For the beginning collector, one of the best gold coin sets to consider is a set of 20th century Liberty Head double eagles. This set contains eighteen issues produced at three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) between 1900 and 1907. There are a number of reasons why this set is a natural for many fledgling numismatists. These coins are big, attractive and contain nearly an ounce of gold; most of the eighteen dates can be found in reasonably high grade and there are no very expensive single issues. As a rule of thumb, it makes sense to assemble this set in Mint State. For the very common issues, I would suggest purchasing coins in the Mint State-63 to Mint State-64 range. For the scarcer issues (specifically the 1902 and the 1905) I would suggest looking for attractive, high quality Mint State-62 examples.
Before we start, here are some rules of thumb that the collector should keep in mind:
1. Try to assemble a set with a nice "matched" look. Your set will have more eye appeal if the coloration and the quality of the surfaces are nicely matched on each coin. If you are bothered by abrasions, wait for coins that are as clean as possible for the grade. If hairlines are what annoy you most, avoid coins that you do not like. The beauty of this set is that none of the coins is so rare that you will need to compromise your standards.
2. Don't overspend on the common issues. There are a number of coins in this set that are reasonably affordable in Mint State-63 or Mint State-64 but become very expensive in the next grade up. I would suggest that the coins which should be the most expensive in this set are the rarities: 1902 and 1905.
3. Try and include at least one Gem. Mint State-65 Liberty Head double eagles are currently an extremely good value at current price levels (around $3,500 as of late October 2003) and every set should have one lovely Gem.
4. Buy my book on Type Three Double Eagles. Self-serving, yes, but if you are going to collect this series than you should have the best reference work on it. (Contact me for ordering information at email@example.com). I would also suggest that you have access to a PCGS and NGC population report and a recent copy of Coin World Trends to help you with pricing.
Listed below is a quick date-by-date analysis, along with suggestions of which are the best "value grades" for each date and approximate price ranges for each issue.
1900: The 1900 is a very common date that can be found in all grades up to and including Mint State-65. For most collectors, a Mint State-63 ($700-900) or Mint State-64 ($1,200-1,500) will suffice.
1900-S: This is one of the harder dates in this series to find in Mint State-63 or better although its high original mintage figure suggests that some nicer pieces could be laying in wait. A nice Mint State-62 is just $600-700 but I think Mint State-63 examples are still good values in the $1,650-1,950 range. Look for coins with good color and luster and no severe marks.
1901: This is one of the most common dates in the set. You can actually find nice Mint State-65's (these are currently worth around $4,000) but most collectors will be content to purchase a Mint State-64 in the $1,250-1,500 range. Avoid examples which are overly spotted as many 1901's are found as such.
1901-S: Despite a high mintage figure, this date is very elusive in higher grades. But I would caution the collector that it is possible a group of better quality examples (in this case Mint State-63 and above) could turn-up in Europe. I would stick with a nice, premium quality Mint State-62 and expect to spend $700-900.
1902: The 1902 is one of the two keys in this series and with an original mintage figure of just 31,254 coins, it is unlikely that any large hoards will be found. Nice Mint State-62's currently trade for around $1,200-1,500 and are very good values. A Mint State-63 will cost $6,500-7,500 (if available) and may be out of the price range of many collectors.
1902-S: As with a number of the San Francisco issues in this set, there is a big price spread between Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 for the 1902-S double eagle. You can buy a nice Mint State-62 for just $500-600 while a Mint State-63 will run you $2,500 to 3,000. Seems to me like this is a coin that makes more sense in Mint State-62.
1903: The 1903 is an extremely common issue and can be found even in Mint State-65. I would personally recommend a nice Mint State-63 ($700-800) or a Mint State-64 ($1,250-1,500). A Gem makes an interesting alternative to a 1904 as your single "super grade" coin in the set as it is considerably scarcer yet sells for essentially no premium.
1903-S: A much easier coin to find in higher grades than the 1900-02 San Francisco issues, the 1903-S can be obtained in Mint State-63 for around $1,000-1,250. In my opinion, this is the best value grade as a Mint State-64 jumps to $2,500-2,750.
1904: The 1904 is the most common Liberty Head double eagle by a huge margin. It is extremely easy to locate in Mint State-64 and even in Mint State-65. In my opinion, I would rather buy this date in Mint State-64 and have a slightly better date (such as a 1901 or 1903) in Gem in this set. Given the availability of specimens, I suggest you be picky when buying a 1904.
1904-S: The 1904-S is the most common San Francisco date in this set and it is the only issue that can be found in Mint State-65 for just a small premium over the common 1904. Given the fact that it is a mintmarked issue, I would suggest at the very least buying a nice Mint State-64 ($1,250-1,500) or even "stretching" for a 65 coin ($4,000-4,500).
1905: Traditionally, the 1905 has been regarded as the rarest 20th century Liberty Head double eagle. While I personally think the 1902 is scarcer, there is no denying that the 1905 is a very tough coin. I think Trends is a bit too high for better quality pieces and that $3,000-3,500 is the right number to pay for a decent quality Mint State-62. Trends for a Mint State-63 is $15,000 but I have seen examples trade in the $9,000-10,000 range.
1905-S: This is yet another date with a big price difference between Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 but with a big enough population in Mint State-63 to convince me that a PQ Mint State-62 is the way to go. With nice Mint State-62's selling for just $550-650, this is a good value.
1906: The 1906 is not as tough an issue as the 1902 or the 1905 but it is scarce in its own right. A nice Mint State-62 coin is currently valued at $800-900 while a Mint State-63 jumps up to $3,500-4,000. Because of this large price spread, I would suggest trying to locate a very high-end Mint State-62 with good color, luster and surfaces.
1906-D: The 1906-D is not a rare date but it is historically significant as the first double eagle produced at the Denver mint. It is quite a bit harder to locate in higher grades than the 1907-D. Given its desirability as a first-year issue, I'd look to purchase a nice Mint State-63 which should cost $1,600-1,900.
1906-S: This issue is easy to find in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 and only moderately scarce in Mint State-64. You can find a Mint State-62 for just $550-650 while a Mint State-63 will cost $1,300-1,600. I would probably go with a Mint State-63 but there is certainly nothing "wrong" with a Mint State-62 and its current $50-100 premium over a common 1904.
1907: A nice Mint State-63 example, which should be available for $600-700, is probably just fine for most 20th century Liberty Head double eagle collections. Should a collector wish to purchase a Mint State, these are readily available in the $1,400-1,800 range.
1907-D: The 1907-D is the final of two Liberty Head double eagles produced at the Denver mint. It is not a particularly scarce coin and it can be found in Mint State-63 and Mint State-64 grades without a problem. The former is currently valued at $1,110-1,400 while the latter is a very good value in the $1,450-1,750 range. A Mint State-65 coin should cost $3,500-4,000. I would consider stretching for one of these, not so much because it is a rare coin but because it is the only Denver issue that can be fond in Gem condition.
1907-S: This final-year-of-issue double eagle from the San Francisco mint is comparable to the 1907-D in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 but is much scarcer in higher grades. A Mint State-62 coin can be purchased for $550-600 while a Mint State-63 will cost $1,500-1,750.
Many new collectors are intimidated by Liberty Head double eagles because of the price that the rare issues command and the seeming impossibility of completing a set. I feel that a 20th century date set is a great place to begin, due to the affordability of these issues and the fact that many can be purchased in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 grades for under $1,000.