Collecting Early U.S. Gold Coinage

Collectors refer to United States gold coins struck before 1834 as "early gold." There were three denominations of early gold coins produced: quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles. Early gold is relatively expensive, so it is difficult to collect by date. But it lends itself nicely to type collecting and there are many very presentable early gold issues that can be purchased for $3,000-5,000. QUARTER EAGLES

A. Capped Bust Right, 1796-1807

The first quarter eagles were produced in 1796. There are two distinct varieties known for this year. A total of 963 pieces were produced without stars on the obverse. The 1796 No Stars quarter eagle is an exceedingly popular coin and one that is somewhat pricey relative to its actual level of rarity. Expect to pay at least $40,000-50,000 for a coin in the Extremely Fine-40 to Extremely Fine-45 range. Later in 1796, there were 432 pieces produced without stars. The 1796 With Stars is rarer than its No Stars counterpart but it sells for less. The two rarest issues of this type are the 1797, which had an original mintage figure of just 427, and the 1804 Thirteen Stars of which a dozen or so are known. The best dates for type purposes are the 1802/1 and the 1807. As a type, the Capped Bust Right quarter eagles are rare and extremely undervalued, especially in relation to comparably dated half eagles.

Buying Tips: Many of these issues are found with very weak strikes so try and find a piece with decent detail in the centers. Avoid coins that are unnaturally bright and/or excessively marked. Many dates of this type are almost never seen in lower grades, so look for a coin in the Extremely Fine-45 to About Uncirculated-55 range (which should cost $5,000-8,000) if you can not afford the $15,000+ that a real Mint State-60 to 61 piece will cost.

B. Capped Bust Left (Large Size), 1808 only

John Reich's new design was adopted in 1808 and a total of 2,710 pieces were struck. This one-year type is very popular and as with most one-year types, it is expensive relative to its rarity. The 1808 quarter eagle is scarce but slightly overrated in lower grades but it is rare in accurately graded About Uncirculated and very rare in Uncirculated. You can expect to pay around $20,000 for an Extremely Fine and $25,000-35,000+ for an About Uncirculated.

Buying Tips: Most 1808 quarter eagles have been cleaned and many are very weakly struck at the borders. Try and find a piece that is original and which has some amount of detail on the stars. Many show mint-made adjustment marks and these are acceptable as long as they are not located on Liberty's face. This date is invariably overgraded, so learn how to properly grade an 1808 quarter eagle before you buy one and only purchase one through as knowledgeable, reputable dealers.

C. Capped Head Left, 1821-1834

i. Large Diameter, 1821-1827

The quarter eagle denomination was not produced from 1809 to 1820. In 1821, a new design was introduced. These employ Reich's Capped Head left design and have a wide diameter. There are a total of five issues known with this design: 1821, 1824/1, 1825, 1826/5 and 1827. The 1826/5 is the rarest with a tiny original mintage of 760. The most available is the 1821. This is an extremely reasonably priced type, considering its rarity in all grades. Currently, an About Uncirculated is valued in the $5,000-6,000 range while a nice Uncirculated piece costs $10,000-20,000.

Buying Tips: This type did not readily circulate so it is very difficult to find examples grading less than About Uncirculated. There are sometimes lower priced pieces available but these often show damage. Such coins should be avoided. Whenever possible, look for Capped Head Left quarter eagles that have original color and nice surfaces. This type is not prone to adjustment marks as found on early quarter eagles.

ii. Small Diameter, 1829-1834

In 1829, the diameter of the quarter eagle was reduced. This type was produced from 1829 through 1834. Most of these issues have mintage figures in the 4,000-5,000 coin range. They are of basically similar rarity with the exception of the 1834 which is very rare in all grades as a result of heavy melting. Most quarter eagles of this type are found in About Uncirculated and Uncirculated grades. They are amazingly good values when one considers their rarity. An About Uncirculated example costs $6,000-7,000 while a nice Uncirculated piece costs $8,500-15,000.

Buying Tips: This is another type that is almost never seen in grades below About Uncirculated, so the type collector on a budget should expect to purchase a coin grading at least AU-50. Many small diameter Capped Head Left quarter eagles have been cleaned or dipped and pieces with nice, original color and very desirable. The relatively short duration of this type (just six issues) make it an interesting possibility to assemble a date set.

II. Half Eagles

A. Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-98

The half eagle is, along with the eagle, the oldest United States gold coin denomination. The first design of the half eagle was executed by Robert Scot. Fewer than 20,000 pieces of this design were struck from 1795 to 1798 but it is more available than one might expect. The 1795 is extremely popular, given its status as a first-year-of-design issue. It is reasonably available in Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated grades and even available, from time to time, in the lower Mint State grades. Expect to pay around $10,000 for an Extremely Fine, $17,500 for an About Uncirculated and $30,000 and up for an Uncirculated. The 1796/5 is much rarer than the 1795 but it brings just a bit more. The 1797 is found with fifteen or sixteen stars on the obverse. Both varieties are quite rare. The 1798 Small Eagle is an extremely rare coin with just seven known.

Buying Tips: The 1795 is probably the best choice for a type set, given its relative availability and its fame as a first-year issue. Many are found with mint-made planchet roughness, adjustment marks and signs of cleaning. Nice, original coins are hard to locate and worth a strong premium over current published price guides. Some 1795 half eagles are found with raised die rust on the surfaces. This is not a defect and it does not adversely affect the desirability of such a coin.

According to the editors of the CDN, they "report prices on national dealer-to-dealer buying and selling information. These wholesale prices result from our monitoring all possible sight-seen transactions and offers to buy and sell."

B. Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1795-1807

The 1795 half eagles with the Heraldic Eagle reverse are believed to have been struck in 1798. They are rare but not as much so as the 1797 Heraldic Eagle reverse half eagles. Coins dated 1798 and 1799 are affordable in lower grades and considered very desirable given their 18th century origin. The remaining dates of this type, struck from 1800 through 1807 are quite common in circulated grades and are sometimes seen in grades as high as Mint State-64 to Mint State-65. These coins had relatively high mintages figures (between 30,000 and 50,000) and were saved in much greater quantity than comparable quarter eagles and eagles. Many of these dates can be purchased in Extremely Fine for between $2,000 and $3,000 and in About Uncirculated for $3,000 and $4,000. There are a number of very die interesting varieties known and these are among the most collectible early gold issues.

Buying Tips: The availability of this type means that the collector can afford to be more selective than on other early gold issues. The 1798 and 1799 are interesting type coins due to their 18th century dates and nice examples of either date can be located for under $7,500. The 19th century issues are quite easy to locate in circulated grades. The collector should look for pieces that are well struck, have nice color and surfaces and good overall eye appeal.

C. Capped Bust Left, 1807-1812

This type was designed by John Reich and struck in all years from 1807 to 1812. Mintage figures for Capped Bust Left half eagles went as high as 100,000 coins (in 1810) and this is the most common early gold issue. It is an easy type to assemble by date but there are some very rare individual varieties, such as the 1810 Small Date, Small 5 and the 1810 Large Date, Small 5. A sleeper issue is the 1808/7, which is hard to locate in lower grades and which is very rare in Uncirculated. A nice common date Extremely Fine Capped Bust half eagle costs $2,000 to $2,500 while an About Uncirculated costs $3,000 to $3,500. Uncirculated examples begin in the $4,250 to $4,750 range and rise in price according to quality. This type is generally less popular than the Capped Bust Right half eagles and tends to be easier to locate.

Buying Tips: This is another type that is seen with relatively high frequency, so the collector should be patient. Look for coins that are well struck, free of deep marks and in possession of nice color. Two interesting dates to consider as type coins are the 1807, due to its status as the first-year of type and the 1812 as it was struck during the War of 1812.

Coming in September 2001: Part Two of this article, featuring Half Eagles from 1813 to 1834 and Eagles from 1795 to 1804.