Sure, every gold coin collector would love to have an unlimited budget. But few do. Is it possible to be an individual of average or slightly above-average means and still be a collector of U.S. gold? I contend that the answer is a resounding "yes" and I'd like to suggest a dozen collecting areas that are priced at $2,500 or less. My basic parameters are that each is undervalued, interesting to collect and they can be found with some patience. Instead of focusing on specific issues (which, for the collector, can be like finding a needle in a haystack) I'm going to be a bit more general and focus on small groups or subsets of coins. Not every date within this group may be of interest to the collector (or fall within the parameters of affordability that we have established) but enough will qualify to make them worthy of serious consideration.
Along with the groups of coins, I'm including recommendations of specific dates that I like, suggested price ranges and grade ranges and collecting tips that will help the new collector decide if these areas are right for him.
I. San Francisco Gold Dollars
The San Francisco mint produced gold dollars for seven years between 1854 and 1870. This includes all three types of this denomination. For collectors in the $2,500 and under range, the best options tend to be the Type Three issues (1857-S, 1858-S, 1859-S, 1860-S and 1870-S). All five have original mintages of 13,000 of less (only 3,000 in the case of the 1870-S) and they are every bit as scarce as many of the more popular and expensive Charlotte and Dahlonega gold dollars from the 1850's. The grade range that most collectors will be looking for is AU50 to AU58 and a five coin Type Three San Francisco gold dollar set would be a challenging but completable goal.
Collecting Tip: Many have been cleaned or processed at one time and coins with natural color and surfaces are far rarer than most collectors realize. Don't be afraid to pay a premium for a pretty, original coin.
Recommended Dates: I personally like all five of these issues but I've always had a soft spot for the 1870-S given its low mintage figure and its status as the final gold dollar from this mint.
II. Common Date Type Three Gold Dollars in MS65
Common date Type Three gold dollars generally fall into the date range of 1879 to 1889. Despite relatively low mintage figures, many are reasonably available in higher grades due to contemporary dealers and collectors hoarding them. For $2,500 or less, it is possible to purchase really attractive MS65 examples of dates like the 1880 with an original mintage figure of just 1,600. You might not necessarily want to put together a "short set" of 1879-1889 gold dollars in MS65 but it is neat to think that the collector of average means can buy a Gem 19th century gold coin for $2,500 or less.
Collecting Tip: Be patient and wait for coins with great original color and choice surfaces.
Recommended Dates: I've always thought that the 1884 was a much undervalued date and Gems are seen far less often than common issues like the 1888 and 1889. The 1886 is another sleeper that seldom sells for a premium over a common date.
III. Philadelphia Quarter Eagles From the 1840's
Quarter eagles from this mint produced during the 1840's range from extremely rare (1841) to relatively common (1845). The typical Philadelphia quarter eagle from this decade, however, is quite scarce in almost any grade and many are much harder to find than Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles from the 1840's. The collector with a budget of $2,500 or less is going to be able to buy some very interesting coins. Many can be found in AU53 to AU55 for less than $2,000 and I believe that they represent excellent value.
Collecting Tip: The price spreads between AU50 and AU55 are often not that great. I would recommend buying the nicest available coin as most of these are appreciably scarcer in higher grades.
Recommended Dates: I personally love the 1842 and if you can find one in EF40 to EF45 for $2,500 or so, you are getting an amazingly good value. I also like the 1844 and 1848 in AU grades.
IV. New Orleans Quarter Eagles
On a budget of $2,500 or less, you are not going to be able to do much damage in the Charlotte or Dahlonega quarter eagle series. But if you shift your focus to the "other" Southern branch mint, you will find a host of interesting options available. New Orleans produced fourteen quarter eagles between 1839 and 1856 and with the exception of the 1839-O, 1842-O and 1845-O virtually all can be found in AU50 or better for well under $2,500. In the case of issues like the 1847-O or the 1850-O, $2,500 will buy you a lovely AU58 coin that is just a whisper shy of being Uncirculated. If you are picky, such a coin may have a nicer appearance than an MS61 example that would cost more than $5,000 if available. Even the key date 1845-O can sometimes be found in the EF40 range for around $2,500. Hint: any decent looking 1845-O in the $2,500 and under price range should be purchased without hesitation.
Collecting Tip: Whenever possible, buy coins that are well struck. Many New Orleans quarter eagles are very softly struck and sharp coins are sometimes available for little - if any - premium.
Recommended Dates: In my opinion the 1856-O is the true sleeper in this series. An AU55 coin should be available in the $2,000-2,250 range and accurately graded, original pieces are far scarcer than most collectors realize.
V. Choice Original Extremely Fine C&D Quarter Eagles
$2,500 does not buy you very high grade coins in the popular Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagle series. However, collectors in this budget range shouldn't feel shut out as there are decent coins available that cost $1,750-2,500. The key to buying C&D quarter eagles in this price range is to hold out for dirty, original coins. If a collector is patient he should be able to find PQ coins priced at only a small premium over the typical processed sludge.
Collecting Tip: It never ceases to amaze me how small the premium is for really nice coins in the EF grade range versus really not-nice coins. If you have to pay an extra 5-10% for a crusty Charlotte or Dahlonega quarter eagle in EF45, do it.
Recommended Dates: Many scarcer Charlotte quarter eagles don't sell for a significant date premium in EF grades. My favorite issues include the 1841-C, 1848-C, 1849-C, 1852-C and 1856-C. The Dahlonega series is a bit harder to cherrypick but I think almost any choice, original EF coin priced at $2,500 or below is good value.
VI. No Motto Philadelphia Half Eagles
No Motto half eagles were produced at the Philadelphia mint from 1839 through 1865. For the most part, the coins struck prior to the Civil War are quite common and can be found with relative ease in nearly any circulated grade. The toughest issues in this set are the 1862, 1863, 1864 and 1865. All four have mintage figures lower than 4,500 and the 1863 and 1865 are two of the most undervalued Liberty Head half eagles, in my opinion. The collector with a $2,500 or less budget is going to be able to buy some exceptionally nicer No Motto coins from the 1840's and 1850's. As an example, a common date such as the 1847 can be found in AU58 for less than $1,000 and some of the more available issues from this era can sometimes be found in the lower Uncirculated grades for under $2,500.
Collecting Tip: No Motto Philadelphia coins are found with original color and surfaces far more frequently than their branch mint counterparts. Always try to buy pieces with pretty color. Choice AU58 "sliders" are an especially good value..
Recommended Dates: I have always liked the 1839, given its status as a one-year type. The 1846 Small Date is a much undervalued issue as is the 1850. I don't generally care for gold coins graded lower than EF40 but the 1863 and 1865 are so scarce that nice problem-free examples priced at $2,500 or less seem like great value, but are probably just about impossible to find.
VII. Choice Original Extremely Fine C&D Half Eagles
Many of the comments I made above under paragraph #5 hold true for Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles as well. It is actually a little easier to find nice, original EF half eagles in the $2,500 and under range. That's the good news. The bad news is that most of the crusty, original "real EF's" are housed in AU50 and AU53 holders. I still think there are enough coins out there that with some patience, a collector with a relatively limited budget could still assemble a nice partial set of Charlotte or Dahlonega half eagles. This is mostly due to the fact that, unlike with the quarter eagles, there are no very rare stoppers that make such a project a pipe dream. As an example, with the Charlotte half eagle series, if you toss out the rare 1842-C Small Date and are willing to accept a lower grade 1838-C and 1861-C, just about all of the remaining dates are feasible in this price range.
Collecting Tip: As I mentioned above, the price spread between a very nice original EF40 and a processed, ugly coin in an EF40 holder isn't that great. Learn what original coins are supposed to look like and find sources that handle such coins.
Recommended Dates: In the Charlotte half eagle series the dates I regard as sleepers include the 1842-C Large Date, 1843-C, 1848-C, 1854-C and 1856-C. In the Dahlonega half eagle series the dates I regard as sleepers include the 1840-D, 1841-D, 1842-D Small Date, 1846-D, 1851-D, 1855-D and 1857-D.
VIII. No Motto New Orleans Half Eagles
Ever since I started specializing in rare U.S. gold in the early 1980's, I was taken aback at how undervalued No Motto New Orleans half eagles were. These were struck from 1840 to 1857 and there were a total of sixteen issues produced (this includes two varieties in 1843). Collectors with a budget of $2,500 or less per coin will have more to choose from than if they were focusing on Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles and the individual dates are typically rarer than their C&D counterparts. If the collector is willing to go down to VF for the key 1842-O and 1847-O, this is a series that could be completed and would include a few specific dates (such as the 1844-O and 1854-O) that could be purchased in nice AU55 to AU58 for less than the $2,500 per coin budget.
Collecting Tip: Always try to purchase No Motto New Orleans half eagles that have good eye appeal and that are well struck. Many dates are extremely hard to find with natural color yet they generally do not bring a large premium over mediocre processed coins.
Recommended Dates: I am a big fan of the 1842-O and 1847-O half eagles and I think that any attractive example priced at less than $2,500-3,000 is a terrific value. I also like the 1843-O Small Letters, 1846-O, 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O.
IX. Selected San Francisco Half Eagles
For a variety of reasons, San Francisco half eagles are not as popular as their Southern branch mint counterparts. This means that there are a number of underrated "sleepers" that offer the collector some excellent bang for the buck. For $2,500 or less, it is possible to purchase nice Extremely Fine examples of many dates struck prior to the Civil War. Some aren't hugely rare (i.e., the 1855-S, 1856-S and 1857-S) but they are very historic and tend to come better produced than other branch mint half eagles from this era. The With Motto dates tend to offer the $2,500 or lower collector the best value. The issues from the 1867-1876 era include a number of low mintage dates that are scarce in EF (yet affordable) that jump appreciably in price in higher grades.
Collecting Tip: Because of the fact that there is often a huge price jump between EF and AU grades, many of the formerly nice original EF San Francisco half eagles have been processed and are now in AU holders. Properly graded examples with original color and surfaces are extremely hard to find for virtually any date struck before 1878.
Recommended Dates: In the No Motto series, I like the 1855-S as it is the first collectible half eagle from this mint. In the With Motto series, I like the 1870-S, 1872-S and 1874-S. The 1876-S is out of the price range for some collectors but at $3,000-3,500 for a nice EF40 this would be a stretch worth making.
X. Low Mintage Philadelphia Half Eagles, 1870-1877
Discounting the 1875 (which is extremely rare), many of the Philadelphia half eagles from the 1870's are very rare. This should be pretty obvious from the original mintages. Only 4,000 were produced in 1870, just 3,200 were produced in 1871 and in 1872 the mintage was a whopping 1,660. In 1876 and 1877, mintages dropped to 1,432 and 1,132 respectively. Despite this obvious rarity, these coins are affordable. As an example, I recently purchased a nice PCGS EF45 1870 half eagle for $1,500. For a coin with a PCGS population of nine in this grade with just sixteen better (and only one in Uncirculated) this seems very reasonable. Due to the fact that these are such low mintage issues, survivors are often prooflike and have the added benefit of being well struck as they were made at the Philadelphia mint. From the standpoint of value, I think there are few coins that give as much bang for your coin collecting buck as the Philadelphia half eagles of 1870-1877.
Collecting Tip: Many of the half eagles of this era are heavily abraded from extensive use in circulation. Avoid coins that have especially detracting marks but realize that it is going to be almost impossible to find a piece that is really clean for the grade.
Recommended Dates: The 1876 is an unusual issue as it is seen in Uncirculated grades more often than it is in Extremely Fine. With an original mintage of just 1,432 and a surviving population of around four dozen, this is an almost impossibly undervalued date with current Trends values of $1,950 in EF40 and $2,350 in EF45.
XI. No Motto Philadelphia Eagles
Production of Liberty Head eagles began in 1838 but collectors generally focus on the issues struck between 1840 and 1865 when collecting the No Motto type. In comparison to the branch mint coins of this era, the Philadelphia eagles are less popular and generally more available. There are, however, a few very scarce pre-Civil War issues including the 1844 (my personal favorite), 1845, 1846 and 1858. A majority of the issues from the 1840's and 1850's are relatively available in circulated grades but become rare in Uncirculated. For the collector with a $2,500 or less budget, the AU55 and AU58 grades will represent the best value. Many No Motto eagles in this range are cosmetically appealing coins with nearly full luster and good detail yet they are often priced at under $2,000. In my opinion, nice AU No Motto eagles are much undervalued and are a good area for collectors to focus on.
Collecting Tip: Look for nice "slider" AU58 coins that have minimal wear. Such coins typically are priced in the $2,000-2,500 range and they are excellent value considering that they often have a better appearance than $5,000-7,500+ coins in MS61 holders.
Recommended Dates: I like the 1840 and 1841 in AU50 to AU55 and the 1844 and 1846 in nearly any grade. Some of the supposedly common dates that I think are sleepers in AU55 and above include the 1848, 1850 Large Date, 1857, 1859 and 1860.
XII. With Motto New Orleans Eagles
I've been an advocate of this collecting area for many years and it finally seems that these coins are becoming popular. There are a total of sixteen With Motto eagles from New Orleans and they were made from 1879 to 1906. The 1879-O and the 1883-O are rare and expensive so collectors with a $2,500 and lower budget will be focusing on fourteen coins. The 1880-O, 1881-O and 1882-O can be purchased in nice AU in this price range while the dates struck from 1888 to 1906 can be purchased in MS62. What I like about this set is that it can be completed reasonably easily and it is a great challenge for a beginning collector. I also like the fact that these are big, attractive coins that contain a significant amount of gold. The key dates are the 1880-O through 1882-O as well as the 1897-O and 1899-O.
Collecting Tip: Avoid coins that are excessively abraded. Many of these eagles were shipped to Europe in bags and were roughly handled during transport. Choice, lustrous coins are worth a premium over dull, baggy examples.
Recommended Dates: For the better part of a decade, the 1899-O was extremely undervalued in Uncirculated but prices have begun to reflect this coin's scarcity. The 1906-O remains a sleeper.