Silver Piece, Golden Potential - Orange County Register

OC Register front page
by Amy Wilson
Saturday August 2, 2003

In March, Steve Contursi paid millions for one 1794 silver dollar and more for the collection it was in.  But he thought the expensive and surprisingly shiny coin, 40 millimeters in diameter, might be something even better, something no one realized still existed.

Now, the coin world seems to agree with Contursi's hunch.  His 1794 silver dollar is ''quite possibly'' the first U.S. silver dollar ever minted, according to international coin-grading specialist David Hall of the Professional Coin Grading Service of Newport Beach.

At last week's World's Fair of Money, the American Numismatist Association's annual convention, coin enthusiasts were shown the 1794 silver dollar with new and improved credentials.  The excitement ''was almost too much,'' says Steven Bobbitt, public-relations director for the ANA, who notes it came it on the heels of thrilling news about the find of a 1913 Liberty nickel that had been missing for 40 years.

What is thrilling about this silver-dollar find, says collector Dwight Manley of Newport Beach, ''is the discovery of something that was in front of everybody but hadn't been figured out.''

Until now.

Nationally recognized silver-dollar expert Wayne Miller had seen the coin in 1979 as part of the $20 million Amon Carter collection and felt at the time it was ''too perfect.''

''It was a stupefying coin,'' Miller said. ''I spent 10 minutes with it, put it under magnifying glass, tilted it this way and that, held it.  For years, I wondered what happened to it.  It's amazing what has.''

What happened was a seven-point report by Hall's PCGS that details why experts now believe it might have been the first planchet of silver to be pressed by 50 to 100 tons of pressure on Oct. 15, 1794, into authentic American monetary silver.  Which means this may be the coin equivalent of the first box of tea thrown into Boston Harbor, a pocket version of Betsy Ross' flag.

''It is a monumental coin,'' enthuses Miller.  A few coins were made earlier, but the 1794 silver dollar is considered the first American money intended for commerce.

It is a coin then that has, in the span of five months, gone from being worth millions to being something close to priceless.

The first step in that process happened in April when Contursi, who owns Rare Coin Wholesalers in Dana Point, took the coin to Hall and showed the grading specialist what he had noticed.  Namely, says Contursi, that this is the only 1794 silver dollar that has a silver plug in the center.  The plug probably is there to make sure that the weight of the coin met exact specifications outlined by the new government.  There are adjustment marks as well, on the right side, to even more finely tune the exact weight.

Contursi also noted that ''every other example of this that we know of has weak stars on the left side.  These were strong.  The hair detail on Miss Liberty was razor sharp.  On the other side of the coin, you could see the finely wrought breast feathers on the eagle.''

The fields -- anything on the coin that is not the design -- are highly polished on this example.  So much so that you can see the stray lint marks from the polishing cloth on the coin, says Contursi.  (Coins that are put on the die are first polished to almost a mirror finish, then cast.)

And, lastly, the prototype of this coin exists in copper at the Smithsonian Institution.  Contursi's silver piece had the ''exact die state'' as the museum piece.

So how come this is just coming to light?  How does an original proof, usually kept at the U.S. Mint, get into mass circulation?  How does it lose its pedigree?  And how, exactly, does it gain it back?

The coin, now hermetically sealed and in a bank vault in an undisclosed Orange County location, was one of the 50 to 200 that have survived from the original 1,758 struck.  (Several were immediately swept away to England for a collection known as Lord St. Oswald's.  They were sold 40 years ago.)

This is not part of that collection.  It was, more likely, a part of the U.S. Mint's Cabinet Collection -- probably touched by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, says Contursi -- but was traded away in the mid- 1800s by the mint director, who had holes in his collection that needed filling.

''He probably already had another example of this coin and wanted what he was missing more,'' says silver-dollar expert Miller.  He speculates that the trade was likely made for pre-Revolutionary War money, which was considered collectible at the time.

The spectacular 1794 coin probably went into private hands immediately, although it is not known precisely where until 1890, when it showed up in the collection of a Col. Green.  (The lack of virtually any wear suggests the coin was never in circulation.)

It was next seen in the Will W. Neil collection in 1947.  At the time, writes David Hall in his report, it was accepted as ''the finest known specimen'' of the coin.

Wayne Miller inspected the coin in 1979 when Texan Amon Carter owned it.  When that collection was sold in 1984, there was more conjecture about its origin.  It became part of the Knoxville Collection, something Miller called ''the most famous collection of silver coins ever collected.''

Ninety percent of that collection was bought this spring by Contursi, who lives in Laguna Beach.  He presented his theory about the coin being ''among the first'' to the Professional Coin Grading Service, based in Newport Beach.  It grades 70,000 to 80,000 coins a month and is considered the premier grader in the nation.

The universally accepted grading system assigns coins a point score between 1, the worst, and 70, the best, depending on luster, scratches, wear and other marks.  The Contursi 1794 silver dollar was given a 66.

It is graded to the highest standard, Specimen, rather than Proof, a distinction important to collectors.

''My God,'' Miller said when he heard the news.  ''I have handled 3 million individual silver dollars in my 36 years in dealing in coins.  I've seen a lot.''

Contursi says he has no idea what he is supposed to do now, or what he wants to do.  He says he feels ''like a custodian of a national treasure.''

No, it's not for sale.  (Collectors like Manley and Chicago's Donn Pearlman suggest it actually does indeed still have retail value despite the fact that ''it is spectacular and historic,'' says Manley, because the certainty that the coin was absolutely the first minted has not been, and may not ever be, firmly established.)

Contursi is undeterred.

''It's our fledging little government trying to get its act together, to trade with the big boys,'' he says.

The 1794 silver dollar will be shown for the first time to the public on the West Coast on Sept. 18-21 at the Long Beach Coin and Stamp Collectibles Expo.

To learn more about coin collecting, go to   The questions section has many useful links for many different kinds of collectors.  A pricing guide is included.  Also try and .   To better understand how coins are graded, go to the Professional Coin Grading Service site at 

Coin world flips over 1794 dollar
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