The Newbie's Lament: What Should I Collect?

For new collectors of vintage United States gold coins, one of the most puzzling questions to ask is: what should I collect. The answer, of course, depends on your budget, but it also depends on which sort of collection you are going to build: a set with a focused beginning, middle, and end, or a more random approach.

To make this an inclusive article, I’m going to look at three price ranges of coins (small, medium, and large if you will…) and how they apply to both approaches.

First, let’s quickly discuss price ranges. To collect 19th and early 20th century US gold coins, you have to have enough funds to spend a minimum of $1,500 to $3,000 per purchase. This amount will enable a collector to buy a limited but interesting range of coins. The second price range is $3,000 to $7,500. This is my “bread and butter” and a collector who is comfortable will have an extensive choice of coins, including some branch mint classics such as Charlotte and Dahlonega issues. The final price range is $10,000 and up. The air is a bit thinner here, but this range opens up a whole new horizon, including Proofs and early issues.

The second point to quickly discuss deals with “approaches” towards collecting. In my experience, there are two distinct types of collectors: those who assemble a defined set (i.e., Charlotte half eagles) versus those who acquire coins with a less laser-focused approach (i.e., half eagles with fewer than 100 known).

I. $1,500-3,000 Range: Sets and Random Accumulations

There are a few interesting sets which the collector with a smaller budget can attempt.

One possible set is Liberty Head quarter eagles from 1880 through 1894. These 15 issues were made only at the Philadelphia mint. Many have low mintages, and two (the 1881 and the 1885) have business strike mintages of fewer than 1,000.

Despite the scarcity of many of these issues, they are affordable. A date set could encompass coins in the EF-AU range for the scarcer issues and Uncirculated (MS60 to MS63) for the more common dates. The 1881 and 1885 might require a stretch up to $4,000 or $5,000, but I’d strongly recommend that these two coins should not be skimped on as they are the linchpins to the set.

1855-O $1.00 PCGS EF45 CAC

1855-O $1.00 PCGS EF45 CAC

Another completable set in the $1,500-3,000 price range is New Orleans gold dollars. This consists of just six coins, and many can be located in Uncirculated grades for under $2,000. The two keys to the set are the 1850-O and the 1855-O, and both can be found in very presentable grades for less than $3,000.

The collector who takes a more random approach to his purchases will find that the biggest bang for the buck will be in Philadelphia and San Francisco gold dollars, scarce-ish AU55 to AU58 three dollar gold pieces, and collector grade Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles.

Size matters in US gold coin collecting and a budget of $1,500 to $3,000 won’t be overly effective with big coins such as Liberty Head eagles and double eagles. But it will buy some very interesting gold dollars and quarter eagles. Areas which might be looked at include San Francisco gold dollars in AU grades, pre-1879 San Francisco quarter eagles in lower to middle AU grades, and many three Philadelphia three dollar gold pieces in EF-AU.

I mentioned collector grade C+D mint half eagles and it is still possible to buy nice VF common date half eagles from these two mints in the $1,750-2,250 range, and very presentable EF coins for $2,500-3,000. Ironically, a nice EF45 Charlotte or Dahlonega half eagle is often times more cosmetically appealing than a mediocre quality AU50 to AU53.

One piece of advice I can give to both date collectors and “randomists” is buy quality over quantity. If you are buying $1,500 coins once a month, consider buying a $3,000 coin every two months. You’ll have fewer coins, but they will be nicer and more interesting.

II. $3,000-7,500 Range: Sets and Random Accumulations

Stepping up to the $3,000-7,500 per coin range will open up a whole new world of potential sets. It will also enable the collector to buy larger size coins (tens and twenties) with much greater ease.

A completable set in this price range is the 16 half eagles made at the New Orleans mint between 1840 and 1894. The bulk of this set (13 coins) is No Motto issues. While only one date—the 1844-O—is common, all can be purchased in the EF40 to AU58 grade range and at least four (the 1844-O, 1892-O, 1893-O, and 1894-O) can be purchased in the lower Uncirculated grades for less than the top of this budget range.

The two key issues in this set are the 1842-O and 1847-O, and they would have to be in Extremely Fine, but every other No Motto coin (and this includes some legitimately scarce issue) can be bought in at least AU50 to AU53. For an extra challenging twist, this set could be all PCGS/CAC.

1894-S $20.00 PCGS MS62

1894-S $20.00 PCGS MS62

Another interesting project in the $3,000-7,500 per coin range would be a year set, 1877 through 1907, of Type Three Liberty Head double eagles. This set would feature mostly Philadelphia and San Francisco issues in the MS61 to MS64 range, but might also include a small number of nice Carson City pieces (common dates such as the 1883-CC, 1884-CC, 1890-CC, or 1892-CC) to spice things up. The only year which could not be filled is the 1886 for which the only issue is the very rare low mintage Philadelphia coin which would cost about as much as the other 30 issues combined.

What I like about this set, which could be assembled with 90% of the coins in Uncirculated grades for less than $100,000, is the amount of gold it allows the collector/investor to stockpile.

Random accumulators are going to find an amazing array of interesting coins in the $3,000-7,500 range.

Gold dollars of particular interest and within financial reach include all of the Civil War issues and a number of the more available C+D issues in AU grades.

A $3,000-7,500 per coin budget goes a long, long way in the Liberty Head quarter eagle series. Nearly all the pre-Civil War Philadelphia issues are within reach, as are a number of genuinely scarce San Francisco dates from the 1859-1867 era.

Three dollar gold pieces in this price range include nearly all of the branch mint issues and many Philadelphia dates with mintages of 2,500 business strikes or fewer.

Half eagles offer the collector with this budget a number of really interesting opportunities. Many nice Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles in AU grades cost well under $7,500 and this includes some scarcer dates. Every pre-1862 Philadelphia half eagle can be bought in higher grades (AU through MS62) for less than $7,500, and the same can be said for the scarce but affordable date run of San Francisco issues from 1867 through 1877.

Some very scarce Liberty Head eagles can still be bought in EF and lower AU grades for less than $7,500 and this includes many of the popular pre-Civil War dates from Philadelphia and New Orleans. Every Carson City dates struck after 1879 can be bought in AU to Mint State for around $5,000+, and there are a number of extremely challenging San Francisco eagles which cost less than $7,500 per coin.

Liberty Head double eagles are expensive in many cases but in the Type One series I can think of at least two dozen dates which can be bought—in EF or AU grades—for under $7,500; well under in many cases.

III. $7,500 and Up: Sets and Random Accumulations

At the big boy level of $7,500 and up, there is almost no limit as to the coolness factor of what can be bought.

With a five figure budget per coin, it is feasible to work on a complete date set of Dahlonega half eagles in About Uncirculated and Uncirculated grades. This set consists of 26 different issues, and all but one (the 1842-D Large Date) are possible to obtain in Uncirculated; most for under $20,000.

Other sets in this price range which are challenging but completable include San Francisco quarter eagles (with the exception of the rare 1854-S), and No Motto half eagles from this mint (again, without the 1854-S), Civil War gold from the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints with the potential inclusion of the 1861-dated southern issues, No Motto New Orleans eagles, Carson City eagles, and more.

1807 Bust Right $5.00 PCGS AU58 CAC

1807 Bust Right $5.00 PCGS AU58 CAC

Once the five-figure threshold is crossed and the collector is comfortable swimming in the deep end of the pool the challenging areas of early gold and proof gold become possibilities. A great set for the early gold enthusiast is the date run of Capped Bust Right half eagles from 1798 through 1807 (I’m excluding the 1795 and 1797 issues due to cost). A nice, matched set of AU55 to MS62 pieces can be assembled at an average cost of around $12,500-25,000 per coin and it can be expanded to include significant naked-eye varieties.

Smaller denomination Proof gold is comparatively affordable as long as the focus is on PR63 and PR64 grades. I have helped collectors assemble extensive date runs in these two denominations and have found them challenging but not uncompletable.

A random collection of coins at this price point might focus on interesting dates with fewer than 100 pieces known in borderline Condition Census grades. There are many Liberty Head quarter eagles and half eagles where a budget of $7,500-10,000 per coin will enable the collector to acquire some exceptional pieces. Stretching the budget up to $10,000-15,000 per coin would add room to shop in the Liberty eagle aisle.

Some randomists make their purchase based on a coin’s visual appearance. How cool would it be to see a collection of 19th century United States gold coins whose focus was strictly on pieces with choice, original surfaces in a variety of price points and series?

My point is that U.S. gold collecting doesn’t require deep, deep pockets to be an active participant. But, if your pockets are deep, scads of very interesting challenges await you….and I haven’t even begun to discuss the collecting possibilities of 20th century series such as the Indian Head half eagles/eagles, and St. Gaudens double eagles.

No matter what your budget, Douglas Winter Numismatics is the source for choice and rare United States gold coins. If you’d like to begin a collection of interesting, meaningful gold coins, please contact Doug Winter via email at dwn@ont.com.