Article by Alexander Noran
One of the stranger US mint items to sometimes be encountered at auction are 19th century Carson City mint coins struck with defaced, or cancelled dies. Pieces appear on and off metal, uniface, muled and complete. Though interesting items in and of themselves, their origins and purpose remain shrouded in mystery.
Cancelled Carson City dies have long been known to be ‘floating around,’ with a few prominent appearances at auction breaking well into the five-figure range over the past three decades or so. These pieces are legal to own, as the design has been defaced, thus removing the possibility of them being used to produce deceptive counterfeit coinage, and were likely dispersed fairly early on following the closing of the CC mint during a period when the US mint system was known for being less than above board in it’s operating standards.
The Carson City Mint stopped producing specie in 1893, and was finally shuttered entirely in 1933. The historic building would not remain unoccupied for long though, as in 1941, it was selected as the site for a new Nevada State Museum. In 1955, the famed coin press No. 1 which had produced many CC coins was saved from the scrap heap for $225 and returned to the museum. It would be pressed into service again in 1964 during a coin shortage, when it operated in Denver before returning ‘home’ permanently.
In 1999, the museum was undergoing renovation, with the grounds in particular receiving a major facelift. Archaeological finds were small at first – mainly rubbish and some abandoned tools, but not long into the landscaping, a trove of what were first described as “heavily rusted bearings” were uncovered. The chief contractor, named Dennis Cassinelli (who is also an amateur archaeologist) brought six of the cylinders home, and had a go at cleaning them up. He quickly realized that they were discarded, cancelled dies from the old mint.
After “weighing the consequences” of keeping them, Dennis decided to bring the items to the attention of the museum director, who was most interested indeed. At that point, three heavily damaged dies were committed to the museum for professional cleaning and conservation, while Dennis was allowed to hold on to the other three. Professional archaeologists were deployed to the pit which had yielded the six initial finds, and the team began to extract more. Over the course of a number of weeks, over 500 individual cancelled dies were recovered. It would appear that mint workers, during their annual cleanup, simply defaced the dies and then dumped them in shallow trenches which ran along the side of a shed adjacent to the blacksmith.
Though the condition of these pieces was generally quite poor, ranging from almost unidentifiable masses of rust to ‘heavily corroded,’ there was one pocket of around a dozen dies which had been protected from moisture, and were thus very much serviceable. Using the interest surrounding the discovery of the dies, the museum quickly revamped it’s coin exhibit so as to bring more traffic through. Seeking to capitalize on the success of the new exhibit, the institution hired coiner Don Schmitz to strike a number of pieces to be either sold or auctioned for the benefit of the museum. At a highly successful fundraising event, the 1884-CC Morgan dollar (obverse and reverse), the CC Seated Liberty dime (reverse) and the 188x-CC $5 gold piece were all struck on silver ingots were raffled to much fanfare.
The following year, the raffle’s grand prize was a 10oz Faberge silver bar displaying cancelled 1876-CC Seated Liberty Silver half dollar obverse & Reverse dies side by side. At this time, a number of 1877-CC Trade dollars as well as 25c and 50c pieces were struck on a variety of planchets for sale to collectors. Furthermore, 170 two ounce silver planchet pieces bearing a Morgan dollar 1884 cancelled obverse and a 1878-CC reverse, as well as a similar number of 1876-CC Seated Liberty half dollars (obverse and reverse) were produced – perhaps by favour as their dispersal is not as well documented.
Finally, there are a number of strikes whose status is very unclear – namely a 1oz silver Morgan struck with an 1884 obverse and 1878-CC reverse, a 1oz silver cancelled 1884 Morgan obverse with a ‘Faberge’ reverse, as well as a two sided cancelled die strike on an octagonal bronze planchet with the 1884 Morgan obverse and the 1878-CC reverse. Only one or two examples of each of these were reported, and their whereabouts are unclear. All of these unofficial strikes seem to have come to an abrupt end when some of the dies began to show signs of damage, and one apparently cracked.
Though today, the only pieces being struck by the famed press No. 1 are souvenir medals, collectors are still left with an interesting legacy from those few years when the Carson City Mint once again saw some limited, albeit unofficial operation. Though this account is definitely not exhaustive, it is hoped that it sheds some light on some very peculiar pieces of exonumia.
Cassinelli, Denis. “Carson City Mint Coin Dies Uncovered” in The Comstock Chronicle. Virginia City, NV. February 2014.
Doty, Richard. America’s Money, America’s Story. Sydney, OH: Amos Press, Inc., 1998.
Holabird-Kagin Americana. “Lot #2331.” The Golden West Auctions. Holabird-Kagin Americana, March 16, 2011.
Jordan, Winthrop D., Miriam Greenblatt, et al. The Americans. Evanstan, IL: McDougall, Littell & Company, 1988.
Von Klinger, Eric. “Discovered Dies by the Hundreds,” in Coin World, November 10, 2003, p. 96.
Winter, Douglas, and James Halperin. Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint. Lewes, UK: Ivy Press Books, 2001.
Wolman, Paul. The U.S. Mint. New York, NY, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Alexander Noran is chief numismatist at PCGM and foreign markets consultant for IAP Capital Group.