"Best strike. Gem." -- Jacque C. (Mrs. Alfred) Ostheimer, 1964
Rare coins like those found in the D. Brent Pogue Collection wear their laurel as "masterpieces" comfortably, representing the finest surviving examples of early American coining art and historic relics of the earliest days of the Republic. Amidst these beautiful and varied trees, a forest can be overlooked: the coins of the earliest years of the United States Mint are manifest evidence of the first toddler-steps forward of an independent American economy that, within a century and a half, would dominate the world's commerce. Each half dime and half dollar of the 1790s was a stumbling fawn, a mustard seed, the beginning of a system that would grow by proportions unimaginable to the men who conceived and coined these pieces of copper, silver, and gold that we now hold so dear. The jewel in the crown of early American coinage, and the one whose worldwide historical importance is so evident that one needs not be a collector nor a historian to appreciate it, is the first American dollar. The position of hegemony the American dollar holds worldwide is unrivaled, its primacy among world currencies unquestioned. Not since Rome's denarius was the coin of the realm from Hadrian's Wall to the Indian Subcontinent has a single medium of exchange been so vitally important. What could better symbolize the infancy of one of the most important currencies the world has ever known than an extraordinary survivor from the year of its birth?
The first American dollars were struck in 1794, amateurishly, likely over the course of a single day, and in a quantity that would barely fill a valise. A handful survive in high grades. Most survivors are well worn, their significance as anything more than an article of commerce not apparent for decades after their production. Many more have been damaged through accident, from their days when they were simply a coin worth a dollar, or through intentional attempted improvement, from the many decades since a premium was placed on their value. Few among them have managed to avoid all manner of destructive activity, and fewer still have survived unworn. The two examples that survived in such miraculous condition in the cabinet of the Winn family have captured imaginations since their rediscovery in 1964. This coin, the finer of the two, ranks as one of the very best examples extant of the first American dollar.
Freshness defines the surfaces of this specimen, fully lustrous with lively cartwheel on both obverse and reverse, beneath subtle golden toning derived from the decades it went untouched, a bit speckled on the obverse, more consistent olive-gold on the reverse side that remained in contact with the Winn's Chippendale cabinet for so many lifetimes. Its brilliance gives the appearance of a newly discovered treasure. The portrait of Liberty, boldly looking upward and outward, is precisely struck, unusual for a 1794 dollar, with her hair finely detailed, her profile sharply rendered, the fine contours of her eyes, lips, and hairline all as well defined as if chiseled from marble. The first three stars, so rarely complete because of axial misalignment of the two die faces, are full here, an aspect that would make this example important even if well worn. The other stars are likewise fully outlined, though flat, as they are on the much celebrated Amon Carter-Cardinal specimen that our firm sold for a world record price in excess of $10 million. Opposite these first few stars, the tops of the letters in STATES are a bit soft, but aside from some trivial weakness at the rim in a few areas, all other design elements are fully rendered and complete, giving this specimen an unusually sculptural appearance for an example of this date.
The planchet is well made, but still shows the inexpert state of U.S. Mint technology in this first year of precious metal coinage. Adjustment marks are endemic to these first American dollars, as so much rode upon each specimen meeting precise demands of weight and fineness, but this example is blessedly free of them, showing just a few short lines near the rim below stars 1 and 2. Like the Carter-Cardinal 1794 dollar, this specimen shows a central plug of silver, placed in the planchet before striking in an effort to create a coin of the precise statutory weight, the opposite force in the give-and-take process that sometimes necessitated adjustment marks. While the Carter-Cardinal coin has been published as the only 1794 dollar with a silver plug, the plug on this piece is quite plain on the reverse, an uneven oval nearly centered on the centering dot, extending along the arc contour of the wing at right, into the field above the centering dot, and below along the furrow that divides the eagle's breast from the wing at right. The plug is not easily visible from the obverse, obscured in the deepest relief of Liberty's cheek. Also found on 1795 dollars and half dollars, plugs were first used in America in the colonial era, when well-known goldsmiths brought the weight of circulating foreign gold coins up to a minimum legal standard in a process that today is known as "regulating." This planchet shows a few other minor pre-striking imperfections, including a light striation below the two leaf cluster under F of OF, a natural pit at the upper left corner of E of AMERICA, and a flat spot on the rim above ICA where the planchet was "clipped" or incomplete before striking, but was able to approximate rounded completeness once the force of the dies pressed the metal flow outward to fill the periphery. Other tiny planchet gaps are seen at the tips of the denticles above O of OF, right of the right ribbon end, among the denticles above TY of LIBERTY, and at the ends of the denticles between 4 of the date and star 15.
The eye appeal, as suggested by the grade, is exceptional, with originality of appearance that few specimens of any grade level could approach. Some light hairlines and extremely shallow abrasions are seen in the lower left obverse field, near the tips of Liberty's tresses. A jogging nick descends diagonally through Liberty's hair behind her ear, and a few marks that appear to have preexisted striking were not fully obliterated in the low spot below the obverse centering dots. A few other marks of little consequence are seen only under magnification and even then are not notable.
Struck from the clashed state of the dies, as are nearly all 1794 dollars, with the impression left from one wing prominent from Liberty's throat into the field before her chin, the other wing’s clash more shallow in the left obverse field. On the reverse, a single bold clash mark of Liberty's lips and chin are easily seen beneath the wing at right, with much of the rest of the retrograde obverse design seen around it proportionally. The sharp raised lapping line up from Liberty's lips on the obverse is seen on even the earliest states of the dies. No other lapping or file lines are visible, defining this as die state II, a state earlier than the more frequently seen state that shows evidence of additional lapping, which removed the clash marks and truncated some details in the lower curls of Liberty's hair in the process. Those curls are intact and sharp on this specimen.
David Rittenhouse and
His 1794 Dollars
David Rittenhouse, a renowned man of science who served as the first director of the Mint, is usually depicted as reserved. His friend Thomas Jefferson praised his "genius, science, modesty, purity of morals, [and] simplicity of manners" when it came time to follow him as president of the American Philosophical Society. As true as all these compliments might have been, Rittenhouse was also a fairly savvy political operator, and he clearly sought to make a splash when the Mint began striking its first coins from precious metals. Entrusted with sole control over the United States Mint by George Washington, with the surety bonds posted for the chief coiner and assayer after much delay (and an Act of Congress to reduce them, passed on March 3, 1794), he could have started precious metal coinage production with diminutive half dimes, echoing the "small beginnings" of a national coinage began at another facility in 1792. Dimes, quarters, or half dollars would have been better suited for the somewhat undersized press he had at hand on October 15, 1794. Rittenhouse instead made a conscious decision that the first specie struck at the United States Mint would be dollars, the basic unit of our national currency and the largest coins struck in the United States in the 18th century.
The first deposit of silver to arrive at the United States Mint came from the Bank of Maryland on July 18, 1794. Composed of French coins, Assayer Albion Cox's tests of the metal’s fineness averaged just .737 fine, meaning the deposit would have to be heavily refined to bring it up to the congressionally mandated .8924 standard. With the refining department understaffed, Rittenhouse made a bold choice: rather than follow the letter of the law, whereby depositors receive their finished coins based upon the order of their initial deposits, Rittenhouse himself jumped the line. On August 29, 1794, he made two deposits, composed of silver ingots of relatively fine purity (.900 and .8665 fine). They added up to $2001.33 worth of silver, or enough to strike almost exactly 2,000 silver dollars.
On October 15, 1794, Chief Coiner Henry Voigt delivered 1,758 dollar coins to David Rittenhouse, representing the entire mintage for the year 1794. The Mint's workmen could have struck the entire mintage in an afternoon, using a press ill-suited for the rigors of striking the large diameter dies. Rittenhouse later received $242.50 in half dollars, plus six half dimes, to complete the total initial deposit, but numismatists have wondered for years: was the original mintage of 1794 dollars a nice round 2,000? At least one poorly struck 1794 dollar became the planchet for a 1795 dollar. Since that coin's discovery in the early 1960s, no others have been found. If more dollars were coined, they were likely so poorly struck that no fate beyond the melting pot awaited them. Of course, they may never have been struck at all, and a failure of the press could have ended the day’s work prematurely. Despite the enormity of the event, no details were recorded, and no ceremony was held.
Few comments on the new dollars were made at the time. In the December 1862 issue of The Historical Magazine, correspondent (and pioneering numismatist) Jeremiah Colburn submitted a paragraph he discovered in the New Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on December 2, 1794, noting, "collectors of American coins are aware of the rarity, and the difficulty experienced, in obtaining fine specimens of this date." It read:
"Some of the Dollars now coining at the mint of the United States have found their way to this town. A correspondent put one into the Editor's hands yesterday. Its weight is equal to that of a Spanish dollar, but the metal appears finer. One side bears a head, with flowing tresses, encircled by fifteen stars, and has the word 'liberty' at the top, and the date, 1794, at the bottom. On the reverse is the bald eagle, enclosed in an olive branch, round which are the words 'United States of America.' The edge is well indented, in which are the words 'One Dollar, or Unit, Hundred Cents.' The tout ensemble has a pleasing effect to a connoisseur; but the touches of the graver are too delicate, and there is a want of that boldness of execution which is necessary to durability and currency."
The paragraph was published again in the American Journal of Numismatics in October, 1885 and has reappeared in various texts into modern times, though the 1862 publication appears to have been its first in a numismatic context.
Of the 1,758 dollars delivered on October 15, 1794, about 135 to 150 pieces are thought to survive, a high percentage based upon most statistical survivorship models of early American coins. This high percentage reflects the early date at which collectors placed a premium on 1794 dollars, thus saving low grade specimens that would have been consigned to the melting pot if they were of any other date. It also hints at the significance David Rittenhouse and his acquaintances must have placed upon these first United States dollars, many of whom are thought to have saved specimens. Several survive in Mint State grades; six show up on the PCGS Population Report graded MS-60 or finer. Among these, the Amon Carter/Cardinal Collection coin stands out. It is the only one graded as a "Specimen." Though given a numerical grade identical to this one, it is the only one to show an intact reflective surface, and it is the only coin to have ever sold for a price in excess of $10 million. After the Carter/Cardinal coin, two specimens stand atop the census at MS-66+, namely this one and the F.C.C. Boyd-Lelan Rogers example. Jimmy Hayes has related a story, against the backdrop of a major numismatic convention in the early 1980s, where Lelan Rogers had his legendary type set on display. The two famous collectors had the chance to place their two extraordinary gem 1794 dollars next to each other. Hayes preferred this coin, and Rogers preferred his own. A third collector who knew both men came up and offered "Lelan, that coin is nicer than yours." Lelan Rogers’ deadpan response -- "If you say so" – brilliantly summarizes the debate over which of these coins is finer.
The Most Famous Provenance
in American Numismatics
If provenance may be counted as a tiebreaker, there are few that can surpass a name that is whispered with reverence among advanced collectors: the Lord St. Oswald. That name became associated with this dollar, and a number of other high grade American coins dated 1794 and 1795, in 1964, when they appeared in a London Christie's auction as "the property of Major the Lord St. Oswald, M.C." The title belonged to a 48-year-old member of the House of Lords named Rowland Denys Guy Winn, who had won a Military Cross during his service in Korea. The coins sold with his name had descended through his family for generations, housed in a beautiful 18th century coin cabinet made by Thomas Chippendale himself for the family estate, known as Nostell Priory, in Yorkshire. The collection had been assembled beginning in the 18th century and added to in the 19th, though it had been left static ever since. Nostell Priory contained a bounty of antiques, including fine art, antiquities, and more, much of which was acquired by England's National Trust, along with the house itself, in 1953.
Though the name "Lord St. Oswald" is now inseparable from the coins of Nostell Priory, the man who actually collected these coins was named William Strickland. David Tripp has uncovered and reanimated Strickland's extraordinary visit to the United States, which lasted from September 20, 1794, until July 29, 1795. Strickland was a collector of many things, including coins, and he appears to have gathered a sensible and organized grouping of American coins during his 10-month visit. The coins from the Lord St. Oswald / Strickland collection span the breadth of the Philadelphia Mint's production until the time of Strickland's departure from Philadelphia at the end of July 1795, ranging from half cents to dollars, from a lightly worn Chain cent to perfect gem coins struck in the weeks before his return home. Further, the coins struck after that date, including 1795-dated gold coins, Draped Bust issues, and more, are not present here, suggesting that his American collection was formed entirely during his visit and never augmented later. He rubbed elbows with John Adams in Massachusetts, raised glasses with George Washington, and talked farming with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Each of those men being collectors, perhaps coins and medals came up in conversation as well. When George Washington hosted another foreign visitor in June 1798, the Polish poet and warrior Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, he recalled that during his visit to Mount Vernon, "Mrs. Washington showed me a small collection of medals struck during the Revolution" including "one of at least 100 ducats in gold, with the head closely resembling that of G[enera]l. Washington." Strickland's interests were so diverse, he undoubtedly found much to discuss with each of the Founders he encountered.
After nearly 170 years stored in his family's coin cabinet, this dollar re-entered a world that had been utterly transformed since it was first lovingly placed in a mahogany drawer. Perhaps symbolic of that transformation, when this coin returned to the United States, it did so in the possession of an American woman, Jacque C. Ostheimer. Although her husband, Alfred J. Ostheimer III, gets frequent credit for the acquisition of this piece, it was his wife who travelled to London to view the lots and returned again to bid in the sale. Mrs. Ostheimer looked at both 1794 dollars from the Lord St. Oswald consignment and adjudged this the superior one, noting in her catalog that it had the "best strike." She called it "gem." It was acquired for a bid of £4000 and placed into the Ostheimer Collection, one of the finest groupings of silver dollars ever formed.
This elegant coin, whose simplicity cloaks its world-wide historical relevance, is much more than a numismatic treasure. It is among the first examples of a currency that would become the most dominant the world has ever seen. The story of the American dollar, recognized in every corner of the globe today, starts here. As the dollar’s hegemony grew, so too would America's worldwide influence. When William Strickland traveled throughout the former British colonies in 1794 and 1795, he may have had some inkling of the future. He might have even recognized that the modest coins he acquired and carried home would someday be cherished, but he could not possibly have foretold just how beloved his provenance, veiled by time, would become.
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