Controversial or Collectible: This Coin’s Got A Story To Tell

Chopmarked coins



1877 trade dollar, San Francisco mint


Chopmarked coins can spark intense debate among serious collectors. Some consider them damaged coins, while others appreciate their record of history and trade. What’s the story with chop marks?






Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, 1851

Since the late 18th century, American businessmen were interested in trading with China. As the nation expanded, this interest increased. During the Gold Rush and the growth of business in San Francisco, many tradesmen sought the goods of the Far East: silk, tea, spices, and other hard-to-get items. But what currency could the merchants use that China would accept? Mexican silver pesos (the original “pieces of eight”) were already in circulation in Asia, and considered very reliable for trade. The United States government decided to follow suit in 1859, when it began began minting silver dollar coins (1859-S Seated Liberty). These coins were in high demand by San Francisco businessmen for use in overseas trade, since they could be used directly, instead of being exchanged for Mexican silver.


When these coins reached their destination, a merchant would examine each one to be sure it was full value; when he was satisfied that it was correct, he stamped his character into the coin. Any coin could have marks and characters added as it changed hands, sometimes completely obscuring the original design on the coin.


morgan dollar

1880 Morgan dollar

The trade dollar was minted in silver (.900 fineness) between 1873 to 1885 in Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco. At 420 grains, trade dollars weight approximately 8 grains more than Morgan and Seated Liberty silver dollars of the same time period. The mint’s chief engraver, William Barber, designed the coin; the eagle on the reverse of the coin is very similar to the eagle on the contemporaneous peso. Being closest to the silver source and the trade destination of the dollars, San Francisco minted more of the trade dollars than the other mints combined. The trade dollar was demonetized in 1933.


To escape having to redeem each trade dollar years after the last issue, the United States excluded “mutilated” coins; this has led some collectors to consider the coins as damaged and worth less than intact trade dollars. However, many collectors appreciate the history of these coins, and even attempt to decipher the characters on a given coin to trace its journey from merchant to merchant.


Whether considered highly collectible or not, chopmarked coins tell a fascinating story!


Currently in stock: 1877 S Silver $1 Trade dollar, with chopmark!

2 thoughts on “Controversial or Collectible: This Coin’s Got A Story To Tell

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