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Christian Gobrecht and the Seated Liberty Coinage

By R.W. Julian

 

Nineteen ninety-nine marks the 162nd anniversary of the appearance of the famous Seated Liberty design on circulating silver coins. Tentative steps had been taken in 1836 but the public at large saw its first coinage with this motif during the summer of 1837. After the dull and uninspired silver coins of the preceding decades, it was a breath of fresh air in the marketplace. The true beginning of the story, however, goes back many years before that.

In the summer of 1805 Robert Patterson became director of the mint, a position held until his death nineteen years later. He favored new designs for the silver coinage and these were executed by John Reich in 1807, but following the War of 1812 the artwork became frozen, the one exception being the revised copper cent design of 1816, also done by Reich; the latter is perhaps the worst ever inflicted on the American public. Dr. Samuel Moore, a mining engineer who became director in 1824, was not only Patterson's son-in-law, but had served in Congress for some years, acting as unofficial spokesman for the Mint. By 1828 Moore was settled enough in his job to initiate a series of changes to the coinage. He began with the smaller silver and gold coins, having Engraver William Kneass tighten up the designs into a smaller diameter so that the coins could be struck in a close collar. (The close collar added reeding to the edge of the coin at the moment of striking; prior to that time the reeding was applied before striking by the Castaing machine.) This not only made the coins look better, but gave them improved wearing capabilities.

During the winter of 1834-1835 Congress debated the wisdom of enlarging the Mint service. In March 1835 the legislators decreed, and the President accepted, that three more mints (Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans) were required. Because of this sudden expansion, Moore decided that it was necessary to hire an additional engraver to handle the expected increase in the work-load; he settled on Christian Gobrecht, justly famed as one of our finest engravers. (At the same time, in part irritated by what he considered needless new mints, Moore submitted his resignation to President Jackson.)

Gobrecht, of German ancestry, was born in Pennsylvania in 1785 and early in life had shown a marked inclination towards artistic and engraving work. Apprenticed to a clockmaker at the usual tender age, he perfected his engraving skills in ornamental designs put on watches. In 1811 he moved to Philadelphia and began work shortly afterwards for a prestigious 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 Engraver Robert Scot died in November 1823, Gobrecht was well enough known to serve as a temporary replacement. He applied for the position but was turned down in favor of William Kneass, who had better connections. As consolation Gobrecht was offered the post of assistant engraver at $600 per year but turned this sum down as inadequate. The chief engraver received a salary of $1200 per annum and Gobrecht thought even this amount 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 unfortunately were not used on the coinage.

In mid-June 1835, about two weeks before his resignation took effect, Moore wrote the Treasury requesting that Gobrecht be hired as "second engraver" at an annual salary of $1500; it was also suggested that Kneass receive an increase in his salary to the same amount.

The new director was Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson, Moore's brother-in-law and a son of Robert Patterson, who held the same office from 1805 to 1824. Having received a classical education in Paris during the Napoleonic era, he was especially interested in mechanical improvements as well as more artistic coinage designs. In all of this he was to have a strong ally in Christian Gobrecht.

Shortly after Dr. Patterson assumed office, Engraver Kneass suffered a severe stroke, which incapacitated him for some months and, in fact, he was never able to do detailed engraving work again. In late August 1835 the director wrote the Treasury for emergency authority to hire Gobrecht on the terms outlined by Moore in June and this the permission was granted in short order.

The letter of August 28 mentioned that noted painters Thomas Sully and Titian Peale had been engaged to prepare sketches for a new silver dollar. Sully was to delineate the obverse of a seated Liberty while Peale, who specialized in portraying natural life, was engaged to show an eagle in flight. All of the elements were now in place to create the justly-famed Seated Liberty coinage.

Throughout the waning months of 1835 the two outside artists struggled to create drawings that would meet Patterson's approval. Sully, the most outstanding American portrait painter of his era, was able to satisfy Patterson first 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.

The first appearance of Britannia on British coinage was during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685); according to the famed diarist Samuel Pepys the model for Britannia was the King's mistress, the Duchess of Richmond. The original design, however, harked back to the Roman Empire, when coins had been produced showing a seated figure symbolizing the submission of Britain to Rome. The Romans in turn had taken the general motif from Greek coinage of an earlier period.

As early as December 1835 Gobrecht was at work on a die using the Seated Liberty design; it was finished early in 1836 and samples duly 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. 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.

If Patterson thought that all would be smooth sailing from then on, he was in for a rude shock. Someone saw to it that a newspaper reporter was able to examine the new dollar and then publish an account of it. Unfortunately for Patterson, the story attacked the idea of Gobrecht being allowed to sign his name so prominently on the coin, just above the date. As a result of this minor uproar, Patterson ordered that the obverse die be redone and Gobrecht's name made less conspicuous by placing it on the base of the figure.

Coinage of the new Gobrecht silver dollar began in late December 1836 and 1,000 pieces were formally delivered on the last day of the year. There has long been a belief that these were actually patterns but the truth is that this was a regular coinage of silver dollars, the first since March 1804. There were patterns in 1836, but these were all of the 'name below base' variety. The dollars of 1836 were struck on the weight standard of 1792, 416 grains; these first regular issues in more than thirty years are easily worth more than ten thousand dollars at auction or private sale if offered in Proof-62 or better.

The first Seated Liberty dollar coinage was on a small scale as the director was still unsure of how the design would be received in the country. This first issue was struck only in proof condition in order to show the new design under the best possible light. In January 1837 the coinage laws were recodified and Congress decreed, among other things, that silver coinage fineness be 900/1000 instead of the cumbersome .8924+ in use since 1794. (The weight of the dollar was reduced, in the process, from 416 to 412.5 grains, in order to keep the amount of pure silver unchanged.) In March 1837 Patterson ordered a fresh coinage of 600 silver dollars but did not ask the engraver to prepare a new obverse die dated 1837. Instead he ordered that the 1836 dies be used but with the reverse die paired in 'medal' form. The pieces of 1836 had been struck in 'coin' turn (the same as all U.S. coins) but a medal reverse is aligned just the opposite and is the same, for example, as current coins of Canada. This was done so that Mint employees could tell the two issues apart.

The success of this first coinage encouraged Patterson to extend the Seated Liberty motif to the dime and half dime in the summer of 1837. The designs on these two coins followed very closely that on the dollar, even to the point of having no stars around the figure. The public accepted these new coins with pleasure, having become tired of the old bust designs in use for decades. The first half dimes (without stars on the obverse), since they are required for type sets, have brought very good prices indeed. Even in fine condition the 1837 half dime is worth about $50 while an extremely fine piece is worth more than $175. Dimes of 1837 are valued at an even higher rate, being tariffed at $475 in XF, for example.

Interestingly, there exists a contemporary (July 1837) newspaper description of the new coinage: "A friend showed us Saturday a ten cent piece of a new coinage; it is smaller in circumference than those formerly emitted. On one side are the words ONE DIME, encircled with a wreath; on the other is a fine cut figure of liberty-not the old head and trunk, that looked so flaring out from our coin-but a neat, tidy female figure, sufficiently dressed, holding in one hand a staff, surmounted with a liberty cap; the other hand sustains a shield inscribed with the word LIBERTY. The figure is in a sitting posture, and resembles, generally, the representation of Britannia on the English coins."

Patterson now decided that the stars on the reverse of the new dollar should be switched to the obverse. Pattern dollars were struck in 1838 using the revised design and shortly thereafter, in the late summer, quarter dollar coinage (stars on obverse but with the old reverse of 1815) began with the new Seated Liberty obverse design. Because there are no particular variations in the early quarters, 1838 Seated Liberty quarters are very reasonable in price, being ticketed at about $70 even in very fine.

The change in the stars had actually been anticipated on the dime and half dime coinage of 1838 at Philadelphia which had already switched the stars at the beginning of the year. Oddly enough, the 1838 dime and half dime dies sent to New Orleans used the out-dated starless design of 1837. Whether this was due to having too many undated dies on hand at the end of 1837 or some other cause is as yet unknown. The New Orleans dime and half dime coinage of 1838 is very popular with collectors and even a dime in fine condition is worth nearly $100; the half dime is worth roughly double that figure in the same state of preservation.

The final chapter in the saga of Seated Liberty coinage came in the summer of 1839 when the new design finally graced the half dollar. As with the other lower denominations, old reverse motifs were used but the superb flying eagle crafted by Titian Peale was not. It may simply be that Patterson felt the space on the smaller coins insufficient for the eagle design. A small coinage of dollars (300 pieces) was made in December 1839 following the pattern of 1838; it was to be the last Gobrecht Flying Eagle dollar issued for circulation. When full-scale coinage of silver dollars commenced in 1840, the Flying Eagle reverse was rejected in favor of the more traditional eagle so that all large silver coins had a similar reverse.

The commonest variety of the 1839 Seated Liberty half dollar is an easily affordable coin being worth but slightly more than the quarter dollar in comparable condition. (The 1839 half dollar with drapery from the elbow is worth considerably more, however.) If one is willing to wait until 1839 or 1840 for the early half dime through half dollar, prices are very reasonable indeed, ranging from about twenty to eighty dollars in very fine.

There was an interesting postscript to the Gobrecht silver dollars of 1836 through 1839. These became so popular with collectors in the late 1850s that Mint Director Snowden began to restrike them for sale and trade. Mint officials needed to be able to detect the restrikes in the future, so they set the dies in such a way that that the eagle is flying flat when the coin is properly rotated on its horizontal or vertical axis; originals in all cases have the eagle flying upward and to the left. The restrikes are worth less than originals, but due to the general demand for Gobrecht dollars, still bring several thousand dollars each in the highest grades.

The person most responsible for the Seated Liberty coinage, Christian Gobrecht, did not long outlive the birth of the new design, dying in 1844. Kneass had died in 1840 while Director R.M. Patterson survived until 1854. With minor changes, the Seated Liberty design was to survive on the silver coinage for decades. Although the dollar was abolished in 1873, the popularity of the design may be seen in the fact that the Trade Dollar also had a seated figure, though not of course quite the same. The smaller denominations continued to be struck until 1891 when official displeasure at the old design finally caused its demise. In 1892 the minor silver coins received a new look, prepared by Chief Engraver Charles Barber.

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