Evaluating Rarity


The Concept of Rarity

How rare is a given trade dollar? Except perhaps for 1884 and 1885, precise answers such as "10 exist" or "there are 321 known" are not possible. However, as for many years numismatists have studied trade dollars and published observational and statistical data, approximations of rarity become feasible. In spite of these excellent efforts, more research remains to be done. The figures and estimates given here are tentative.

The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint provides a good starting point, but as will be seen there are some questionable figures, errors, and omissions. Studies of trade dollars published in The Gobrecht Journal are valuable, as are the studies by Walter H. Breen and John M. Willem published elsewhere. The Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages list sources of information. However, it has not been until relatively recent years that the series has been studied intensely. Estimates published in the 1970s and early 1980s are in many cases obsolete now. However, we all build upon foundations laid by others, and there is no question that today’s corpus of information is all the richer for having had earlier studies to draw upon. Undoubtedly, as time goes on, various figures given in the present book will need revision as new information becomes available. Specific suggestions from readers are welcome.



Because Proofs were meant to save, not to spend, substantial percentages of the original production quantities for many issues still survive, mainly in private collections, dealers’ inventories, investment portfolios, estates, and a few museums. Estimating the number known, while it cannot be done with scientific precision, is a much easier task than evaluating the surviving population of business strikes.


Business Strikes

Business strike trade dollars were made for circulation in the Orient, and the vast majority went to China, although in the first few years some circulated domestically. Many exported coins were chopmarked in China, as described earlier. Other coins in the Orient were stored in banks and by major commercial houses, did not pass hand to hand as frequently, and were not chopmarked.

In the 1930s countless thousands of trade dollars were imported back into the United States from China. Large numbers remained in Chinese banking circles throughout the end of the decade. John Willem has written that in Hong Kong as late as 1951, U.S. trade dollars were trading "at 90% of the value of the standard silver dollar although its intrinsic value is greater.… By late 1955 collector demand for the trade dollar had sent its value, regardless of condition or date, to 16 Hong Kong dollars, or $2.56 U.S. funds at the official rate of exchange."

Willem also told of two Chinese people who were seized upon their entry to the United States in 1936. Each carried over 1,000 United States trade dollars. As there was no legal reason to seize the trade dollars (no duty was payable on them and there were no regulations against their importation), the two unfortunate immigrants were released. Apparently, they were unable to find a better market for their coins than a local bank, which paid fifty cents each for them.

Echoing what Willem had to say, Hans M.F. Schulman, well known New York dealer in coins of the world, told me that United States trade dollars were available in seemingly unlimited quantities from the Orient during the 1940s. Others also have told of large numbers in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and 1950s.

It was Schulman who related that after World War II there was not much of a market in the United States for circulated trade dollars, and common coins in grades such as Extremely Fine went begging in dealers’ stocks. However, there was a better market for trade dollars that had been chopmarked, as these had a "story" to go with them and were more appealing to advanced collectors of world coins. Hans Schulman would buy trade dollars from dealers in New York City and mark them with his own chopmark punches, thus increasing their value!


Click on the links below for detailed information concerning the rarity of each group:

Circulated Rarity Proof Rarity Chopmarked Rarity
Mint State Rarity Summary MS60-62 Rarity MS63  Rarity
MS64 Rarity MS65 Rarity MS66 & Above Rarity