Three Dollar Gold – 1854-1889

Description:The origin of this issue is shrouded in controversy. It is generally believed that the Three Dollar gold piece was adopted as a direct result of the postal rate dropping from five cents to three cents in 1851. A three dollar gold issue allowed purchasers to buy large quantities of the new stamps without having to use the then-unpopular copper Large Cents or the new, tiny silver Three Cent pieces.

The Mint Act of February 21, 1853 authorized production of the three-dollar gold coin.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries – Copy By Douglas Winter Numismatics

The Three dollar gold piece was designed by James Longacre. The obverse features an “Indian Princess” modeled after the Greco-Roman Venus Accroupie statue then in a Philadelphia museum. Liberty is wearing a feathered headdress of equal-sized plumes with a band bearing LIBERTY in raised letters. She’s surrounded by the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Such a headdress dates back to the earliest known drawings of American Indians by French artist Jacques le Moyne du Morgue’s sketches of the Florida Timucua tribe who lived near the tragic French colony of Fort Caroline in 1562. It was accepted by engravers and medalists of the day as the design shorthand for “America.”

The reverse depicted a wreath of tobacco, wheat, corn and cotton with a plant at top bearing two conical seed masses. The original wax models of this wreath still exist on brass discs in a Midwestern collection.

There are two boldly different reverse types, the small DOLLARS appearing only in 1854 and the large DOLLARS on coins of 1855-89. Many dates show bold “outlining” of letters and devices, resembling a double strike but probably the result of excessive forcing of the design punches into the die steel, causing a hint of their sloping “shoulders” to appear as part of the coin’s design. The high points of the obverse design that first show wear are the cheek and hair above the eye; on the reverse, check the bow knot and leaves.

Three dollar gold pieces were struck at four mints: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans and Dahlonega. There are two major types: the small letters reverse which was made only in 1854 and the large letters which was produced from 1855 until the denomination was abolished in 1889. In both cases the size of the lettering refers to the word DOLLARS.

This was not a popular denomination when it was struck and mintages were, for the most part, extremely limited. Only one date, the 1854, had a mintage figure greater than 100,000 and only four more exceeded 25,000. There are seven issues that had original mintages of fewer than 1,000.

As mentioned above, this is an essentially impossible denomination to complete. The 1870-S is unique (it is in the Bass collection and is currently on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs) while the 1875 and 1876 were produced in very limited quantities and only as Proofs.

A total of just over 535,000 pieces were issued along with 2058 proofs. The first coins struck were the 15 proofs of 1854. Regular coinage began on May 1, and that first year saw 138,618 pieces struck at Philadelphia (no mintmark), 1,120 at Dahlonega (D), and 24,000 at New Orleans (O). These two branch mints would strike coins only in 1854. San Francisco produced the three-dollar denomination in 1855, 1856, and 1857, again in 1860, and apparently one final piece in 1870. Mintmarks are found below the wreath.

Here are some suggestions on how to collect some Three Dollar gold pieces.

The Two Coin Type Set

As mentioned above, there are two naked-eye types of Three Dollar gold piece. Many collectors like to assemble a basic type set that contains one of each. The first type was made only in 1854 but, fortunately, this is a common date that is easily obtainable in any grade up to and including Mint State-64. For their second coin most collectors select an 1874 or an 1878. Both are easy to find in nearly any grade and are affordable as well.

The Four Coin Mint Set

This is a challenging and interesting set. The easiest issue to obtain is one from Philadelphia. Most collectors will select a common date such as an 1854, 1874 or 1878. The New Orleans mint produced this denomination only in 1854. The 1854-O is quite common (and very affordable) in lower grades but it becomes quite scarce in the higher About Uncirculated grades and it is extremely rare in Uncirculated. The 1854-D is another one-year type issue. Only 1,120 were struck and it is exceptionally popular. This is an issue that is a bit more available than its low mintage would suggest but it is expensive due to great demand. The San Francisco mint produced Three Dollar gold pieces in 1855, 1856, 1857, 1860 and 1870. The 1856-S is the most available of these but it is very hard to find in high grades. The other dates are extremely rare in AU-55 or better.

The Six Coin Branch Mint Set

Not including the unique 1870-S, there are a total of six branch mint Three Dollar gold pieces: four from San Francisco and one each from New Orleans and Dahlonega. This is an extremely interesting set to collect. None of these issues is impossible to locate but all are generally seen in lower grades.

The Low Mintage Set

In this era of billion+ mintage figures, it is amazing to look at the original mintages of most Three Dollar gold pieces. As mentioned above, seven had mintages of below 1,000 while another nine had mintages that were less than 2,500. Despite the low mintage figures of these issues, many are surprisingly affordable.

In my opinion, these low mintage coins are extremely undervalued and represent excellent value. The dates that I feel offer especially good value include 1877 (1,488 struck), 1881 (534 struck), 1883 (989 struck) and 1885 (910 struck).

The Five Coin Civil War Set

Civil War-related issues are extremely popular in all areas of American numismatics. The five Three Dollar gold pieces struck during the Civil War years are low mintage coins. The rarest of these is the 1865. The 1861 through 1864 are all reasonably available and are moderately priced in About Uncirculated grades.

A five coin Civil War set would be hard to assemble in Extremely Fine grades as some of these dates are not often seen with this amount of wear.


Designer: by James Barton Longacre
Mintage: All Years 535,000 – Proofs 2058
Denomintion: $3.00
Diameter: ±20.5 millimeters
Metal content: Gold- 90% Copper – 10%
Weight: 77.4 grains (5.02 grams)

Additional Resources :

Proof 1863 Three Dollar Coin Deserves Attention
The 1854-D is Not the Second Rarest Three Dollar Gold

A Special $3 Gold Type Coin

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