The Mystery of the Disappearing Dollar Coins: Why They're So Rare

Money, US dollar bills background. Money scattered on the desk.

For many years, coins minted in the United States were worth the value of the metal used to make them. In fact, this is how coinage worked for the vast majority of human history. Without extremely powerful, stable governments with multiple layers of bureaucracy and extremely accurate record keeping, the only way that people could trust that money had any value was because the metal used to make the coin itself had value.

This is why working with coins from multiple countries in eras was relatively easy without a real banking system. If the government or regime that issued a set of coinsfell, the coins still had value because the metal itself had value. For example, a silver dollar contained exactly one dollar's worth of silver. If the banking system failed (and many did), the silver in the coin still had enough value to be exchanged for goods or services.

Why Did We Have Silver Dollars?

In the late 1800s, there was a robust enough trade and banking system in place that the value of metal started to become more of a fluctuating commodity. As larger quantities of metal were being mined worldwide, they were being traded with such speed and volume that the metal in coinage might not be worth the same amount.

By 1872, this proved to be the case with the United States silver dollar, also known as the Seated Liberty dollar. These coins were meant to have exactly one dollar's worth of silver, but fluctuations in the silver market meant that the coins were perhaps only worth between 95 to 99 cents.

While the significance of this might be hard to understand in an age where all currency is only backed by the government, at the time, this had the potential to cause a major crisis in the banking world. As a result, it was decided that new coinage would be released in 1873, and production of the Seated Liberty dollar would be stopped.

What Is a Seated Liberty Dollar?

The Seated Liberty dollar is a coin with an image of Lady Liberty seated on the front and an eagle on the back. The coin was minted from 1840 to 1873 and designed by the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint at the time, Christian Gobrecht. It was the last silver dollar coin to be struck before the passage of the Coinage Act of 1873, which temporarily ended the production of the silver dollar in the United States. 

How Are There Missing Coins?

Records from the U.S. Mint are considered extremely accurate, showing that 5,000 Seated Liberty Silver Dollars were struck or produced by the Mint in 1872. The same records show that all of these coins were put into circulation at some point between January 1873 and February 1873.

At the beginning of 1873, these records indicated that 700 additional Silver Dollars were struck and placed into circulation. Production was soon halted, however, because of the Coinage Act of 1873, which barred the production of silver dollars.

Theoretically, this should mean 5,000 Seated Liberty Silver Dollar coins marked 1872 and 700 coins marked 1873. While it is possible to find silver dollars from all of the years from 1840 to 1872, however, no one has been able to find coins marked 1873.

Where Did the Coins Go?

Of course, the fact that no one has ever produced a verified 1873 silver dollar has been the root of a lot of speculation over the years. There have been multiple theories but very few answers.

Probably the theory that has the most credence is the idea that the coins that were minted in 1873 were still using the plates that were made in 1872. As such, all 700 coins would have been marked as 1872 silver dollars, indistinguishable from the 5,000 other coins produced that year.

This theory is certainly plausible, as it may have been very likely that new plates were not produced in anticipation of the Coinage Act passing. It would also explain why there has never been an 1873 coin found, even though the Mint records showed they were all put into circulation.

Similarly, many people believe there were never any 1873 coins, but that "overage" from the 1872 year was simply entered into the books as silver dollars were circulated in 1873. 

Another popular theory is that the coins were melted down for their silver. This theory states that the coins were never put into circulation but were melted down along with two-cent, three-cent, and other coins that were "banned" by the Coinage Act.

The issue with this theory is that the Mint kept careful records of the coins put into circulation and which were melted down. No records have ever shown that the silver dollars were melted down.

Of course, there have been many stories of Mint employees taking the coins over the years. While this is theoretically possible, there would have been ample safeguards at the Mint to prevent this from happening. Furthermore, while it may have been possible for employees to keep their theft secret during their lifetime, it is highly unlikely that the decedents of these hypothetical employees have never tried to sell or even verify their family heirlooms. Over 100 years since these coins were minted, it is highly unlikely that families will still keep their coins a secret.

Of course, if you have an 1873 silver dollar, we would love to look at it. While we may not have Seated Liberty dollars marked 1873, an extensive coin collection is available for sale. Visit us today!


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