This amazing Gem Proof 1851 Three-Cent Silver pieces represents the first year of issue of this denomination and a coin which was struck in extremely limited numbers. No more than a few were coined in this format. Auction appearances are few as well--records show four over the past 140 years. The surfaces are bright silver with a few tiny traces of pale yellow patina and boast considerable frost on the devices and lettering. A no nonsense Proof, which at a glance carries its own credentials as to its prized Proof status from this coveted first year of issue. The fields are highly reflective with bold mirroring and boast ample frost on the devices. For future identification there is a minute flake missing from the planchet on the left side of the F in OF and the reverse die was rotated about 25 degrees counter clockwise when struck. A partial wire rim is present on the obverse and reverse. Further diagnostics include a flurry of multiple direction die file marks below the date at the edge of the coin, more die file marks on the reverse on the left I of the denomination, near the center on the right side, one connecting the top of the middle and right II, and a couple of others on the right side, all told are little more than small die filing burrs that appear in the fields at the edge of these denomination devices.
Of comparable rarity to the famed 1850 Double Eagle in Proof, which supposedly has just two known, also struck to launch that important new denomination. While the Three-Cent Silver piece of 1851 is at the other end of the size scale, its economic importance should not be overlooked. Historically our country was going through vast upheaval in 1851. Large sidewheel and sailing boats were hauling newly discovered gold from the fields and streams of California to the East. The value of gold fell in relation to silver, and as our monetary system was based primarily on the value of gold at a fixed ration to silver, the relative value and price of silver rose--so much so that silver became worth a few percentage points above the stated face value of our silver coins in circulation. This caused large numbers of our silver coins to be melted for the profit. Breen states that many were shipped to the Caribbean for this purpose, which may account for the dismal survival rates of American silver coins from the early 1850s and prior. It is also probable that vast numbers of these heavier silver coins were melted at our own mints in following years once the standard was adjusted to our silver coin weights in early 1853. Whoever melted the coins is not as important as the mere fact that less than a fraction of one percent of these early 1850s and prior silver coins survive today.
One of the first attempts to rectify this imbalance between the legislated gold to silver ratio was the introduction of the Three-Cent Silver coin in 1851, borne through the Mint Act of March 3, 1851. Struck in silver (75 percent) and copper (25 percent), these coins had a melt value far enough below face value that they could not be melted profitably. Furthermore, as there was no circulating coinage in the early 1850s between the cent denomination and the gold dollar--making change for small transactions was a nightmare. Postage rates were reduced from five cents to three cents in that year as well, a further tip of the hat to this otherwise curious denomination. This eased the pressure somewhat on small transactions, but much more needed to be done to return silver coinage of the half dime, dime, quarter and half dollar to circulation. That would have to wait until 1853 for a favorable resolution.
Condition Census of the Known Proof 1851 Three-Cent Silver Pieces
1). PR-66 (PCGS) The present example; Earlier our (Bowers and Merena and Stack's ) Louis E. Eliasberg, Jr., Collection, Part I, prior provenance unknown
2). "Choice Proof" John Work Garrett Collection Auction, Part III, our (Bowers and Ruddy) October 1980, lot 1549 at $32,500; earlier E. Maris Auction, 1886, lot 136
3). "Proof-Stained" C. E. Gilhousen Auction, Superior, October, 1973, lot 108 at $4,200.
4). "Lacquered--Proof status unknown" Smithsonian Institution.
PCGS Population: 1; none finer and no others graded at either grading service.
From our (Bowers and Merena and Stack's) Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., Collection Sale, May 1996, lot 859, earlier possibly Clapp Estate, not verified.