I am often asked for ideas about which US gold coins to collect, especially ones that are a little bit “out of the box.” I recently had a conversation with a long-time collector about new directions for his set and we discussed the possibility of starting a transitional set of 19th century American gold coins.
By transitional gold coins, I am referring to a coin that was struck as two different types during the same year. An example of this would be an 1854 gold dollar from Philadelphia which was produced as both as Type One and Type Two issue. Let’s take a look at some of the transitional coins that are available to collectors who are considering this approach.
A pair of gold coins which is not a transition would be an 1861-S and 1861-S Paquet Reverse double eagle. This is the case because the 1861-S Paquet reverse was not used in any other year. An 1866-S No Motto reverse and an 1866-S With Motto are a transitional pair because the newer reverse was used in the following year(s).
1. GOLD DOLLARS
The Liberty Head gold dollar was produced from 1849 through 1889. There were a total of three types and there are a few interesting possibilities for the transitional gold coins collector.
In 1854, the Philadelphia, Dahlonega and San Francisco mint produced gold dollars with the Type One design. During the same year, a Type Two gold dollar was made at the Philadelphia mint as well. Both the 1854 Type One and Type Two gold dollars are common, although the latter becomes scarce and expensive in the higher Uncirculated grades. A transitional pairing of the 1854-P Type One and Type Two dollars could easily be assembled in MS63 to MS64 grades.
In 1856, there was a Type Two gold dollar made at the San Francisco mint and well as Type Three issue at Philadelphia and Dahlonega. These are not transitional gold coins issues, in the strictest sense of the word, as they were made during the same year but at different mints.
2. QUARTER EAGLES
Production of this denomination began in 1796 and continued all the way until 1929. During this period, there were a number of transitional issues.
The first transitional pair of quarter eagles occurs in 1796 when both the No Stars and the With Stars issues were made. A total of 963 examples of the No Stars were struck and just 432 of the With Stars. While the more common of the two, the No Stars is better known and considered more desirable by many collectors. The 1796 With Stars is a very rare coin in all grades and is generally seen in lower grades than its No Stars counterpart. This transitional pair will be the most expensive part of such a set with nice AU-Uncirculated examples costing at least $250,000-300,000 and possibly more.
While the 1796 transitional gold coins set will be the most expensive quarter eagles in this set, the rarest coin will be the 1834 With Motto, which is the final year of issue for the Capped Head Left (reduced size) type struck from 1829 to 1834. There were 4,000 of these struck but nearly all were melted and today an estimated 20 or so exist. Later in the year, the better-known Classic Head design was introduced and the first-year-of-issue 1834 is common in grades up to MS63 and sometimes obtainable in MS64. A transitional pair of 1834 quarter eagles could, in theory, be obtained for less than $100,000 but the earlier issue from this year might take years of waiting to locate. No other transitional pairs exist for the quarter eagle denomination.
3. THREE DOLLAR GOLD
No transitional pairs exist for the three dollar gold piece.
4. HALF EAGLES
The half eagle denomination began in 1795 and ended in 1929. It is fertile ground for the transitional gold coins collector with a number of interesting pairs extent, especially during the first few years of production.
The 1795 half eagle exists with both the Small Eagle reverse (employed on this denomination from 1795 through 1798) and the Heraldic Eagle reverse (used from 1795 until 1807). The 1795 Small Eagle is a reasonably common coin by the standards of early half eagles and it is, as one might expect, extremely popular. The 1795 Heraldic Eagle is considerably scarcer, especially in higher grades, although it is more obtainable. A nice transitional pair of 1795 half eagles will run $100,000 or so but, in my opinion, it is one of the most visually arresting contrasts in all of American coinage.
Another transitional pair exists in 1797. Two different 1797 Small Eagle half eagles are known; the 15 star obverse and the 16 star obverse. Both are very rare although the former is more difficult to find and is not often offered for sale. There is a 1797/5 Heraldic Eagle known which is also very rare although it is at least obtainable; two other 1797 Heraldic eagle varieties (the 15 star and the 16 star non-overdate) which are unique and located in the Smithsonian. A transitional set of 1797 half eagles would be expensive ($200,000+) and hard to assemble but it would make an exceptional item and would be a highlight of this set.
In theory, a 1798 transitional set could be assembled as well but the Small Eagle is exceedingly rare with just eight known; the last example to sell at auction (a PCGS EF40) brought $264,500 back in 2000. The Heraldic Eagle variety from this year is reasonably common. It is possible that this set could be assembled but it would take deep pockets and considerable good fortune to even have a shot as obtaining a 1798 Small Eagle in today’s rarity-conscious market.
The next transitional set in the half eagle denomination is the 1807 Bust Right and 1807 Bust Left. Both issues are reasonably common and a set could be put together, if so desired, in grades as high as MS64 to MS65. For $20,000-30,000, a more reasonably price alternative would include two nice AU coins.
A very interesting and very rare transitional pair occurs in 1829 with the Large Date (Large Diameter) and Small Date (Small Diameter). Both of these issues are very rare and generally trade once every few years. We’re talking in excess of $1 million dollars for this pair and even having the money is no assurance that a set could be assembled.
A really interesting pair of transitional pairs exists for the 1834 half eagles. The Capped Head Left reduced diameter type began in 1829 and continued until 1834. During this year, both Plain 4 and Crosslet 4 varieties. Both are quite rare with the latter being harder to find. Later in the year, the new Classic Head variety was introduced and, again, both Plain 4 and Crosslet 4 coins are known with the latter being considerably rarer. It would be difficult but not impossible to put together this “pair of pairs” with the two Capped Head coins in AU-MS grades, the Plain 4 Classic Head in a grade as high as MS64 and the Crosslet 4 Classic Head in the lower MS grades.
The next group of transitional pair half eagles occur in 1842 and 1843. 1842 Philadelphia half eagles are known with Small Letters and Large Letters reverse varieties. The former is the type of 1839-1842 while the latter began in 1842 and continued all the way through 1866. Both are scarce and undervalued with the Large letters being the rarer of the two. A pair could be assembled in nice AU grades for $10,000-15,000.
The same transitional pair exists for 1842-C half eagles. The 1842-C Small Date is very rare in all grades while the Large Date is more available. An EF-AU pair would cost $20,000-25,000 to assemble.
With the 1842-D half eagles, the exact opposite rarity pattern is seen. The Small Date is the more obtainable (although it is very rare in Uncirculated) while the Large Date is rare and almost impossible to find above AU55. A nice AU pair could be assembled for $25,000-35,000.
This transition occurred for New Orleans half eagles in 1843-O. The Small Letters is slightly scarcer than the Large Letters but both are reasonably easy to find in EF and AU grades. A pair in AU could be purchased for less than $10,000.
The next transitional pair for half eagles occurs in 1866 when the San Francisco mint made 9,000 No Motto coins and34,920 With Motto coins. The former is extremely scarce while the latter is scarce but a bit more obtainable. The 1866-S No Motto is seldom found above AU50 while the With Motto is seldom found above AU53 to AU55. A pair of AU examples would cost around $20,000.
The final transitional pair for half eagles occurs in 1908 when both the Liberty Head and Indian Head types were struck. The 1908 Liberty Head was made only at the Philadelphia mint and it is common in grades up to MS64. The Indian Head type was made in 1908 at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. It’s possible to assemble a 1908-P half eagle set in MS65 for less than $20,000.
The first transitional pair for the ten dollar eagle denomination occurs in 1797. The first coin struck this year was the Small eagle reverse of which only 3,615 were made. This is a rare coin in all grades and a very rare one in AU55 and above. Later this year, the large Eagle reverse was adapted and 10,940 were made. This issue is much easier to locate and it is sometimes seen in MS62 or even MS63 grades. An AU set would cost at least 175,000-200,000 but it would be easier to assemble than the similarly dated half eagles (see above).
A less obvious but still important transitional pair occurs in 1839 with the Large Letters and Small Letters reverses. The former, which is the more common, employs the same size lettering as seen on the 1838. The latter, which is far rarer, uses the same size lettering as seen on the 1840 (and onwards). It is possible to assemble this set in AU for $25,000 or so but finding a nice 1839 Small Letters reverse will prove challenging.
In 1866, the San Francisco mint struck No Motto and With Motto eagles. The No Motto coins had a mintage of 8,500 and are very scarce in all grades. The With Motto coins are more available but only 11,500 were struck. Both issues are extremely hard to find above AU50. A nice EF-AU pair would cost $25,000-35,000.
A potential transitional gold coin collector will have much to keep him busy with 1907 and 1908 eagles. In 1907, three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) made Liberty Head eagles. Later that year, the new Indian Head design by Augustus St. Gaudens was introduced.
There are actually three distinct types of 1907 Indian Head eagle: the Wire Edge, the Rolled Edge and the No Motto. The latter is by far the most common although it is probably the least numismatically interesting. Most transitional collectors purchase a 1907-P Liberty Head in MS63 to MS65 grades and a 1907 No Motto in MS63 to MS64. Adding the Wire Edge is a nice touch but it should be noted that a nice Uncirculated example runs around $50,000. And, in the parameters we discussed earlier in this article, these are not a true transitional pair as the Wire Edge design was not fully adapted in 1908.
The final transitional pair for this denomination occurs, as a “pair of pairs”, in 1908. Both the Philadelphia and Denver mints struck No Motto eagles followed by With Motto issues. None of these are rare in grades below MS65 and a nice MS64 set is an accomplishment which is readily attainable.
6. DOUBLE EAGLES
The best known transitional Liberty Head double eagle pair is the 1866-S No Motto and With Motto issues. Only 12,000 or so of the former were produced and it is a rare issue whose price has soared in the last decade. The 1866-S With Motto is much more available although it can be challenging to locate in any Uncirculated grade. An About Uncirculated pair will run at least $50,000 and possibly more if the collector is fussy about quality for the No Motto.
In 1907, there was a radical change in the design of the double eagle and, as with the eagle from this year, there are pieces which use the old Liberty Head design (from Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) and the new St. Gaudens design. There are two important varieties of St. Gaudens double eagle from 1907: the High Relief which uses Roman numerals for the date and the Arabic numerals. These were all struck at the Philadelphia. An ideal transitional set, in my opinion, would include a 1907-P Liberty Head double eagle and a 1907 Arabic numerals. A slightly more advanced set could include a High Relief as well. The two coin set is easy to assemble in MS64 for around $5,000.
A second transitional set occurs in 1908 when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the double eagle. The 1908-P and 1908-D issues exist with a No Motto reverse; the same two dates were made with the With Motto reverse, as well as a 1908-S.
Transitional collecting is not for everyone and, as you can see from reading this article, a complete set is extremely expensive due to the rarity of certain 18th century transitional issues. I really like the idea of assembling a mostly-complete transitional set and would be happy to discuss such a set in detail if you’d like to email me at email@example.com. or visit my CoinWeek page at or my web site at RareGoldCoins.com