Collecting Trade Dollars


Ways to Collect

Minted for circulation from 1873 to 1878, and in Proof form from 1873 to 1883 (plus a few extremely rare Proof strikings dated 1884 and 1885), the trade dollar is one of the shortest-lived of all United States coin series. More than any other denomination, this coin was a child of the Western mints, Carson City and San Francisco, particularly the latter.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was little numismatic interest in collecting trade dollars, apart from collectors who saved one each of the Philadelphia Mint Proofs. So far as I know, business strikes were ignored before the early 1890s, with the possible exception of Augustus G. Heaton, who published his Mint Marks monograph in 1893, and discussed the characteristics of certain mintmark varieties.

Apropos of the lack of affection for the denomination is this comment in The New Hub Coin Book, 13th edition, published by Alexander & Co., Boston, 1905:

 These coins now being unredeemable are only worth their bullion value, i.e., about 50 cents. Proofs sometimes bring 75 cents to $1, but the demand for them is limited.

In an article article, "The Dollar," in The Numismatist, November 1905, Augustus G. Heaton noted this:

 Thirty years ago trade dollars were floated by millions and by millions and only the Proofs seemed worth anything to the collector. But the issue was condemned and called in. Now the eleven dates in Uncirculated condition would not be easy to find and some dates of the three mints where they were struck are scarce or rare in any state.

As incredible as it may seem today, it was not until the 1930s and 1940s that a significant collecting interest developed in business strike issues, despite Heaton’s enlightened commentary of 1905. Prior to the 1930s probably fewer than 100 numismatists pursued trade dollars other than Proofs. Few cared about such issues as 1873-CC or 1878-CC (to mention two scarce mintmarks). In the years since then, trade dollars have been widely sought after, although not nearly to the extent of Liberty Seated or Morgan silver dollars.

I have always enjoyed trade dollars. The first time I owned one as a teenager I admired its design, its large size, and its romantic connection with far-off China. I always aspired to own an 1884, or, even better, an 1885 trade dollar—the latter seeming to me to be the pinnacle of desirability in an American rarity. Why? Because only five are known, and because it is a mystery coin. No one knows for sure who at the Mint struck these pieces. Nor are many details known of the early history of the coins. I have always felt that the 1885 trade dollar has all of the elements of intrigue and desirability of the more famous 1804 silver dollar.

In the 1950s, when Benjamin Stack broke away from his family firm in New York City and hung out his shingle as the Imperial Coin Company. In March 1955, he advertised a pair of trade dollar rarities—one each of 1884 and 1885, for $6,500 in The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. A cat can look at a king, and a teenager with a small but growing coin business, and a small budget, could look at 1884 and 1885 trade dollars at the time, but there was no possibility I could own them. They were sold elsewhere. When I catalogued the Norweb Collection 1884 and 1885 trade dollars for auction in 1988, I was thrilled beyond measure. I had sold several 1884s earlier, but this was my first 1885.

Today, trade dollars are eminently collectible. They offer the chance to buy truly rare coins for reasonable sums, and, if you are inclined, to do research on the existence and availability of certain issues. For example, relatively little is known about the distribution and rarity of the so-called Type I and II obverse varieties of 1875 and 1876. When writing this book I came up against a blank wall. Although John W. McCloskey, Ph.D., in his article, "Obverse Varieties of the U.S. Trade Dollar," in The Gobrecht Journal, July 1978, first described in print the two obverse types, precious little else had been done since then, and even Walter H. Breen’s magnificent Encyclopedia, published in 1988, treated the obverse types only cursorily. The reverse types had commanded the attention of numerous researchers and writers, but not the obverses. The point of this is that possibly you can make significant discoveries in this area. Even better from a cherrypicking viewpoint, is the fact that certification services such as PCGS, NGC, and ANACS ignore such types, as do most dealers. Because of this, bargains can still be found.

Select from the links below for a discussion on ways to assemble a cabinet of these interesting trade dollars:

Collecting Habits Thru the Years Circulation Strikes Proofs
Varieties Chopmarks A Comprehensive Collection