A Dozen Sleeper Dates in Liberty Head Proof Gold

Due to its high per-coin cost, there are not many date collectors of Proof gold coins. This means that a number of amazingly rare dates have fallen through the cracks, and offer great value to well-heeled collectors looking for exceptional individual coins to put away, or for type collectors who want more “bang for their buck” when choosing a specific coin to represent a design type for their set.

I could have easily doubled—if not tripled—the number of coins on the list. I tried to stick with dates that were hard to locate, but not impossible, and to focus on comparatively “affordable” issues. I obviously could have made the blanket statement that “every pre-1858 Liberty Head quarter eagle is excessively rare in Proof and is probably a 'sleeper' given how few people realize the true rarity of these coins,” but this seemed self-defeating. And I tried to avoid “no brainer” issues like virtually any Proof issue with an original mintage of 20 coins, although there were a few ultra-low mintage issues which I just couldn’t resist including in my list. Most importantly, I based this list on personal experience. I have handled a lot of Proof gold in the last decade but most of the coins on this list have—so far—escaped me.

  1864 $1.00 NGC PR66 Ultra Cameo

1864 $1.00 NGC PR66 Ultra Cameo

1864 Gold $1.00

The Mint misread collector demand for Proofs in 1864 and they struck far more coins—50 in the case of the gold dollar—than they could sell. As a result, a number of Proof 1864 gold dollars were melted and the number known today is in the 15-18 range. Only three have sold at auction since April 2009 and the last one to sell, an NGC PR65★CAM offered as Heritage 1/13: 5789, was a smoking bargain at just $17,038.

Proof 1864 gold dollars tend to come with signs of past cleaning or mishandling and Gems are very rare with fewer than a half dozen known. This date tends not to show the deep camo contrast seen on other Civil War era gold dollars, and any piece with above average contrast is especially rare.

At current values, the 1864 Proof gold dollar is an extremely undervalued issue, as are many of the pre-1875 issues of this denomination. If you can find a bona-fide Gem it will cost in the area of $20,000; a pittance in comparison to less rare larger denomination Proof gold.

  1871 $1.00 PCGS PR65 Deep Cameo CAC

1871 $1.00 PCGS PR65 Deep Cameo CAC

1871 Gold $1.00

All Proof gold coinage dated 1871 is very rare. A total of 35 Proof 1871 gold dollars were minted, but it is believed that only 20 or so were sold and the rest were melted. Today, there are fewer than 10 pieces known. There are only three auction appearances since August 2004, and this represents two individual coins. The last record, a PCGS/CAC PR65CAM, ex Heritage 1/13: 5795, was very reasonable at $21,150.

The single finest known Proof 1871 gold dollar is an NGC PR67 Deep Cameo which brought a strong $42,550 as ANR 8/04: 921. I doubt if more than two or three Gems exist and only a small number of the extant Proof 1871 gold dollars have deep cameo contrast.

If the 1871 isn’t the rarest Type Three gold dollar, it is certainly one of the top three or so in terms of total number known. Yet, it still commands a small premium over other dates from the 1870’s in Gem. This is why in a series replete with sleepers, I selected the 1871 in the gold dollar section of this analysis.

1870 $2.50

All 1870 gold coinage is rare as business or Proofs and the original mintage figure of 35 Proof quarter eagles is misleading as a number went unsold. I believe that no more than 10 to 12 Proof 1870 quarter eagles are known, and this figure includes two impaired pieces and another two or three which are impounded in museum collections.

Only three Proof 1870 quarter eagles have sold at auction since 9/04 and there are just eight auction appearances since 1992. The finest known is an NGC PR66 Ultra Cameo which brought a record-setting $70,500 as Heritage 1/14: 5368. I wanted to buy this coin very badly as I had never before owned a non-impaired Proof of this date/denomination, but I felt that the final price realized was well more than I could pay and still resell the coin at a fair profit.

I don’t regard Proofs of this date to be as undervalued as other Proof quarter eagles of this era. Rather, I think the rarity of this date is still misunderstood and specialists forget to mention the 1871 when discussing the truly rare Proof quarter eagles struck in the 1860’s and 1870’s.

  1889 $2.50 PCGS PR65+ Cameo CAC

1889 $2.50 PCGS PR65+ Cameo CAC

1889 $2.50

This an issue that seemingly shouldn’t have a mintage figure as low as 48 and every time I see this figure, I forget how low it actually is. While around half of these survive, the 1889 is far rarer than the common date status many non-specialists accord it. Most Proofs of this issue are in the PR64 to PR65 range and show minimal contrast. Deep Cameo 1889 quarter eagles are extremely rare with probably no more than three or four known.

There are four auction records since 2009. The finest I have personally seen is the PCGS PR66CAM which brought $48,875 as Heritage 2010 ANA: 3432; it is likely the coin now in the Simpson collection.

The last Gem to sell brought $31,792 as Heritage 8/14: 5632. At current price levels, I think the 1889 is one of the better values in the entire Proof Liberty Head quarter eagle oeuvre.

1866 $3.00

This date is even rarer than its original mintage figure of 30 coins suggests. In fact, it is one of the rarest post-1859 three dollar gold pieces in Proof. I think a number of these were melted by the Mint due to not having sold and the number known today may be as few as 10-12 including two pieces impounded in museum collections.

It is amazing to note that only two 1866 Proof threes have sold at auction since 1999, and the last of these, ex Heritage 4/11: 5365, graded PR64DCAM by PCGS, went surprisingly strong at $46,000. The finest I am aware of is the PCGS PR65+DCAM owned by specialist Tom Bender.

Even though Proof three dollar gold is not currently popular with collectors, it is a fairly well-researched series and there are not many issues I would regard as undervalued. I have personally owned just one Proof 1866 (in comparison to multiple examples of the coveted 1875 and 1876) and I think this date is a true sleeper from the standpoint that not many people actually realize how truly rare it is.

1878 $3.00

The common date status of business strike 1878 three dollar gold pieces can make collectors overlook the true rarity of Proofs. This shouldn’t be the case; not with an original mintage of only 20. Yet the 1878 doesn’t command the respect it should as a true rarity in Proof.

The survival rate of Proof three dollar gold pieces from this era is typically around 50% and this holds true for the 1878 of which there are an estimated nine or ten. Surprisingly, as many as four or five gems exist including PR65’s in the Bender and Simpson collections and a PCGS PR66 Deep Cameo which brought a record $86,250 as Heritage 1/12: 4821.

The two key dates in the Proof three dollar gold series, the 1875 and the 1876, were restruck and their mintages do not reflect their relative availability. Two other supposedly available dates, the 1874 and the 1878, are far rarer and are seemingly undervalued due to their common date status in business strike form.

1877 $5.00

This is one of my favorite Proof gold years. Mintage figures are extremely low for all denominations, and just 20 half eagles were made. I believe that only eight or nine exist with at least two impounded in museum collections.

Heritage 1/13: 5885, graded PR65CAM by NGC, was the first example to sell at auction since June 2005. It didn’t sell cheaply at $64,625 but it didn’t garner the attention it likely deserved.

Around a year ago, I was contacted by a collector who had put together a complete gold proof set dated 1877. At the time, I didn’t really recognize the magnitude of this accomplishment but as I studied the various denominations, I came to realize just how rare every gold proof from this year actually is. I chose the half eagle for this “sleeper list” but I could just as easily have selected the eagle or double eagle.

1884 $5.00

I first learned about the true rarity of this issue in the 1980’s when I was told that the noted Proof gold collector Ed Trompeter had more trouble locating an 1884 half eagle in Proof than nearly any other post-1858 issue. Since then this is a date I have watched for and I have not seen many.

There were 48 Proofs struck but for some reason, the survival rate is very low. I believe that fewer than a dozen exist and this estimate may actually be somewhat on the high side. Only three have sold at auction since 2000 and the last one, graded PR66DC by NGC, was a phenomenal value at $39,100 as Bowers and Merena 11/10: 5130.

This is a date that epitomizes the concept of “sleeper.” It is not well known and I have seen estimates of survival as high as 30 pieces on PCGS Coin Facts.

1880 $10.00

You’ve come this far so I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the 1880 eagle in Proof is an incredibly rare coin. There were 36 struck but it is likely that a number were unsold and melted. Today, there are as few as six to eight known and there have been only three sold at auction since 1980. That’s right….three.

The three that have crossed the block include Garrett III: 1676 in 1980, Bass II: 1577 in 1999 and ANR 10/04: 840. That works out to one coin around every fifteen years.

As I said earlier in this article, not many people collect Proof gold by date and I’m not sure that more than one or two collectors specialize in Proof Liberty Head eagles. That said, I will not be surprised if the next Proof 1880 eagle which sells at auction crushes the current record price of $50,000 set in 2004.

  1894 $10.00 PCGS PR64 Deep Cameo CAC

1894 $10.00 PCGS PR64 Deep Cameo CAC

1894 $10.00

In January 2014, I bought a nice PCGS/CAC PR64CAM example of this date. I bought it because I liked the coin and because I thought it was good value. As I did some research, I was surprised to learn that the 1894 eagle is a major rarity in Proof.

Only 43 were struck which is the lowest mintage figure for the late date eagles. But the survival rate is lower than most people realize and there are well under 20 known; possibly as few as 15.

The finest known Proof 1894 eagle is ex Heritage 1/14: 5503. It was graded PR65 but it was in an old green label holder and it brought a strong $105,750. I graded the coin PR66DCAM and thought it was amazing.

Most collectors think that post-1890 eagles are all reasonably available in Proof and for the most part they are correct. The 1894 is an exception to the rule and it is another sleeper which strongly deserves to be on this list.

1871 $20.00

With the exception of the 1876, all of the Proof Type Two double eagles are very rare. The 1871, however, stands out for its elusiveness, even in this series. It is an issue which I have never handled in Proof and, in fact, I can’t even remember having seen one.

Since the Eliasberg: 927 coin sold back in 1982 (it is likely now in a PCGS PR64 holder) only one Proof 1871 double eagle, an NGC PR62, has crossed the auction block. Of the 30 struck, clearly a number were melted due to having gone unsold (the same seems to be true with all denominations from gold dollar through double eagle from this year) and the number of survivors is likely in the six to eight range including at least two which were impounded.

If a Proof 1871 double eagle does come up for sale in the coming years, it will be interesting to see how much of a premium it is accorded over slightly more available dates of this type.

  1880 $20.00 NGC PR63 Cameo CAC

1880 $20.00 NGC PR63 Cameo CAC

1880 $20.00

The rare Proof-only issues from this decade get all the collector attention (and attendant high prices) but the 1880 is a much rarer coin. Only 36 were struck and I believe that there are no more than eight or nine known.

In 2014, two examples of this date were sold at auction but these were in fact the same coin which was first sold as an NGC PR66 Ultra Cameo and then as a PCGS PR65 Deep Cameo; both sales were in excess of $200,000. Before this, only two others had sold since the 1990’s.

Interestingly, another Gem example of this date is going to cross the market soon: the obtained-from-the-Mint Garrett 2: 797 coin which brought a very strong $65,000 back in March 1980.

There are dozens of other overlooked dates in the various Proof gold series and these coins range in price from the low $10’s for a number of gold dollars to in excess of $100,000 for many double. For the dabbler or the committed specialist, these issues wait to be discovered.

Are you interested in learning more about Proof gold coinage or starting a collection of these fascinating coins? Doug Winter specializes in choice, attractive Proof United States gold coinage and would be happy to work with you. Please contact the author by email at dwn@ont.com.