There are five low mintage circulation strike Type Three double eagles from the Philadelphia mint and these are as follows:
1881: Mintage 2,199
1882: Mintage 571
1885: Mintage 751
1886: Mintage 1,000
1891: Mintage 1,390
These issues are rare and popular. I have written about them before (and I’ve urged my clients as far back as the 1980s to buy them) but I thought this would be a good time to provide an update about the Big Five.
First, let’s rank these five issues in terms of overall rarity (the total number known) and high grade rarity (in this case, we’ll say AU55 and higher):
Now let’s look at each individual date.
This date has the highest mintage of the Big Five but it is not the most available date. I rank it as the third rarest overall and in higher grades as well. There are an estimated 50-60 known in all grades with most in the EF45-AU53 range. This date remains very rare in properly graded AU55 to AU58 and it is extremely rare in Uncirculated with three or four known. The single finest is an NGC MS62 which was originally in the Dallas Bank Collection. The few other Uncirculated pieces known are in the MS60 to MS61 range and are characterized by extremely abraded surfaces and a lack of originality.
The availability of this date is interesting. Around a decade (specifically 2007-2010), the 1881 was a relatively available coin, generally appearing for sale around five or six times per year. This made sense as prices were increasing. Availability slowed from 2010 to 2013, but it has picked up again during the last few years; this is despite a slowing of the market in the Type Three series.
The best value grade for this issue seems to be AU55 as prices have firmed in the mid-50s. However, few coins in this grade are appealing and a nice EF might make more sense in the high 30s/low 40s. It should be noted that many 1881 double eagles are damaged or have problems, and this includes pieces which are straight-graded by the services.
You would expect a double eagle with a mintage of just 571 to be a rare coin and the 1882 has a total population of around 30-40 coins. It is actually as rare as the 1870-CC, but it doesn’t have the sex appeal of that issue and still sells for considerably less. The 1882 is very rare in properly graded AU55 to AU58 with less than a half dozen known. There are perhaps two or three in Uncirculated of which the finest I know of is the Hansen-Crawford-Dallas Bank Collection-Amon Carter coin which grades MS61 at PCGS.
This date always comes prooflike and it almost always comes with extensively abraded surfaces. The few gold coin collectors in the 1880s and 1890s were happy to buy a Proof of this date, and no high-grade pieces were saved; not even by the foresighted John Clapp, Sr.
The 1882 double eagle appears for sale around once or twice per year and it has been a long time since I’ve seen one which I thought was reasonably attractive. A solid AU example will cost around $100,000 and I think this represents great value considering the rarity of this issue and the popularity of Type Three double eagles.
The relative availability of business strike 1885 double eagles has always intrigued me. Only 751 were struck, but the 1885 is the most available of the Big Five and it appears that dozens have been located in overseas sources since the 1960s; which is not the case with the other four dates in this group. Today, there are close to 100 known; a significant percentage of the original mintage. There are as many as six or seven known in Uncirculated with the two finest grading MS63 at PCGS. These two coins are the Hansen-Crawford example and the Bass example which last sold for $39,100 in October 1999.
Collectors can actually afford to be a bit picky when it comes to this date as there are some reasonably pleasing AUs known. All 1885 business strikes are reflective and this tends to amplify surface marks. Natural color on this issue is a rich orange-gold. Most 1885s have been lightened and bright, colorless coins should be avoided.
An above-average mid-range AU 1885 double eagle should be available within a year or two of searching and such a coin will cost $50,000-70,000. I personally find this date to be a bit overvalued when compared to the other Big Five, but its sub-1,000 mintage figure is always a plus factor when it comes to the 1885.
By an extremely narrow margin, the 1886 is rarer than the 1881 in terms of overall rarity. But this issue is rarer than the 1881 in high grades, and I have actually seen fewer high grade examples of this date than any other Big Five issue except for the 1882. There are 50-60 known in all grades and I am aware of two or three in Uncirculated. If it actually exists, an NGC MS65 is by far the single finest known. The best I have seen is the choice PCGS MS63+ which is in the Hansen Collection and was earlier owned by Dr. William Crawford.
Eye appeal tends to be a real problem with this date, and 95% of the extant 1886 double eagles have unnatural bright surfaces compounded by numerous abrasions. A reasonably choice piece will prove very challenging to locate although I am told that a few 1886s have been repatriated from overseas sources in the last decade+.
A presentable example of this date is going to cost at least $100,000 and it will take a few years of serious searching to find the right coin. With the Type Three market currently somewhat out of favor, the next year or so might prove fruitful for the savvy specialist who wants to purchase a nice 1886 business strike.
This tends to be the “forgotten date” in the Big Five, maybe because it was issued in the 1890s and not the 1880s as with the other four dates. Despite a higher mintage, the 1891 is scarcer overall than the 1885 with an estimated 90-100+ coins known. There are an estimated five or six in Uncirculated and this includes a few really nice coins. The unquestioned finest-known is the lovely PCGS MS64 which is in the Hansen Collection and is ex Crawford/Dallas Bank Collection. A close second is the PCGS MS63 which sold for $138,000 in the Heritage 2010 FUN auction.
The 1891 has a different “look” than the other four dates with luster which is more satiny than reflective. This date saw little circulation and most survivors grade AU50 and higher but it should be pointed out that original, problem-free coins are very rare.
This is the most affordable of the Big Five with average quality AU pieces currently selling for $40,000-50,000. A nicer AU58 might come available in the $55,000-65,000 range and this seems like the best value for the 1891 double eagle.
Assembling a set of Big Five Type Three Liberty Head double eagles is certainly doable and a nice set can be created in a three to five year time frame for around $350,000-400,000. I believe these issues are good values when compared to other Liberty Head double eagle rarities (namely the 1854-O, 1856-O, 1861-S Paquet, and the 1870-CC), and that they will perform well when the next wave of new collectors/investors enters the Type Three market.
Are you interested in assembling a high end set of Big Five Type Three Liberty Head double eagles. I’ve handled more of these coins than any other active US gold coin specialist and I would love to help you create a meaningful set of these rare issues. For more information, contact Doug Winter via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (214) 675-9897.