By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
 

In parts one and two of my series on collecting Carson City coinage, I discussed all of the small silver and dollar coin issues produced at the Carson City Mint, famous for its “CC” mint mark. While most of the Carson City Morgan Dollar issues are available across the grading spectrum into the high Mint State grades, all the other coins produced at Carson City saw heavy circulation. Granted, in many years the mintages of many of these coins were quite modest, but most were still used for commerce as they were intended. In other words, while most of the Morgan Dollar issues didn’t circulate, the four small silver denominations, the two early dollar coin denominations, and all three gold denominations did. Quite extensively, I might add.

The “CC” mint mark from the Carson City Mint appears on many gold coins dated 1870 through 1893. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

Carson City gold coins are popular in all grades and denominations and were produced from 1870 to 1893. The $5 half eagle, $10 eagle, and $20 double eagle Liberty Head designs were minted in Carson City throughout that span of time, although not always in consecutive years. Curiously, there are 19 different date issues for all three denominations, for a total of 57 different gold coins minted at Carson City. We will break down the 57 different dates with mintages, current populations, and collecting strategies.

A Primer on CC Gold Coinage

Much has been written about Carson City and the history surrounding the area. Up until the late 1850s, the small community was little more than a supply stop for travelers heading west to the goldfields in California or further to San Francisco. There was mining going on in the area, but the miners were looking for gold only. Two of the first miners in the area who were working a claim were Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley. These two men were working a claim belonging to James Finney known in the area as Old Virginia. During the 1850s, their endeavors were netting them between $500 and $1,000 per day in gold.

At some point in the late 1850s, Henry Comstock was evidently able to obtain part ownership in the mine from McLaughlin and O’Riley. The name “Comstock” would become famous for the largest bullion strike ever made in U.S. history. The actual strike itself was on the eastern side of Mount Davidson, 15 miles from Carson City. The Comstock Lode was born out of a new gold rush in 1859 in an area known as Pleasant Hill. The mine owned by Finney and the other one was called the Ophir Mine, and the area was often also associated with that latter name. The citizens of the area eventually settled on Virginia City for the town name, and that stuck.

The ore found in the area was exceptionally rich in both silver and gold. While much had been found on the surface, the largest deposits lay deep underground. By 1859 the area was booming much like earlier California gold rush towns. The mining itself was grueling, extremely dangerous, and thousands died. The silver deposits required miners to go constantly deeper. Shafts and tunnels were employed to get to the massive silver veins often blasting through solid rock. The deeper the miners went, the hotter the temperatures got.

Miners took numerous breaks each hour eating ice and drinking fluids to compensate for the heat that reached as high as 130 degrees. Like ants working a gigantic hill, these miners dug and blasted hundreds of feet underground to get to the silver ore veins as wide as 200 feet and nearly a quarter of a mile straight down in some areas. Over the peak production years of the Comstock Lode (1859 to the late 1870s), more than 10,000 miners were killed or maimed in the mines.

Despite the proximity to the mines, the Carson City Mint saw little of this bullion, for the coining facility was plagued by planchet shortages for all coinage denominations throughout the life of the mint. Indeed, during the peak Morgan Dollar production years the Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco Mints were always first in line. Even Morgan Dollar production was limited at Carson City because of shortages.

Although officials at the Carson City Mint were hoping to strike the first coins there in late 1869, the first dies didn’t arrive at the local Wells Fargo depot until January 10, 1870. The first coins struck at Carson City were the 1870-CC Liberty Seated Dollar starting on February 10. Striking of the three gold denominations – the half eagle, eagle, and double eagle – began three days later. While neither the dime nor 20 cent coins were struck in Carson City in 1870, the quarter and half dollar began production in April on the 20th and 9th, respectively.

During this time, mints were required by law to strike coins for individuals from their bullion deposits. The depositor was allowed the choice of denomination. Silver content for the Liberty Seated Dollar had not been changed in 1853 as was done for the half dime, dime, quarter, and half dollar. Many depositors chose Liberty Seated Dollars for this reason. In fact, one of the first depositor coin withdrawals was on February 11, 1870, when A. Wright received 2,303 newly minted 1870-CC Liberty Seated Dollars.

One of the interesting aspects of the availability of many of the CC issues is their distribution. The A. Wright story illustrates the odd distribution of just Liberty Seated Dollars from Carson City in 1870. Production for the 1870-CC Liberty Seated Dollar began on February 10 and the next day 2,303 of the total mintage of 11,758 was withdrawn by just one customer?

Don’t you wonder how these bullion deposits affected distribution? Especially with the limited mintages of so many Carson City issues, the possibility of a large percentage of any given mintage going to the public was a real possibility and did happen. Rare coins produced at Carson City, like the 1873-CC No Arrows Dime, the 1876-CC 20 Cent, and the 1873 No Arrows Quarter had mintages of 12,400, 10,000, and 4,000, respectively. Curiously, today the dime is unique while the 20 cent and quarter have only 20 and six known specimens, respectively. This only further illustrates that the original mintage is sometimes quite meaningless.

Virtually all gold coins produced at Carson City are scarce. Even the larger-mintage later dates were subject to heavy circulation. Gold coins produced at Carson City circulated for commerce as they were intended. Complaints about the availability of circulating coinage had been a constant concern in many areas of the West for years despite the San Francisco Mint opening in 1854. Although this is debated, distribution issues often kept coinage from circulating in many Western states for decades – especially small silver and gold denominations. Many of these distribution issues were addressed once the Denver Mint was opened in 1906.

When you add the distrust of banks and paper money to the mix, the coins that were in circulation in the late 19th century really circulated! Carson City gold is nothing like Carson City Morgan Dollars, where several million uncirculated coins were saved in government vaults for more than 75 years after the Carson City Mint closed! Not only were production quantities limited in many cases, but there are few survivors because they were used.

One of the other distractions limiting the production of coins at Carson City was politics. From the very beginning, political winds ultimately steered the course of the mint for three decades. Tracing back to the Carson City Mint’s establishment by Congress in 1863 through the building’s completion in December 1869, there were issues. The builder’s original budget of $150,000 was perfectly adequate for a building situated in the East but terribly inadequate in Nevada. The final cost of the mint was $427,000.

During the production years of 1870 through 1885 and 1889 until 1893, having a sufficient number of planchets on hand continued to be an issue. And turmoil caused by politics was always present. Some of the planchet shortages were mostly likely favoritism issues with other mints. Regardless, the most serious example of political ax-grinding was the closing of the Carson City Mint from the middle of 1885 to October 1889 due to objections from members of the administration led by President Grover Cleveland.

If you ever wondered why there weren’t any Carson City coins produced from 1886-1888, you can thank Grover!

From the building of the mint itself until the final coins rolled off the presses, nothing was ever simple at the Carson City Mint. The mint ceased production after 1893 once Grover Cleveland returned to office. The formal mint status was withdrawn in 1899, but the facility remained open as an assay office until 1933. In 1939, the building was sold to the state for $10,000. It houses the Nevada State Museum today.

Like I mentioned earlier, withdrawals (of newly minted coinage) by individual depositors further clouds the estimated survival rate of all Carson City coinage except Morgan Dollars. There is ample evidence that supplies and therefore surviving coins were small to begin with. This is especially evident in most early date Carson City gold issues.

Some 1.862 million gold coins were minted at Carson City over the 24-year life of the mint. Dividing the total number of coins minted by the total number of issues (19 x 3) results in a modest annual average mintage for gold coins at Carson City of less than 33,000 per year per denomination. When you remove the three highest-mintage dates of each denomination, the average annual mintage per issue is only 20,000. The fact that survival rates are so low is no wonder.

Excellent reference material has been written on Carson City gold. Two of my go-to reference work authors are David Akers and Doug Winter. Akers’ six-volume series on U.S. gold titled United States Gold Coins: An Analysis of Auction Records from 1979 rates the individual dates in each denomination. The rankings and survival estimates are based on decades of auction results from nearly 400 major auctions, all of which pre-dated third-party encapsulation. His observations, many firsthand, are still quite accurate in most cases regarding relative rarity between other dates in the series, as well as the condition census date examples he had encountered. Regardless of its age, this series of books continues to be one of the backbones for U.S. gold reference to this day.

Doug Winter is one of the most knowledgeable numismatists in our business, and his ability to convey that knowledge to others is truly remarkable. His series of books on U.S. branch-mint gold is fabulous. Fifteen years after Aker’s work was published, Winter’s book Gold Coins of the Old West: The Carson City Mint 1870-1893 was the first book, written in 1994, that quantified and included the early PCGS population figures in the analysis of all the gold dates issued at Carson City. For the first time, PCGS-graded coins were included in such an analysis.

Subsequent editions of Winter’s book have expanded our knowledge. The Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) Book of the Year award-winning three-volume book series The Confident Carson City Coin Collector by Rusty Goe promises even greater detail.

CC Coins Make the Grade

PCGS has graded coins since 1986, so arguably an adequate sample size has been obtained over the past decades. In addition to PCGS Registry Sets for the finest-known collections, there are low ball collections for many series. Currently, PCGS has Registry Sets for the following CC gold coins:

  • Carson City Basic Type Set, 10 piece – 3 gold
  • Carson City Major Type Set, 14 piece – 4 gold
  • Carson City Gold Basic Set, 57 piece
  • Carson City $5 Basic Set, 19 piece
  • Carson City $10 Basic Set, 19 piece
  • Carson City $20 Basic Set, 19 piece
  • Carson City Complete Set with Major Varieties, 114 piece – 57 gold
  • Carson City Basic Type Set Low Ball, 10 piece – 3 gold

The only 100% complete Carson City collection comprising all 114 coins was built by D.L. Hansen and has a GPA weighted average of 60.01 as of October 2021. The Carson City Gold Basic Set including all 57 gold issues has a GPA average of 58.65 in October 2021. This All-Time Finest set, the set(s), the gold coins part of the 114-piece Carson City set, are both D.L. Hansen sets. On a practical basis, 10 of the total 57 dates in the gold series have no coins graded in what one might call Brilliant Uncirculated (BU), or roughly MS60-63. Achieving a GPA of nearly 60 when 10 of 57 coins aren’t categorically Brilliant Uncirculated is phenomenal.

Conversely, the best of the bottom end of the scale has been held for the last five years by the Low Hanging Fruit Carson City Type Low Ball collection. The Low Hanging Fruit collection with 10 total coins has six PO01, two FR02, one AG03, and one VG08. The weighted average on this set is 68.89 because of the difficulty. One should note that the lowest-graded Carson City gold coin in that set is an 1874-CC $10 in FR02. One should also note that the other two gold coins are the AG03 and the VG08 coins.

On a practical basis, Carson City gold has relatively narrow collector avenues. For example, neither a Very Good/Fine nor a nice uncirculated date set are completable. There are 10 of the 57 dates with no Brilliant Uncirculated coins graded, making an AU/BU set the finest set that can be assembled. Lower-graded Carson City gold coins are much more difficult to locate than one might imagine. In fact, lower-grade Carson City gold coins in the Almost Good, Good, and Very Good grades are almost non-existent, making a low ball set that much more difficult. There are six of the 57 dates that have no coins graded under F15 either.

The sweet spot, so to speak, for Carson City gold coins is relatively narrow. The issue is most often finding the coin. Using PCGS population figures to chart a collecting course for Carson City gold illustrates the virtual impossibility of some set goals. There are some of the more common dates in each of the three series available in nice uncirculated grades, but many of the early dates are not available in the AU grades very often either.

Your budget must be considered, but an unachievable project isn’t worthy either. I would be more practical when pursuing dated CC gold in terms of not locking myself into a minimum grade. In addition, especially when dealing with the earlier dates from the 1870s, don’t be afraid to step up price-wise. Although markets can’t be predicted, you are fighting two battles when building a Carson City gold collection – those of price and availability. For example, when offered a PCGS VF30 Carson City gold coin, don’t be hesitant to make a move because you’re waiting for a nicer coin to come along. In the worst-case scenario, you have exceptional trade bait for a nicer coin if it becomes available.

Building Your CC Gold Buying Strategy

In the tables to follow, I’ve listed mintages and the current PCGS populations for all 57 Carson City gold issues. I’ve broken down the population totals into four grade ranges to illustrate the sweet spot for grades available for each date and denomination. Like I mentioned earlier, the lower-grade coins from F15 and below and many of the coins from MS60 and up are not available. The table illustrates the grade ranges where you are most likely to find coins available for sale.

Let’s look at the very first coin in the series the 1870-CC $5 gold for instance. Sure, I’d love to own the only decent uncirculated coin or any of the 15 AU coins, but the sweet spot (in terms of availability) for this date is the VF20 through XF45 grade(s), with a total of 57 coins encapsulated for the date in that grade range. By no means am I suggesting you pass on a nicer (or lower grade) coin. What I am suggesting is to be open to buying a coin that doesn’t fit perfectly into your “AU or better” set. For serious Carson City gold collectors, filling the hole if the PCGS graded date becomes available should be your strategy.

The tables below for each of the three gold denominations illustrate a path to follow in building your set. As I have mentioned earlier, both the very low grade and ultra-high-grade sets are not completable by date. I have grouped populations into four categories represented by PO01 through F15, VF20 through XF45, AU50 through AU58, and MS60 or better. I have totaled the populations in each of these categories to convey this information. These groupings are somewhat arbitrary, but they do serve to illustrate what you can expect as far as availability.

Carson City $5 Liberty Head Gold

*Population figures are accurate as of October 2021

  • Total Carson City $5 Liberty Head Mintage: 696,721 – $3,483,605 Face Value
  • Average mintage of the 17 Issues: 36,500
  • Low Mintage: 6,887 (1876)
  • High Mintage: 208,000 (1891)

When looking at the 17-coin Carson City $5 Liberty Head series, there are a couple of observations evident.

First, the early dates prior to 1880 are not practically collectible in uncirculated with many exceptionally difficult to locate in even the AU grades. These early date years are challenging in all grades, and while targeting at least a VF/XF example is laudable, seriously consider any grade available.

The second observation is that the later dates 1890 to 1893 are available in uncirculated grades in quantity.

After looking at the numbers, I like those VF/XF coins for the earlier years and uncirculated on the dates from 1890 and after. When just considering the supply side, the VF/XF grades fall into the doable grade window, as far as availability before 1890.

Carson City $10 Liberty Head Gold

*Population figures are accurate as of October 2021

  • Total $10 Carson City Liberty Head Mintage: 300,780 – $3,007,800 Face Value
  • Average Mintage of the 17 Issues: 15,830
  • Low Mintage: 3,244 (1878)
  • High Mintage: 103,732 (1891)

The Carson City $10 Liberty Head series is quite difficult. Only two dates are available in the Brilliant Uncirculated grade range in any quantity: 1890 and 1891. Very much like the Carson City $5 Liberty Head series, sets in such Mint State grades are not completable. There are only three total coins encapsulated in that grade echelon for the first 10 years of issue 1870 through 1879. While AU coins, too, are quite difficult to find sets are completable in the AU grades.

A realistic strategy for building the $10 Carson City set would be to search for coins in all grades for the early years with your goal being an AU coin. Later dates from 1890 to 1893 are available in Brilliant Uncirculated grades. When looking at the PCGS population numbers there is a clear distinction in terms of supply for the first 10 years and last four years especially. Interestingly, while there are very few Brilliant Uncirculated coins (three) for the first 10 years of issue, there are only three total coins graded F15 or less for the last four years.

I would seriously consider any grade early date Carson City $10 Liberty Head because of availability. An AU or better coin should be appropriate for the later years 1890 through 1893 because of availability.

Carson City $20 Liberty Head Gold

*Population figures are accurate as of October 2021

  • Total $20 Carson City Liberty Head Mintage: 864,128 – $17,282,560 Face Value
  • Average Mintage of the 17 Issues: 45,480
  • Low Mintage: 3,789 (1870)
  • High Mintage: 138,000

More $20 Liberty Head gold coins were minted at Carson City than either the $5 or $10 Liberty Head coins. In fact, the only coins minted in 1885 and 1889 at the Carson City Mint were the Morgan Dollar and the Liberty Head Double Eagle coin. Like the importance placed on dollar production versus smaller silver-issue coins which were discontinued after 1878, double eagle production was more of a priority than the $5 and $10 Liberty Head coins.

There is only one date of the 17 issues unavailable in Brilliant Uncirculated. Only the 1870, with a paltry mintage of 3,789, has no Brilliant Uncirculated coins graded and only a very modest six total AU coins. This is the stopper of the set, and with only 40 total coins graded any PCGS coin would be desirable. Many of the first 10 years of issue are scarce, but the last three years of the Type Two $20 design issues in 1874 to 1876 had the three largest mintages of all seventeen years the coin was made. AU Carson City $20 Liberty Head sets are completable with a small number of Brilliant Uncirculated sets possible, except for the 1870-CC.

Like the $5 and $10 denominations, lower-grade examples should seriously be considered for the 1870-1873, 1877-1879, and 1891 dates, speaking in terms of availability; especially the Type Two and early Type Three date issues are desirable in all grades. However, the Carson City $20 Liberty Head is not collectible in F15 or less because a total of only 33 coins are graded for the 17 issues in PO01 through F15.

In conclusion, looking at Carson City coinage from the pragmatic angle of a former dealer gives one a unique perspective. Carson City coinage sells. Rarely do U.S. coin dealers have the problem of being overstocked with Carson City coinage. Despite some dealers specializing in Carson City coinage, they, too, are fighting the same supply constraints as the rest of us. When a scarce Carson City coin becomes available there are always multiple customers for the coin. Carson City coins in a dealer’s showcase always “go away”!

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