The Redfield Hoard and the story of LaVere Redfield

Some of the finest quality surviving Morgan Dollars are scarce and rare date San Francisco Mint coins.

You might take a moment to thank LaVere Redfield, the most famous potato farmer in Numismatic history, for their existence!

Redfield may have passed himself off as a potato farmer, but in fact he was much more than that. He was born in Utah in 1897. While clerking in a department store in Idaho, he met and married his wife, Nell, and the couple moved to Los Angeles where he made a fortune as a securities broker, somehow surviving the crash of 1929. By the late 1930s he was a millionaire, much of his money in real estate, including his farm and 51,000 acres near Reno, NV.

Over the years, as his investments grew, he saved over 400 sealed-bags of Silver dollars, purchased from banks that had received them directly from the mint. The grand total in 1974 came to 407,000 silver dollars, mostly Morgans, and mostly (351,259 to be exact) in mint condition. It is famous as the largest hoard of silver coins ever found in one place.

Redfield was able to supply most of his needs from Reno banks, which gobbled up huge numbers of Silver dollars for the local casinos. In addition, he travelled all over the country buying more bags. Some came from as far away as Pennsylvania! And all were carried back to his coal bin in the bed of his old pick-up truck.  He saved most of his money, but he was no miser. He just preferred hard money. He drove that old pick-up and wore tattered overalls, but he and his wife led a good life, and contributed generously to charities.

Their big-old house had once been equipped with a coal fired furnace, and a coal chute. It was down that chute that most of those dollar bags went. And there they stayed, until he was robbed of about 100,000 in 1963. After that, he built a cement wall sealing off the rest. The survivors remained there, until they were found after his death in 1974.  Many had acquired beautiful toning over the years from the coal sulphur residue in the basement, and possibly fumes from Nell’s peach canning!  Rumor has it that Redfield had left a note describing the hiding place, with instructions “not to tell the IRS.”

What became of the hoard? It went for a mere $ 7.3 million. There were a lot of silver dollars on the market in those days. It is hard to imagine buying 11 tons of silver at one time; not many people had that kind of loose cash laying around. Still, the price paid was probably about a third of the real wholesale value of those beautiful coins.

It’s fun to speculate whether the Morgan Dollars in your collection could have once been part of the Redfield Hoard.

David Rittenhouse First Mint Director, 1792 – 1795

For modern numismatists, it is hard to believe that the first Director of the Mint is more famous for his accomplishments as a surveyor, astronomer and mathematician than supervising the striking of the first coins of the United States.  George Washington appointed David Rittenhouse Mint Director on April 14, 1792. Rittenhouse was a renowned scientist of his day.

Self- taught, Rittenhouse was born in 1732, the son of a farmer, near Germantown, PA.  He constructed a wooden clock, the first of many he would produce, at the tender age of 17, working with wood and some inherited tools.  He soon made his living making and selling scientific instruments. He is famous for constructing models of the solar system, specifically tracking the Path of Venus.  Rittenhouse was known for being a surveyor that helped settle border disputes between New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and establish the Mason-Dixon Line.   A real renaissance man, he was a contempory of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.  He succeeded Franklin as its president from 1791 until his death 1796.
His first recorded act as Director of the Mint was to purchase land on Seventh Street in Philadelphia, between Mulberry and Market.  On July 31, 1792, the foundation for the U.S. Mint was laid.  At this time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital.

Several patterns were produced in 1792, including the first “government issue” - the famous “half dimes” of 1792. About 1500 were produced in July, even before the Mint foundation was laid. Some of the silver used came from about $100.00 worth supplied by George and Martha Washington “in the form of bullion or table ware.” In September “six pounds of old copper was purchased,” probably used for pattern coins.  Rittenhouse believed that coin design should be small works of art.
These patterns included a very novel attempt by Henry Voigt, first Superintendent and Chief Coiner, to produce a small cent conforming to Alexander Hamilton’s idea that a small amount of silver would afford the cent fully one cent in metal value. It entailed the insertion of a small silver plug in the center, worth about three-quarters of a cent. Valued highly by collectors,  few of these have survived.   Occasionally, one becomes available for less than half a million dollars.

Another fascinating, and even rarer pattern is the 1792 “Birch Cent”  with the lettered edge: “TO BE ESTEEMED, BE USEFUL” and the obverse legend: “INDUSTRY * LIBERTY * PARENT OF INDUSTRY.” These inscriptions may lack the poetic quality of a Ben Franklin, but they ring true for Rittenhouse, although their attribution is uncertain. Both of these pattern coppers have the “wind-blown” Liberty head obverse of early 1793 style, but an attractive wreath design on the reverse, like the later 1793 copper.  The first regular issue cent of course has a chain on the reverse. This was surely something Rittenhouse would have approved of, not as a symbol of captivity, but rather of industry.

The new Mint got off to a slow start.  Only Copper Cents and Half Cents were produced in 1793, along with a very few Silver Dollars and Fractional Silver in 1794.  Government investigations, yellow fever scares, and manipulation by speculators all caused problems for Rittenhouse. Expenses increased as old (worn) Spanish dollars were turned in for fresh new mint products, many of which were promptly shipped overseas. Hamilton’s 15:1 ratio of 1791 had become obsolete by 1795, when the true ratio was about 15 3/4:1.

The local water in Philadelphia was not potable. In fact, a ration of gin was provided to mint workers. This may have had a positive effect on moral, but it was somewhat overshadowed by the threat of dying of yellow fever.  All of this would eventually be sorted out by the young United States, but Rittenhouse did not live to see it.  He died on June 26, 1796.  He is remembered for his many contributions to science, and industry, and not least, to our coinage history.

The 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent: An American Numismatic Icon

This was the coin that every kid needed to fill the last empty hole in his blue Whitman folder. It was a coin that was nearly impossible to find, and it had a history! Those initials on the back advertised the Lincoln Cent’s designer, “Victor D. Brenner”. But very soon after production began, the initials were dropped. In those days some people thought it downright un-American to put a private person’s initials on a coin. (Of course Longacre had his famous “L” on the Indian head from 1864, but it was not as obvious as the “V.D.B.”, and interestingly, not as famous.) The VDB was restored in 1918, more subtly displayed below Lincoln’s bust, where it remains today.

Unlike most coin designers, Brenner was an accomplished numismatist. He was member #434 of the American Numismatic Association. Very few know it today, but in a letter to Farran Zerbe, then president of the American Numismatic Association, he confesses that his original design for the new cent had “BRENNER” in place of the initials. He had rejected this in favor of the initials. Later in the letter he adds: “Much fume has been made about my initials as a means of advertisement; such is not the case. The very talk of the initials has done more good for numismatics than it could do me personally.”
It soon became clear that if you wanted to complete your Lincoln cent collection, there was only one way – and it meant a trip to the coin dealer. This of course was soon followed by a confrontation with your mother, and a loud “YOU SPENT HOW MUCH FOR A PENNY?”

This is how coins become famous, and famous coins become valuable, and eventually many of our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters started coin collections of their own. And that “S VDB Cent” became ever more famous.
By the 1950s, Lincoln cents were the king of coin collecting, and the set remains extremely popular today. It is one of the most challenging to collect in the higher grades, and a set of choice uncirculated Lincolns will always grab the attention of even the most advanced collectors.

  • More Fun Facts about the Lincoln Cent
    • The Lincoln cent was issued to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday.
    • It was the first cent to display the “IN GOD WE TRUST” motto.
    • It was the first regular-issue U.S. coin to portray a president.
    • President Theodore Roosevelt selected Brenner as the designer largely because of a bronze plaque with Lincoln’s bust he had designed in 1907.
    • San Francisco delayed striking the new cent until just before the initials were ordered to be removed. Thus the 1909 S VDB with a mintage of only 484,000 became the lowest mintage Lincoln cent.
    • Since it was a “first year issue” coin, they were very popular and widely saved as the new design sparked interest with the public.
    • The September issue of Coast to Coast Coins publication, “Rare Coin Monthly”, features a spectacular group of coins which, until recently, hadn’t seen the light of day since they were stashed back in 1909 by an early admirer of Mr. Brenner’s work!