Four 20th Century Gold Rarities and the Stories Behind Them

All four of the 20th century American gold types that were produced contain key issues that are very popular with collectors. This article takes a look at four of these: the 1911-D quarter eagle, the 1909-O half eagle, the 1920-S eagle and the 1921 double eagle. What do these four coins have in common? More than you would think. With the exception of the 1921 double eagle, each has a comparatively low mintage figure and is recognized as a key issue within its respective series. Each is very popular with collectors. And all four are relative “late discoveries” among collectors that have only recently been recognized as rarities within their series and have shown price appreciation befitting this status.

I. 1911-D Quarter Eagle

The Indian Head quarter eagle has proven to be one of the more popular of the four 20th century United States gold types. It is a short-lived set with just fifteen coins. Unlike its three counterparts, this series does not contain any impossible rarities and it can be completed in nice Uncirculated grades by a collector of reasonably average means. Because of this series brief duration and its relative ease of completion, it was a natural to be promoted on a large scale. And, unlike with other 20th century coinage, Indian Head quarter eagles have always been available in large enough quantities to make promotion readily feasible.

As soon as the first coin dealer realized that Indian Head quarter eagles were a great set to promote, the status of the 1911-D rose dramatically. Here was a coin that was an obvious candidate to be the superstar of the set. It had the lowest mintage figure by a huge margin and it was a legitimately scarce coin. As the Indian Head quarter eagle series became more and more popular, price levels for the 1911-D ran amuck. Today, many observers (including myself) feel that this is now among the more overvalued United States gold coins.

It is interesting to look at the numbers of 1911-D quarter eagles graded by PCGS and price levels. As an example, PCGS and NGC have graded over 1,200 1911-D quarter eagles in MS63 and MS64. Even assuming that a number of these are resubmissions, that is still somewhere in the area of 600-800 coins. According to the most recent Coin Dealer Newsletter, dealer bids for this date are $20,500 and $29,000, respectively, in MS63 and MS64. By the most optimistic standards, let’s say that there are currently 200 or so collectors and investors assembling high grade sets of Indian Head quarter eagles. That still means that the supply of these coins is generally more than enough to meet the demand. The bottom line is that while I think this coin has a great story behind it, it is wildly overvalued in the middle Uncirculated grades. (In MS65, the 1911-D is a truly rare coin and I think its current value of $80,000++ is legitimate). When and if the firms that are actively promoting Indian Head quarter eagles wind-down their marketing efforts, I can see MS63 and MS64 examples of this date losing a significant amount of their value.

II. 1909-O Half Eagle

The 1909-O has long been recognized as a key issue in the Indian Head half eagle series but its true scarcity in Uncirculated grades was not always recognized. This is true, of course, with most dates in this series. Before grading became as specialized as it is today, collectors who focused on Indian Head half eagles were unlikely to know—or care—if a coin was an MS63 or an MS64 or an MS65. The rarity of these coins in Gem really only became apparent once modern grading standards were applied to United States gold issues in the late 1970’s - early 1980’s.

The 1909-O has the lowest mintage figure of any Indian Head half eagle. In fact, it is one of just three issues in the series with an original mintage of less than 100,000 coins. There were 34,200 struck and this issue was clearly used in commerce as most of the survivors are in the EF40 to AU55 grade range. What is very surprising about this issue is that almost no examples were saved as souvenirs by local collectors or wealthy New Orleans residents who clearly must have found the 1909-O half eagle to be an interesting coin; after all, it was the first example of this denomination to be struck at New Orleans since 1894 and it was the first with the novel new incuse Indian Head design.

By the 1960’s, it was clear that this date was very rare in Choice to Gem Uncirculated and looking at auctions from this era, one sees some comparatively high prices realized for examples of the 1909-O half eagle that were described as Choice. But prices for this date really came into their own in the mid to late 1970’s when high grade rarities reached price levels that went unequalled for many years.

Today, specialists know that the 1909-O is rare in properly graded MS62, very rare in MS63 and extremely rare in MS64. The population figures for this issue appear to be very inflated as witnessed by the current PCGS population of 21 coins in MS64 (in my opinion, it is unlikely that there are more than four or five accurately graded MS64 examples known). There are two or three Gems known including the Eliasberg coin which is now in a PCGS MS66 holder and which is, without a doubt, the single most valuable business strike Indian Head half eagle in existence.

Is the 1909-O half eagle overvalued? I think the current prices that this issue fetches in AU55 to MS61 seem too strong, given the relative availability of such coins and the fact that most are dramatically overgraded. In MS62 and higher I don’t think this coin is overvalued. My reasoning behind this is the fact that the 1909-O is the only Indian Head half eagle that has multiple levels of demand. It is considered desirable by New Orleans gold collectors, one-year type coin specialists and Indian Head half eagle aficionados. These multiple levels of demand ensure that the 1909-O is likely to continue to be one of the key 20th century American gold coins.

III. 1920-S Eagle

Between 1916 and 1929, only one eagle was produced at the San Francisco mint: the 1920-S. This is a coin which is far rarer than its original mintage figure of 126,500 would suggest. It appears that virtually all of these coins were melted and that almost none of the 1920-S eagles that were struck were released into circulation. I can’t recall having seen more than three or four that showed signs of actual circulation (and these were, in all probability, pocket pieces that had been carried as souvenirs).

There are a number of features that are unusual about the 1920-S, besides the fact that it is the only San Francisco eagle of this design struck in over a decade. Most Indian Head eagles are exceptionally well struck and show very strong fine detail at the centers. The 1920-S is the most poorly produced Indian Head eagle of any date. It is the only issue that typically shows pronounced weakness of strike. Many examples are weak on the hair below the word LIBERTY and on the corresponding portion of the reverse. In addition to this, the luster is often inferior and the overall level of eye appeal is inferior to that seen on other San Francisco eagles of this type. I presume that the reason for this is the fact that the people making these coins at the San Francisco mint hadn’t had much practice on any eagles, given the fact that none had been struck since 1916.

The price history of the 1920-S is interesting as well. This was a relatively expensive coin in the 1940’s and 1950’s but its price flattened in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It became popular again the 1970’s and early 1980’s but when the Indian Head eagle series dropped in popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the 1920-S flattened. In fact, prices for this date in almost all grades were remarkably stagnant throughout the 1990’s. It has only been during the past few years that prices have risen, especially in higher grades. As an example, in Heritage’s July 2006 auction, a high end PCGS MS64 example sold for a remarkable $172,500. As a mater of comparison, the last two PCGS MS64 1920-S eagles offered by Heritage brought $41,400 and $55,200, respectively, when sold at auction in 2002 and 1999.

Today, the 1920-S is recognized as the third rarest issue in the series, trailing only the 1907 Rolled Edge and the 1933. Interestingly, the 1920-S has proven to be a far scarcer coin than the 1930-S; a date with which it was historically paired. But third-party grading has shown that the 1920-S is actually not the rarest San Francisco eagle in Gem Uncirculated. This honor belongs to the 1913-S. And another date in the series, the 1911-D, is comparable in rarity to the 1920-S in Gem, if not even a bit rarer.

IV. 1921 Double Eagle

The fourth and final coin in our discussion of 20th century gold issues is the rarest, although it is not necessarily the best known. Although some experts might disagree, I would rank the 1921 as the rarest Philadelphia double eagle of this design. Unlike its closest competitor the 1932, the 1921 is most often seen in the AU55 to MS61 range and it is extremely rare in MS64 and above.

The true rarity of this date was not known to the early generation of St. Gaudens double eagle collectors. Back in the day, the issues that were most actively sought were the mintmarked coins from the mid-1920’s. But hundreds of these were eventually located in Europe and in all grades below MS64; most of these coins are now only moderately scarce. Unlike dates such as the 1924-D, 1925-S and 1926-S, the 1921 was not exported to Europe. The “story behind the story” of the 1921 is very interesting and the true rarity of this date can be better understood when this is discussed.

Two things conspired to make the 1921 double eagle a rare coin. The first was that most of the mint’s production capacity and efforts in 1921 went towards silver dollars. Millions of Morgan Dollars were produced after a near-two decade hiatus and these were followed by the new Peace Dollar which was a complex, hard to produce High Relief design. Secondly, the United States economy in 1921 was going through a post-World War One slump which would continue until the middle part of the decade. Few gold coins were circulating in the early 1920’s and there was not a great deal of demand for double eagles in 1921. As a result, many of the 528,500 1921 double eagles that were struck were melted.

In addition to being rare because of mass meltings, this issue is rare because of the way it was produced. The 1921 is among the worst struck St. Gaudens double eagles and it is generally seen with poor luster. This shoddy level of workmanship meant that most examples were of inferior quality before they were produced. Coupled with the fact that the survivors tend to show heavy marks from rough handling and copious hairlines from numismatic abuse, the 1921 is among the rarest dates of this type in the higher Uncirculated grades.

It is likely that somewhere in the area of 60-80 examples are known. The PCGS and NGC population figures are both inflated with the AU58 and MS62 numbers showing the greatest number of resubmissions due to attempts to garner upgrades. The 1921 becomes an extremely rare coin in MS63 and above. There are probably no more than four to six known that grade MS63 or higher.

In 2005, I had the honor of handling the finest known 1921 double eagle. At Heritage’s Morse sale, my ex-partner and I purchased a PCGS MS66 example for $1,092,500. At the same sale, an MS65 example sold for $805,000 while and MS64 realized $402,500. Today, all three of these coins have been placed in prominent collections where they will, no doubt, remain for many years.

If any other high grade 1921 double eagles become available for sale, I would expect to see them sell for record prices. This is one 20th century issue whose rarity can not be disputed and it seems highly unlikely that any hoard or accumulations of this date are going to appear at any time in the future.