An Analysis of Values of Gem Three Dollar Gold Pieces: The Heritage 5/09 Sale of the American Princess Collection

In their recent May 2009 Central States auction, Heritage sold a number of very important high grade Three Dollar gold pieces. These were from the American Princess collection which, to the best of my knowledge, was one of the top collections of business strike Three Dollar gold pieces to ever be assembled. By looking at a few of these coins and analyzing the prices they sold for, we can get a better handle on the state-of-the market for very high grade Three Dollar gold.

Full disclosure notice: I sold a number of these to the owner of this collection between 2003 and 2006. I am familiar with the quality of the coins, the prices that he paid for them and their background. In the interest of confidentiality, I won’t mention what the consignor paid but will, instead, focus on what the coins sold for and try to place this within the context of what I expected them to bring in auction and how this relates to the current market.

1855, Graded MS66 by NGC. Sold as Lot 2681 by Heritage, this coin brought $40,250. There are two Superb 1855 Threes known: a PCGS MS66 in the Great Lakes Collection and the coin in the American Princess collection. This is the best 1855 that I have personally seen and I thought it had a good shot to cross as it was very fresh and had great eye appeal. The last auction record for a comparable example was in the 2000 ANA sale where an NGC MS66 (which I don’t think was this piece but am not certain if it isn’t the Great Lakes coin prior to crossing) sold for $25,875. With common date NGC MS66 three dollar gold pieces currently selling in the area of $25,000 I think that the American Princess coin brought a pretty strong price, all things considered.

1861, Graded MS67 by NGC. Sold as Lot 2685 by Heritage, this coin brought $51,750. This is the single highest graded 1861 three dollar seen by either service. It is certainly one of the best two I have seen. I don’t think the coin would have crossed to MS67 at PCGS but not as much because of the quality as the fact that PCGS just doesn’t like to cross MS67 gold coins. The best comparable was the PCGS MS66 sold as Heritage 1/05: 30639 at $46,000. I felt at the time that this MS66 1861 sold cheaply and it was, as I recall, a coin that was sold without reserve at around 3:30 in the morning after a Platinum Night sale that dragged on and on for what seemed an eternity. I thought that the 1861 in the Central States sale would bring in the area of $55,000 so in my opinion the buyer got a pretty good deal. If the coin does wind-up in a PCGS MS67, he got a great deal, as a “population one, none better” example of this scarcer issue could be worth as much as $75,000 to the right buyer.

1871, Graded MS64 by PCGS. Sold as Lot 2687 by Heritage, this example sold for $13,800. I wasn’t wild about this coin from a quality standpoint but I thought it was acceptable for the grade. Trends for the 1871 in MS64 is a very high $30,000 so, from a value perspective, this coin sold very reasonably. As a comparable, Heritage sold a PCGS MS64 back in their June 2004 auction for $13,800. Given the fact that prices for this series appear to have drifted back to their 2004-2005 level, $13,800 is probably exactly the right amount of money for this coin. That said, the buyer (a very smart dealer from the West Coast) is likely to do very well on this piece given the Trends play.

1873 Closed 3, Graded MS63PL by NGC. This coin was offered as Lot 2689 by Heritage but it failed to meet its reserve and did not sell. Interestingly, the only two major pre-1880 Threes in the American Princess collection that didn’t sell were two examples of the rare 1873 Closed 3. I was personally surprised that the MS63PL example did not hit its reserve. This is the single highest graded 1873 with a PL designation at NGC (PCGS, of course, does not designate gold as PL) and it is among the highest graded. My guess as to why it did not sell is that all of the major collectors of this series have a nice example (the Great Lakes coin is a choice PCGS MS64). I also think that there is still a lot of confusion about the origin of the 1873 Closed 3 and Open 3 issues that needs to be clarified. As an aside, this coin is currently available in the Heritage after-sale for $40,250 which seems like a pretty fair deal to me considering that an NGC MS64 brought the same amount all the way back in January 1998 (Heritage 1/98: 7700).

1880 Graded MS65 by NGC, 1882 Graded MS65* by NGC and 1883 Graded MS65 by PCGS. None of these three coins sold, despite being offered with pretty realistic reserves. I wasn’t totally shocked by the 1880 not selling. It was a solid coin for the grade but it’s not all that rare in Gem and most of the buyers of high quality coins in this series are looking for coins in PCGS holders. The 1882 is a coin that’s a pretty hard sell right now. It’s expensive, it’s not that rare and the look of the coin suggested it has visited the NCS lab. The coin that surprised me, though, was the 1883. The coin was really nice and it was in the “right” holder. Unlike the 1880 and the 1882, Gem 1883 Three Dollars are very rare. In fact, the PCGS population is just four in MS65 with two better. The fact that this coin didn’t sell (despite a pretty realistic reserve) indicates to me that there is real weakness in the upper end of this series right now. If this coin had been offered for sale in 2005 or 2006 (when the Three Dollar series was more active) it would have generated considerable interest.

1887 Graded MS66 by PCGS and 1888 Graded MS66 by PCGS. These two coins were offered as Lots 2698 and 2701. They sold for $23,000 and $24,150 respectively. In my opinion, both of these were very nice coins. In fact, when I sold them to the consignor, they were pieces that I had been very careful about selecting and had passed on a number of other examples of these dates. When the market for Gem threes was stronger, these two coins would have probably brought in the area of $30,000-32,500.

So what conclusions can we draw from this small but exceptional group of coins and the Heritage May 2009 CSNS sale? Here are a few things that come to mind:

1. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Three Dollar series is about as cold right now as at any time in the last decade. There are lots and lots of Threes on the market (though not many like the Gems from the American Princess collection) and the supply clearly outstrips the demand. That said, if I were a contrarian collector and I wanted to start a series where I could become King o’ The World it would probably be Threes.

2. In this series, collectors appear to be oriented more towards PCGS coins that NGC, especially very high grade pieces.

3. For most dates in the Three Dollar series, prices for MS65 and better coins appear to be down 20-30% from a year ago. There are exceptions to this rule but these would be for extremely rare and extremely fresh coins.

4. The market premium factor for semi-rare dates in this series is diminishing. As an example, a date like an 1887 or an 1888 in MS66, which is tons scarcer than an 1878, now sells for a much lower premium factor than it did a few years ago. For type collectors, this a great opportunity.

I’d like to dedicate this article to my friend TL. Hang in there, buddy, things will get better soon!