In this interview, author Roger Burdette discusses the rich history of Peace dollars and explains how these overlooked and affordable coins have much to tell us about the years following World War I. Burdette, who wrote “A Guide Book of Peace Dollars,” also offers insights into the work of such coin designers as Anthony de Francisci and introduces some of the intricacies of the minting process.
When I was about 7, I began to notice the different kinds of dimes, nickels, and cents I got back as change. At the same time, I had a cousin whose father gave him several large cigar boxes of Indian cents and other coins. His father worked in a New York City post office in the 1930s and had set aside every Indian cent or interesting coin that came across the counter. The boxes also contained a few circulated commemorative halves and a couple of gold coins—things I’d never imagined existed.
I helped my cousin sort them by date and looked at his copy of a “Blue Book” to see which ones were valuable. The bug bit me because I could see the different varieties and that some were worth more than others.
A few years later, I did odd jobs and took my money to the bank to buy rolls of half dollars or silver dollars to look for coins I wanted to keep. Eventually the bank president allowed me to go in once a month and search through any silver dollars they had in the vault. I’d sit at a big mahogany table and a teller would bring in a bag of dollars, then leave.
The walls were covered with portraits of past presidents and bank directors, so I was always “watched” as I went through the coins. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money to buy all the dollars I wanted, so I had to decide what to keep. Usually, these decisions were based on either filling a hole in my dollar album or keeping the coin that was in the best condition.
I first got interested in Buffalo nickels because of the impressive design and the fact that many of them didn’t have dates. By that time, I’d bought my own little “Red Book” and was marking off the ones I had or could find in circulation. Back then, you could still find coins dating back to 1913 that had a readable date or were dateless. I put together almost a complete set. They weren’t spectacular, but they were fun to collect and only cost a nickel.
It was an interesting time because I could pick up most things from circulation. I don’t think I ever bought a coin until I was in college. I would occasionally buy small collections from other students who wanted money to buy a pizza on Friday night, or something.
These days, my interests are in research and writing rather than collecting particular coins. I don’t really have any commercial ties to the hobby so that frees me to be objective and let the original sources tell the story.
The Peace dollar [see images above], which I collect, was a neglected series for a long time. The large number of issued coins sitting in various Treasury vaults didn’t appeal to collectors. They were too common. It’s still easy to put together a complete collection. A lot of people, including dollar variety specialists, focus on Morgan dollars instead of Peace dollars. Morgans have sharper designs compared to the flat or mushy look Peace dollars often have.
Collectors Weekly: Mushy because the design has been worn down?
Burdette: No. The way the design of a Peace dollar was reduced to the working dies was different for Morgan dollars. There was almost no hand engraving on the Peace dollar. Everything has much shallower edges and is less sharp than it would be on a coin that’s been manually touched up on the hubs or the master dies. In contrast, the Morgan dollar’s main devices, like the eagle and the portrait of Liberty, were engraved and hand cut. Then that was reduced and made into the steel master die.
The Morgan dollar engraver did a lot of manual retouching of the hub so that feathers, edges, and other things would be sharper. Stars and other details were punched in or engraved by hand on the master die to create a sharper-looking edge to various devices on the coin. In contrast, the Peace dollar was an entirely mechanical reduction from either the bronze cast from 1921 or the artist model’s and galvano from 1922 or later. The result was a softer looking coin, which was what the artists had been looking for. But coin collectors tend to like crisp designs.
I got out of coin collecting in the late ’80s. I got turned off by the high prices, which were a result of the coin boom at that time. I just put things aside for a number of years. It wasn’t until about the mid-1990s that I got back into it, but I didn’t like what I saw.
Collectors were throwing money at stuff left and right. It didn’t appeal to me at all. Peace dollars, however, still held my interest. Early on I’d always been able to get them at face value or very close. Even in the mid-1990s, few were really collecting them.
I put together several complete sets and resold them. I thought the coins were interesting because they represented something of this country’s history that really wasn’t discussed much: the period after World War I. Most of our school history books don’t offer much on the era after the Spanish American War or Teddy Roosevelt, so children don’t learn much about the postwar and Great Depression period.
At that time I hadn’t seen many articles on Peace dollars so I thought I’d write something that “The Numismatist,” “Numismatic News,” or “Coin World” might possibly publish. I started researching Peace dollars, but it was confusing because a lot of the information was contradictory or just seemed wrong.
The more I dug around, the bigger my article became. There were already books by Leroy Van Allen, George Mallis, and Wayne Miller on both Morgan and Peace dollars. I didn’t feel I had anything new to add to what they’d already said.
But my interest in finding out more about Peace dollars led me to other coins produced between 1907 and 1922. At one point I talked with a well-known dealer, Julian Leidman, in Silver Spring, Maryland. He suggested I write something about the series of coinage designs inspired by Teddy Roosevelt. I started looking at what I had and realized it was necessary to go back to original sources, locate them, and then find the original letters and U.S. Mint documents myself to really verify the information.
“The artistic ideal of Liberty had changed from 19th-century coins.”
I read “Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins” and other books on Peace dollars and coins of that era. I found that nearly all of them referenced back to the National Archives. That’s cool, but the National Archives contains billions of documents, and the books didn’t tell you where their sources could be found. It’s not like a library with a bunch of shelves where you wander around and pick out what you want. You have to know what you’re asking for so the staff can get you the correct boxes or folders, and then it is a hit-or-miss situation.
Taking what clues I could find in published materials, I went back and dug through the archives, slowly figuring out where things were and what was available. I found documents from 1907 that people said had been destroyed, but they’d just been looking in the wrong places.
I uncovered a great deal of information about Peace dollars and their predecessors. The whole thing grew into a 10-year project to examine the origin and development of the designs from what I call the “Renaissance of the American Coinage” period. This was basically 1905 to about 1922. President Theodore Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens first put together their little plan to redesign the coinage in 1905.
Collectors Weekly: How long did it take you to write “A Guide Book of Peace Dollars?”
Burdette: The background information came out of the more detailed research I did for the three books I wrote relating to that 1905-1921 period. It took six or seven years to develop that historical information to the point where I felt it was accurate. That was published as part of a book called “Renaissance of American Coinage, 1916-1921.” I edited some of that material to be the first part of the Peace dollar book.
Collectors Weekly: Was your book the first solely devoted to Peace dollars?
Burdette: Yes. It is the first and only book, for now, that’s devoted to Peace dollars. It doesn’t have comprehensive variety lists because there are hundreds of varieties, and most of them are trivial. New things are always being discovered. Previously, Peace dollar information was always found either in little articles or lumped in with the Morgan dollar in larger books. The Peace dollar is a relatively short series. Not many collectors have looked at it in detail. There has been a lot more information on Morgan dollars.
I wanted to help beginning and intermediate collectors understand how the coin was created, what the coins should look like, and some major varieties they might find. It’s not intended to be comprehensive. Anybody else who wants to write about Peace dollars will likely focus on the varieties.
Collectors Weekly: When was the Peace dollar first minted?
Burdette: The first ones were made on December 28, 1921. Through the end of 1921, they struck just a little over a million coins at the Philadelphia Mint. Dies were never made for any other mint because they barely had time to do the ones in Philadelphia. The President and others in the Harding Administration wanted the coins out quickly as both a symbol of peace and of the Conference on the Limitation of Armaments that was in progress in Washington.
Curiously, the actual go-ahead for the coin didn’t come from the mint director until after the conference had started in November 1921. The competition was only 10 days long. So the artists who were invited to participate had a very short time to come up with designs. The administration wanted the coins produced before the end of 1921 because President Harding signed the final peace declaration with Germany in November of that year.
Collectors Weekly: Who ended up winning the contest?
Burdette: Anthony de Francisci, a New York sculptor, won. He had been an assistant to Adolph Weinman, who designed the dime and the half dollar in 1916. He was a student of a student of Saint-Gaudens. De Francisci’s best work was done during the early ’20s. After that he did more-commercial medals for the United Parcel Service, the Ford Motor Company, and other organizations.
The creative spark just wasn’t really there. He mostly made a living by teaching art in New York. You won’t find him listed in many art reference books. There are very few American sculptors who are highly rated internationally. He was good, just not of international caliber; but the Peace dollar was one of his better works, especially when you see the large casts that were made from the original model.
Collectors Weekly: Did the design change from the one he entered in the competition?
Burdette: The Commission of Fine Arts, which was running the competition for the mint director, invited eight artists. Each artist was to submit one obverse and two reverse designs. They weren’t limited by subject, except they had to comply with law and had to have a portrait of Liberty on the front and an eagle on the back. We know the designs of only three of the artists who entered: De Francisci, Hermon MacNeil, and Chester Beach.
Recently, some of Beach’s designs were sold at auction by Stack’s auctions, but other than those three sculptors, we don’t know what the other people entered. De Francisci’s original Peace dollar designs are similar to the final ones, but not quite as finely finished and not as good. There are a lot of detail changes. For example, on the reverse the eagle’s head is held lower on his original design. On the obverse, Liberty’s face is a little different. And he used a Roman numeral date instead of the Western digits.
After de Francisci was awarded the commission, the Commission of Fine Arts asked James Fraser, who was a member of the commission, to work with him to do the coin’s final design. Over the next week, de Francisci turned out something pretty close to the final design. There were a few differences: The eagle’s head had been brought more upright and the portrait changed so it was closer to the Saint-Gaudens’ portrait that Fraser and the Commission of Fine Arts considered the ideal portrait for the coin.
After the first design was approved, but before the final one got to the director of the mint, de Francisci added the word “PEACE” to the lower reverse and included a sword with a broken tip clutched in the eagle’s talons. Nobody knows why “PEACE” was added or whether it was his idea or Fraser’s. Commission of Fine Arts members could’ve suggested it when they looked at the entries. There’s no discussion in official documents about why “PEACE” was there. I think because the name of the coin originated long before the coin ever existed, there’s a good chance everybody just assumed it was going to be there.
At this point, the Commission of Fine Arts, James Fraser, and the director of the mint had approved the design. Fraser and de Francisci took it over to the Secretary of the Treasury, who approved it, and then they went over to the White House. President Harding took a quick glance, decided he liked it, shook hands with the artist and his wife, and approved it. The Treasury issued a little press release about the new coin in which they mentioned the broken sword on the reverse.
“The New York Herald” newspaper looked at the press release and decided they didn’t like the broken sword. Everyone else who’d looked at it viewed the sword with the broken tip as a symbol of the end of conflict. “The New York Herald” folks looked at it from the view of veterans and people who had been overseas fighting. In military parlance, the broken sword represented defeat. When someone surrenders, their sword is broken and returned to them as a sign that they can no longer fight.
The “Herald” printed a short editorial and within hours telegrams and letters started coming in to the mint director’s office, the Commission of Fine Arts, members of Congress, the White House, and the Treasury. There are hundreds of them in the archives, and nearly all were negative. With the mint director out of town, one of the assistant secretaries of the Treasury Department decided to immediately change the coin. De Francisci was called to the Philadelphia Mint. On December 23rd, he and George Morgan sat down with the only steel hub that had been made of the reverse design.
This hub took hours to make because it’s the one from which all the subsequent reverses would be made. De Francisci sat with Morgan as the Mint’s engraver (which, in this case, was Morgan) slowly cut away the sword and converted in into an extra olive branch with leaves and little olives. He changed the top of the mountain and part of the eagle’s talons so what had once been sword was now part of the eagle, mountain, and olive branch.
Today, looking very closely with magnification, some of the engraving marks from Morgan’s work can be seen. They spent the entire day on it. All of the changes were under De Francisci’s supervision, although he was not competent to do the die work. That was how the reverse was changed. The stories you see in Breen are simply inventions; they weren’t true.
From that point, there was not a lot of time left to make working dies. That’s one reason they didn’t start production until several days later and had such a short production time. Again, the artist was there when the first pieces were struck at 8:30 a.m. He even paid for 50 of them, hoping he could take them home with him, but he wasn’t allowed to. They were mailed to him a couple of days later.
Collectors Weekly: Do any coins exist with the sword on it?
Burdette: The original bronze casts of the obverse and reverse were delivered to the U.S. Mint. They were used to make the steel hubs. There was only the one hub of the reverse, and it was never used to make dies or to strike any test pieces. All the work was done on that and then on a subsequent master die. There are photographs in the book of the design, but no pieces were ever struck.
Collectors Weekly: Was the Peace dollar considered a commemorative coin?
Burdette: It was intended to commemorate both the end of World War I and the Conference on the Limitation of Armaments, which the Harding Administration felt was a major diplomatic victory in limiting the navies of the principal countries of the world to certain tonnages of ships. They thought that by limiting these armaments it would automatically prevent future wars. Actually, it had little immediate effect, except that everybody reconfigured their allocations of steel and built new ships. Provisions of the agreement eventually prevented the United States from enlarging its Philippine bases, and this left them easy targets for Japan in December 1941.
The original idea for the coin, at least as far as numismatic publications go, probably came from Frank Duffield. He was editor of “The Numismatist” in 1918. He proposed a victory coin that should be available at face value. Then other collectors occasionally wrote in. In 1920 the promoter Frank Zerbe wrote a letter to the ANA convention, supporting the idea of a peace victory commemorative of some kind. He was apparently thinking of a half dollar, but he also mentioned the possibility of using it on a larger coin like the dollars that were going to be made to replace those converted into bullion under the Pittman Act.
The idea was that the coins should never be rare. World War I brought the full vision of technological death to civilians. It horrified and angered a lot of people. So at the end of the war, the American peace movement was very strong and stayed that way up until the end of the early 1940s. Had it not been for the foresight of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, we might have found ourselves in World War II but in a much poorer military situation than we were.
The coin was intended to mark that the war was over and, especially with the reverse design, to give you the impression that this was the beginning of a new era of peace. The reverse of the Peace dollar shows a rather calm eagle with its wings folded, looking toward the dawn. It’s not sunrise; it’s just the rays of the dawn coming over the mountains.
Collectors Weekly: Was Lady Liberty modeled on a specific person?
Burdette: The artistic ideal of Liberty had changed from 19th-century coins. Imagine you have a pile of Morgan dollars. You pick one up and notice the bridge of Liberty’s nose goes right up to her forehead almost in a straight line. She looks like she ran into a wall. That’s the Greco-Roman ideal of a profile, and it was accepted by the neoclassical artists of the 19th century, particularly the French after whom most American coin art was emulated. If you look at Barber’s 1892 coinage designs, the silver coin’s portrait looks almost identical to designs on French coinage of the 1860s.
De Francisci used some features of his wife, Teresa, to present a more realistic, natural Liberty. It’s not a portrait of any one individual; it’s a composite. But if you look at the nose, the forehead, the cheeks, and other features, it’s more lifelike than the portrait on the Morgan dollar.
Collectors Weekly: Are there other marks on Peace dollars?
Burdette: Underneath the portrait is de Francisci’s monogram. The word “LIBERTY” is around the top peripheral area. Across the front of the obverse is the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Since 1921 the mint has often been asked why it spelled “trust” with a V. Of course, it’s a classical Roman character for U and not a V at all.
On the reverse, there are distant hills to the right of the mountain where the eagle is standing, and the dawn’s rays are coming up behind the hills. The hills are small and hard to see. They change a little depending on the year and who touched the dies and other things. There’s also a mint mark at lower left, just behind the eagle’s tail, which will either be D for Denver, or S for San Francisco, or none for Philadelphia. The mint marks are usually the only parts that are punched into the dies.
Collectors Weekly: Why did the 1921 coins have such a high relief?
Burdette: That was de Francisci’s design. He was trying to make the coin as medal-like as possible. He also operated under the misconception that the folks in Philadelphia were able to mechanically reduce the reliefs of his models without altering the design.
When they made the reductions at the Philadelphia Mint, Morgan did the best he could with it. The first coins in 1921 didn’t show all of the design the way they should have, but they were a lot better than the ones issued a couple of days later. The high relief was an artistic touch. When you see a piece that’s fully struck or close to it, which is very unusual, the design really has much greater character.
The relief was changed in February 1922. They’d attempted in January 1922 to retain the high relief, but were unsuccessful. They tried a medium relief version with touched-up hair that didn’t work either. The dies didn’t last long because the high relief required so much pressure to bring out the design. Dies would literally shatter and fall apart in the press. The mints couldn’t sustain any kind of large coinage with that kind of thing happening.
In February 1922, de Francisci remodeled his design and lowered the relief. If you look at 1921 and ’22 coins, you can see subtle differences on both sides because they were actually made for completely different sets of models. Contrary to Walter Breen’s story, nobody beat down the galvanos, or models, to lower the relief. They didn’t need galvanos in 1921 because hubs were reduced from copper or bronze casts. They’re much thicker and tougher. I don’t know where Breen got that story, but it’s his alone.
Collectors Weekly: How is the Peace dollar related to the Morgan dollar?
Burdette: They’re related because of the Pittman Act of 1918. During World War I, India was a main supplier of raw materials to Britain and the U.S. The British government in India had consistently declared that its currency was stable and supported by silver, but in late 1917, it was determined that unless additional silver was transferred into India, the Indian currency would soon not be redeemable in silver. The Indian government would effectively default on their obligations.
The British government asked the U.S. for help because it was the only country that had a substantial supply of silver. The U.S. government had more than 500 million ounces of silver in stock. It was mostly in the form of silver dollars sitting in vaults because the coins didn’t circulate. These were coins that had been produced mostly since 1878 and were nearly all the Morgan design. An agreement was finally reached, facilitated by Senator Key Pittman from Nevada for whom the legislation was named. Mint Director Ray Baker of Nevada actually wrote the legislation soon after he took office.
Baker suggested melting silver dollars because nobody had enough silver bullion to meet India’s needs. That became part of the law. In April 1918, the U.S. government started shipping silver dollars to India.
The situation was so severe that the first shipments were made using boxcars with metal liners to keep the coins from falling out. Before the coins were dumped into the boxcars, they were run through a device that flattened and folded them. They weren’t even melted; there wasn’t enough time. They simply squashed the things, folded them up into little squares of silver, dumped them in boxcars by weight, and shipped them off to India where they were smelted. Later on the dollars were melted into bars here in the U.S., but the first shipments were folded-up Morgan dollars.
The Pittman Act required that all the silver dollars melted—about 270 million—had to be replaced using American silver. After the war, the government began replacing them. They purchased domestic silver at a dollar an ounce up to the 270 million. The first silver dollars struck from that newly purchased silver were imitations of the old Morgan design because no new design was available, and the mint was in a hurry.
The mint had destroyed the original hubs and master dies in 1910 for the Morgan dollar, thinking they wouldn’t be needed anymore. Apparently they took a struck coin and used that to make a working hub and die, and then retouched that to make the 1921 Morgan dollar dies. They were used from February 1921 until the end of the year to strike Pittman silver dollars with the Morgan design. After the Peace dollar design was finalized and approved, the rest of the coins from the Pittman silver were struck using de Francisci’s Peace design.
They had to strike the dollars because at that time the law required paper silver certificates to be backed by silver bullion. Each silver dollar melted required removal of one dollar in silver certificates from circulation. To put silver certificates back in circulation, they had to produce silver dollars. The government didn’t lose any money on this deal because Britain paid the cost of the silver, plus the cost of refining, melting, and striking them.
Collectors Weekly: How long was the Peace dollar in circulation?
Burdette: Most of them circulated about a year and a half, maybe two. Silver dollars were never very popular in the U.S., even back in the 1790s. They were big, clunky, and tended to abrade their way through people’s pockets and purses because of the edges on the later ones. The Peace dollar was issued for circulation from 1921 to ’28. At that point, all the Pittman silver was exhausted. They had replaced the approximately 270 million that had been melted.
In 1934 and ’35, a few million more were issued from new hubs with a slightly improved version of the design. The purpose was to let the silver mining interests in the western states know that coins were being made from the silver that was being bought by the government. At that time, the government was buying silver from U.S. mines for about 60 cents an ounce, more than the 40-cents-per-ounce world price. U.S. silver producers were getting a considerable subsidy.
Out west people favored silver because it employed a lot of people in the mines and brought money to the silver-producing states. The silver generally was a byproduct of mining for copper, lead, and tin. It was the primary ore in only a few places. Somebody mining for lead derived additional profit from the silver byproduct they got from the ore. The western silver mining states had considerable clout in the U.S. Senate. Although their populations were very small at the time, each state still had two senators in the U.S. Senate like every other state.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the western senators accounted for almost a third of U.S. senators. They had a lot of political influence. It was a matter of jobs that were important to both the people in those states and the Roosevelt Administration, which wanted to encourage employment growth. The influence also helped create a higher price for U.S. silver. It put more money in circulation and allowed mines to keep operating. Many mines that had been closed were able to reopen profitably as a side effect of the rise in gold prices from $20.67 to $35. That was the case for the next 20 years.
The government went in as a buyer of silver and paid more than the world price for the metal, but they did that only for U.S. Silver, which essentially meant they were subsidizing the U.S. silver market. Obviously it benefited the local economies in many of the western states.
Collectors Weekly: Can you talk a bit more about variations in Peace dollars?
Burdette: There are hundreds of slight variations in the dies. When dies are made, the idea is that every obverse or reverse die should be identical, but because pieces of metal are handled by people and used to produce coins, sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes there’s a scratch on one, or the die cracks. Those are things that variety collectors love to find. At www.vamworld.com you can see hundreds of different Peace dollar or Morgan dollar varieties. It’s not that the design itself is really different. It’s that the surface characteristics of the die changed.
Sometimes when the dies are produced you’ll get double impressions that aren’t quite in the register. They were commonly called doubled dies. Most of those are very minor, but some can be seen without magnification. One of the cheapest and easiest to find doubled die coins in the whole U.S. series is the 1934-D Peace dollar. The obverse is clearly doubled. There are multiple sets of rays on the obverse visible at the back of Liberty’s tiara. You can actually see it in a small photograph. It’s as clear as the 1955 cent doubled die, but it only costs $20 to $40, depending on condition.
Collectors Weekly: How many coins would it take to make up a complete collection of U.S. Peace dollars?
Burdette: There are 24 date/mint combinations, but some collectors like to add well known varieties such as 1935-S 3 rays or 4 rays. In any event it’s a fairly small set. None of them are great rarities. The scarcest pieces are the 1928-P, a Philadelphia coin, in nice uncirculated condition, and a 1921 uncirculated. That one has a lot of detail in it. Most 1921 coins are poorly struck, and they have a lot of flat detail in the hair. It’s unusual to find one with good detail. Really high-condition, nearly flawless pieces get expensive, but an average collector can put together a nice set of coins at pretty modest prices, cheaper than you could do for the same set of Walking Liberty half dollars.
Collectors Weekly: Do collectors prefer uncirculated Peace dollars?
Burdette: Yes, and that’s primarily because they’re readily available. Many haven’t been cleaned and scrubbed by people who think they’re improving them. They’re relatively inexpensive, so you don’t have to spend a lot to put together an enjoyable collection or find unusual varieties. Because the Peace dollar has largely been ignored, there’s a lot of stuff still out there to be discovered. The coins are made more interesting by die clashes and alterations made to some of the dies and other various marks, but there are no big showstoppers. There’s no equivalent of an 1894-S dime or 1895 dollar.
Collectors Weekly: What happened to the Peace dollar in 1964 and ’65?
Burdette: The folks from the silver states wanted to have more silver dollars produced. They claimed the silver dollar was a real circulating piece of coinage in their states and that because people were buying bags of silver dollars from the Treasury vaults at that time, they needed more to support their local economies. The original plan was to mint 45 million more silver dollars and use the Peace design. Things got stalled for quite a while, but President Kennedy finally gave approval the day before he died. Not much was done after that for almost another year.
By the spring of 1965, some of the western senators had gotten so fed up that they threatened to withhold approval of other legislation until the coins were made. At that point, President Johnson gave the okay to strike some coins, and around 300,000 pieces were struck in Denver in May of that year. We don’t know how many because they were only accounted for by weight. The Peace dollar book has extensive information on the ’64-D Peace dollars.
In researching the book, I located the assistant coiner’s flowchart that showed how many ounces of silver were used at different points in the process up to the point where the coins were melted. This also coincided with the coinage shortage, from 1962 to ’65, and the Coinage Act of 1965 that changed coins from being 90 percent silver to the clad copper-nickel sandwich we have now. The price of silver had increased to the point where the silver in a coin would have been worth more than the face value on the coin. The U.S. government wanted to get out of the business of subsidizing silver.
All of those things converged to the point where the government froze the dates on coins to 1964. They were struck throughout part of 1965. Then they switched over to the clad composition for the last part of ’65 and thereafter. The only coin that had any silver left was the Kennedy half, which had about 40 percent.
Collectors Weekly: Since none of the 1964 Peace dollars circulated, is it certain that they ever even existed?
Burdette: I don’t know. There are a lot of stories, but I’ve never seen one or even a photograph of one.
The Denver mint didn’t track them by piece. They didn’t count them. They tracked everything by weight. Depending on where you put the decimal point, you could have a lot of individual coins unaccounted for. The Peace dollar book goes into detail about what really might have happened. It also debunks some myths. The bottom line is we don’t know if any exist or not.
The Treasury Department issued a press release in 1974, I think, claiming that if any of these coins were found, they would be considered illegal and confiscated, but that’s just the opinion of a couple of attorneys inside the Treasury Department. It’s never been tested in any way, and none of the coins have ever surfaced anywhere. If one does, then maybe it’ll get tested, or maybe it won’t.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of Peace dollar collectors?
Burdette: Not as many as those who collect, say, Morgan dollars. The series is short and readily available, so there’s not quite as much “thrill of the hunt” in completing a set. I think the number is increasing only because there’s now a book about Peace dollars and because of the Internet. Peace dollars also appeal to people who like details, collecting varieties, and looking for them. With so many Peace dollars out there that nobody has ever examined, who knows what somebody will discover?
They’re still relatively inexpensive, and I think people are slowly appreciating the design more than they did before. The collecting of dollar coins didn’t really catch on until the late ’50s. Peace dollars are even behind that. The Morgan dollars were older and sharper looking. For a long time they were also available at pretty much face value.
Collectors Weekly: Is it more difficult to put together a collection of Morgan dollars than Peace dollars?
Burdette: Yes. First, there are several hard-to-find, very scarce coins in the Morgan series. Secondly, it’s a much longer series, 1878 to 1904, plus 1921. There are a lot more coins to look for. There are millions of Morgan dollars still out there, but the mintages were low for some of them. Some are expensive because they’re popular, like an 1893-S dollar. Even in good or very good condition, those will set you back several thousand dollars. Only the most expensive Peace dollars would come anywhere near that.
Collectors Weekly: Are counterfeits a problem?
Burdette: There aren’t too many counterfeits right now in Peace dollars because they haven’t been worth a whole lot. The most counterfeited ones were the 1928 Philadelphia issue. I’m also seeing more 1921s counterfeited. They fit the same pattern as other counterfeits. Either they’re made from fake dies, in which case there are a lot of differences between the fakes and the real coins, or they’re made from transfer dies or casts. All of those have some sort of telltale indicator that they’re fakes. Altered dates and added or removed mintmarks are occasionally encountered, too.
Flea markets are filled with Morgan dollar fakes and silver dollar fakes and half dollar fakes. I haven’t seen too many counterfeit Peace dollars, but they’ll come, unfortunately.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone who is new to coin collecting?
Burdette: Read a little bit about the different kinds of coins, varieties, and designs. Decide what piques your interest—what kind of design, what kind of background history. Coins weren’t made for collectors. They were made to support an economy. There are economic reasons and social reasons why we have certain denominations, why they’re made of certain metals, and why some of the designs still exist.
The Peace dollar had more social-political importance than economic importance for this country in the early 1920s. Once people learn a little about it, then they can go out and make better decisions about what’s available and what kind of collection they want to have.
One big waste of money for many new collectors is when they send their coins to authentication services and pay $15 to $25 to have them graded and put in pieces of plastic. All they really get out of it is a piece of plastic instead of putting together a nice collection that they can hold in their hands and examine in detail.
That’s particularly true with Peace dollars, unless you’re buying the very highest condition coins. They don’t sell for a whole lot over bullion value. In many cases, the total purchase price is less than what it would cost to have the coin authenticated. That’s just my opinion. I think grading services have a fine place in the hobby and in the business. Authentication, after all, is the first line of defense against counterfeits.
(All images in this article courtesy of Roger Burdette)