Many collectors believe that a coin is automatically rare because it has a low mintage figure or that it is common because it has a comparatively high original mintage. This is most definitely not the case, especially in the field of American gold coinage. There are a number of factors that make a coin potentially rarer (or less rare) than its original mintage figure. Some of these are as follows:
1. Acts of Legislation:
The 1933 eagle is a very rare coin as a direct result of the passage of the Act of April 1933 which ended the production of gold coinage in the United States. Banks and individuals were required to turn in their gold coinage and many of these pieces were melted. Just a small number of 1933 eagles were rescued from the melting pot. The same holds true for certain late date St. Gaudens double eagles such as the 1929, 1930, 1930-S, 1931, 1931-D and 1932. All of these coins are much rarer than their original mintage figures would suggest due to heavy meltings that were a direct result of an act of legislation.
2. Contemporary Economics:
In times when the economy was strong, people collected and saved coins. For instance, high grade gold dollars from the 1880’s are more common than their low mintage figures suggest because dealers, collectors and hoarders, during a prosperous era, saved large quantities of these coins. The same is also true, although not to as great an extent, for Three Dollar gold pieces from this era.
Once the United States began to actively trade with Europe, Latin America and South America, large numbers of American gold coins were sent overseas in order to pay off foreign trade debts. This seems to have begun in earnest around 1878. Today, quantities of United States gold coins are still being found in foreign banks and other sources. This means that some United States gold coins from the 1880’s and 1890’s are more available in the lower Uncirculated grades than their mintage figures might suggest. It also makes for an unusual grade distribution for certain issues. As an example, the New Orleans eagles from the 1890’s are rarely seen in grades below AU55 but almost never above MS62. This is indicative of issues that were probably sent overseas soon after they were struck but which were very roughly handled and are now heavily abraded.
4. Incorrect Mint Records:
In the 18th and early 19th century, the Mint often kept somewhat sketchy records. There are certain early gold issues which are more common than their mintage figures suggest while others are far rarer. In some cases this has to do with the fact that the original mintage figures are incorrect.
Sometimes, even more modern records appear to be incorrect. In 1910 the mintage figure for Proof Indian Head quarter eagles was recorded as 682. This is nearly triple the highest recorded figure for any other date of this design and from the number of pieces known to exist, it seems likely that this figure is incorrect. The same holds true with the other Proofs of this year and makes us wonder, are the records simply wrong or were far too many Proofs ordered to be struck and were most of these later melted?
The rarity of certain United States gold coins has been greatly influenced in recent years by the discovery of hoards. A classic example of this is the S.S. Central America shipwreck which made the 1856-S and 1857-S double eagles very common in the higher Uncirculated grades. More recently, the S.S. Republic shipwreck contained a number of New Orleans eagles from the 1840’s and 1850’s as well as large numbers of Philadelphia double eagles from the early to mid-1860’s. Other smaller hoards have been found as well. As an example, a little-known group of 1840 quarter eagles was found in the mid-1990’s. It contained less than ten pieces but included at least four or five coins that graded in the MS63 to MS65 range. This was a very important group for collectors of Liberty Head quarter eagles as this date had been essentially unknown in Uncirculated before this.
6. Mint Meltings:
This category is especially applicable to Proofs. These coins have always been made specifically for collectors. In the 19th and early 20th century, the Mint would simply melt those Proofs that were not purchased. As an example, in 1859, the Mint struck 80 gold Proof sets. This was far more than needed and it is likely that the vast majority were melted. Today, all 1859 Proof gold coinage is very rare and the larger denomination issues, specifically the eagle and the double eagle, have as few as four or five survivors.
There are certain instances where it is clear that a coin is rarer than its original mintage figure. Two excellent examples of this are the Proof-only 1875 and 1876 Three Dollar gold pieces. These have original mintage figures of 20 and 45, respectively. The PCGS and NGC populations for each of these issues are actually greater than the original mintage figures. Some of these have to be discounted as multiple submissions but clearly the original mintage figures for these two issues have to be called into question. It is my feeling that both of these were restruck (probably in the same year in which they were issued) by the Mint to fill a demand by contemporary collectors and dealers. Before you determine how rare a coin is, there are many factors to consider. The seven mentioned above are important and I would suggest that there are even more that await the curious collector.