Interesting Subsets for Gold Coin Collectors

While I am personally still a fan of collecting gold coins by sets, I understand that this method is not for everyone. Some individuals find set collecting monotonous; others lack the patience to assemble anything but a short set. And other collectors simply do not have the financial resources available to work on a set that might not only have a long duration but may contain many expensive coins as well. One interesting compromise is for a collector to work on a subset. This subset might take many forms. As an example, let’s say a collector really likes Type One Liberty Head double eagles but he is realistic enough to know that he will never be able to afford the expensive New Orleans issues that populate this set. The solution is to pick an alternative within this set that is completable. Later on in this article I will discuss an actual subset that I have worked on with a number of collectors that still allows them to finish a Type One set; just without spending $1 million+.

For the sake of brevity, I am only going to mention four potential subsets in this article. But there are many, many others that are highly collectible.

1. Civil War Era Gold Coins.

A set of Civil war gold coins is among the more challenging of the subsets that a collector might choose but it is certainly one of the most popular as well. A complete Civil War gold set would consist of the following:

-Gold Dollars (6): 1861, 1861-D, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1864

-Quarter Eagles (10): 1861, 1861-S, 1862, 1862/1, 1862-S, 1863, 1863-S, 1864, 1865, 1865-S

-Three Dollars (5): 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865

-Half Eagles (12): 1861, 1861-C, 1861-D, 1861-S, 1862, 1862-S, 1863, 1863-S, 1864, 1864-S, 1865, 1865-S

-Eagles (11): 1861, 1861-S, 1862, 1862-S, 1863, 1863-S, 1864, 1864-S, 1865, 1865-S Normal Date, 1865-S Inverted Date

-Double Eagles (12): 1861, 1861-O, 1861-S, 1861-S Paquet, 1862, 1862-S, 1863, 1863-S, 1864, 1864-S, 1865, 1865-S.

In total, there are 56 coins in the Civil War gold set. The coins range from very common to very rare and most are extremely hard to find in higher grades.

The grade range that most collectors are likely to tackle is Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated. It is possible to assemble this set in Uncirculated but there are a number of extreme rarities in Mint State from this era including at least a half a dozen issues that, to the best of my knowledge, consist of no more than one to three known.

In the gold dollar denomination, the key issue is the 1861-D. This date isn’t really rare from the standpoint of overall rarity but it is extremely popular and the collector can expect to spend at least $25,000+ for an acceptable example. The rarest quarter eagle is the 1864 which, while not widely known, is actually among the rarest Liberty Head gold coins to acquire. The 1863 is a Proof-only issue that is expensive and very rare as well. The third rare issue in this group is the 1865 of which only 1,520 business strikes were produced. However, an extremely nice example of this issue can be purchased in the $20,000-25,000 range.

The five three dollar gold pieces in this set are all obtainable with patience. The key issue, by a large margin, is the 1865 which has an original mintage of only 1,140 business strikes. If the collector is willing to spend in excess of $10,000 per coin, all of the Civil War era Three Dollar pieces can be purchased in Uncirculated and some can even be found in comparatively high grades.

The half eagles in this group contain some very scarce issues. The most popular is the 1861-D while the rarest is the 1864-S. The former’s popularity is a result of its status as a Confederate issue while the 1864-S is unique in Uncirculated and very rare in any grade. The 1863 and 1865 Philadelphia issues are quite rare in all grades and extremely rare in full Mint State.

The toughest denomination in this set is the ten dollar. With the exception of the 1861 and 1862 Philadelphia, every issue is rare in circulated grades and many are exceedingly rare in Uncirculated. The 1864-S is the rarest and it is closely trailed by the 1863. The 1865, 1865-S Normal Date and 1865-S Inverted Date are all rare and all three are seldom available above AU50 to AU53.

There are a number of double eagles in the Civil War set that will prove challenging. The 1861-O is scarce in all grades and a nice, middle grade piece will require a commitment of at least $25,000-35,000+. The 1861-S Paquet is a rarity in all grades and it is extremely rare in properly graded AU55 and higher. The 1862 is the “sleeper” in this group and the collector who seeks an Uncirculated example will be greatly challenged.

2. No Motto Philadelphia Half Eagles and/or Eagles

I’ve written a few blogs and articles in the last year about No Motto half eagles and eagles being a sort of “final frontier” for the U.S. gold coin collector. I still believe this to be the case. There are lots of issues that cost less than $2,500 per coin which are genuinely scarce and appealing.

As far as subsets go, here are two suggestions for the collector.

1. No Motto half eagles, 1840-1849. This is an interesting date run with no individual coins that are rarities. If a collector has a fairly limited budget, he could purchase many dates in the middle to higher About Uncirculated grades for less than $1,000. This set is even feasible in Uncirculated as many of the No Motto half eagles of this decade can be found in MS62, MS63 and even MS64 grades.

I personally like this subset for a number of reasons. Firstly, as I mentioned above, it is reasonably easy to complete. Secondly, the Philadelphia coins of this era are less likely to be found with unattractive processed surfaces. Thirdly, the coins tend to be better produced than the branch mint pieces from this era. Finally, I think they are much undervalued and have some real upside potential down the road.

2. No Motto eagles, 1840-1849. The eagles from the 1840’s tend to be appreciably scarcer than the half eagles from this decade. There are exceptions. Dates like the 1847, 1848 and 1849 are not hard to find in any circulated grade and are even available from time to time in Uncirculated. But there are some really tough issues from this era as well. These include the 1844, 1845 and 1846, all of which are extremely rare in Uncirculated and very scarce to rare in properly graded AU55 and above.

This set would be much more expensive than the half eagles mentioned above but I like it as well. It is completable, the coins are sometimes seen with choice original surfaces and they also represent excellent overall value.

3. Type One Philadelphia Double Eagles

With gold speeding towards the $1,100 per ounce level, the popularity of the double eagle denomination seems greater than ever. I have always thought that the Type One issues were among the most interesting of all the twenty dollar gold pieces struck. The problem with this series is that many of the New Orleans issues are priced at levels that many collectors can’t afford. The best solution is to look at the Philadelphia issues.

A specific subset that I think is especially interesting is the Philadelphia double eagles from the 1850’s. All ten are within the budget of most collectors. There is only one date (the 1859) that is going to cost more than $5,000 for a nice mid-level About Uncirculated example.

The dates in this subset range from very common (1851 and 1852) to scarce (1856) to rare (1859). Most collectors will be able to purchase the majority of the dates in AU53 to AU58 and, as such, they will be assembling a collection with some visually impressive coins.

I have a few tips for collectors interested in Type One double eagles from this era. First and foremost is to be patient and wait for coins that have choice, relatively non-abraded surfaces. Most double eagles from the 1850’s saw some hard time in circulation (or in bags being transported from bank to bank) and they are heavily marked as a result. But there are coins out there with nice surfaces and these are worth paying a premium for. I would also suggest being careful to avoid coins that are bright, shiny and unnatural in appearance.

One of the great things about this set is that every time you purchase a double eagle, you are buying nearly an ounce of gold. If you complete the Type One Philadelphia subset, you will not only have a nice collection, you’ll have a nice gold position that contains nearly ten full ounces. In this era of economic uncertainty that seems like a wise decision to make.

4. Three Decade Carson City

I have met few collectors who weren’t fascinated by the history and the mystique of the Carson City mint. It’s hard not to feel a real attraction to the gold coins produced there. But it is hard to be a collector assembling a complete set of any of three gold denominations from this mint. Let’s face it: the coins are very expensive and not everyone is going to be able to continually spend $10,000+ on the scarcer issues.

I have a solution that allows a collector to do more than dabble in Carson City gold. It’s a subset that I refer to as the “Three Decade Set.” Carson City produced coins from 1870 to 1893. The three decades are generally very clearly differentiated as well. The coins from the 1870’s tend to be scarce in all grades and very rare in Uncirculated (with the exception of the double eagles which are more available in higher grades). The coins from the 1880’s are more available in higher grades but not really “common.” And the coins from the 1890’s tend to be readily available in circulated grades and are even within the price parameters of many collectors in MS60 to MS62 grades.

Here are my suggestions for a Three Decade Set of Carson City gold.

1. 1870’s issues: For a half eagle, I’d probably look for an issue that is available in nice EF or even AU grades. And I’d want to look for an issue that was well-produced and a good value from a price standpoint. I would probably select a date like the 1876-CC or the 1877-CC as they seem to fit the bill perfectly. The eagle denomination is harder to locate than the half eagles from this decade and there are no “easy” dates to fill a hole. I’d probably lean towards a date like the 1877-CC in nice Extremely Fine. I’d be very selective with my 1870’s eagle as this is going to represent a $5,000-10,000+ investment and many of the available coins on the market are inferior for the grade. A double eagle from the 1870’s is an easier decision. I’d stick with an 1875-CC or an 1876-CC as both are reasonably available in circulated grades and are known for being well struck and nicely produced.

2. 1880’s issues: For a half eagle, I’d look at an 1883-CC or 1884-CC. Both are scarce in the lower AU grades but not all that expensive. For the eagle denomination I think I’d focus on these same two dates. Both have low mintages and are very rare in Uncirculated but they can be obtained in nice AU grades for under $5,000. For the double eagle denomination, I would look at virtually any other dates from this decade other than the 1885-CC which is scarce. A nice twist to the set would be to have all three coins from the 1880’s be the same year; in other words, an 1883-CC or 1884-CC half eagle, eagle and double eagle.

3. 1890’s issues: This is the one decade that the collector who likes Uncirculated coins will be able to purchase high quality issues without completely breaking the bank. The 1891-CC half eagle and eagle are both common in the MS60 to MS62 range and both dates can be found in MS63 for less than $7,500 per coin. The 1890-CC, 1892-CC and 1893-CC double eagles can be found in the lower Uncirculated grades (MS60 to MS62) for mid-four figure sums. If the collector would prefer to step down to nice AU coins, the 1890’s issues are very affordable.

As I mentioned above, the number of interesting subsets that a collector could assemble is almost limitless. I like the fact that a subset allows a collector to be involved in set collecting without the intensity (or cost) that a “full” set might entail. For more information on this subject, please feel free to contact me at