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Rare Gold Coins for less than $5000 each, Part 2: Commemorative One Dollar Gold Pieces

 Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #214

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……..

The present topic is Choice (MS-63) to Gem Uncirculated (MS-65 or higher grade) commemorative one dollar gold pieces. These are only nine issues of such commemorative U.S. gold coins, which date from 1903 to 1922.

Eight of these nine issues were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The 1915-S Panama-Pacific One Dollar Gold commemorative was struck at the San Francisco Mint.

Although one dollar gold commemoratives are often collected along with commemorative $2½ gold pieces and $50 Panama-Pacific pieces, the present topic is just one dollar gold commemoratives. These can be easily obtained for less than $5000 each, often for less than $2000 each, and it is very practical to complete a set of all nine. Besides, there is no logical reason to figure that $2½ and $50 commemorative gold coins must be collected along with one dollar commemorative gold coins for a set to be complete.


Although of the same size and gold content as regular one dollar gold pieces of the late 19th century, the nine issues of one dollar gold commemoratives constitute a series of a distinct denomination. These are: 1903-LA+Jefferson, 1903-LA+McKinley, 1904-Lewis+Clark, 1905-Lewis+Clark, 1915-S Pan-Pac, 1916-McKinley, 1917-McKinley, 1922-Grant+Star, 1922-Grant (No Star).

Commemoratives are not regular issue coins. Usually, they are sold at a premium over face value and/or are distributed as medals could logically have been distributed, often with the idea of drawing attention to the event, person or concept that is being commemorated. Frequently, shares of the proceeds of the sales of commemoratives were used, or were supposed to have been used, to help fund memorials or then contemporary expositions that commemorative historical events. While most vintage (1892-1954) commemorative U.S. coins were not very popular when they were issued, respectively, they were later (and still are) enthusiastically demanded by collectors and other coin buyers.

I. Very Good Values at Current Prices?

Maurice Rosen, John Albanese and Scott Travers maintain that one dollar gold commemoratives are very good values at current market levels. “One Dollar Gold commemoratives achieved record highs in 1989,” notes Maurice Rosen. “They are now selling for 10% to 20% of their 1989 peaks, which is in line with some silver commemoratives.”

Rosen advises people to acquire “a variety of classic U.S. coins.” Among many recommendations, Maurice suggests “attractive, CAC approved, PCGS or NGC certified MS-65 or MS-66” one dollar gold commemoratives. Rosen emphasizes that “you can buy particularly nice pieces without paying much of a premium over” average coins of the same issue and respective certified grade. Rosen is the long-time publisher of a newsletter that has won countless awards and he has contributed to many reference books about U.S. coins.

cac1High quality, “gold commemoratives have the potential to double during the next three years. If there is a big promotion, some may even double in a matter of months,” Scott Travers exclaims. “Many PCGS and NGC certified MS-65 and MS-66 one dollar gold commemoratives are priced at 10% of their former levels of ten to twenty-five years ago,” Scott explains.

As Travers notes, price declines are partly due to grade-inflation. Some coins that were PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 ten to twenty-five years ago have since been upgraded to MS-65 or even to MS-66. “As long as you get one dollar gold commemoratives with CAC stickers, you stand a great chance of acquiring coins that were not subject to grade-inflation; you will get coins that are solid for the grade in the past and present,” Travers maintains.

Scott strongly recommends the “MS-65 one dollar gold commemoratives that cost less than $2000 now.” These include the 1903 and 1904 Louisiana Purchase coins, the 1916 and 1917 McKinley coins, and especially the 1915-S PanPac One Dollar Gold piece. According to Travers, “a 1915-S Pan-Pac in MS-65 is now an amazing deal” when purchased “for a fair market price.”

John Albanese suggests certified MS-64 and MS-65 grade gold commemoratives, which “cost less than they did just a few years ago and much less than their all-time peak levels.” These “are not hard to find,” John says, and “a set is easy to complete.” Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC. He notes that the CAC has approved a substantial number of PCGS or NGC certified gold commemoratives and “they tend to be available in today’s marketplace.”

II. Much Scarcer than Generics!

genericI am not now putting forth my personal opinions about one dollar gold commemoratives. Indeed, my views are neither expressed nor implied herein. Generally, I devote my time to topics relating to truly rare or very scarce coins. One dollar gold commemoratives are not rare. Some buyers like the fact that that they are actively traded and are particularly liquid.

In a series of discussions about ‘rare’ gold coins that may be purchased for less than $5000 each, gold commemoratives are an appropriate topic because they are classic U.S. coins that are not very common. The main reason that the term “rare” is featured in the title to this series of articles is that generic, classic U.S. coins will not be addressed. Rare or at least somewhat scarce coins are of much greater interest to collectors than generic gold coins, which appeal mostly to speculators.

Prime examples of typical generics are: 1901-S Eagles ($10 coins), 1926 Eagles, 1904 Liberty Double Eagles ($20 coins), 1924 Saints ($20 coins) and most Indian Head Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold pieces). Overall, a large percentage of surviving U.S. gold coins dating from 1880 to 1932 are generics, which tend to be extremely common. In relative terms, one dollar gold commemoratives are much ‘rarer’ than generic pre-1934 U.S. gold coins. (Clickable links are in blue.)

III. Summary of $1 Gold Commemoratives

One dollar gold commemoratives are of the same size and weight as regular one dollar gold pieces that were minted from 1854 to 1889. Regular one dollar gold coins were not produced in the 20th century. The Grant gold commemoratives of 1922 were the last one dollar gold pieces of any sort that were struck by the U.S. Mint.

In 1984, the U.S. Mint began to issue commemorative gold coins again. Modern gold commemoratives are not, however, even in theory, related to the gold commemoratives of the early 20th century.

The first issue of one dollar gold commemoratives, which are dated 1903, marked the 100th anniversary of the “Louisiana Purchase” by the United States from France. The “Louisiana Purchase” includes the regions that now constitute the States of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Parts of the current States of Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota were also included in this acquisition. Thomas Jefferson was president when this purchase was effected. An exposition was organized to celebrate the centennial of the “Louisiana Purchase.”

1903gold1One “Louisiana Purchase” commemorative featured a bust of Thomas Jefferson and the other featured a bust of William McKinley. There is not a direct connection between McKinley and the “Louisiana Purchase.” McKinley served as president from March 4, 1897 to Sept. 14, 1901, when he died shortly after being shot by an assassin.

In 1904 and 1905, one dollar gold pieces were issued to commemorate the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest, a century earlier. These coins were issued in conjunction with plans for an exposition in honor of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Both the coins and the exposition were authorized by the same federal law. This exposition was held in Portland, Oregon, from the beginning of June to the middle of October in 2005.

In 1803, President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to the Pacific Northwest. Primary objectives were charting territory, establishing relations with Indian tribes, and claiming land for the the United States of America. Lewis, in turn, chose William Clark to be an associate commander. The “Corps of Discovery,” the organization for this expedition, was funded by the national government and departed in May 1804. This organization, “Corps,” returned to St. Louis in 1806.

The expedition traveled through regions that are now parts of the current States of Oregon, Montana and Idaho, after passing though the territory of the then recent “Louisiana Purchase.” This expedition foreshadowed the establishment of Oregon Territory in 1846. Sacagawea, an Indian guide who was an important member of the expedition, is depicted on one dollar non-gold coins that have been minted from 2000 to the present.

The Lewis & Clark, One Dollar Gold pieces depict a bust of Meriwether Lewis on the obverse (front of the coin) and a bust of William Clark on the reverse (back of the coin). The 1904 and 1905 issues are of the same design, which is credited to Charles Barber.

The 1915-S Pan-Pac One Dollar Gold commemoratives were issued along with 1915-S Pan-Pac $2½ and $50 gold pieces. The Panama-Pacific (Pan-Pac) Exposition was a world’s fair that was held in San Francisco in 1915. Although the Panama Canal had officially opened in 1914, and its opening was the stated purpose for the festivities, there was more than one reason for this fair. The growth of San Francisco since a devastating earthquake in 1906 and the overall development of the Western United States were celebrated as well.

Scott Travers is particularly impressed by the Pan-Pac One Dollar Gold pieces. These were designed by Charles Keck, not Charles Barber. “The design is very sophisticated and has exceptional artistic merit,” Travers maintains. Scott suggests that people should “use a magnifying glass to appreciate” the intricacies and subtleties of the design.

In 1916 and 1917, one dollar gold commemoratives in honor of President William McKinley were issued. The designs and acceptance of these are a little puzzling as his likeness already appeared on one dollar gold commemoratives in 1903 and McKinley had been dead for fifteen years. A private organization intensely pushed for a commemorative coin to honor him. A commemorative silver dollar was proposed. Partly because McKinley had been an extremely strong advocate of a gold standard, it was later decided that a gold piece would be more appropriate.

As McKinley was born in 1842, the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth occurred in 1917. Funds were needed to build a memorial at his birthplace in Ohio.

barberThe obverse of the McKinley Dollar was designed by Charles Barber. Last week, I wrote about Barber Half Dollars. The reverse of the McKinley One Dollar Gold commemorative was designed by George Morgan, who is best known for his design of silver dollars that were minted from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921.

Ulysses S. Grant is a more famous past president than is McKinley, though memories of McKinley were more vivid in the minds of the American people in the early 20th century. General Grant played an important role in the U.S. Civil War. Forces he commanded seized Vicksburg in July 1863, an extraordinarily important victory for the Union armies. In March 1864, President Lincoln appointed him commander of all Union armies; he became the highest ranking military officer at the time. Grant was elected in 1868, and then re-elected in 1872, as president of the United States.

Grant was born in 1822. In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, a private organization sought funds and attention for the building of memorials and related undertakings. The U.S. Congress authorized commemorative silver half dollars and one dollar gold coins. The design of the gold pieces is a scaled down version of the design of the half dollars.

Oddly, though all are dated 1922, there are two corresponding, readily apparent varieties. Some half dollars and some gold dollars have a noticeable ‘star’ in the design above the letter ‘N’ in Grant’s name on the obverse (front). Others lack such a star, which was never publicly explained.

While people who collect commemorative half dollars tend to obtain either a Grant ‘With Star’ or a Grant ‘No Star’ half, buyers of commemorative gold dollars tend to seek representatives of both varieties. After all, it is worth repeating that, including both varieties of Grant Gold Dollars, a whole set of one dollar gold commemoratives includes just nine coins. If the two commemorative Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold pieces), the 1915-S Pan-Pac and the 1926 Sesquicentennial, are included, then a collection of eleven could be built. The 1915-S Pan-Pac $50 pieces are much more expensive and really constitute a different topic.

IV. $1 Gold Commemoratives in a recent auction

A whole set can easily be completed for less than $5000 per coin. Less than three weeks ago, in the official auction of the Winter ANA Convention in Atlanta, Heritage auctioned a substantial number of one dollar gold commemoratives. It is not being argued that this specific auction is of tremendous importance.

Prices realized from this one auction are extensively cited for three reasons. First, this auction is extremely recent and was well publicized by Heritage and by the ANA. After all, this discussion relates to current market prices. It should be kept in mind, however, that retail prices are sometimes higher than auction prices.

Second, there was a large sample of one dollar gold commemoratives in this auction and relative prices can be easily compared as some circumstantial variables are constant. All the coins mentioned were sold at about the same time, via the same auction format, by the same auction firm.

Third, there were a significant number of CAC approved one dollar gold commemoratives in this auction. Rosen and Travers emphasize the importance of selecting CAC approved one dollar gold commemoratives. There were also more than a few coins that are not CAC approved. All three factors suggest that data from this one auction event is particularly useful for the purpose of providing a meaningful impression of current market prices for MS-63 to MS-66 grade, one dollar gold commemoratives.

There were several 1903-Jefferson, Louisiana Purchase commemoratives in this auction in Atlanta. A PCGS graded “MS-65” 1903-Jefferson sold for $1,292.50. It does not have a CAC sticker. There were also two PCGS graded “MS-65” 1903-Jefferson coins with CAC stickers. The first realized $1,351.25 and the second brought $1,410.00.

atlantaIn this same auction in Atlanta, there were four PCGS graded “MS-66” 1903-Jefferson coins. Three do not have CAC stickers. One sold for $1,527.50 and two sold for $1410 each. So, a CAC approved “MS-65” coin brought the same price, $1410, as a “MS-66” 1903-Jefferson that did not have a CAC sticker. Next, a PCGS graded and CAC approved “MS-66” 1903-Jefferson went for $3055!

In the same auction, there were five PCGS graded “MS-65” 1903-McKinley Dollars.The first one realized $1116.25. The next three sold for $998.75 each. The fifth was the only one of that group of five that has a CAC sticker. It brought $1292.50.

In addition to five PCGS graded “MS-65” 1903-McKinley Dollars, there were four PCGS graded “MS-66” 1903-McKinley Dollars in this very same, non-epic auction. (Is there a need to prove that these are not rare coins?) The first three of these PCGS graded “MS-66” coins sold for $1527.50 each. The fourth brought $1410.

The following lot was a PCGS graded “MS-63” 1904-Lewis Dollar, which realized $1645. Also in this Feb. 27 to March 2, 2014, Atlanta auction, a PCGS graded “MS-65” 1904-Lewis Dollar sold for $4406.25. On Feb. 5, 2014, in New York, Heritage sold another PCGS graded “MS-65” coin and three NGC graded “MS-65” 1904-Lewis Dollars, all for $3,818.75 each.

It is unusual for a non-rare coin without a CAC sticker to bring more than a coin with the same certification and a CAC sticker. Such an event, however, did occur, in this very same auction in Atlanta. A PCGS graded MS-63 1905-Lewis Dollar sold for $2350. It did not have a CAC sticker and was not in a particularly old holder. Another PCGS graded MS-63 1905-Lewis Dollar, with a CAC sticker, sold a moment later, for $1645. In many cases, there is a need to view the coins in actuality to thoroughly interpret auction results.

A PCGS graded and CAC approved “MS-64” 1905-Lewis sold for $3525. A PCGS graded and CAC approved “MS-65” 1915-S Pan-Pac Dollar realized $1586.25, perhaps a coin that Travers would be enthusiastic about.

Two PCGS graded “MS-66” 1915-S Pan-Pac Dollars, which did not have CAC stickers, each garnered $1645. Another PCGS graded “MS-66” 1915-S Pan-Pac Dollar, in a somewhat old holder, brought just $1586.25, the same price as the just mentioned PCGS graded and CAC approved “MS-65” coin. A fourth PCGS graded “MS-66” 1915-S Pan-Pac Dollar went for just $1527.50. The fifth and final PCGS graded “MS-66” 1915-S Pan-Pac Dollar in this same Atlanta auction had a CAC sticker. It brought $1762.50.

There were two PCGS graded “MS-66” 1916-McKinley Dollars in this auction. Neither has a CAC sticker and both were in blue-label PCGS holders. These brought significantly different prices, $1199.68 and $1351.25, respectively. (Please my article on What Are Auction Prices?)

There were not such disparities in relation to the prices realized for three PCGS graded “MS-65” 1917-McKinley Dollars in this auction: $1410, $1410 again, and $1468.75. A PCGS graded “MS-67” 1917-McKinley Dollar sold for $4,993.75. John Albanese and Scott Travers maintain that certified “MS-65” McKinley Dollars are often “better values” than certified “MS-67” grade pieces.

grantstarThere were four Grant ‘with Star’ 1922 One Dollar Gold commemoratives in this auction. A PCGS graded “MS-63” coin sold for $1,703.75. A PCGS graded and CAC approved “MS-65” Grant ‘with Star’ realized $2150.25.

Another PCGS graded “MS-65” Grant ‘with Star’ gold commemorative is also CAC approved. It, though, has a gold CAC sticker rather than the typical green CAC sticker. A gold sticker indicates that experts at the CAC determined that the true grade of the coin is above its current certified grade. So, experts at the CAC maintain that the grade of this coin is at least in the middle of the MS-66 range. This gold stickered coin went for $2585. It may not be a coincidence that an NGC graded “MS-66” Grant ‘with Star’ gold commemorative also sold for $2585 in this same auction.

Although the Grant ‘No Star’ issue is not scarcer than the Grant ‘with Star,’ by happenstance, there were just two Grant ‘No Star’ commemoratives in this auction. An NGC graded “MS-61” coin sold for $1233.75 and a PCGS graded “MS-63” piece brought $1410.

Given prevailing prices for non-generic, classic U.S. gold coins, the cited auction prices for 63 to 66 grade gold pieces are not hefty sums. It does not cost a fortune to complete a pleasing set of one dollar gold commemoratives.

©2014 Greg Reynolds


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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