About a year ago, I chanced upon a few coin dealers sitting in a hotel lobby bar after a long day at a convention. When coin dealers gather in small groups, their conversation often turns to--surprise, surprise--coins. The conversation this evening was an interesting one: what were their very favorite United States coins. I recently remembered this late night conversation and thought it would be an interesting topic for an article. What I've decided to do is list my personal twelve favorite United States gold coins. These are not necessarily coins that I've owned or sold. The one major parameter here was that I had to have seen them in person. (And they had to be coins that I "fell in love with" and found them very interesting; as well as very rare). While none of these are currently for sale, these are the sort of coins I would love to have in my own coin collection--that is, if I had a personal coin collection and if I had very deep pockets.
Please note that because of my orientation towards mid-to-late 19th century issues, this list does not include any early gold or 20th century pieces. I could easily have constructed a list of twelve issues from each of these areas; and I may do so in a future article.
So here it is--my "Dream Team" of United States gold coins (listed in denomination and date order):
1. The North Georgia Collection 1849-C Open Wreath Gold Dollar, PCGS Graded About Uncirculated-58
The first coin is a little bit self-serving as it represents the single most expensive coin that I have ever owned and sold. The 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar is one of the great rarities in all of United States numismatics. There are only four known and this particular piece is the finest of these. It is also the discovery coin and it has a very interesting pedigree dating back to the 1920's. It is an extremely attractive, totally original coin with lovely deep green-gold coloration and choice surfaces. It was sold to a private collector by Blanchard & Co. in 1999 and this lucky individual now owns what I regard as the single most important United States gold dollar in existence as well as the single valuable Charlotte gold coin. (By the way, the listing of a second AU-58 1849-C Open Wreath Gold Dollar in the PCGS Population Report is a clerical error. There is only one known in this grade.)
2. The Miles-Ullmer Collection 1861-D Gold Dollar, PCGS MS-64
I have always been totally enamored with this issue. It is the only coin that can unequivocally be attributed to the Confederate States of America. In April 1861, the branch mint at Dahlonega was seized by the Confederacy and approximately 1500-2500 gold dollars were produced. The 1861-D is a very scarce coin although it is slightly more available in high grades than is sometimes acknowledged. The finest known 1861-D gold dollar is the present example. It is currently owned by an Alabama collector and it has also been in such famous collections as George Elliott, Arthur Montgomery, Theodore Ullmer, R.L. Miles and Grant Pierce. It is a superb, well struck piece with great color and surfaces.It was recently graded Mint State-64 by PCGS and it is the highest graded 1861-D from any service. It is clearly the finest known example of this rare, popular and historic Dahlonega issue.
3. The Elrod Collection 1842-C Quarter Eagle, PCGS Mint State-65
I can remember the first time I saw this coin in the early 1980's. I had never seen an 1842-C quarter eagle that graded higher than About Uncirculated-50 (by that era's standards). And here, looking like it had been preserved in a vacuum chamber for 140 years, was a superb gem piece. This coin has a dual significance, in my opinion. Not only is it the finest known 1842-C quarter eagle, it is the finest known Charlotte quarter eagle of any date that I have seen or heard of. The fact that this is a very rare issue as well as the finest known for the type makes it an extremely special coin. After being owned by Stanley Elrod, the noted Charlotte specialist, it bounced around in a few collections until 1999, when it was purchased by a Georgia collector who specializes in truly great coins.
4. The Brand Collection 1845-O $2.50, PCGS Mint State-63
The 1845-O quarter eagle is one of the great unsung rarities among the 19th century U.S. gold issues. Only 4,000 were struck and high grade survivors are extremely hard to locate. There are around a dozen known in About Uncirculated, including a small number of reasonably choice pieces. But there is one 1845-O quarter eagle that really stands out: the Virgil Brand collection that was last offered for sale as part of the Ronald Brown collection of New Orleans coinage which was featured in the Heritage 1999 ANA sale. This coin was purchased by Brown in the 1987 ANA sale and it first surfaced in the Bowers and Merena October 1983 Brand I auction. Today, the coin is in a PCGS Mint State-63 holder and it is characterized by exceptional color and luster. This is probably the least valuable coin on this list but it is one of my favorites due to its undisputed status as the finest known example of the rarest New Orleans quarter eagle.
5. The Byron Reed Collection 1864 Quarter Eagle, NGC Mint State-67
Philadelphia quarter eagles include some of the great 19th century American gold rarities. Issues such as the 1841 and 1863 are famous and highly priced. But the 1864 is a rarity that gets almost no publicity. Only 2,824 circulation strikes were produced and around 25 to 35 of these exist today. I had only seen one or two 1864 quarter eagles that could be called About Uncirculated before this incredible coin appeared for sale in the October 1996 auction that contained holdings from the Byron Reed collection. This coin had been off the market for over a century and it was literally perfect. It was probably the best pre-1880 quarter eagle I had ever seen and the fact that it was such a rare issue made it especially noteworthy to me. It is now owned by a Western collector who buys extremely high grade examples of very rare dates.
6. The Unique Mint State 1854-D Three Dollar Gold Piece, PCGS Mint State-62
The 1854-D Three Dollar Gold Piece is one of those issues that has strong demand from a number of sources. Three Dollar gold specialists like it as it is one of the true rarities of this denomination. Dahlonega collectors prize the 1854-D as the only date of this denomination produced at the Georgia branch mint while Three Dollar gold piece specialists have long viewed it as a key date within their series of choice. This particular coin was originally in the personal collection of Wayte Raymond and it was in the superb set of Three Dollar gold piece offered in RARCOA's session of Auction 81. This coin was later owned by George Elliott and it was eventually graded Mint State-61 by PCGS, sold by Superior (for a very reasonable $72,600) in their January 1996 auction and finally brokered by Texas dealer Larry Hanks to a collector. It is now in a PCGS Mint State-62 holder and it remains the only unquestionably Mint State 1854-D three dollar gold piece that I have ever seen.
7. The Norweb/Bass Collection 1864-S Half Eagle, PCGS Mint State-65
Even if you don't care about San Francisco gold coinage or Liberty Head half eagles, you have to love the concept of this coin: a superb gem example of a date that is very rare in all grades. There are approximately 25-35 1864-S half eagles known. These mostly include coins grading Very Fine to Extremely Fine. This incredible coin first surfaced in the Melish sale held by Abe Kosoff in 1956. It was purchased by the Norweb family at that sale for less than $100 and was later purchased by Harry Bass in the 1987 Norweb I sale for $110,000. In October 1999, a Georgia collector bought it for $184,000. With the exception of some weakness of strike, this coin is nearly perfect and its combination of rarity and appearance makes it a no-brainer to qualify for this list.
8. The Nevada Collection 1870-CC Half Eagle, PCGS Mint State-61
All three gold issues that were produced at the Carson City mint in 1870 ($5.00, $10.00 and $20.00) are regarded as major rarities. The 1870-CC half eagle is the only one of these three that is sometimes available in higher grades and there are actually three that have been graded Uncirculated by the two major services. The finest of these is a PCGS Mint State-61 that is owned by a prominent Nevada collector. It has an interesting history. It was supposedly discovered in the Carson City area in the mid-1990's when an old office was being cleaned out and this coin was found hiding behind the shelves of a safe or a cabinet. Evidently, it had fallen some 120+ years ago and remained there, untouched, until its rediscovery. This coin's untouched, "dirty" surfaces make its story appear true. It is one of the few Carson City half eagles from the 1870's known in Mint State and its fresh appearance (plus its significance as a rare issue in all grades) make it one of my very favorite U.S. Gold coins.
9. The Pittman Collection 1839 Head of 1840 Eagle, NGC Mint State-64
Two distinct design types exist for 1839 eagles. Of these, the 1839 Head of 1840 is the rarer. In fact, this issue is nearly as rare as the celebrated 1838 eagle; especially in higher grades. There were a number of truly fabulous coins in the Pittman sales and one of my favorites was Lot 1912 in the May 1998 session: a superb, original 1839 Head of 1840 that was later graded Mint State-64 by PCGS. This coin had sensational color and remarkably thick, undisturbed mint luster. I liked this coin so much that I bid over $100,000 to buy it for my inventory (without having a client in mind for it) and it eventually brought $143,000. It is in a private West Coast collection where it is valued both as a rare date and as a significant type coin. It is probably the one coin that would cause most debate among gold specialists when analyzing my picks for this list but I steadfastly believe it is one of the premier United States gold coins.
10. 1874-CC Eagle, NGC Mint State-64
This remarkable coin was supposedly bought over the counter by a small Pennsylvania dealer in the mid-1990's and it eventually was purchased by a New York dealer. It was included in the Heritage Warren Miller sale of Liberty Head eagles, conducted by Heritage Numismatic Auctions in October 1995 (but was not part of the Miller collection). It did not sell at this auction but was later purchased privately by a Carson City specialist. This coin is the finest single Carson City eagle of any date that I have seen. Interestingly, there is one other very nice 1874-CC eagle known: the Bass-Eliasberg coin which is slated to be sold at auction by Bowers and Merena in November 2001. It is my belief that these two coins were probably obtained by members of the Assay Commission in Philadelphia as souvenirs.
11. The Eagle Collection 1856-O Double Eagle, NGC Mint State-63
In a series replete with great rarities, the 1856-O double eagle stands close to--if not at the--pinnacle. It is a very rare coin in all grades with approximately twenty to twenty five known. Most of these are very well worn and until the appearance of this remarkable coin, in the late 1970's, the finest 1856-O had been in the mid-range of About Uncirculated. This coin is not only the finest known example of this rare date, it is, in the opinion of many experts (myself included) some sort of specimen issue or presentation piece. It first sold in the early 1980's for a reported $300,000+ and reappeared in the January 1995 Superior sale where it sold to a dealer for $203,500. It is now the undisputed highlight of the Eagle Collection, a complete set of Liberty Head double eagles.
12. The Ed "The Hawk" Shapiro 1871-CC Double Eagle, NGC Mint State-63
The late Ed Shapiro was a New York dealer who quietly brought a number of high quality rare United States gold coins onto the market. One of his greatest finds was a superb 1871-CC that is not only the finest known example but one of the best Carson City double eagles of any date. This coin was last sold at public auction as Lot 977 in David Akers' session of Auction 88, where it brought $46,200. It is worth considerably more than this today. It is so different in appearance from the typical beat-up, dull 1871-CC that one can only assume that it was either an Assay piece that was saved or it somehow got "lost" in Carson City in 1871 and was somehow rediscovered. This wonderful Double Eagle was graded Mint State-63 by NGC in 1999 and it resides in a private collection.