As I have mentioned before, certified population figures can be helpful but they can also be confusing. Take, for instance, the 1875 gold dollar in Proof. This is a coin with a reported original mintage of 20. But it has a combined PCGS/NGC population of 24 (twelve at each service). Something is obviously not right here. But, for once, the fault does not lie with the population reports. Despite being created with the best of intentions, the PCGS and NGC population figures are full of inaccurate information which can be misleading to collectors. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the grading services. It is the fault of dealers (and collectors) who resubmit coins and do not send in their extra inserts. I’ve rambled on (and on) about this in the past and do not plan to offer my two cents this time on how I think that dealers who do this are doing themselves and the coin market a major disservice.
In the case of the Proof 1875 gold dollar the disconnect between the number struck and the number graded has to do with information from the Mint which is not necessarily accurate.
We know for a fact that 20 Proof gold dollars were struck on February 13 as parts of complete gold proof sets. For a number of reasons (some of which will be discussed below), the demand for Proof 1875 gold dollars was higher than expected and it is likely that another 20 or perhaps even a few more were made later in the year and sold to collectors. These appear to have been struck from the exact same dies and cannot be distinguished.
Looking at auction records for Proof 1875 gold dollars over the last few decades, it looks like the actual number known to exist might be as high as 20-25 pieces. Given the fact that survival rates for small denomination Proof gold coins of this era is typically around 50%, this is in line with an original mintage figure of around 40-50 coins.
Striking additional Proof gold coins to satisfy demand is not without precedent. It was clearly done in 1875 and 1876 for the Three Dollar gold piece.
There were a number of times that the Mint engaged in “questionable” practices in order to produce coins as special favors for VIPS or to use as trade bait to acquire coins for their collection. And there were also times that clandestine strikings of certain coins occurred in order for certain Mint employees to make extra money on the side. But in the case of the Proof 1875 gold dollars I don’t think that anything sleazy occurred.
By the mid-1870’s, collecting proof gold coins by date was fairly popular with collectors. This was not necessarily the case with the higher denominations as ten dollars or twenty dollars was an excessive amount of money for all but the wealthiest individual collectors. But the gold dollar, quarter eagle and three dollar denominations were within the range of many contemporary collectors.
My guess is that once the Mint reported that the total number of gold dollars struck in 1875 was so low (only 400 business strikes were made), a certain number of collectors were intrigued enough to buy an example. There were probably also dealers who were willing to speculate on a low mintage issue like an 1875 gold dollar, especially given the fact that a Proof could be obtained from the Mint for a relatively small premium above face value. Since few collectors differentiated between Proofs and business strikes in 1875 and the business strikes may have already been unavailable from the Mint, it seems likely that there was enough demand for the Mint to decide to have a second run of Proofs.
So why then was done in 1875 but not, say, 1876 or 1877 when Proof mintages were also tiny? My guess is that there were enough business strikes made this year to fulfill the demand. Or, maybe the speculators who bought Proof 1875 dollars didn’t make the “killing” they thought they would.
The story of the Proof 1875 gold dollar is an interesting one and one that is likely not yet fully known. It is these little mysteries that make numismatics such an interesting hobby and keep me compelled to learn more about a subject that I have found compelling for the better part of my life.