HomeCollecting StrategiesRare Gold Coins under $5000 each, Part 6: Three Dollar Gold Coins

Rare Gold Coins under $5000 each, Part 6: Three Dollar Gold Coins

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #242


A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds…

U.S. Three Dollar Gold coins were minted from 1854 to 1889. There is just one design type of this denomination. In addition to the fact that some non-rare dates are readily available, even for well under $1000, there are a surprisingly large number of truly rare issues that can now be acquired by collectors for prices below $5000 each. Coin collectors tend to find acquiring truly rare coins to be more enjoyable and worthwhile than collecting relatively common coins of the same design type.

threedollargoldfeatureThis series is about truly rare U.S. gold coins that cost less than $5000 each. Part 1 is about Classic Head Quarter Eagles. The concept of rarity is defined in last week’s installment, on With Motto’ Eagles, which are $10 gold coins that were minted from 1866 to 1907. (Clickable links are in blue.) I repeat that a coin is rare if fewer than 500 are known in the present, and very rare if there exist less than 250.


I. What Are $3 coins?

Although Three Dollar Gold coins are now very popular with collectors, the general public was not enthusiastic about spending them when they were produced. In comparison to other denominations of the era, the number of Three Dollar Gold pieces (Threes) that circulated was small. One Dollar Gold coins, Quarter Eagles ($2½ coins) and Half Eagles ($5 coins) circulated to a much greater extent. Even so, thousands of Threes did circulate.

It is puzzling that people found as much use as they did for Three Dollar Gold pieces in everyday commerce. My guess is that many Three Dollar Gold coins, even shortly after they were minted, were conversation pieces or novelty items, similar to $2 bills in the present.

In recent years, during most every instance that I spent a $2 bill, I received considerable attention. Indeed, my $2 bills often brought about conversations. It is true, however, that privately issued $3 paper money notes circulated earlier in the 19th century. The notion of a $3 denomination was not as strange in the 19th century as it seems to people now.

Researchers have pointed out that one Three Dollar Gold piece could have been used to purchase one hundred postage stamps or traded for one hundred Three Cent Silver coins. Related, often repeated explanations for the introduction of Three Dollar Gold pieces are not believable. Further research may shed light upon the true reasons for Three Dollar Gold pieces, if there were rational reasons.

Is it a coincidence that Three Dollar Gold pieces are very similar in weight and diameter to Shield Nickels? These were minted from 1866 to 1883.

Each Three Dollar gold piece has a diameter of thirteen-sixteenths (13/16) of an inch, about 20.64 mm, and was specified to weigh, on average, 77.4 grains ( = 0.16125 troy ounce » 5.015 grams). Like most pre-1934 U.S. gold coins, each was planned to be 90% gold and 10% copper. Threes and One Dollar Gold coins are the only regular, classic U.S. coin types that were designed such that the year (“date”) appears on the reverse (back of the coin).

While it is generally agreed that there is just one design type of U.S. Three Dollar Gold pieces, it is true that the letters in the denomination, “DOLLARS,” are noticeably smaller on 1854 coins. In another words, such letters are larger on all Three Dollar Gold pieces dating from 1855 to 1889.

While it was very unusual for the year (“date”) to appear on the reverse in the 19th century, it was typical for a mintmark to be on the reverse. Indeed, to the best of my recollection at the moment, the mintmark appeared on the obverse (front) on 1838-O and 1839-O half dollars; 1838-C, 1839-C, 1839-D and 1839-O Quarter Eagles; plus 1838-C and 1838-D Half Eagles. Other than these exceptions, which relate to just two years, all mintmarks were placed on the reverse of U.S. coins during the 19th century.

The vast majority of Three Dollar Gold coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint and thus do not have mintmarks. Curiously, just a few issues were produced at the San Francisco Mint: 1855-S, 1856-S, 1857-S, 1860-S and 1870-S. Large quantities of gold were mined in the San Francisco area during the 1850s and substantial quantities of other gold denominations were minted there from 1855 to 1859. Also, it is odd that the 1870-S is the only San Francisco Mint Three Dollar Gold piece that was struck after 1860.

Even stranger is the reality that just a single 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece survives. It is one of three unique, business strikes of regular issue U.S. coins that are not in the Smithsonian Institution. The other two are the 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Dime and the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime.

The unique 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece was owned by the late Louis Eliasberg and later by the late Harry Bass. It is now owned by the Harry Bass Foundation and is (or was recently) on display at the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs.


II. Southern Mints 

Contrary to popular belief, the 1854-D is not the second rarest coin in the series. The 1854-D is the most famous, largely because it is the only Three Dollar Gold issue struck at the Dahlonega, Georgia Mint. It is very rare and very popular. It would not be practical to seek to buy an 1854-D for less than $5000.

1854-oThe 1854-O is also extremely popular, as it is the only issue of Three Dollar Gold pieces that was struck in New Orleans. Though extremely scarce to rare, it is not one of the three  or four rarest dates in the series. Indeed, there are many Philadelphia Mint dates that are rarer.

The PCGS CoinFacts site provides an estimate of “1000” surviving 1854-O Threes. It is doubtful that there exist that many. Yes, PCGS has graded more than 500 and NGC has graded nearly 800. Particularly for coins of this issue, however, ‘crack-out’ artists and other wholesalers have a strong incentive to keep re-submitting coins that may be graded from EF-40 to MS-62 as each increment in certified grade in this range for this issue represents a large increase in value. Furthermore, 1854-O Threes are easier to sell than Philadelphia Mint Threes. Besides, this is an issue that was heavily promoted by some telemarketers to people who have no idea as to how to grade coins and would notice coins that may have been mistakenly overgraded by PCGS or NGC. No grading service will ever be perfectly consistent.

PCGS and NGC data probably represent just 600 to 700 different 1854-O Three Dollar Gold pieces. There are certainly another 25 to 100 that have not received numerical grades from PCGS or NGC, including some that have never been submitted. Even most polished or damaged 1854-O Threes would not have been melted during the first half of the 20th century because, by then, the ‘O’ mintmark would have been extremely important to hundreds of relevant collectors.

Is the 1854-O rare in the sense that fewer than 500 survive? Probably not, it seems likely that more than 500 survive. It will, though, remain more popular than many Three Dollar Gold pieces that are truly are rare. It is not difficult to find an 1854-O and this discussion is about finding truly rare Threes for less than $5000 each. More than a dozen, PCGS or NGC graded 1854-O Threes could be acquired for less than $5000 each.


III. San Francisco Mint 

Although 1854-S Quarter Eagles, Half Eagles, Eagles and Double Eagles exist, it seems that there are no 1854-S Three Dollar Gold coins. Apparently, the first San Francisco Mint Threes are dated 1855-S. These are rare, perhaps very rare.

In Feb. 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-45 1855-S for $2820. Curiously, this exact same coin was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers in Aug. 2013 for $2599.  In June 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded EF-40 1855-S for $2332.50.

1855sAuction results provide an idea as to the market values for circulated Three Dollar Gold coins of particular dates in specific grade ranges. The quality and other characteristics of the coins cited varies widely. Some are relatively original, while most have been dipped at least twice and/or extensively cleaned. Invariably, a few have been doctored. It is important for collectors to seek the advice of experts who have actually seen such coins before buying decisions are made. It is also important to be realistic.

Experienced collectors of pre-1880, circulated gold coins are generally aware that such coins often have many imperfections and they have accepted that reality. Collectors who focus on the rarity of gold coins tend to be less concerned about imperfections than collectors who seek type coins. It is helpful for collectors to develop an understanding of the series of coins that interest them, respectively.

As for 1855-S Threes, a collector can probably find one that is PCGS or NGC graded at some increment from VF-35 to AU-50 and is technically impressive, for less than $5000. After all, there must be at least forty-five different 1855-S Threes that are PCGS or NGC graded from VF-35 to AU-50, and at least several of them must score high in the category of technical factors and/or the category of originality. Alternately, a collector could buy one that has been moderately cleaned and has a few noticeable hits for a modest price and then focus his or her mind on other coins.

As the 1856-S is not rare and collectors could find very much original and technically impressive 1856-S Threes for an extended type set that includes representatives of multiple mints. More than one thousand 1856-S Three Dollar Gold pieces survive.

Although the 1857-S is scarcer than the 1856-S, it is probably not rare either. Why were no Three Dollar Gold pieces minted in San Francisco in 1858 and 1859? There exist 1858-S One Dollar gold coins, 1858-S Half Eagles, 1858-S Eagles and 1858-S Double Eagles and 1859-S gold coins of all denominations except Three Dollar Gold pieces.

The 1860-S is rare. PCGS or NGC graded AU-50 1860-S Threes tend to sell for prices well above $5000. PCGS or NGC graded EF-45 1860-S Three Dollar Gold pieces, however, tend to sell at auction for less than $4000. In recent years, NGC graded EF-40 1860-S coins have sold at auction for less than $2250 each.

In Dec. 2008, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded Fair-02 1860-S for $661.25. Though I would like to see this coin before commenting upon it, such a coin for less than $800 seems to be a good deal. This is a truly exciting rare coin and is relatively inexpensive. Its low grade makes it a conversation piece. Most mid-nineteenth century gold coins that grade below VF-20 were melted long ago.


IV. Philadelphia Rarities

There are a surprisingly large number of Philadelphia Mint Rarities in this series. In 2007, I attracted some attention when I pointed out that the 1865, the 1873 and the 1877 are all rarer than the 1854-D. Philadelphia Mint rarities in this series are have been over-shadowed by the San Francisco Mint Threes, the 1854-D, and even by the fame of the 1854-O.

The 1864 is rare and is distinctive as a Civil War era issue. The estimate on the PCGS CoinFacts site that 500 survive is clearly wrong. Around 300 have been graded by PCGS and NGC, together, a total which amounts to, at most, 225 different coins. Surely, there could be another thirty to seventy that have failed to qualify for numerical grades or have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC. It is extremely unlikely that as many as 300 exist. The 1864 is truly rare and could be very rare.

18553dgoldLate in 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AU-50 1864 for $3290. In Aug. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a different PCGS graded AU-50 1864, which may be much more original, for $4406.25. In Nov. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-55 1864 for $4465.

The 1865 is very rare, probably extremely rare, and is not recognized as such. In July 2013, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded EF-45 1865 for $4700. Even if this coin has plenty of imperfections, it may still have been a good deal for $4700.

In Sept. 2011, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded Good-04 1865 for $1380. This is the only PCGS or NGC graded 1865 Three Dollar Gold piece at a grade level below VF-20! Its low grade makes it more interesting. Also, just a handful have been graded in the Very Fine range.

Though not nearly as rare the 1865 and probably not as rare as the 1864, the 1866 is rare, too. It would not be difficult, however, to acquire a PCGS or NGC graded AU-50 to -55 1866 for less than $3000. The same is true of the 1867.

The 1868 is not rare, though is extremely scarce. The 1869 is scarcer than the 1868 and is probably rare. Sub-58 grade 1869 Threes generally trade for less than $3000 each.

There are probably 250 to 300 1871 Threes around. For some reason, an unusually large number of ‘mint state’ pieces were saved. Finding a certified AU-50 to AU-55 grade 1871 for less than $3000 is easy. Also, in June 2014, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded EF-45 1871 for $1469.

The 1872 might be rare. There are, though, an atypically large number of non-gradable 1872 Threes around and it is thus particularly difficult to gauge the total number in existence.

The 1873 is indisputably rare and it would not make sense to plan to obtain an 1873 for less than $5000. There are probably fewer than 110 in existence. The 1874 is not rare.

It would be impossible to buy an 1875 or an 1876 for less than $5000, and these are a different topic, anyhow. The focus here is on coins that are clearly business strikes. The 1875 and the 1876 are reported to be Proof-only issues.

The 1877 business strike is far rarer than David Akers and the editors of PCGS CoinFacts have suggested. Probably fewer than 100 survive, certainly not many more.

For less than $5000, a collector could possibly acquire a VF-20 to EF-40 grade or non-gradable 1877. PCGS or NGC graded AU-50  1877 Threes tend to sell at auction for more $8,000.

For one reason or another, few 1880 business strikes circulated. Were the 1,000 1880 business strikes minted really intended for circulation? Did a small number of people hoard hundreds of them soon after they were released? In the early 20th century, one famous collector is believed to have had more than fifty 1880 business strikes. In any event, the vast majority of survivors grade from AU-58 to MS-65, by current standards.

PCGS or NGC graded AU-58 1880 Threes tend to sell at auction for amounts between $3000 and $4250. In Aug. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-55 1880 for $3139.50. The 1880 is rare overall and sub-60 grade pieces may be good values, from a logical perspective.

The 1881 is clearly very rare, much more so than most experts realize. It would be difficult to acquire a PCGS or NGC graded 1881 for less than $5000. Non-gradable 1881 Threes do not surface often, though some of them would cost less than $5000, if offered in the near future.

Though certainly not very rare, the 1882 is probably rare. Although more than 500 have been PCGS and/or NGC graded, the total almost certainly amounts to fewer than 375 different coins. There are not 125 1882 business strikes that are non-gradable or have never been submitted.

PCGS or NGC graded 1882 business strikes in the range of AU-50 to AU-55 tend to sell at auction for amounts between $1000 and $3000. These are not as rare as 1883s. Perhaps around 350 1883 business strikes exist. Finding a PCGS or NGC certified AU-50 or higher grade 1883 for less than $4000 is not difficult. For some reason, few survivors grade less than AU-50 and plenty grade in the MS-61 to MS-64 range.

The rarity of the 1884 is perhaps largely unnoticed. It is unlikely that there are more than 130 around. AU grade 1884 Threes trade for less than $5000 each are often good deals, as long as the respective coins are decent.

Though not as rare as the 1884, the 1885 is very rare. There are fewer than 250, probably less than 220. As with many post-1875 Philadelphia Mint Three Dollar Gold pieces, a substantial percentage of survivors have qualified for ‘MS’ grades. At least a couple EF or AU grade 1885s, though, should be available each year for less than $4250, maybe even less than $3000. Just a few weeks ago, at a Long Beach Expo, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AU-50 1885 for $2820.

The 1886 is not as rare as the 1884 or as the 1885. A PCGS or NGC graded EF-45 to AU-53 1886 priced below $3000 could be found,  without much difficulty. Indeed, in June 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-45 1886 for $2232.50. In Feb. 2014, an NGC graded EF-45 1886 was auctioned for $2115. More recently, in June, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded AU-53 1886 for $2350.

Although the 1887 is probably not rare, there could not be more than 675 in existence. The estimate of “1200” survivors on the PCGS CoinFacts site is puzzling. Fewer than 500 are PCGS or NGC certified, perhaps amounting to around 350 different coins.

The 1888 is not rare. There are more than 850, maybe more than 1000. The 1889 could be rare, though probably is not so. A fair estimate might be 600 survivors. In Nov. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the PCGS graded AU-55 1899 for $2009.25. Dozens of uncirculated 1889s survive.

The most fascinating aspect of studying Three Dollar Gold pieces is the revelation that there are so many truly rare dates in this series. Undoubtedly, most collectors are not aware that is easy to buy several, PCGS or NGC graded, truly rare Threes for less than $3500 each. Surely, for less than $5000 per coin, a set of business strike Three Dollar Gold pieces could be assembled that is missing just three to five issues.

©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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