Cold to the Fifth: Five U.S. Gold Series Which are Snoozing, and their Chances to Re-Awaken

I’ve specialized in United States gold coins since the 1980’s and I’ve seen a number of series go from cold to hot and vice-versa. There are currently some series which are not actively collected which have, at various times, been more popular. Let’s look at five of these and gauge their chances of becoming popular once again.

1. Three Dollar Gold Pieces

Three Dollar gold pieces were struck from 1854 through 1889. This was a series which saw little contemporary demand in commerce and with the exception of a few issues was struck in limited quantities.

The first “collectors” of Three Dollar gold pieces were speculators (dealers and hoarders) who realized certain issues were made in limited quantities for circulation and took positions in some of these.

1854-D $3.00 PCGS AU50 CAC

1854-D $3.00 PCGS AU50 CAC

Three Dollar gold pieces were mainly collected by date as Proofs during the first half of the 20th century and to this day, the most famous issue in this series is the Proof-only 1875 of which a reported 20 were struck, along with an unknown number of restrikes.

This series saw ebbs and flows of popularity during the 1970’s and 1980’s and many of my numismatic mentors bought and sold numerous important examples. But it wasn’t really until Dave Bowers and I produced a reference on the series that Three Dollar gold became actively collected. From around 2004 to 2007, Threes were one of the darlings of the coin market and prices rose accordingly. But for the last decade, this series has seen little price movement and a strong lack of demand (with exceptions! See below).

The Pogue Collection contained a wonderful high-grade set of Threes (purchased mostly intact and formerly known as the Great Lakes Collection) and this partially jump-started the market; at least for very high-grade coins. The Civil War issues have been strong for around five years (as has every US gold coin with a Civil War date) and the famous 1854-D has always been in very strong demand. I would still have to say that, overall, this series remains cold.

What Could Re-Awaken This Series? A revised edition of the Bowers/Winter Three Dollar book would be a good start. A few new collectors working on Registry Sets would help (these sets wouldn’t have to be high-grade as this denomination lends itself nicely to Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated grade sets). And finally, a little promoting by dealers like me couldn’t hurt…

2. Type Two Liberty Head Double Eagles

Type Two Liberty Head double eagles were made from 1866 through 1876 at the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Carson City mints. In the current marketplace, this series is strongly bifurcated. There are the still-popular Carson City issues and the not-as-popular Philadelphia and San Francisco issues.

Flash back to a decade or so ago and this was not the case. A major telemarketer had focused on Type Two double eagles and as a result, there were dozens of collectors focusing on date runs of P+S issues; often in relatively high grades.

Today this is not the case. Despite the extreme popularity of Carson City Type Two double eagles, their Philadelphia and San Francisco counterparts are currently dead as the proverbial doorknob.

1868-S $20.00 NGC MS62

1868-S $20.00 NGC MS62

Irony Department: around a year ago, a phenomenal hoard of P and S mint Type Two double eagles reached the market. Collectors now have a chance to obtain really fresh, really attractive About Uncirculated and Uncirculated coins at really reasonable prices. A decade ago, this hoard would have been hailed as one of the most interesting groups of U.S. gold coins ever offered. Today, it is largely under the radar.

What Could Re-Awaken This Series? I wrote a pretty lousy specialized book on Type Two double eagles around 20 years ago. A better, more up-to-date book would be a good start. Some dealer promotions—perhaps using some of the above-mentioned hoard coins—couldn’t hurt. With the extreme popularity of Type One and, to a lesser extent Type Three Liberty Head double eagles, it seems that Type Two issues are an inevitable hot series waiting to ignite.

3. Indian Head Quarter Eagles

I decided to be snarky at the recent ANA as I looked through the boxes (and boxes and boxes…) of Indian Head quarter eagles that a prominent coin dealership handed me at their table.

Me: How much would you love me if I told you I was starting a promotion of Indian Head quarter eagles?

Large Coin Firm Representative (comment edited for adult language): Sigh…you have no !@#$%^& idea…

There is no single area of the US gold market which is colder right now than Indian Head quarter eagles. Just look at the prices of common dates. You can buy an MS64 common date for $650 or so and an MS65 for double this. At the beginning of this decade—when people still sorta/kinda cared about $2 ½ Indians, MS64’s were more like $1,250 and MS65’s were in the $3,000+ range.

This series should be more popular than it is today. It is only 15 coins so it is completable. The design is attractive. The “rarity” of this type, the 1911-D, is available enough so as not to dissuade potential collectors. What went so terribly wrong?

1911-D $2.50 PCGS MS64+ CAC

1911-D $2.50 PCGS MS64+ CAC

For many years, Indian Head quarter eagles were supported by a large marketing firm who was actively making a two-way market. As large as they were, they were unable to control what seems like a limitless supply of Indian Head quarter eagles that keep coming on to the market (almost 20,000 MS64 and MS64+ have been graded by PCGS alone). And today’s MS64 Indian Head quarter eagles are, to put it charitably, a lot less nice than the MS64’s of a decade ago.

What Could Re-Awaken This Series? I’m thinking the train has left the station for this series. It would take an intensive promotion to get collectors/investors back into the Indian quarter eagle market and even if you go 100 new guys working on MS63 and MS64 sets, that’s probably not enough to suck the glut of coins off the market. At some point, these may just get so cheap that people find them irresistible.

4. Commemorative Gold Dollars and Quarter Eagles

Between 1903 and 1926, the US Mint produced 11 different commemorative gold dollars/quarter eagles. These have been very popular with collectors in the past, given their reasonably low mintages, background stories and attractive designs.

1915-S $2.50 Panama Pacific PCGS MS64 CAC

1915-S $2.50 Panama Pacific PCGS MS64 CAC

The market for these issues has been in a downward spiral for years and I think I know why. As numismatics became more transparent, people learned that issues formerly considered to be “scarce” or even “rare” -- weren’t. The population figures for Commemorative gold coins are eye-opening. As an example, look at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Dollar; an issue formerly thought to be rare in Gem Uncirculated. The most recent PCGS population figures show 260 coins graded MS65 with another 85 in MS66. When fewer coins had been graded at PCGS and it was easier to convince a neophyte that this coin was rare and it commanded a low five figure price. Today, even the newbiest of newbie collectors can tell this coin isn’t rare in MS65 or MS66 and prices have plummeted accordingly.

But I don’t think all hope is lost for Commemorative Gold. In my numismatic lifetime, I have seen at least three different run-ups in this market and I will be very surprised if I don’t see at least one more.

What Could Re-Awaken This Series? About a year ago I heard rumors of an impending commem gold promotion but it appears that it never came to pass. I am aware of a small number of collectors doing 11-piece sets in very high-grades (MS66 and MS67) and this end of the market seems far more likely to ignite than the schlocky MS63 and MS64 pieces that are easily located at major coin shows.

5. Generic Gold

“Generic gold” is a blanket term used to describe common date examples of common 19th and 20th century U.S. gold types. The types most often traded as generics include the following:

  • Post-1900 Liberty Head quarter eagles and Indian Head quarter eagles
  • Common date Liberty Head half eagles
  • Lower grade Uncirculated (MS60 to MS63) common date Indian Head half eagles
  • Common date With Motto Liberty Head eagles
  • Lower grade Uncirculated (MS60 to MS64) common date Indian head eagles
  • Common date Type Three Liberty Head and St. Gaudens double eagles

Note: Super high-grade common date gold coins (i.e. an MS67 1927 St. Gaudens) are not technically generics and odd denomination issues such as gold dollars and three dollars don’t trade as generics even though certain specific issues may be very common.

If you even casually follow the US gold market, you know that generic gold has basically been crushed the last three to five years. The reasons for this include but are not limited to the following:

  • Dropping gold bullion prices
  • Reduced demand due to marketers now selling modern or rare(r) gold coins
  • Huge supply still being expatriated from overseas sources
  • Mismanagement of the market by importers
  • Population reports revealing huge numbers of coins graded (example: PCGS has graded close to 29,000 1927 Saints in MS64/64+)
  • Erosion in quality of coins graded MS63 to MS66

If only a few of these factors were occurring simultaneously, the generic market might show strength. But with all of these negative factors (and more) occurring, it is no wonder that generics are in the numis-toilet.

1924-D $20.00 PCGS MS63

1924-D $20.00 PCGS MS63

There is one other thing to consider: the impact of CAC.

In many ways, CAC exists as a remedy to combat gradeflation in the generic gold market. Ten or twenty years ago, an MS65 St. Gaudens double eagle was almost always a superior-quality coin with great luster and minimal abrasions. Today’s MS65 Saint is comparable (in many cases) to the MS63 of a decade ago and this has weakened the market as collectors won’t pay a large premium for a coin that is not “all there.”

The premiums for CAC approved generic gold are among the highest in all of numismatics. As a random example, a CAC approved MS66 common date Saint is currently valued at around $3,500. A typical quality non-CAC MS66 can be bought in the $2,250-2,500 range. This sort of premium is, in fact, seen on other better types of generics and it seems like the one area in this market which is showing any signs of life.

Here is the biggest problem with the generic gold market: the numbers. Unless literally hundreds or even thousands of new collectors begin buying generics, the supply is so vast that the demand will never keep up. Taste goes in cycles and 1995’s generic gold buyer is today’s modern issue accumulator.

What Could Re-Awaken This Series? A huge spike in gold prices would certainly help and this might take some of the excess inventory out of the market but short of a dramatic jump, I think most experts would agree that generic gold is, as far as we know it, done.

I’d love your comments about this blog and invite you to leave them below or to contact me directly at dwn@ont.com