Liberty Head eagles were struck from 1838 through 1907 and exist in two distinct design types: No Motto (1838-1866) and With Motto (1866-1907). This article is going to focus on the No Motto issues from two perspectives: affordable coins (in this case up to $5,000 or so) and high-budget coins ($7,500 and up).
No Motto Liberty Head eagles were made at three different mints, as follows:
- Philadelphia: 1838-1865 (32 issues including varieties)
- New Orleans: 1841-1860 (22 issues including varieties)
- San Francisco: 1854-1866 (14 issues including varieties)
This gives us a grand total of 68 issues. The good news is that there are no exceedingly rare six or seven-figure dates. The bad news is that there are around 15 or 20 issues which have surviving populations in the 25-75 coin range, and even more which are true appearance rarities.
Of all the various Liberty Head series, the No Motto eagles are probably the most complex from a pricing standpoint. It is very difficult to price a coin such as a high-grade 1844 when the frequency of appearance might be one or two truly choice coins every five or so years. The supply of really choice rare date No Motto eagles is limited enough that even a small ramp up in demand (say two or three serious new collectors) can have a major impact.
There is another factor that the sophisticated collector of No Motto eagles has to deal with: distinguishing nice coins from ratty coins, and knowing how to price the former. A casual scan of auction prices realized will show a remarkable variance for the same date in the same grade. Let me give you an example (and this is totally random; I could do this for coin after coin): Legend Auctions sold an 1840 eagle graded AU58 by PCGS and approved by CAC for a strong $9,108 as Lot 464 in their December 2016 event. In October 2014, Heritage sold an NGC non-CAC AU58 for $3,819. I viewed both coins: the Legend example was nice though probably pretty aggressively priced while the Heritage example was not as bad as its weak price would indicate. Bottom line: two coins, same date, same grade…one at a touch over $9k the other at a touch below $4k. What gives?!?
This isn’t an isolated example and this is why collecting this series is not for the faint of heart. There are a lot of truly vile No Motto $10 Libs in holders (both services) and the collector will have to learn the difference between real and fake color, natural and artificial/enhanced surfaces, and good eye appeal vs. average or poor eye appeal.
Enough with the fear-mongering. Let’s talk No Motto tens!
There is a distinct two-year sub-type for Philadelphia No Motto eagles. All of the coins dated 1838 and some dated 1839 show an early rendition of Gobrecht’s Liberty Head portrait as well as distinctive Large Letters on the reverse. The 1838 is scarce and very popular while the 1839 Large Letters is available.
Beginning in later 1839, the revised design was adopted and the reverse letters are now small in size. The 1839 Small Letters is a rare and much undervalued issue which the lower-budget collector will find challenging to locate. The rest of the 1840’s issue range from fairly common and affordable (1840, 1842, 1843, 1847, 1848, and 1849) to scarce (1841, 1845, 1846), to rare (1844). The collector of average means will be able to buy nice examples of every date save for the 1844 and with a bit of a splurge, a decent 1844 is within reach. The collector seeking high-grade No Motto eagles from this era will be challenged as even the very common dates from the 1840’s are rare in properly graded MS62 to MS63, and all but unknown in higher grades.
The issues from the 1850’s show a similar rarity profile to their 1850’s counterparts. All with the exception of the 1858 are readily available (and affordable) in nice AU, while a very presentable 1858 will cost in excess of $10,000.
The 1860’s No Motto dates from Philadelphia range greatly in terms of their rarity. The 1860 is moderately scarce, the 1861 is common, the 1862 is very scarce, the 1863 is very rare, while the 1864 and 1865 are rare. The lower budget collector will be basically stymied with the 1863-1865 issues while the more advanced collector can expect to spend in excess of $30,000-50,000 each.
A quick note on the 1863 eagle which remains an overlooked rarity, despite a relative flurry (three!) of auction appearances in 2016. The 1864-S is higher priced and better known but the 1863 remains the rarest collectable No Motto issue of this denomination. There are as few as 30-35 examples known with two grading Uncirculated (PCGS MS63, ex Bass and NGC MS62, ex S.S. Republic).
The lower budget collector is going to be able to assemble an impressive date run of No Motto P mint eagles with over 75% of the dates likely available in nice AU grades at $5,000 and below. The collector with a greater budget can aim for Uncirculated examples of nearly every issue save for the 1839 Small Letters, 1844, and the Civil War dates (except the 1861).
2. NEW ORLEANS
The uninterrupted date run of No Motto eagles from New Orleans begins with the rare 1841-O and ends with the 1860-O. There are two very scarce to rare issues (the 1841-O and the 1859-O) and around another half dozen which while not rare will prove challenging to locate with good eye appeal and natural coloration.
Lower budget collectors will have a tough chore locating the 1841-O, and the 1859-O is essentially unavailable below $10,000. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are a number of dates which can be purchased in the AU50 to AU55 range for less than $5,000, and other scarcer issues which can be purchased in EF grades at this price point. Forgetting the two rare issues, the collector on a limited budget should be able to assemble a meaningful set of No Motto eagles from the New Orleans mint.
Before we discuss collecting options for big budget buyers, let’s talk collecting strategies for No Motto O mint eagles for all levels of buyers.
The first is to choose a “look” which suits you and try to assemble as evenly matched a collection as possible.
The second is to learn the intricacies of the series. Let’s say you decide to pass on a choice PCGS AU55 1848-O with nice surfaces and natural color because the stars are weakly detailed. Some basic research will reveal that all examples of this date show weakness on the stars.
The third is to seize opportunities. You will quickly learn that certain dates in this series like the 1842-O, 1849-O, 1852-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, and 1857-O are extremely hard to locate with CAC-worthy eye appeal. In fact, for many of the aforementioned dates there might be fewer than dozen known in total which can really, truly be termed “choice.” If you are presented with the opportunity to buy, say, a choice, original PCGS EF45 1849-O don’t be bashful when it comes to paying a strong price.
Last but not least is to be patient. You can race through a set of New Orleans No Motto eagles but a choice, meaningful collector grade or high grade assemblage is going to take some time, even if you have available funds ready.
3. SAN FRANCISCO
Until recently, the No Motto eagles from the early years of the San Francisco mint were acknowledged to be rare but collectors specializing in them were even rarer. This began to change around five years ago (or perhaps even earlier for the Civil War issues) and there are now a number of collectors seeking these coins; although not as many as there are for New Orleans No Motto eagles.
Of the 14 San Francisco No Motto eagles only 3 are relatively common (1854-S, 1856-S, and 1857-S) and these issues are all very rare in Uncirculated. I regard one as extremely rare (1864-S), four as very rare (1860-S, 1863-S, 1865-S Normal Date, and the 1866-S No Motto) and the remainder are either very scarce or rare. Every one of these 11 issues are difficult to locate in EF45 to AU50 and many are either unknown or excessively rare (1-3 are known). To say this set is “challenging” is an understatement; especially if a collector demands choice pieces with original surfaces.
Is the lower budget collector totally out of luck when it comes to this series? Forgetting the 1864-S which simply doesn’t exist in a problem-free version which is “affordable,” this set is potentially completable for collectors who can swing up to $7,500-10,000 per coin.
Many of these dates saw extensive circulation and there are examples of S mint No Motto eagles in grades as low as Very Good to Very Fine. Some of these well-worn coins are actually quite appealing as they have enough wear that surface marks tend to be worn down. There is an avid collector base for these if they are attractive. As an example, Stacks Bowers sold a PCGS F12 1862-S with CAC approval for $3,760 in the 2016 ANA auction. This seems like a strong price, but when one considers that five dozen or so of this date are known it makes sense to pay up for a low grade but aesthetically appealing example.
Competition for high-grade coins in this series far outstrips the supply. As an example, let’s turn again to the 1862-S. In April 2011, Heritage offered a fresh-to-the-market NGC MS61 which was (and still is) unique in Uncirculated. Two collectors engaged in an epic battle and when the smoke cleared, the coin had sold for an impressive $103,500.
If you are swimming in the deep end of the No Motto eagle pool, prepare for some difficult decisions. Let me give you an example.
The rare 1864-S basically disappeared from view from 2006 to 2014. It turns out a collector was hoarding this issue and no less than four would sell at auction in 2014 (I handled two of these as well as two newly discovered examples in 2015/2016). If you were a collector you had to a) decide if you liked any of the hoard coins b) figure out what to pay which wasn’t an easy task given that a decade had passed since the last comparable APR and c) keep your fingers crossed no more 1864-S eagles would come out of the woodwork in 2016 (they didn’t….).
My personal favorite date in this subset is the 1865-S Normal Date. Two varieties of 1865-S eagle are known: the visually arresting Inverted Date (the 865 was punched upside down!) and the less visual but in reality more rare Normal Date. This variety is almost as rare as the 1864-S but it is priced at a considerably lower level. I’ve only handled two nice AU’s (a PCGS AU53 and an NGC 55) and I doubt if there are more than a half dozen choice examples in all grades combined.
So, there you have it: an overview of arguably my favorite type of US gold coin: the No Motto eagle. If you’d like to begin a collection of these challenging coins, please feel free to call me at (214) 675-9897 or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.