Fifteen Philly Faves: Underrated 19th Century Gold Coinage From The Philadelphia Mint

To older generations of gold coin collectors, the Philadelphia mint was the prime area of focus. Very few collectors had an interest in items from the branch mints. This can be seen when looking back at the auction sales conducted by such hall-of-fame names as the Chapman Brothers, B. Max Mehl and Wayte Raymond. This situation changed in the 1950's when collectors were first alerted to the rarity and great value of the branch mint issues. Today, it is interesting note that the coins from Charlotte, Carson City, New Orleans and Dahlonega are very popular while the rare issues from the "mother mint" of Philadelphia lack a strong collector base. There are a number of Philadelphia gold coins that are, in my opinion, extremely undervalued in comparison to their branch mint counterparts. For the sake of convenience (and space limitations) I am going to focus on fifteen of my favorite Philadelphia gold issues. I could have easily added fifteen more coins to this list and would still, no doubt, be reminded of more by readers.

1. 1863 Gold Dollar

Despite comparatively low original mintage figures, most post-Civil War gold dollars are relatively common due to hoarding. The 1863 is the second rarest gold dollar from the Philadelphia mint (trailing only the ultra low mintage 1875) and I feel it is an underappreciated issue. It is almost never seen in grades below About Uncirculated-55, which suggests that most pieces did not reach general circulation. The overall survival rate is quite low with an estimated 60-80 known from the original of 6,200 business strikes. There are some really superb pieces known including a PCGS MS-68 but this is a truly hard issue to find and, like all Philadelphia gold coinage dated 1863, it is undervalued in all grades.

2. 1865 Gold Dollar

The 1865 gold dollar has a lower original mintage figure than the 1863 (only 3,700 business strikes were produced) but is more available in all grades. I still regard it as an undervalued date as current price levels for a nice Mint State-60 to Mint State-62 are in the $1,250-2,500 range, which is very reasonable for a coin which is as scarce as this. The 1865 gold dollar has a grade distribution pattern which is similar to 1863. It is almost never seen in circulated grades and over half of the known survivors are gems. I have seen a superb PCGS MS-68 and a few others that were nearly as choice, including a PCGS MS-67 that sold for $15,238 in the Heritage March 1999 auction.

3. 1839 Quarter Eagle

In the Classic Head quarter eagle series, it's the mintmarked issues that get all of the attention. Ironically, it's the humble 1839 Philadelphia quarter eagle that is probably the rarest single issue. This date is seen from time to time in low grades. Properly graded About Uncirculated pieces, especially those with original color, are very rare. I've only seen two or three Uncirculated examples with the best of these being the PCGS MS-62 that realized $10,925 in the Bass II sale in October 1999. When available, About Uncirculated 1839 quarter eagles trade for $2,000-4,000. When you compare the rarity of this issue to the 1839-C and the 1839-D, it is easy to see just how significantly undervalued the 1839 quarter eagle truly is.

4. 1843 Quarter Eagle This date has always been a complete mystery to me. The original mintage figure is reported to be over 100,000 coins, meaning that it should be very common. In fact, the 1843 quarter eagle is very scarce in all grades and very rare in full Mint State. Nice circulated examples, when available, trade for below $1,000 which seems incredibly low for a coin with this degree of overall scarcity. The finest piece I have seen was Lot 345 in the October 1999 Bass II sale. This coin, which was graded Mint State-64 by PCGS, sold for $12,650 and is now in a prominent midwestern collection.

5. 1844 Quarter Eagle

A number of Philadelphia quarter eagles from the mid to late 1840's are very scarce and undervalued. I chose the 1844 from this group but could have just as easily selected the 1846, 1847 or 1848. Only 6,784 examples of the 1844 were produced and an estimated 50-60 are known today. Most are in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50 range. This date becomes very rare in About Uncirculated-55 and it is extremely rare in About Uncirculated-58. I have seen two pieces in Mint State-61 holders but am not aware of a single 1844 quarter eagle that is unequivocally Uncirculated. At current price levels ($3,000-4,000 for an AU-55), high end examples of this date are grossly undervalued.

6. 1865 Three Dollar Gold

The enigmatic Three Dollar series contains a number of rare and desirable issues. The 1865 is one of my absolute favorites and it is an issue that I feel is very undervalued. There were just 1,140 pieces struck and an estimated 50-75 are known today. The majority grade About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-58 and are characterized by fully reflective prooflike fields. In Uncirculated, the 1865 is very rare with around a dozen known. There are two or three in Mint State-66 and another two or three gem MS-65's. None has been available for a number of years and the best I can recall having seen was a very high end NGC MS-65 (now in an MS-66 holder) that David Akers sold for $44,000 in his May 1998 auction.

7. 1877 Three Dollar Gold

The mid to late 1870's is an extremely interesting era for the three dollar gold piece. The 1874 and the 1878 are the two most common dates of this entire type while the 1875 and the 1876 are extremely rare Proof-only issues. The 1877 is an issue that is similar in rarity to a number of the popular issues from the 1860's but it tends to be overlooked by many collectors. There were only 1,468 business strikes produced of which an estimated four to five dozen are known today. Unlike some of the issues from the 1860's, there are no gems and with the exception of the PCGS MS-64 that was sold in October 1999 by Bowers and Merena as part of the Bass collection, none have surfaced in many years that I felt were unquestionably Mint State. Nice About Uncirculated coins are quite rare and, in my opinion, excellent values in the $6,000-9,000 range.

8. 1842 Large Letters Half Eagle

There were two varieties of half eagle produced at the Philadelphia mint in 1842: the Small Letters and the Large Letters. The Large Letters is far and away the scarcer of the two and it is among the rarest No Motto half eagles. The population data from PCGS and NGC is inaccurate for this variety as it was only recognized a few years ago. In my opinion, there are around 35-45 pieces known with most in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50 range. Nice AU's are quite rare and very undervalued with a few certified About Uncirculated-55 to 58 coins having sold at auction in recent years in the $4,000-8,000 range. The best 1842 Large Letters half eagle I have seen by a huge margin was the Pittman I coin which sold for $17,6000 in October 1997. This coin is now in a PCGS Mint State-63 holder.

9. 1850 Half Eagle

The Philadelphia No Motto half eagles from 1843 to 1857 are considerably more available in all grades that their counterparts from 1858 through the end of the Civil War. These dates have comparatively high original mintages figures and some very choice pieces are sometimes available. The one exception is the 1850, which has proven to be elusive in all grades and very rare in Mint State. This issue is actually harder to locate than either the 1850-C or 1850-D half eagle but is priced at a fraction of the two branch mint issues. I recently sold a very nice PCGS AU-58 for under $2,000 and have seen Mint State-61 to Mint State-62 examples bring in the $3,500-4,500 range. I am aware of only one gem 1850 half eagle, an NGC MS-65 which brought an incredible $63,250 when Stack's auctioned it in the May 1995 Milas sale.

10. 1863 Half Eagle

The Philadelphia half eagles produced from 1862 to 1872 are all very rare, low mintage issues. The 1865 is probably the best known of these but it is already an expensive coin in higher grades. In my experience, the ultra low mintage 1863 is nearly as rare and its current price level is significantly lower than the 1865. There were only 2,442 1863 half eagles struck and many were melted or otherwise lost. Today, just 25-35 pieces are known with most in the Very Fine-30 to Extremely Fine-40 range. In About Uncirculated, this is an extremely rare coin with six to eight accounted for. I have never seen or heard of an Uncirculated 1863 half eagle and the finest I know of is the PCGS AU-58 Bass II coin that brought a very reasonable $13,800 in October 1999.

11. 1843 Eagle

The 1843 eagle is an issue that receives almost no attention from non-specialists. It has a relatively high original mintage figure and is not especially scarce in the Very Fine and Extremely Fine grade range. But this date is far from common in the lower About Uncirculated grades and it is very rare in About Uncirculated-55. I have only seen two pieces that I would grade About Uncirculated-58 and have never seen or heard of a fully Mint State example. There are a number of interesting varieties known including a noticeably doubled date and a triple punched date which is very rare. If available, a nice AU would trade for $3,000-5,000. There are not many other No Motto eagle issue which still offer Condition Census opportunities in this price range.

12. 1864 Eagle

All of the Civil War and Reconstruction era Philadelphia eagles are very rare, low mintage coins. I chose the 1864 due to its overall rarity and the fact that a very presentable example is currently priced in the $2,500-5,000 range; considerably less than other rare eagles of this era. Of the 3,530 1864 eagles originally made, an estimated 35-45 are known today. This includes seven to nine that grade About Uncirculated plus another two or three Mint State examples. I recently sold a very nice PCGS About Uncirculated-50 example in the $5,000 range. The collector who purchased the coin stated that in comparison to the overheated modern coin market, this 1864 eagle seemed like great value. I was quick to agree.

13. 1856 Double Eagle

The 1856 double eagle is usually lumped with the 1851-1855 Philadelphia issue when discussing the rarity of Type One issues from this mint. It is actually a much scarcer date than these others, especially in About Uncirculated-58 and higher grades. The typical 1856 is very heavily abraded with poor color and inferior luster. I have actively searched for high grade 1856 double eagles for a number of years and have generally paid well over published price level for the few coins that I have been offered. But I am convinced that this is a truly hard coin to find with good eye appeal and that it is due for a sharp price correction upwards. I am aware of just one Uncirculated coin, a PCGS Mint State-62, that has traded hands in recent years. It was sold as Lot 787 in the May 2000 Bass III auction and it brought $10,350.

14. 1862 Double Eagle

The 1862 is the rarest Type One double eagle from this mint. It is quite scarce in all grades and it becomes rare in About Uncirculated. While the demand for this issue has risen dramatically in recent years (the same can be said for all Type One double eagles), published price levels have not changed. This means that knowledgeable collectors and dealers will readily pay considerable more than Coin Dealer Newsletter levels for nearly any 1862 double eagle. As an example, I recently sold a PCGS Mint State-62 (formerly Lot 809 from the Bass III sale) for more than the current CDN Quarterly Bid for a Mint State-63. This is one of the most popular mid-19th century gold coins as indicated by the fact that most dealers who specialize in rare gold have multiple want lists for 1862 double eagles.

15. 1863 Double Eagle

If the 1862 is the most undervalued Type One double eagle, the 1863 is a close second. This is another date that had most of its mintage lost to melting and there are now just a few hundred pieces remaining out of the original 142,790 that were struck. The 1863 is more available in About Uncirculated than the 1862 but it is still very scarce. In Uncirculated, it is extremely rare with just five to seven pieces known. The Dallas Bank and Bass collections did not contain an 1863 double eagle that graded higher than Extremely Fine; the Eagle collection had an NGC About Uncirculated-58 that was very enthusiastically graded. I have not personally seen a coin that I graded better than About Uncirculated-53 in a number of years.

Runners Up

Gold Dollars: 1856 Upright 5, 1873 Closed 3 Quarter Eagles: 1842, 1846, 1847, 1848, 1849, 1867, 1872, 1883, 1884 Three Dollars: 1858, 1881, 1884 Half Eagles: 1858, 1860, 1869 Eagles: 1839 Head of 1840, 1844, 1845, 1846, 1889 Double Eagles: 1854 Large Date, 1859