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An introduction to Gobrecht Silver Dollars 1836-1837

By: Dennis Hengeveld – Republished with Permission from the Author

1836 Original J-60 Gobracht DollarGobrecht Dollars. They have fascinated both collectors and researchers since they were minted, first in 1836, and for the last somewhere in the 1870’s as re-strikes. And collectors love them. On the obverse, the coin design shows Miss Liberty, seated on a rock and with here right hand holding a shield. Sometimes there are stars around Miss Liberty, sometimes not. On the reverse, there is an eagle, flying onward in different positions, sometimes up and sometimes level. Here also, sometimes there are stars around the eagle, sometimes not.

The above text sounds a bit confusing, but that is also the case with the Gobrecht dollars. The originals are already confusing when you want to find out when they were minted, and how much. Because only very few were minted (always less than 1000 if you take die alignments in account) die cracks and the like are very rare, and you have to find other ways to find it out. Then there are the second originals, sometimes already designated as re-strikes. And after that the real re-strikes were made trough the early 1870’s.

Reverse of a Gobrecht DollarThe designer, Christian Gobrecht was of German ancestry, and was born in Pennsylvania in 1785, and early in his life he showed an interest and talent for artistic and engraving work. He perfected his talent when he worked for a clockmaker at the usual tender age by putting his engraving skills in ornamental designs put on watches. In 1811, he moved to Philadelphia, and after that he soon began to work for a bank-note firm. As early as 1816 his name was well known in engraving circles and he seems to have begun his die engraving work about this time, although there are no signed medals until the mid-1820s. When the mint’s engraver Robert Scot died in November 1823, Gobrecht was already well enough known to become a temporary replacement. Unfortunately for him, he was turned down in favour of William Kneass, who had better connections (which was very important at that time). The chief engraver received a salary of $1200 per annum (year) and Gobrecht thought even this amount was barely acceptable. Despite losing the top prize and turning down the assistantship, Gobrecht maintained a connection with the Mint in several ways. Not only did he make letter and figure punches for the engraving department, in 1825 he executed some fine Liberty heads (which again for him) unfortunately were not used on the coinage.

In mid June 1835, Gobrecht was hired has the second engraver of the mint. He was needed for this because during the 1834-1835 winter, Congress was debating that there were three more mints (Charlotte, Dahlonega and New Orleans) needed. In March 1835 the legislators decreed, and the president accepted it. Gobrecht would receive $1500 annually, and the first engraver William Kneass would receive an increase to the same amount.

In late August 1835 the director (Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson at that time) wrote the Treasury for emergency authority to hire Gobrecht because first engraver Kneass suffered a severe stroke, which incapacitated him for some months and after that he was never able to do detailed engraving work again and this the permission was granted in short order.

As early as December 1835 Gobrecht was at work on a die using the Seated Liberty design (Thomas Sully made sketches which were enough to satisfy Patterson by creating a superbly wrought figure of Liberty seated on a rock and having a shield at her side. The general form had been stipulated by Patterson, who was strongly influenced by the Britannia design found on current British copper coins). It was finished early in 1836 and samples in fusible metal (probably pewter) were struck. By the late summer of 1836 Gobrecht had produced a pair of dies, Titian Peale now having prepared a superb drawing of an eagle in flight, that were approved by all who saw impressions made from them. Patterson, through Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, then submitted the design to President Andrew Jackson, who gave his formal assent.

In late November 1836 patterns in silver were struck from the hardened dies and given a small circulation amongst the educated in Philadelphia as samples of the planned dollar coinage. (This is J-58/P-61, with 18 originals said to have been struck in Die Alignment I, but very elusive and maybe even unknown) Patterson knew that a nation was judged by the artistic quality of its largest silver coin; he was determined that the United States be second to none in the realm of design and quality of coinage.
The first Gobrecht dollars struck in December 1836, which were reported on the last day of the year are listed in the pattern books (J-60/P-65) but these are circulation issues. There were 1,000 struck, with the dies in die alignment I (coin turn).

After these first dollars were struck, there were more to come. The Bank of the United States had paid out the 600 dollars on hand (The other 400 were most likely given out as presentation pieces). In March 1837 another 600 coins were struck, from the dies of 1836. These are often already called re-strikes, but in my opinion this is wrong. It is better to call them “second originals”. To distinguish these coins and the coins of December the dies were reversed. The dies used in December had normal alignment (180 degrees, used on most United States coins since 1792, also called “coin alignment”), those of March were inverted (0 degrees, also called “medal alignment”). This is seen most clearly when you turn the coin horizontal. Those with coin alignment have the reverse then upside down, those with medal alignment have the reverse normally. You can also compare this with a regular issue United States coin from your pocket, and a Euro coin struck in most European country’s since 2002. US coins are coin alignment, Euro coins are medal alignment.

After the 1836 and 1837 issues, there were also Gobrecht dollars struck with 1838 and 1839 dates. In the 1850’s to 1870’s, a lot of rare United States coins were restruck, including Gobrecht dollars and many rare patterns. These coins are known as “re-strikes”, and most of the time these can be distinguished from the original issues by looking at die alignment, die states and other detailed things.

These dollars were long called patterns (and thus are included in both the Judd and Pollock books), but recent research has revealed that there are indeed some patterns, but also some struck for general circulation, and some of those indeed circulate, although in very limited quantities, finding a Fine and lower undoctored Gobrecht Dollar very difficult.

Sources:

Books:
J. Hewitt Judd, M.D. (edited by Q. David Bowers)
United States PATTERN COINS Experimental and trail pieces.
1st edition 1953, 8th complete revised edition 2003

Andrew. W. Pollock III
United States Patterns and Related issues
1994 edition

R.S Yeoman, (edited by Kenneth Bresset)
A guide book of UNITED STATES COINS
1st edition 1947, complete revised edition 2005

Internetsites:
http://www.coinfacts.com
http://www.uspatterns.com

+ Several other books and sites who I already forget

Many thanks to Boiler78 (Mark), RKKay (Rick) and Tradedollarnut (Bruce) for all the questions they answered me throughout the time, not only for this article but also for the other (pattern) articles. Also thanks to all the other people of the Collectors Universe Forums, you guys are great.

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