Thursday, June 18, 2009

Coin Thursday: Heads? Tails? Meh… details

June 18, 2009
Posted by John Dale

(If you did not automatically read the title to today's post in the voice of my dear Yiddish grandmother - rest her soul - then please go back and do so. Once you have finished that, please read on through John Dale's late-week ramblings on double-headed, or double-tailed, coins. Interesting stuff, and funny; who among us never glued two quarters together as a kid and tried to get the neighbors to bid on the outcome of the coin flip? Raise your hands... - Noah Fleisher)

The idea of a two-headed, or two-tailed, coin is an ancient one that has lasted to the present day. Actual two-headed or two-tailed coins, however, are mighty hard to come by, since issuers of modern coins show a strong preference for coins with distinctly different sides. In the absence of actual same-sided pieces, many individuals – particularly illusionists – create their own outside the Mint, generally by combining halves from two different coins.

The Heritage Common Questions page has a section dedicated to the topic. Unfortunately for those of you with dreams of great riches out there, one of these non-Mint-made mutants is worth next to nothing, unless one happens to run into a frantic magician in search of precisely that prop.

For all the falsely concocted coins out there, though, there are a handful of genuinely two-headed or two-tailed coins. In August 2006, Heritage sold an error coin that left even the most experienced catalogers gawking: a Washington quarter struck from two reverse dies. Exactly how it was produced will likely remain a mystery, though the government has affirmed its authenticity as a Mint-made coin.

A commemorative gold issue, more readily available and produced under considerably less dubious circumstances, is also popularly known as a “two-headed” coin. The Lewis and Clark gold dollars, struck in 1904 and 1905 to coincide with an exposition in Portland, Oregon, honor the two famous explorers of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond with one of their portraits on each side. Captain Meriweather Lewis, official leader of the Corps of Discovery, appears on the side with LEWIS AND CLARK EXPOSITION PORTLAND ORE./1904 around; this is traditionally considered the obverse. William Clark, officially a subordinate of Lewis, but a co-leader of the Corps of Discovery in practice, is depicted on the side with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/ONE DOLLAR around, usually referred to as the reverse. A convenient (if anachronistic and irreverent) way of remembering which portrait depicts which explorer: Clark has the mullet.

Using a Lewis and Clark gold dollar to win at coin flips is not recommended. The coins were not strong sellers when they were released, and only about 10,000 examples of each date were sold and avoided being melted down. Even in the worst imaginable condition any example is worth several hundred dollars, and between the two years the 1905 gold dollar is rarer, particularly in high grades. The illustrative example above, a PCGS-graded MS66 coin in our July Summer FUN Auction, is expected to bring a five-figure sum.

What will it go for? Like the Lewis and Clark expedition, the bidding progression on this coin will be a journey to an unknown destination. Who wants to do some exploring?

Click on the title of this post to leave a comment.

-John Dale

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