ONCE IGNORED, IMPORTANCE OF BRANCH MINT ISSUES NOW UNIVERSALLY RECOGNIZED
By David Stone
Most numismatists acknowledge the lack of interest collectors showed in branch mint issues before Augustus Heaton published his seminal treatise on mintmarks in 1893, but actually encountering it in print can still be disconcerting. The situation is much different today, where the difference in value between a coin like the 1927 Saint-Gaudens double eagle and its 1927-D counterpart can be more than $1 million, but 19th century collectors made few distinctions between such coins. The coin’s date was all-important; the mintmark was just a curiosity.
Early U.S. collectors had little need to study mintmarks, as the Philadelphia Mint did not use mintmarks in the 19th century, and there were no active branch mints before 1838. When the three Southern mints were established that year in Charlotte, N.C. (mintmark C), Dahlonega, Ga., (mintmark D), and New Orleans, La. (mintmark O), mintmarks became a noticeable feature of U.S. coinage for the first time. These facilities remained active until the Civil War, with the New Orleans Mint producing gold and silver denominations throughout that era, while the other two mints struck only lower-denomination gold coins. The San Francisco Mint (mintmark S) was opened in 1854, during the Gold Rush era, and the Carson City Mint (mintmark CC) was active from 1870 to 1893, to take advantage of the nearby Comstock Lode. Finally, the New Orleans Mint was reopened from 1879 to 1909.
Most collectors were only interested in saving one coin of each date for their collections, regardless of which mint it was from. By the third quarter of the 19th century, advanced collectors and professional numismatists were usually familiar enough with the silver coins from the Western mints and the New Orleans facility to identify them when they turned up, but the more obscure Southern mints that only coined gold issues could stump even the most knowledgeable 19th century collector.
When the mintmarks were located on the reverse, as they were after the Classic Head design was retired after 1839, many numismatists simply ignored them in correspondence, and catalogers sometimes failed to mention them in lot descriptions. In his catalog of the Henry Adams Collection (10/1876), prominent New York coin dealer Edward Cogan noted the enigmatic mintmark on the half eagle he cataloged in lot 1305, but he made no attempt to identify the issuing mint: “1305 1846 Nearly uncirculated. Rev. D under the Eagle. Scarce.”
When the mintmarks were located on the obverse, as they were on the Classic Head design from 1838 to 1839, they were harder to ignore, and attempts to identify them resulted in some truly bizarre descriptions. In his catalog of the Mendes I. Cohen Collection (10/1875), Cogan described the 1839-D quarter eagle in lot 207 as: “1839 Denver Mint. Fine and scarce.”
Cogan must have been thinking of the private mint run by Clark, Gruber & Co. in the early 1860s when he wrote this startling reference to the Denver Mint, which would only be established 31 years later, in 1906. Outside of American Indians and a few itinerant trappers, there was no one living in the region that would later become the city of Denver when this coin was struck in 1839.
Cogan was not the only 19th century numismatist to misunderstand mintmarks and downplay their importance in an era when date collecting dominated the hobby. On Feb. 24, 1883, Massachusetts coin dealer W. Elliot Woodward sent a long letter to T. Harrison Garrett, who assembled possibly the finest 19th century collection of U.S. coins. Woodward offered Garrett a long list of coins he had for sale, including an 1841 quarter eagle, which he priced at $3.50. The 1841 Liberty quarter eagle is a legendary rarity, with an auction record of $253,000 at a Heritage Auctions sale in 2004. Garrett passed on the coin. As researcher Carl Carlson noted about this exchange: “ … Unless this was a branch mint issue which Woodward mislisted, it must have been one of the very rarest pieces which ever escaped the notice of two such advanced numismatists as Garrett and Woodward.” Of course, the coin probably was a branch mint issue, explaining their lack of interest.
Things changed after Heaton introduced collectors to the intricacies of collecting by date-mintmark variety in 1893. The process was gradual, but some leading collectors, like Virgil Brand and John M. Clapp, eagerly embraced the new collecting discipline and the rest of the numismatic community eventually followed suit. Heaton’s Treatise on the Coinage of the United States Branch Mints transformed the hobby of numismatics in ways that are still playing out today, when the importance of branch mint issues is universally recognized.
DAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.