With only 500 circulation strikes produced, the 1881 three dollar gold piece boasts the lowest mintage in the series and is an important key date. High-grade survivors of the circulation issue are rare. Equally rare, however, is the proof variant.
In 1986, Paul Taglione wrote:
“1881 Proofs rank amongst the best preserved of the series and there are some really exceptional specimens of this date … I would dare claim that it is distinctly possible (likely?) that there are more high quality Proofs known than counterpart business strikes.”
This remains true strictly in terms of high-grade populations, but it misrepresents the availability of the 1881 proof overall.
The accepted mintage of the proof issue is 54 coins, but this was not always known.
In the Dr. Wheeler, et al Collection sale (May 1937), Thomas Elder stated that “probably not over 15 or 20 proofs” were struck, which was in line with the perceived rarity of the issue at the time. Estimates of the mintage gradually increased over time, and the 54-coin figure began appearing in the 1960s. In his Proof Encyclopedia, Walter Breen presented coinage figures drawn from Mint records, consisting of 40 pieces issued in gold proof sets on February 9, 10 additional coins delivered in late March, and four more in the final quarter — a total of 54 proofs.
The modern-day availability of this issue is one of more active debate. Q. David Bowers, in his 2005 treatise The United States Three Dollar Gold Pieces: 1854-1889, estimates the number known to be 45 or more pieces. However, in years past, the availability of proofs has been skewed by misattribution of prooflike circulation strikes.
David Akers wrote (1979):
“… deceptive first strikes exist that are virtually indistinguishable at first glance from actual proofs.”
The combined PCGS and NGC certified proof population records 76 grading events, which is highly inflated by resubmissions. Since our Permanent Auction Archives began in 1993, we have offered an 1881 proof three dollar piece on only 20 occasions, including two appearances of an impaired coin. In our experience, this issue is significantly rarer than Bowers’ estimate of at least 45 coins suggests.
The Premium Gem offered in our March 29-31 auction in Dallas is among the finer 1881 proofs known and is tied for the finest example that we have seen. It is the only PR66 coin that we have ever handled in a PCGS holder, and it has been more than 13 years since its last offering. The only semi-recent appearance of a comparable Cameo proof is a PR66 Cameo NGC coin in lot 5844 of the 2013 FUN Signature Auction, which realized $47,000. This CAC-approved PCGS coin has the potential to set a new price record.
The bright surfaces display orange-gold color and are impeccably preserved. The cameo contrast is outstanding, the devices appearing to float atop liquidlike fields. The strike is full, and eye appeal is seemingly unsurpassable. This is a Condition Census coin at PCGS, which lists two PR66 Cameos, two PR66 Deep Cameos, and a lone PR67 Cameo finer. CAC has awarded green labels to just two Cameos in this grade and one finer.