HomeCollecting StrategiesClassic US Coins: 1870-S Coins for Budget-Minded Collectors

Classic US Coins: 1870-S Coins for Budget-Minded Collectors


Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #354

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
In the realm of classic U.S. coins, the most exciting and mystifying date may be the 1870-S. For collectors who cannot afford one of the rarest silver dollars, the only 1870-S half dime or the Eliasberg-Bass Three Dollar Gold piece, there are other 1870-S coins, especially quarter eagles, which are affordable. Though rare overall, there are many 1870-S quarter eagles with market values in the range of $250 to $900. Additionally, more than a few 1870-S half dollars cost less than $250, some even less than $100!

Is there a date that is more famous than the 1870-S? Two of the rarest of all U.S. coins were struck at the San Francisco Mint in 1870; both the 1870-S half dime and the 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece are unique. The 1870-S is the rarest silver dollar, notably rarer than 1804 dollars. Though not “Great Rarities”, 1870-S half eagles ($5 gold coins) and eagles ($10 coins) are rare, too. The 1870-S quarter eagle is not as rare, though is clearly rare, and seems to be a forgotten little sister.

While an Extremely Fine-45 grade 1870-S quarter eagle may be purchased for less than $500, an 1870-S half eagle of similar quality would probably cost at least seven times as much. Indeed, last month, a PCGS-graded EF-45 1870-S half eagle realized $5,170 USD at the Long Beach Expo.

Half dollars of this date are also rare. In May 2016, a PCGS-graded VG-10 1870-S half dollar sold for $46.02. Is this a vast sum for a rarity with a famous date?

Rarity of 1870-S Coins

My estimates for the number of known 1870-S coins are now presented (further information is provided herein). In cases where more than 100 are known, single numbers are midpoints of estimated ranges:

  • half dime: 1
  • dime: 165
  • quarter: 0
  • half dollar: 290
  • silver dollar: 9
  • One Dollar Gold piece: 155
  • quarter eagle: 210
  • Three Dollar Gold piece: 1
  • half eagle: 147
  • eagle: 120
  • double eagle: 2,750

Researchers Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly maintain that at least one 1870-S quarter dollar was struck, a position that they repeated in response to my recent inquiry.

“We have solid documentation of exactly what coins were placed into the cornerstone of the second SF Mint,” including an 1870-S quarter, they say.

My estimates refer to coins that are known now, not to those that existed in the past and are untraced in the present. Undiscovered coins buried in dirt or believed to have been embedded in “cornerstones”* are not currently known.

The sole 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece is in the “Harry Bass Core Collection”. It is or was recently on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs.

Although 1870-S quarter eagles are less rare than dimes, half eagles or eagles, Extremely Fine to AU grade quarter eagles are better suited for budget-minded collectors than corresponding 1870-S coins of other denominations. Half dollars are good values, too.

The focus here is on coins that have received numerical grades from PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) or NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation). Even given imperfections in grading processes, buying PCGS- or NGC-graded 1870-S coins involves much less risk than buying 1870-S coins that have not been certified by PCGS or NGC. Only a small percentage of surviving 1870-S coins have been approved at CAC, so many interested collectors may have to consider 1870-S coins without CAC stickers.

NGC reports 142 1870-S quarter eagles as having received numerical grades. The 36 at the AU-58 level, and the 20 at the AU-55 level include multiple counts of some of the same coins. NGC also reports that 17 have been put into “details” holders without numerical grades; these were denied numerical grades because of serious problems, usually.

The PCGS CoinFacts site puts forth an estimate that “130” survive, which must be too low. PCGS has graded 113 1870-S quarter eagles. Also, the PCGS population report generally does not list data for coins in PCGS Genuine holders without numerical grades.

Invariably, there are 1870-S quarter eagles that are not included in PCGS or NGC data, including a few gradable, privately owned circulated pieces and a very small number in museums. Some 1870-S coins are so obviously non-gradable that they were never submitted to PCGS or NGC. Among these are coins that were in dealer inventories in the era before “genuine” or “details” holders, during which rejected genuine coins were returned in “body bags” by PCGS and NGC.

1870s250I figure that 165 to 185 different 1870-S quarter eagles have been PCGS- or NGC-graded, or graded by both services, and 20 to 40 non-gradable pieces have been placed in “genuine” or “details” holders at PCGS or NGC. An estimate is that around 210 survive in total, perhaps as many as 235.

Curiously, the unique 1870-S half dime was not discovered until 1978. The unique 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece was discovered before 1910.

The 1870-S dime is another rarity that is not properly recognized. It is rarer than the 1870-S quarter eagle. PCGS has graded 83 and NGC, 36, for a total of 119, which perhaps amounts to 80 different coins, maybe a few more. There must be a significant number of lower grade 1870-S dimes that have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC. Many people who collect 19th-century coins in Fair-02 to VG-08 grades prefer coins that are not encapsulated. There are some non-gradable 1870-S dimes, too. Tentatively, an estimate of 145 to 185 survivors is put forth here. The estimate of 400 on PCGS CoinFacts is much too high.

Curiously, around one million 1870-S half dollars were minted, if oft-repeated data are accurate. PCGS has graded just 134, and NGC only 50 – plus there are 37 in NGC “details” holders that failed to receive numerical grades. There are at least 100 heavily circulated 1870-S half dollars in existence that are not encapsulated. As I reflect upon the 1870-S halves that I have seen or read about over the years, including many raw coins, I conclude that at least 240 and fewer than 340 exist altogether. The 1870-S quarter eagle is rarer, as is the 1870-S dime.

When I analyzed the results of the James A. Stack Sale of March 1995 and the sale of the Farouk 1870-S in October 2007, nine 1870-S silver dollars were known. Just nine. The rarity of the 1870-S One Dollar Gold piece is particularly hard to estimate. A very large number of One Dollar Gold pieces have been rendered non-gradable through incorporation in jewelry.

PCGS has graded 69 1870-S One Dollar Gold pieces and NGC has graded 56. The combined total of 124 is probably indicative of approximately 90 different coins. There are another 50 around, more or less. An estimate of 130 to 165 seems right.

A pleasing, gradable 1870-S One Dollar Gold piece would probably retail for at least $1,000. An uncirculated coin, even if it is not pleasing, would have a retail value above $2,000. A certified MS-63 grade 1870-S gold collar would be worth in the range of $5,000 to $6,500. The quarter eagles are better values.

As for 1870-S half eagles ($5 coins), PCGS has graded 80 and NGC has certified 96. I have seen many of these. I suggest that there are approximately 110 1870-S half eagles that are truly gradable (or would be gradable if additives were removed), and 25 to 45 clearly non-gradable pieces around. So, roughly, the half eagle seems to be nearly as rare as the One Dollar Gold piece, 140 to 170, perhaps 155? Though not that much rarer, 1870-S half eagles are typically more than three times as expensive as 1870-S quarter eagles of equivalent quality.

In April 2013, a PCGS-graded EF-40 half eagle, with a CAC sticker, was auctioned for $3,172, four to seven times the price that an 1870-S quarter eagle with the same certification would have then realized. In August 2014, a PCGS-graded AU-58 half eagle, one of two “top pop” coins, brought $12,925.

In contrast, in January 2013, a PCGS-graded AU-58 quarter eagle, with a CAC sticker, realized $2,585. This is one fifth as much as the 1870-S half eagle with the same PCGS grade.

1870s10As for 1870-S eagles ($10 coins), Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 coin in January 2015 for $3,525, more than the just-mentioned half eagle. This eagle did not have a CAC sticker. This result is probably at least seven times as much as a PCGS-graded EF-40 1870-S quarter eagle would have realized if it had been in the same auction.

The 1870-S eagle is about extremely rare, or nearly so. A coin is “extremely rare” if fewer than 100 are known.

There are probably 70 to 90 that are gradable, almost gradable, or potentially gradable after being undoctored. There are also 20 to 49 that are non-gradable. Some “graded” gold coins feature putty or other additives that can be removed without much difficulty.

Circulated, mediocre 1870-S eagles tend to cost at least $2,500. In April 2016, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-53 1870-S eagle for $5,170. An uncirculated 1870-S eagle, perhaps even a horrific one, would be worth at least $25,000. In March 2014, one of two PCGS-graded AU-58 1870-S eagles went for $12,925.

Historian R. W. Julian, in response to my questions, provides two likely reasons for the relatively large mintage of double eagles: “The government used double eagles in making payments to European bond holders and for expenses incurred during the Civil War. Those in the import/export trade also needed double eagles.”

San Francisco was even more of a major port in 1870 than it is now.

Overall, the 1870-S double eagle is one of the least scarce pre-1881 double eagles. It is, of course, not as common as the 1904. For the whole series of Liberty Head double eagles, however, the 1870-S is just a slightly “better date”, far from being a rarity.

There are probably 2,750 1870-S double eagles around, a substantial portion of which are non-gradable. An EF-45 grade 1870-S double eagle would retail for more than $1,500. There are hundreds of 1870-S double eagles in EF-40 to -45 grades, and even more in AU grades.

Quarter Eagles For $250 to $1,000!

In grades up to EF-45, 1870-S quarter eagles sell for less than $500 each in the current market environment. In November 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-20 1870-S for $270.25. In a logical sense, for a very rare coin with a famous date, this is not a large sum relative to prices paid for many other classic U.S. coins.

In March 2010, Heritage auctioned a NGC-graded VF-30 1870-S quarter eagle for $264.50. In November 2013, Stack’s-Bowers sold an 1870-S that is in a PCGS Genuine holder due to a very harmful “cleaning” and is said to have “EF Details”; it went for $289.05. Usually, it doesn’t make sense to draw conclusions about such coins or prices realized without carefully inspecting the coins.

On July 14, 2013, a PCGS-graded VF-30 1870-S (with CAC sticker) was sold by GreatCollections for $360.80. In December 2013, in Houston, Heritage sold a NGC graded VF-35 1870-S for $352.50.

Just 12 1870-S quarter eagles have been approved at CAC. Coins that are already graded by PCGS or NGC may be submitted to CAC. If experts at CAC determine that the grade of a submitted coin is at least in the middle of the grade range that corresponds to the numerical grade that has already been assigned by PCGS or NGC, then the submitted coin is approved and a CAC sticker is affixed on the PCGS or NGC holder. Experts at CAC ignore the plus aspects of plus grades assigned at PCGS or NGC.

It is unlikely that most circulated Liberty head quarter eagles have been submitted to CAC. The people who collect circulated gold coins tend not to be as focused on grades and quality as many other collectors of classic U.S. coins.

In November 2014, in New York, the Eric Newman 1870-S quarter eagle brought $440.63. It was NGC-graded EF-40. For a very rare coin with an 1870-S date, from one of the most famous collections of all time, a price $440.63 does not seem tremendous, regardless of the physical characteristics of this coin. A few months earlier at the Long Beach Expo in June, another 1870-S quarter eagle with the same EF-40 grade from NGC brought $352.50.

In June 2010, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 1870-S quarter eagle for $443.90. In August 2016, this same auction firm sold a different PCGS-graded EF-40 1870-S for $399.50.

In August 2014, GreatCollections sold a NGC-graded EF-45 1870-S for $419.10. Several additional PCGS- or NGC-graded EF-45 1870-S quarter eagles have been auctioned for less than $500 each over the past six years.

At the AU-50 level, market levels for these tend to be significantly above $500. In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded AU-50 1870-S for $646.25. In March 2014, Heritage auctioned this exact same coin, with NGC serial #3007971-023, for the exact same price.

The PCGS price guide values for AU 1870-S quarter eagles are inaccurate. At the AU-50 level, fair retail prices would be from $700 to $825, not “$1,000”! For an AU-53, a middle-retail level would be $900 at most, not the PCGS estimate of $1,250!

Half Dollars

Extremely Fine-45 grade 1870-S half dollars may also be purchased for less than $500. Although 1870-S quarter eagles are rarer, half dollars are good values, too.

1870shalfIn February 2016, GreatCollections sold a NGC-graded Good-06 1870-S half for $29. This month, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded VF-35 1870-S half dollar for $152.75. On November 29, 2015, GreatCollections sold a different PCGS-graded VF-35 1870-S half dollar for $201.05.

In January 2015, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1870-S half dollar for $376. In April 2014, a NGC-graded AU-50 half dollar realized $514.65. It is important not to take particular certified grades and specific auction prices too seriously. Coins with the same certified grades may vary considerably in quality and eye appeal. There are many variables that affect auction prices.

Concluding Remarks

At current market levels, a sub-60 grade 1870-S double eagle would be appropriate for a collector who needs one for a set of double eagles. These are not rare and other 1870-S coins represent superior values.

Dimes tend to be much more expensive than 1870-S half dollars or quarter eagles with the same respective certified grades. While there are quite a few choice- and gem-grade 1870-S dimes, pleasant problem-free coins below MS-63 are hard to find.

If a pleasing, clearly gradable AU-53 to MS-62 1870-S dime could be acquired for less than $2,000, such a purchase might be an excellent deal, though beside the theme here that 1870-S quarter eagles and half dollars are relatively less expensive and better suited for collectors with tight budgets.

Extremely Fine to AU grade 1870-S One Dollar Gold pieces are ignored in this discussion but it is not implied that they are particularly expensive. While EF grade coins would probably retail for less than $1,000 each, pleasing Extremely Fine grade 1870-S One Dollar Gold pieces are extremely rare. It might not be practical to search for one. There are far more uncirculated pieces extant, which tend to cost thousands of dollars. A horrid, uncirculated 1870-S One Dollar Gold piece could easily sell for more than $3,500, maybe much more.

An AU-55 1870-S half eagle is worth somewhere between $5,500 and $10,000. An AU-55 grade 1870-S quarter eagle would probably cost between $1,100 and $1,500, generally less than one-fifth as much as a similar 1870-S half eagle.

The thesis here is that 1870-S quarter eagles are excellent values for budget-minded collectors who would like to own at least one 1870-S gold coin, and 1870-S half dollars are good values as well. It is relevant that, except for double eagles (see list above), all 1870-S coins are rare.

The quarter eagles are very rare, meaning that fewer than 250 survive in all grades, and 1870-S half dollars are nearly as rare as 1870-S quarter eagles. A larger number of people collect half dollars. Both 1870-S half dollars and quarter eagles may be acquired for modest prices in the context of 19th-century rarities.

© 2016 Greg Reynolds


*Nevertheless, the evidence is intriguing that a set of 1870-S coins was placed during 1870 in a “cornerstone” of the second San Francisco Mint.

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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