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HomeUS Coins1870-S $3 Gold Coin : A Collector's Guide

1870-S $3 Gold Coin : A Collector’s Guide

Image: American Numismatic Association.

A great numismatic rarity was interred in the northeast cornerstone of the second San Francisco Mint on May 25, 1870, during a Masonic ceremony covered by the press. Struck especially for the event using modified dies, the 1870-S $3 gold coin joined a number of other extraordinary numismatic rarities in a copper casket in the new facility’s cornerstone, ostensibly out of collectors’ reach. The facility was completed in 1874 and would go on to serve the western region of the nation’s coinage needs until 1937.

In 1907, almost four decades after the cornerstone was laid, a second 1870-S $3 gold coin was offered in an ad published in The Numismatist by dealer H.T. VanCamp that declared:

“HERE IS A COIN ALL ALONE BY ITSELF. Never in circulation – Never before in the market. With the Coin is an interesting little history by the Coiner who made it.”

The Mint’s cornerstone remained intact, raising questions about the purported uniqueness of the 1870-S.

It was a mystery that took more than a century to unravel.

In March 2004, numismatic researchers Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly uncovered a Mint document confirming details of the creation of an 1870-S $3 gold coin and its placement in the second San Francisco Mint building’s cornerstone.

Two sets of Indian Princess three-dollar gold dies dated 1870 were shipped to San Francisco in December of 1869. The “S” mint mark was not punched into the dies before they left Philadelphia for San Francisco. Joseph Breck Harmstead, a coiner at the San Francisco Mint, hand-carved the mint mark into one of the dies and struck a coin for inclusion in the casket. Harmstead had previously worked at the Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Carson City Mints, and was promoted to coiner in 1869 at the first San Francisco Mint.

Mr. Harmstead struck a second example of the 1870-S $3 gold coin as a gift for his niece Georgine and included a letter explaining the coin’s origin, according to Kelly and Oliver’s research. The letter read “This Three Dollar piece is a duplicate of one under the cornerstone of the San Francisco Mint and the only one in existence (Dannreuther, 453).” Researchers wonder if that letter was the “interesting little history” VanCamp mentioned in his ad.

Harmstead’s letter to his niece remains elusive, evading a number of researchers. Kelly thinks that the letter was hidden or destroyed by someone to “maintain the coin’s supposed uniqueness.” Harmstead’s niece Georgine was living in New York as a widow by 1900, and Kelly and Oliver think that she sold the coin to VanCamp around 1907 before passing away in 1910. The author of this article is not aware whether the letter turned up. If it has, we would welcome your correspondence.

The numerals “893” were scratched into the coin’s surface at some point in its history. Kelly, Oliver, and Dannreuther think they refer to the coin’s fineness, while Doug Winter, an expert on early U.S. gold coinage, disagrees. In a phone interview conducted on January 14 of this year, Winter said that he has “never heard a good explanation as to what those numerals stand for.”

The “primary” example of the coin remains sealed in the cornerstone of the second San Francisco Mint along with a number of other rarities.

United States 1870-S $3 Gold CoinThe 1870-S $3 gold coin passed through the hands of a number of prominent numismatists after it surfaced. William H. Woodin bought the coin from Van Camp in 1907. In 1911, it was sold from Woodin’s collection. Waldo Newcomer purchased the coin and placed it in his legendary collection. Colonel E.H.R. Green owned the coin from 1931 to 1936. Two prominent coin dealers, B. Max Mehl and Abe Kosoff, both handled the coin. In December 1945, dealers Ted and Carl Brandts published a full-page ad in the Numismatist offering the coin, calling it “the only coin listed as Unique in the Standard Catalogue of United States Coins“.  Louis Eliasberg, a famous New York numismatist, bought the coin in 1946 and it remained in his collection for nearly four decades. Harry W. Bass Jr. bought the coin in 1982 for $687,500 from Bowers and Ruddy’s Eliasberg Sale. The latter portions of its long, star-studded provenance earned it the nickname “Eliasberg-Bass Specimen”. Since 2000, the Eliasberg-Bass Specimen has been on display at the American Numismatic Association’s Edward C. Rochette Money Museum in the Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection, part of the only complete collection of U.S. $3 gold coins.

Image: American Numismatic Association.

As for condition, the coin exhibits detail consistent with a grade of Extremely Fine. Many observers point to its “pebbled” appearance as evidence of it being used in jewelry. The Harry Bass Jr. Foundation’s website describes the obverse and reverse:

Obverse: Die scratch from denticle above O(F) to (O)F. Reused for Proofs of 1874 and 1875. Very lightly hubbed; tops only of J.B.L. visible, portion of front of headdress missing (distinctive). No ‘Ghosting’. Reverse: Open 3. Date very low, barely above ribbon loop; level relative to DOLLARS. All characters firmly punched and distinct. Left interior leaf opposite date is a thin, broken remnant with minuscule base at junction with wreath leaf below. Right interior leaf is thin. Lower one-third of left bow loop and center space filled. Right loop clear with but a stub of vertical ribbon element within, and none projecting into field from top of right loop.

The Bass description makes no mention of the graffiti that mars the top of the reverse or the tiny “3” that appears on the leaf that runs parallel and to the left of the bottom of the three.

A Third Example Surfaces?

In 2012, gold collectors sat up and took notice as Georgia-based Four Season Auction Gallery claimed that another 1870-S gold $3 coin had been discovered in San Francisco and would be auctioned. Four Seasons claimed that the coin was found embedded in a souvenir book by a European tourist in 1997, and the coin drew widespread media attention; Fox News reported the auction firm’s claim that the coin could fetch $3 or $4 million.

A number of experts doubted the coin’s authenticity and before the auction, it was not authenticated by any reputable grading service, and ultimately, the coin was withdrawn. Dave Harper wrote critically in Numismatic News:

“If I had $2 million or $4 million, I certainly would not be bidding on what is claimed to be a possible second example of an 1870-S $3 gold piece.”

While the Four Season coin’s authenticity has never been established, the firm’s estimate of its potential value (had it been authentic) was not far off. Doug Winter shared an estimate of the 1870-S $3 gold coin’s value on the CoinWeek Podcast as being $5 million. In talking about the Bass coin, how on exhibit at the ANA’s Money Museum, he elaborated that such a coin would likely only interest experienced collectors because of its impaired appearance and niche appeal.

“It’s not an especially attractive coin,” Winter said. “I think it would be very difficult to get somebody that knows nothing about coins excited about a no-grade 1870-S $3.”

Nevertheless, the 1870-S $3 gold piece was ranked #17 among in the fifth edition of Jeff Garrett’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. It is an exceptionally rare coin about which many stories have been told. Far from a perfect coin, its murky history, and impressive provenance place it among the most notable American numismatic rarities and an enigma in the U.S. series.

And you can’t assemble a complete collection of U.S. coins without it.

Coin Specifications

Country:  USA
Year Of Issue:  1870
Denomination:  Three Dollars
Mint Mark:  S (San Francisco)
Mintage:  2
Alloy:  .900 gold, .100 copper
Weight:  5.015 g
Diameter:  20.5 mm
Edge:  Reeded
OBV Designer  James B. Longacre
REV Designer  James B. Longacre
Quality:  Business Strike


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Dannreuther, John. United States Proof Coins: Volume IV: Gold, Part One. (2018)



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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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