Collecting Three Dollar Gold Pieces

Three Dollar gold pieces were produced from 1854 to 1889. This relatively short-lived type contains a number of very rare issues but is surprisingly collectible as well. While forming a complete set will exceed the budget of most people, there are a number of ways to actively purchase these popular odd denomination issues. Before examining some of the interesting "subsets" within the Three Dollar gold piece denomination, a bit of background information is in order. The origin of this issue is shrouded in controversy. It is generally believed that the Three Dollar gold piece was adopted as a direct result of the postal rate dropping from five cents to three cents in 1851. A three dollar gold issue allowed purchasers to buy large quantities of the new stamps without having to use the then-unpopular copper Large Cents or the new, tiny silver Three Cent pieces.

The Three dollar gold piece was designed by James Longacre. It features an Indian Princess on the obverse and a wreath of corn and cotton on the reverse which surrounds the date, denomination and, when appropriate, the mintmark.

Three dollar gold pieces were struck at four mints: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans and Dahlonega. There are two major types: the small letters reverse which was made only in 1854 and the large letters which was produced from 1855 until the denomination was abolished in 1889. In both cases the size of the lettering refers to the word DOLLARS.

This was not a popular denomination when it was struck and mintages were, for the most part, extremely limited. Only one date, the 1854, had a mintage figure greater than 100,000 and only four more exceeded 25,000. There are seven issues that had original mintages of fewer than 1,000.

As mentioned above, this is an essentially impossible denomination to complete. The 1870-S is unique (it is in the Bass collection and is currently on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs) while the 1875 and 1876 were produced in very limited quantities and only as Proofs.

Here are some suggestions on how to collect some Three Dollar gold pieces without "breaking the bank" and with the satisfaction of knowing that completion is possible.

The Two Coin Type Set

As mentioned above, there are two naked-eye types of Three Dollar gold piece. Many collectors like to assemble a basic type set that contains one of each. The first type was made only in 1854 but, fortunately, this is a common date that is easily obtainable in any grade up to and including Mint State-64. For their second coin most collectors select an 1874 or an 1878. Both are easy to find in nearly any grade and are affordable as well.

For $4,000-6,000, a collector can assemble a very nice two coin type set with both pieces grading Mint State-62 to Mint State-63.

The Four Coin Mint Set

This is a challenging and interesting set. The easiest issue to obtain is one from Philadelphia. Most collectors will select a common date such as an 1854, 1874 or 1878. The New Orleans mint produced this denomination only in 1854. The 1854-O is quite common (and very affordable) in lower grades but it becomes quite scarce in the higher About Uncirculated grades and it is extremely rare in Uncirculated. The 1854-D is another one-year type issue. Only 1,120 were struck and it is exceptionally popular. This is an issue that is a bit more available than its low mintage would suggest but it is expensive due to great demand. The collector should expect to pay at least $15,000-20,000+ for a nice 1854-D. The San Francisco mint produced Three Dollar gold pieces in 1855, 1856, 1857, 1860 and 1870. The 1856-S is the most available of these but it is very hard to find in high grades. The other dates are extremely rare in AU-55 or better.

The collector can expect to spend at least $30,000-35,000 for a nice four coin mint set of Three Dollar gold pieces. This figure could easily double (or triple) if the collector pursues higher grade examples.

The Six Coin Branch Mint Set

Not including the unique 1870-S, there are a total of six branch mint Three Dollar gold pieces: four from San Francisco and one each from New Orleans and Dahlonega. This is an extremely interesting set to collect. None of these issues is impossible to locate but all are generally seen in lower grades.

A six coin branch mint set that included coins in the Extremely Fine grade range would cost $30,000 or so. A set that included nice About Uncirculated coins would cost at least $60,000-70,000. A set that had all of the coins in Uncirculated would be a remarkable accomplishment and one that required considerable patience. It would require a commitment of at least $150,000-200,000.

The Low Mintage Set

In this era of billion+ mintage figures, it is amazing to look at the original mintages of most Three Dollar gold pieces. As mentioned above, seven had mintages of below 1,000 while another nine had mintages that were less than 2,500. Despite the low mintage figures of these issues, many are surprisingly affordable. As an example, a nice About Uncirculated 1885 (original mintage figure: 910) typically trades in the $2,000-4,000 range.

In my opinion, these low mintage coins are extremely undervalued and represent excellent value. The dates that I feel offer especially good value include 1877 (1,488 struck), 1881 (534 struck), 1883 (989 struck) and 1885 (910 struck).

The Five Coin Civil War Set

Civil War-related issues are extremely popular in all areas of American numismatics. The five Three Dollar gold pieces struck during the Civil War years are low mintage coins. The rarest of these is the 1865. The 1861 through 1864 are all reasonably available and are moderately priced in About Uncirculated grades.

A five coin Civil War set would be hard to assemble in Extremely Fine grades as some of these dates are not often seen with this amount of wear. A nice About Uncirculated set would cost $12,500-17,500. Depending on quality, an Uncirculated set would cost $25,000 to $100,000+.

The value spreads between, say, About Uncirculated-55 and Mint State-61 Three Dollar gold pieces is not as pronounced as on comparable Liberty Head gold issues. The collector should carefully study price levels in Coin World Trends and CDN Quarterly to determine which issues are undervalued in high grades.

"Generic" common date high grade Three Dollar gold pieces are currently very reasonably priced compared to previous market highs. As of November 2002, common date Three Dollar gold pieces in Mint State-64 are worth $4,500-5,000 while Mint State-65 coins are worth $7,000-8,000+.

A good source for determining price levels for the rarer issues is auction records. It is a good idea for the collector to maintain a database of pertinent sales.

Many of the low mintage issues are found with highly reflective prooflike fields. This tends to enhance abrasions or hairlines. Any Three Dollar gold piece that is prooflike with clean, choice surfaces is worth a strong premium over a typical heavily abraded example.

PCGS and NGC population figures for most rare date and/or high grade Three Dollar gold pieces are inflated by resubmissions. A better test of rarity for rare date (or high grade) coins is the number of appearances at auction of a five year period.