By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
Coin writers like to be thorough. If you’ve ever picked up a book on a particular series (and you have, right? Don’t we have a saying in this hobby?), then you know that the true origins of your favorite coin lay in the mists of time, probably before mankind invented fire, and if you don’t know who wrote the law that funded the engineer that invented the machine that made the tools that carved the working hub that minted the pattern that inspired the design of the coin that Jack built, well… what kind of collector are you?
At least it can feel that way.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowledge pays in this hobby, whether you’re buying or selling. But it seems like every writer who’s ever written a book on a coin feels compelled to write THE book, the book to make all future books obsolete. The most comprehensive guide to that particular coin ever written.
Otherwise, who’s going to buy it?
Anyway, I was looking around for information on Liberty Head gold dollars and that’s what I noticed. Even the Red Book had to give me a history lesson before getting to the point. I love history, to be sure, but sometimes it feels like I’m studying for a license I didn’t know I needed.
So. Gold dollars.
The first thing you should understand is that Alexander Hamilton… just kidding.
No, it really starts with the California Gold Rush. With this, the latest and greatest gold rush on American soil, the federal government finally authorized the production of gold dollars.
And believe it or not, they circulated well enough, thanks to Gresham’s Law. If you’re not familiar with Gresham’s Law, don’t worry. You probably act on it every day without knowing it. That bicentennial quarter from your pocket change this morning, did you put it aside and use the latest America the Beautiful quarter for your parking meter instead? That’s a trivial application of the law, but an instructive one. The law basically means that if you have two kinds of money with the same spending power or face value, but one is worth more to you than the other, then you’ll spend the one that’s worth less and keep the more valuable.
In the case of the gold dollar, people viewed it as less intrinsically valuable than the heavy silver dollars in circulation at the time. The silver dollars were hoarded or sent abroad.
However, silver coins were soon made of less material, and the situation flip-flopped. Then the Civil War happened. The gold dollar stopped circulating like it used to, which lead to lower mintages… which lead to hoarding… which lead to lower mintages… etc., etc.
The series finally ended production in 1889.
Over its run, the coin featured three predominant obverse design types, all of them designed by James Longacre. He was the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint from 1844 to 1869. I’ve read that there was much contention between Longacre and the clique that worked for Mint Director Robert Patterson. I mention this because some of our most iconic designs seem to have came from such troubled relationships between artist and management at the Mint (the Morgan dollar and the Saint-Gaudens double eagle come immediately to mind).
Type 1 is commonly called the Liberty Head gold dollar. Liberty wears a tiara with her name on it (in English, natch), and her hair is in a bun. Jane Austen-esque ringlets of hair cascade down her neck. These are important details because several early denominations are known by hairstyle and accoutrement-based nicknames.
She faces left and is surrounded by 13 six-pointed stars. It’s my understanding that the portraits on the first federal coins faced left in order to set our coinage apart from the traditional imperial practice of having emperors and kings face right, but I may be wrong. For similar reasons, it was (once upon a time) considered anathema to have presidents or living individuals on United States coins.
There are two main reverses used with Type 1: Open Wreath and Closed Wreath. If you didn’t know that already, you might not even notice the difference. Both reverses feature a wreath of what looks like holly and berries mostly surrounding a Roman numeral one, the word DOLLAR, and the date. The Closed Wreath variety simply has the wreath going up to but not touching the top of the one, while the Open Wreath version stops short.
After a handful of years, Type 1 was retired, and Type 2 entered production in 1854. The Liberty Head design was replaced with what’s known as the “Indian Princess” Head, which isn’t really an “Indian” nor does it portray a princess. In reality, you’re still looking at Miss Liberty, just in “Native” garb. Here, Liberty’s hair lays oddly flat and she wears a feathered headdress. Not something a Native American female typically wore (nor did the typical male, for that matter).
This incongruous detail didn’t seem to bother the average user of coins. Besides, since Ben Franklin’s time, America had sought to define and assert a national character we believe is unique to this great land, and coins and currency were important staging grounds for this work. If this meant appropriating and misusing native religious symbols, then so be it.
This first version of the new design is referred to as the Small Head version. And while the gold dollar featured the Indian Princess Head motif until the end of its run, a Large Head version was prepared in 1856 in order to fix problems with the strike (does NO coin strike right the first time?).
Enter Type 3.
Except for the size of Miss Liberty’s head, Types 2 and 3 are identical. The “holly” wreath on the original Type 1 reverse was replaced by an agricultural wreath on the Type 2, and that’s how it stayed until 1889 when the Liberty Head gold dollar ceased production.
On the whole, grades below MS-60 are relatively affordable, with Open Wreath varieties commanding a little more.
If you’re looking for gold but don’t have much of a budget, then take a look at the smallest of all coins minted by the United States – the Liberty Head (or Indian Princess) gold dollar.