Grading Early United States Gold Coins

For a variety of reasons, early gold coins are among the most difficult United States issues to grade. There is often discrepancy in grading these coins, even between experts. While it is impossible to teach a collector how to grade based on digital images, I thought it might be a good idea to display a few pre-1834 gold coins here and analyze them as to why they grade the way they do. Before looking at these specific coins, there are a few things to consider. First are the reasons why these issues are more difficult to grade than 20th century pieces. The basic reason is the pre-1834 United States gold coins are, for the most part, hand-produced items made on old-fashioned screw presses while later-date issues are mass-produced items that were struck using more modern steam presses.

As I have discussed in other articles about grading, there are five components that experts take into consideration when examining an early gold coin: strike, surface preservation, coloration, luster and eye appeal.

Strike is a relatively important factor in grading early gold but it does require a good degree of attendant knowledge. As an example, it would be incorrect for someone to penalize an issue such as an 1806/4 quarter eagle for being weakly struck at the center as all known examples exhibit weakness in this area. Conversely, an issue such an 1812 half eagle which is generally seen with a good strike might be properly penalized if an example had a very weak strike.

Surface preservation is very important when determining the grade of an early gold coin. If a coin has deep marks in key focal points (i.e., on the face of Liberty or in the left obverse field) this will certainly cause a deduction in grade. One confusing area in relation to early issues is adjustment marks. These are parallel scratches that were intentionally placed on overweight coins in an attempt to get them to conform to then-current weight standards. Generally speaking, unobtrusive adjustment marks do not cause a coin's grade to be lowered. Marks that are positioned in prime focal areas are considered negatives and may cause the grade to be lowered.

Since so few early gold coins show original coloration, this is no longer a critical factor in determining grade. If a coin that has the detail of an About Uncirculated-50 has very pretty original color, it is almost certain to be bumped up to at least an About Uncirculated-55 grade if not higher. Lack of color will not be a penalizing factor but the presence of good color is certainly a big plus for any early gold issue.

Luster is an extremely important factor in determining the grade of an early gold coin. Given the fact that so many pieces are poorly struck, show heavy marks or possess mint-made faults, the amount of luster that is present is a tangible fact that does not require great expertise to determine. In other words, an early gold coin either has luster or it doesn't and the amount that is present is a great aid in determining how much--if any--wear the piece has.

For any coin, the overall level of eye appeal is the single key element in determining grade (and value). When an expert grader looks at an early gold coin, the first thing he considers is the "look" of the coin. Is it attractive or unattractive? How does it compare to other examples of this date or type that he has seen?

Included below are good quality digital images of a few early gold coins that I have recently sold. After you view each image, I suggest you apply each of the five grading components I just discussed. Then, read my comments as they relate to the coin's strike, surface preservation, luster, coloration and eye appeal. I am going to list the actual grade for each coin at the end of this article so don't cheat and look at the grades before trying to determine what you think they grade!

1. 1801 Eagle

My first impression is that this is a fresh, original and attractive coin. It shows some weakness of strike at the stars on the right obverse but the rest of the detail is very sharp.

The surfaces are relatively well preserved. There are some scuffmarks in the obverse fields which are not overly detracting. The only significant abrasion is a reeding mark on Liberty's face. There is no rub on the cheek or signs of wear on the high spots, which means that this is an Uncirculated piece.

The luster is excellent. The obverse is very frosty while the reverse is more prooflike. Even if I had never seen another Eagle of this date or type, I would assume that the luster is decidedly above-average.

The coloration is a rich orange-gold hue which, from the image, looks original due to its evenness. Again, this is a very big plus and I would assume that not many 1801 eagles show this lovely coloration.

The overall eye appeal is very high. With the exception of the mark on the cheek of Liberty, I see no negatives about this coin. It is unquestionably "new" and it seems to be choice, based on its sharpness, luster and color.

2. 1803/2 Half Eagle

My first impression of this coin is that is has superb color and is about as original as one could hope for. It shows some light, even wear but is as attractive a circulated early gold coin as one might hope to find.

The surfaces of this coin are exceptional. Other than some light friction in the fields (which can be distinguished from weakness of strike by the difference of color between these areas and the high spots) there are no readily noticeable marks.

The luster is mostly obscured by the depth of the coloration. If the viewer looks at the protected areas (i.e., within the stars and around the date) he can see some traces of luster which would be more clear if the coin were lightened.

The best feature of this coin is its stunning deep reddish-gold color. This is what a 200 year old gold coin that is totally original should look like and it adds at least three (if not five) points to the overall grade. No more than 5% of all early gold coins show original color and just a smaller number have this lovely (and desirable) reddish-gold hue.

This is a very attractive, nearly flawless coin with just a bit of light wear noted. Its nice color, clean surfaces and originality give it a very strong degree of eye appeal.

3. 1830 Quarter Eagle

With the advent of new technology in the late 1820's, the quality of strike improved on United States gold coins. The reduced sized Capped Head Left quarter eagle was produced from 1829 to 1834 and it is generally found with good detail and a much better "look" than the quarter eagles produced from 1796 to 1808. This type did not circulate much and when available, survivors tend to come in relatively high grades.

My first impression about this coin is that it is very fresh and bright. It shows some marks in the fields but its vibrancy is enough to make these marks seem unimportant. It is important to remember on a coin like this that the number of marks that are present is not as important as their severity. In other words, a number of small scuffmarks in the obverse fields (as on this coin) are not as important as a few deep, detracting marks in similar areas.

This coin has excellent luster that is more suggestive of a late 19th century issue than one from 1830. From the image, it appears that the luster is very frosty in its texture with some slight reflectiveness in the fields. It appears to be unbroken and relatively undisturbed, leading the viewer to believe that this is an Uncirculated piece.

The coloration is an even medium to deep yellow and green-gold. It is attractive and even if the viewer has never seen another example of this date, this hue should appear to be well above-average.

The overall level of eye appeal is excellent. This is clearly an unworn coin that has a good strike, pleasing surfaces, great luster and nice color.

4. 1807 Bust Right Half Eagle

So how have you done so far? Getting more comfortable grading these early coins? Well don't get too comfortable because I've saved the hardest coin for last.

The 1807 Bust Right half eagle is the final year of issue for this type. It is found with a number of varieties as well as many different looks. This example is a late die state with a "sunken" look noted on the obverse.

But is the weakness at the center strike-related or is it wear? The answer lies in the fact that the luster on this coin is full with no breaks noted in the fields or on the high spots.

I stated earlier in this article that strike is the least important factor when grading an early gold coin. This is true but in the case of this piece, where the important central detail on the obverse has been partially obscured, it is likely that a grader will deduct some points from this coin's overall grade.

In addition, the surfaces show a number of marks. It is likely that this coin was transported loose in a bag from bank to bank in the early 19th century and in the process it picked-up some noticeable marks.

Not everything about this coin, however, is a negative. It has great luster and the coloration is lovely with rich green-gold and lemon hues strongly suggesting that it has never been cleaned or dipped.

While not everyone will agree with me, I happen to like this coin quite a bit. I am a stickler for originality and I would personally rather own a weakly struck, somewhat "baggy" early half eagle than one which was sharper and less marked-up but which was washed-out from having been overzealously dipped.

Early gold is an area where gaining knowledge will give the collector a decided advantage when making purchases. Given the fact that these are expensive coins, I would suggest that careful study is in order. For more information on grading early gold coins or on early gold in general please feel free to email me at

The grades of the coins listed above are as follows:

    1801 Eagle: PCGS Mint State-63

    1803/2 Half Eagle: NGC About Uncirculated-55

    1830 Quarter Eagle: PCGS Mint State-63

    1807 Bust Right Half Eagle: NGC Mint State-61