So...You've Decided to Collect San Francisco Gold Coins...

The gold coinage produced at the San Francisco mint runs the gamut as far as size, rarity, demand, and design go. This facility is becoming more and more popular with collectors but there are numerous series from San Francisco which are underappreciated. Given the wealth of Northern California and its status as a haven for collectors, I am surprised that certain San Francisco gold coins aren’t on a par with Carson City issues from the standpoint of demand.

The San Francisco mint opened in 1854 and it made gold coins up through 1930. The following list shows the various gold types struck at this mint:

  • Type One Gold Dollars (1854 only)
  • Type Two Gold Dollars (1856 only)
  • Type Three Gold Dollars (1857-1860 and 1870)
  • Liberty Head Quarter Eagles (1854-1879; none made in 1855, 1858, 1864, 1874)
  • Three Dollars (1855-1857, 1860 and 1870)
  • Liberty Head Half Eagles, Without Motto (1854-1866)
  • Liberty Head Half Eagles, With Motto (1866-1906; none made in 1889, 1890, 1891).
  • Indian Head Half Eagles (1908-1916)
  • Liberty Head Eagles, Without Motto (1854-1866)
  • Liberty Head Eagles, With Motto (1866-1907; none made in 1875, 1890, 1891, 1904)
  • Indian Head Eagles (1908-1915, 1920, 1930)
  • Type One Liberty Head Double Eagles (1854-1866)
  • Type Two Liberty Head Double Eagles (1866-1876)
  • Type Three Liberty Head Double Eagles (1877-1907; none made in 1886)
  • St. Gaudens Double Eagles (1908-1930; none made in 1912, 1921, 1923, 1928, 1929)

In all, this represents a total of 15 different design types from the San Francisco mint for gold coinage with over 200 individual issues; not including major varieties.

There are numerous ways to collect these coins. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular and practical ways.

Collecting by Denomination

The most popular way to collect San Francisco gold coins is to choose a specific denomination and to then focus on assembling a complete set with one example of each date. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each denomination.

   1854-S $1.00 PCGS MS64 CAC

1854-S $1.00 PCGS MS64 CAC

Gold Dollars: Only seven different dates were made and the San Francisco gold dollar set is easily completable in circulated grades. Many of these issues are scarce even in the lowest Uncirculated grades, and every San Francisco gold dollar is very rare above MS63. That said, these issues are sometimes available in comparatively high grades so this is not an unrealistic project.

   1861-S $2.50 NGC EF45 CAC

1861-S $2.50 NGC EF45 CAC

Quarter Eagles: A total of 21 issues constitute this set and one date—the 1854-S—is extremely rare with around a dozen known. Discounting this date, all of the other San Francisco quarter eagles are attainable. The key issues are the 1861-S, 1862-S, and 1863-S. In EF grades, all three are affordable and AU’s, while very scarce to rare, can be obtained for less than $7,500 each. The other dates are all reasonably affordable in AU and even the lower Uncirculated grades. This is a challenging but completable set with some very under-appreciated coins included.

   1856-S $3.00 PCGS AU55 CAC, from the S.S. Central America

1856-S $3.00 PCGS AU55 CAC, from the S.S. Central America

Three Dollars: There are just five Three Dollar pieces from San Francisco but one—the 1870-S—is unique. The other four range from common (the 1856-S) to scarce (the 1855-S). Any San Francisco Three Dollar is scarce in properly graded AU55 to AU58 and all are rare to very rare in Uncirculated, although some nice pieces are likely to be available soon from the second offering of the S.S. Central America treasure. A nice, evenly matched set of AU San Francisco Threes is still a challenge, and the aforementioned treasure coins will no doubt spur demand.

   1855-S $5.00 NGC AU58 CAC

1855-S $5.00 NGC AU58 CAC

Half Eagles: There are three different design types and most San Francisco collectors focus on the No Motto Liberty Head issues, from 1854 through 1866. One of these issues—the 1854-S—is exceedingly rare and most specialized collectors begin with the 1855-S. Virtually every No Motto Liberty half eagle from San Francisco is very rare to extremely rare in Uncirculated, so even the most ambitious collections will focus on Choice AU examples. In lower grades, this is still a challenging set and I strongly recommend it.

   1867-S $5.00 NGC AU58 CAC

1867-S $5.00 NGC AU58 CAC

The With Motto half eagles from this facility are far less interesting, although the 1866-1876 dates include many conditionally rare dates. The 1878 through 1906 dates tend to be fairly easy to locate up through MS63, but many are rare in Gem. This set is reasonably easy to complete and it represents contrarian collecting as these issue are currently not very popular.

   1915-S $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

1915-S $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

Nine different Indian Head half eagles were made at San Francisco. These are not generally collected by mint but by date. The nine San Francisco issues are all common and affordable in circulated grades, and a matched AU58 set is an interesting project. In Uncirculated, these dates become rare as go you climb the grading scale and most San Francisco Indian Head half eagles are very rare in Gem Uncirculated.

   1864-S $10.00 NGC EF45

1864-S $10.00 NGC EF45

Eagles: The 13-coin No Motto Liberty Head eagle series is very challenging with many of these dates all but unknown above AU55. The key issue is the 1864-S, while other rarities include the 1859-S, 1860-S, and the 1865-S Normal Date. This short-lived set is expensive but it is probably my single favorite collecting challenge from this mint.

   1866-S Motto $10.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

1866-S Motto $10.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

The With Motto eagles from San Francisco are literally two series in one. The coins dated 1866-1876 are very scarce to rare in all grades, and mostly unknown or exceedingly rare in Uncirculated. Starting in 1878, these eagles become far more available and many of the dates from the 1890’s and 1900’s are so common that they are considered generics.

   1916-S $10.00 PCGS MS64+ CAC

1916-S $10.00 PCGS MS64+ CAC

There are 11 different Indian Head eagles from San Francisco. A few are common in lower grades but in higher grades most are rare to very rare. The key issues are the 1913-S, 1920-S, and the 1930-S. As with the other 20th century series discussed in this article, Indian Head eagles are not often collected by mint but in the case of the San Francisco dates, a very high-grade set (MS64 and finer) would be among the most challenging goals for the advanced collector of this mint.

   1866-S No Motto $20.00 NGC AU55 CAC

1866-S No Motto $20.00 NGC AU55 CAC

Double Eagles: Liberty Head double eagles from San Francisco are surprisingly affordable. Only two dates—the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto—are rare and at least 75% of these issues can be purchased in the AU and lower Uncirculated range for $2,500 or less. I find the Type One issues to be the most numismatically interesting, while the Type Three set can be completed in Uncirculated grades (MS60 to MS63) by the collector on a budget.

   1914-S $20.00 PCGS MS65+ CAC

1914-S $20.00 PCGS MS65+ CAC

St. Gaudens double eagles are generally collected by date and not by mint. The San Francisco Saints range from very common to very rare with the key issues being the 1920-S, the 1927-S and the 1930-S. These three issues are rare in MS63, very rare in properly graded MS64 and extremely rare in Gem.

By Type

As mentioned above, there are 15 major gold coin design types from San Francisco, issued between 1854 and 1930. It would be an interesting challenge to assemble a complete set of these.

   1856-S $5.00 PCGS EF40 CAC

1856-S $5.00 PCGS EF40 CAC

In lower grades (VF and EF), this set would be fairly easy to complete. The most challenging types in this range would be the Type Two dollar, the Three Dollar, and the No Motto half eagle and eagle. But with the exception of the one-year gold dollar, these scarcer designs have a few readily available dates (1856-S Three Dollar, 1856-S half eagle, and 1854-S eagle) which can be obtained for $2,500 or less.

A 15-coin San Francisco type set in About Uncirculated could be assembled for $30,000-40,000, and would include some interesting, scarcer issues.

In Uncirculated, this set is challenging but definitely completable. The No Motto half eagle and eagle are the stoppers but there are some dates available in the MS60-62 range for less than $20,000.

Could this set be completed in MS64 and finer? Thanks to shipwrecks, there are some very high-grade circa 1855-1857 San Francisco gold coins available (or soon to be available) as well as a number of high-grade double eagles from the 1860’s and the 1880’s/1890’s. A world-class San Francisco type set in very high grades would require a large budget and considerable patience.

Civil War Dates

The most popular San Francisco gold coins are the Civil War issues from 1861 through 1865.

   1862-S $2.50 PCGS MS61 CAC

1862-S $2.50 PCGS MS61 CAC

San Francisco quarter eagles from 1861 through 1865 (none were made in 1864) are scarce but this is a very completable four coin set.

   1864-S $5.00 NGC EF45

1864-S $5.00 NGC EF45

San Francisco half eagles from 1861 through 1865 are all scarce to rare with the 1864-S being the key issue in this five-coin set. These dates saw considerable circulation and many are seen in lower grades (Fine and VF) as well as in the EF40 to AU53 range. All five dates are exceedingly rare in Uncirculated.

   1861-S $10.00 PCGS EF40 CAC

1861-S $10.00 PCGS EF40 CAC

The six-coin San Francisco eagle set from the Civil War is a brutal challenge, but these coins are very popular with collectors. The 1864-S is the key and as with the half eagles of this era, there are a surprising number of coins in lower grades. All of the No Motto San Francisco eagles from the Civil War are very rare in the higher AU grades, and all are exceedingly rare (or unknown) in Uncirculated.

   1862-S $20.00 PCGS AU58 CAC

1862-S $20.00 PCGS AU58 CAC

You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck with the Civil War double eagles. There are five issues; six if you count the rare Paquet reverse. The standard five-coin set can be assembled in the EF45 to AU53 range for around $15,000-20,000, and in AU58 for $30,000-40,000. An Uncirculated set with all five coins in the MS61 to MS62 range can be assembled for around $100,000.

The Rarities Set

In case you are a Silicon Valley CEO who wants to create a specialized San Francisco set with firepower, a focus on the Ultra-Rarities and Rarities from this mint is in order.

There are three Ultra Rarities from San Francisco:

  • 1854-S quarter eagle, between 12 and 15 known. Approximate values based on grade, $250,000-500,000+
  • 1870-S three dollars, unique. Approximate value, $3,000,000-5,000,000+
  • 1854-S half eagle, four known. Approximate value based on grade, $2,000,000-4,000,000+
   1861-S Paquet $20.00 PCGS AU58

1861-S Paquet $20.00 PCGS AU58

There are four coins from this mint that I would categorize as Rarities:

  • 1864-S half eagle, between 25 and 35 known. Approximate value based on grade, $50,000-100,000+
  • 1864-S eagle, between 30 and 40 known. Approximate value based on grade, $50,000-100,000+
  • 1861-S Paquet Reverse double eagle, between 150 and 200 known. Approximate value based on grade, $50,000-200,000+.
  • 1866-S No Motto double eagle, between 200 and 250 known. Approximate value based on grade, $25,000-100,000+

The Rarities portion of this set could be supplemented with issues such as high-grade Civil War half eagles and eagles.

I have seen more interest in San Francisco gold coinage in the last five-ten years than I have at any other time in my numismatic career. Some of this can be attributed to the S.S. Central America treasure coins (and ingots) entering the market, and some can be attributed to collectors looking for the Next Big Thing. I feel that San Francisco gold coinage is an especially fascinating segment of the market and I am fortunate to have handled many great coins from this mint.

Are you interested in building a meaningful set of San Francisco gold coins? Contact me via email (dwn@ont.com) and let’s discuss your numismatic goals.