Heritage Auctions tells the AP’s Shawn Marsh, the prototype’s pattern is corroded, and its surface has a number of scratches and other markings.

Reverse side of copper coin
The coin's reverse features a bald eagle. (Heritage Auctions)

Simpson, a Texas energy executive and co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, purchased the copper coin in 2008. He began auctioning off selections from his prolific collection—ranked by Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) as “one of the best ever amassed,” according to Coins Weekly—last year and has garnered more than $54 million in sales to date, notes the statement.

Speaking with the Intelligent Collector’s Robert Wilonsky, Simpson says he decided to part with his collection in order to “spread the joy” to other coin lovers.

“I’ve kept a lot of my coins that I would encourage my children to never sell,” Simpson explains. “But most we’re going to share with the community, [to offer] that thrill of owning that coin they get [to] take home.”

California-based numismatist David McCarthy tells the AP that the auction is “incredibly exciting.”

He adds, “It gives us a view into what was going on inside the Mint in 1794 when it was gearing up to make the first dollars ever struck.”

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