The term “Early American Gold Coins” generally refers to the quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint between 1795 and 1834.
By its very nature, early gold attracts well-heeled collectors. There aren’t many interesting issues available anymore in the sub-$10,000 per coin category. That said, there are certain series in which most issues can be obtained in the $10,000-30,000 range.
Before I discuss specific collecting strategies and individual issues, I’d like to share a few tricks of the trade I have learned from purchasing hundreds of pieces of early gold.
- Whenever possible, try to by pieces which are as original as possible. In this context, “original” means surfaces which show mellow, natural coloration without obvious signs of enhancement. In many series, less than 10% of the surviving coins as what I’d refer to as original.
- For many issues, strike tends to be irregular, especially on the pre-1800 coins. Focus less on strike and more on the overall appearance of the coin, especially if it is a rarity.
- Adjustment marks are often seen on early gold. They do not impact the grade and you should learn to tolerate them unless they are extra-pronounced or very poorly situated.
- Do not rely on mintage figures to determine rarity of specific dates. Some issues (1799 half eagles, 1800 eagles and others) have misleadingly low mintages as examples were struck in other years and not included in the reported totals.
- Certain issues are almost never seen with good eye appeal. Learn which issues these are (I will reveal many of them in this article) and do not be bashful if you have an opportunity to buy a truly pleasing example of an issue which suffers from chronic eye appeal problems.
1. COLLECTING BY TYPE
A type collection of early gold includes one example of the 11 or 12 major designs of Early American gold coinage. These major types with some commentary are listed below.
QUARTER EAGLES (1796-1834)
a) Capped Bust Right No Stars, 1796 only. The much-loved No Stars type has a total mintage of just 963 coins of which fewer than 100 exist. This type is in strong demand for many reasons and it is exceptionally difficult to locate with good eye appeal. Expect to spend at least $100,000-125,000 for an acceptable example and $350,000++ for an Uncirculated example.
b) Capped Bust Right, Stars Obverse, 1796-1807. This type was produced for eight years and the individual issues range from reasonably common (1807) to very rare (1796 Stars and 1804 13 Stars). With patience, a collector will be able to purchase a nice circulated example in the $15,000-30,000 range. Uncirculated pieces exist and become very challenging in MS63 and above. My favorite dates for type collectors are 1805 and 1806/4.
c) Capped Bust Left, 1808 only. A total of 2,710 were made and as with the 1796 No Stars, this one-year type is extremely popular. An estimated 125-150 are known but many are either damaged or have problems. There are essentially no problem-free 1808 quarter eagles which grade lower than AU50 and of the various coins in AU holders I doubt if more than seven or eight are “choice.” You’ll have to budget around $100,000 for a presentable 1808 and have to be very patient as these are not often available.
d) Capped Head Left, Large Diameter, 1821-1827. This type consists of five issues with a total combined mintage of just 17,042. The rarest individual date is the 1826/’5’ (only 760 were made) while the most available is the 1825. This type can be found in the AU range without difficulty although really nice coins can be hard to find; budget around $20,000-30,000 for a nice coin. Uncirculated pieces are very scarce and become quite rare in MS63 and higher. My favorite date for type collectors is the underrated 1821.
e) Capped Head Left, Small Diameter, 1829-1834. This type consists of six issues with a total combined mintage of just 25,023. Five of the six dates are available; one (the 1834) is extremely rare. A nice AU coin can be located for $15,000-20,000 while a nice Uncirculated coin can be located for $30,000-40,000+. My favorite dates for type collectors are 1829 and 1833.
HALF EAGLES (1795-1834)
a) Capped Bust, Small Eagle, 1795-1798. The 1795 Small Eagle and the 1796/5 are the two dates which make sense for type collectors and I would choose the more common (but more popular) 1795 as it is a desirable first-year-of-issue. A reported 8,707 were struck and hundreds exist in grades ranging from Very Fine to Gem Uncirculated. A nice circulated piece will cost $40,000-60,000 while an Uncirculated example will require at least $150,000.
b) Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1795-1807. This type was a workhorse of early American banking and it is one of the more available early gold types. A nice circulated example is available in the $9,000-12,500 range and pleasing Uncirculated pieces cost $15,000-30,000. If I were going to choose a date for type, I would select a 1798 or a 1799 given these dates 18th century issuance. In the 1800-1807 range, I would choose either an overdate (1802/1 or 1803/2) or the 1804 Small 8/Large 8 given these issues impressive visuals.
c) Capped Bust Left, 1807-1812. This is another comparably available type with most issues carrying no rarity premium. A nice circulated example will cost $9,000-11,000 while a solid Uncirculated piece should run $12,500-25,000. To me, the most interesting dates for the type collector are the 1807 (first year of issue), the 1808/7 (the only overdate of this type) and the 1812 (final year of issue).
d) Capped Head Left, Large Diameter, 1813-1829. Here’s where early half eagles get really interesting. This type was extensively melted and a result you can ignore all the mintage figures. Only a few dates are reasonably available (1813, 1814/3, 1818 and 1820) and some of the most significant rarities in all of American numismatics are of this design type. The obvious choice for a type collector is the comparatively plentiful 1813 but I would opt for a more interesting 1818 or 1820. Expect to spend around $15,000-25,000 for a nice circulated example of this type or $25,000-40,000++ for an Uncirculated piece.
e) Capped Head Left, Small Diameter, 1829-1834. Every date of this six year type is rare due to extensive meltings. This isn’t necessarily the most expensive type in this set (and not every type collector recognizes this issue as separate from the Large Diameter) but it is the rarest and among the most interesting. My favorite dates for type collectors are the 1830 and the 1834. You’ll notice that this type is seldom seen in grades below AU55 and I would budget in the $50,000-75,000 range for a nice example.
a) Capped Bust Small Eagle (1795-1797). Only 13,344 examples of this type were reportedly struck during the three years of production. The 1797 is rare while the 1796 typically has quality issues which leave us with the 1795 as the ideal issue for type collectors. As one might expect, this is a very popular issue with a host of different collectors. It has a higher survival rate than one might expect and it isn’t really a rare issue but it has become extremely hard to find nice EF and AU 1795 eagles with choice surfaces and natural color. You’ll need to budget $50,000-75,000 for a circulated piece and $125,000 and up for one in Uncirculated.
b) Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle (1797-1804). This type was made from 1797 through 1801 and again in 1803 and 1804. Mintages were reasonably generous and survival rates dictate that a number of dates exist in the 500-1000 coin range. I would recommend the 1799 as the ideal date for type collectors due to its 18th century emission date. It has become very challenging to locate a choice example of this date in circulated grades as most have been enhanced; expect to pay in the $20,000-30,000+ range for one. A nice Uncirculated type coin will cost $50,000-75,000 and up.
2. COLLECTING BY SERIES
For collectors with some semblance of a budget, there are really only two early gold series which can realistically be collected by series: the “short set” of Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle half eagles (1798-1807) and the year set of Capped Bust Left half eagles (1807-1812).
The 1795 and 1797 Heraldic Eagle half eagles are rare and expensive but a date set of 1798-1807 half eagles is a readily attainable goal. There are nine basic coins in this set (plus a few other affordable major varieties) with all of these available in nice circulated grades for less than $15,000 per coin. You can add another three to five coins by including major varieties from 1798 and 1799 plus the 1804 Small 8/Large 8 and the 1806 Pointed 6. Your total investment for these 12 to 14 half eagles would run to around $200,000 and you’d have a really exceptional set.
The Capped Bust Left date set consists of just six coins (1807-1812) and all of these are available in nice AU for less than $15,000 per coin. This set could be added to with an 1808/7, an 1810 variety (not the very rare Small Date Small 5 or the rare Large Date Small 5) and an 1811 Tall 5 which would increase the set up to nine coins.
Another short set which is completable but challenging is the five coin Capped Head Left Large Diameter quarter eagles of 1821-1827. If you are able to purchase a nice example of the 1826/’5’ you’ve added the key to the series and none of the other issues are unrealistic.
3. COLLECTING RARITIES
A wealthy collector who appreciates rarities will be able to participate in a number of ways in the early gold market.
Virtually all pre-1834 gold coins are conditionally rare and even an available issue like the 1799 eagle is very rare in Gem Uncirculated. The recent Pogue sales contained Gem and Superb Gem examples of many dates in the quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle series, providing type and date collectors with incredible opportunities to add to their holdings.
There are many high six figure and seven figure rarities in the half eagle series whose value is not solely predicated on grade. Examples of these include the 1798 Small Eagle, the 1815, the 1822, the 1825/4, the 1829 Large Date and the 1829 Small Date.
4. FOCUSING ON 18TH CENTURY ISSUES
Let’s face it, there is just something magical about American coins dated in the 1790’s. It would be an interesting challenge for collectors to focus on those issues dated from 1795 through 1799.
In the quarter eagle series, there are four issues dated prior to 1800 (more if die varieties are included). The most affordable of these is the 1798 which is scarce but not impossibly rare and which can be found from time to time in circulated grades for less than $30,000.
The other three issues (1796 No Stars, 1796 With Stars and 1797) are rare but not unobtainable.
The 18th century half eagles present some challenges. Two issues are unique (1797 15 Stars Small Eagle and 1797 16 Stars Small Eagle) and another is very rare (1798 Small Eagle) but at least a few are reasonably available (1795 Small Eagle, 1796/5, 1798 Heraldic Eagle - all varieties - and the 1799) while others are rare but available at an average of one or two decent coins per year: the 1797 15 Stars and 16 Stars Small Eagle, the 1795 Heraldic Eagle and the 1797/5 Heraldic Eagle. In all, at least 10 different 18th century half eagles are available (not including die varieties which would greatly add to this list) and this is a really interesting possibility for the sophisticated collector with patience, opportunity and a nice-sized budget.
5. "EXOTIC" COLLECTIONS
I can think of a few interesting early gold sets which I would describe as “exotics.”
The first is a “transitional” set. A transitional issue occurs when two different designs are produced during a single year.
In the quarter eagle series, there is one Transitional pair: the 1796 No Stars and With Stars quarter eagles. You can’t get much cooler than this and while expensive, this set is not impossible.
There are four potential Transitional pairs in the half eagle denomination. The first is the 1795 Small Eagle and Heraldic Eagle issues. I recently sold a collector the former in PCGS AU55 and the latter in PCGS AU58 and it was really fun to see these two coins together. The 1797 Transitional pair (Small Eagle and Heraldic Eagle) gets an asterisk from me due to the fact that the former have a normal date while the latter is a 1797/5 overdate. The 1798 Transitional pair is more legitimate but the extreme rarity of the Small Eagle (just seven are known) makes this unrealistic. An easier goal is the 1807 Bust Right and Bust Left pair which is very easy to complete, even in higher grades.
A single Transitional pair exists for the eagle denomination: the 1797 Small Eagle and the 1795 Large Eagle. The former is rare in all grades while the latter is relatively available except in higher grade.
Another interesting goal is a first-year-of-issue and a first-year-of-type set. The former would include just three coins: a 1796 No Stars quarter eagle (this is the first type made for this denomination and it would be chosen instead of the second type, the With Stars), the 1795 Small Eagle five dollar gold piece, and the 1795 eagle.
A first year of type set would include the first year of production all 11 or 12 of the early gold types described above. This would be very challenging with the 1829 Small Date half eagle proving to be the rarest single issue.
The smallest of these exotic sets would also be one of the most numismatically significant: the one-year type set. Just two early gold types fit these criteria: the 1796 No Stars and 1808 quarter eagles.
6. COLLECTING BY DIE VARIETY
One of the most “hard core” ways to collect early gold is by die variety. Die variety collecting of early gold began back in the 1910’s/1920’s and while it certainly is not as robust today as Large Cents or Bust Half Dollars, there are a number of enthusiastic die variety collectors who focus on early gold.
The most avidly collected series of early gold die varieties is the Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle five dollar gold pieces. The original die variety research for these coins was done by Edgar Adams and Waldo Newcomer, and was furthered by Walter Breen, Harry Bass, and John Dannreuther.
Today, there are dozens of die varieties known for the 1798-1807 half eagle; some common, some not-so-common and some very rare to extremely rare. In my experience, the only varieties which command a premium are those which are solidly R-7 (4-12 known).
With a per-coin purchase price in excess of $10,000 per coin, this area of collecting will never become really popular. But I do note an increase in the number of collectors.
So…you still want to collect early gold? Hopefully these 2,500+ words have been helpful and have answered some of your questions and addressed some of your concerns. I would love to work with you on a simple or complex early gold collection and I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.