If you read the coin descriptions on my website you will note that I often refer to a coin having what I term “numismatic significance.” I’d like to explain and discuss this term, and then specifically apply it to gold coins from San Francisco.
The term “numismatic significance” is pretty straightforward. It refers to a coin which has indisputable importance for a collector. What are some of the ways in which this significance might manifest itself?
- first year of issue
- one year, or very limited, period of issuance
- very low mintage figure
- the rarest collectible issue of a popular type
Let's take a look at some of the San Francisco gold coins which, in my opinion, have numismatic significance.
1. 1854-S Gold Dollar
The production of regular issue coins began at the San Francisco mint in 1854. Five denominations were made: the gold dollar, the quarter eagle and half eagle, the eagle, and the double eagle. Two of these (the quarter eagle and half eagle) are exceedingly rare. The most common of these first-year types is the 1854-S dollar.
A total of 14,632 gold dollars were struck at the San Francisco mint in 1854, and this issue is common and affordable in all circulated grades. There are as many as four or five dozen known in Uncirculated, with most in the MS60 to MS62 range. In MS63 this issue is scarce, and it is quite rare in MS64. There are two or three Gems known and the finest is a PCGS MS65+ in the Duckor collection, which was formerly in the Pittman collection.
I like this issue for a number of reasons. Obviously, it is a first-year-of-issue and it is also a one-year type; it is the only gold dollar from this mint which employs the Type One design. It tends to be very well made and it is probably the single best produced of all the gold dollars from this mint. If you can find a nice MS62 at the current going price of $4,000-5,000 I think this is excellent value and it seems like an issue with real upside potential.
2. 1856-S Gold Dollar
The decision to scrap the Type One design and replace it with the Indian Head Type Two design was not one of the mint’s shining successes. The design proved challenging to strike given the too-small size of the portrait and its placement opposite the highest spot on the reverse. It was quickly scrapped, but not before the San Francisco mint made 24,600 Type Two gold dollars dated 1856-S.
As with the 1854-S, this is an issue with two important items of numismatic significance. It is a first-year type and it is a one-year design. The same holds true for the 1855-C, 1855-D and 1855-O dollars, and all three issues are popular for the same reasons.
The 1856-S gold dollar is easily located in all circulated grades and with as many as three dozen known in Uncirculated, it can be found in the MS60 to MS62 range as well. It is very scarce in properly graded MS63, and very rare in MS64. I have never seen a piece which I graded MS65, and the finest I am aware of is a PCGS MS64 owned by Steve Duckor, which has been approved by CAC.
While values have increased for this date over the last decade, I still regard it as good overall value. A nice AU55 to AU58 can still be purchased for around $5,000, and $12,500 will buy you a very solid MS62.
3. 1870-S Gold Dollar
I wasn’t going to add a third gold dollar to this list but there has always been something intriguing to me about this issue. The last San Francisco gold dollar had been struck in 1860 and production of branch issues ended in 1861 with the striking of the 1861-D. Yet for some reason, the mint decided to strike 3,000 gold dollars at the San Francisco mint in 1870. The uniqueness of this issue and its status as the final branch mint gold dollar from any mint gives the 1870-S dollar its numismatic significance. In addition, the 1870-S date is magical as it serves as a connection to the unique 1870-S three dollar.
The 1870-S dollar has an interesting grade distribution for its surviving population which is totally unlike the other four Type Three dollars from San Francisco. It is seen more often in Uncirculated than in circulated grades and there are actually some nice pieces known. I am aware of at least five or six Gems including a single PCGS MS66 and a PCGS MS65+ owned by Steve Duckor.
The 1870-S is probably a bit overvalued compared to the scarcer 1857-S, 1858-S, 1859-S, and 1860-S but it is an excellent value given its “coolness” factor. A nice MS62 is currently valued at around $5,000 while an MS63 is worth in the area of $7,500+.
4. 1856-S Quarter Eagle
The 1854-S is the first quarter eagle from this mint and it is a coin with great numismatic significance. But, it is extremely rare and very expensive and, for most readers of this article, it is not a coin likely to be added to their collection in the foreseeable future. This makes the 1856-S, the next quarter eagle from this mint (none were produced in 1855) the first-year-of-issue for most collectors.
Mintages for gold coins in San Francisco were relatively high in 1856 and 1857 due to strong demand, and 72,120 1856-S quarter eagle were made. There are a few hundred known today including a few Gems. The finest known 1856-S quarter eagle is a magnificent PCGS MS67 from the S.S. Central America which brought $46,000 in Christie’s 12/00 auction. It is the best San Francisco quarter eagle of any date which I have ever seen.
This issue doesn’t have the numismatic significance which many of the other coins on this list have. But it is the earliest available date of this denomination from San Francisco and this makes it a tangible relic of the Gold Rush.
5. 1855-S Three Dollar
Three dollar gold pieces were produced at the San Francisco for just five years and one of these—the 1870-S—is unique. I think all of these San Francisco threes have numismatic significance but the date which I give the highest degree of multi-level demand to is the 1855-S.
The 1855-S is the first year of issue for San Francisco threes. Only 6,600 were made and of these as many as 400-500 are known, mostly in the EF40 to AU50 range. In higher grades, this issue is very rare and it is likely that the 1855-S is the only three dollar gold piece from this mint that actually saw heavy service in commerce. I am aware of three or four Uncirculated examples (plus a unique Proof) with the finest of these being a raw MS63 to MS64 in the Bass collection, currently housed in the ANA Museum.
The 1855-S can be lumped with the better-known 1854-O and 1854-D three dollar gold pieces as all are first-year-of-issues from the branch mint. The 1855-S, however, is not a one-year type as are its southern counterparts. That said, it is still a coin with real numismatic significance and it is a major rarity in Mint State.
6. 1864-S Half Eagle
The excessively rare 1854-S is the half eagle which even the most well-heeled specialist in San Francisco gold coinage is likely to never own. The next rarest issue is the 1864-S and this is a coin with clear numismatic significance.
Only 3,888 were produced and this is the second lowest mintage of any half eagle from this mint after the 1854-S which had a run of only 268 pieces. There are an estimated 25-35 known in all grades including a Gem PCGS MS65+ which sold for $178,250 as Bass II: 1150 in October 1999.
The first really nice 1864-S half eagle to be available in close to a decade was recently sold as Heritage 3/14: 30328. Graded EF45 by NGC, it brought a strong $79,913; the same coin had last realized $31,050 in a July 2004 auction.
The numismatic significance of the 1864-S half eagle is a bit more obtuse than some of the other issues on this list, but it is perhaps the rarest coin listed here. The 1864-S is, along with the 1864-S eagle, the rarest obtainable gold coin from this mint. Its low mintage figure and Civil War issuance makes it appealing to a wider group of collectors than other rare San Francisco half eagles and it is a coin which I find greatly desirable.
7. 1866-S No Motto and With Motto Half Eagles
In 1866, the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of all United States silver and gold coins in which this design element could fit. The 1866-S No Motto and With Motto gold issues are known for half eagles, eagles and double eagles and these are popular with collectors for a variety of reasons. For reasons of space, we are going to focus on just the two half eagles but the comments made here apply equally to the other two denominations.
The reason for the two distinct varieties of 1866-S half eagle is decidedly low-tech. There were 9,000 1866-S half eagles with the old No Motto reverse produced before word could get to the San Francisco mint to changeover to the new With Motto design; 34,920 of the latter were struck.
The 1866-S No Motto half eagle is a bit less scarce than one might assume. But many of the 60-80 which exist are very well worn and this date is quite rare in properly graded AU. I have never seen a Mint State 1866-S No Motto half eagle and the finest known to me is a choice PCGS AU58 which brought $25,300 back in October 1999 as Bass II: 1155. The 1866-S With Motto, on the other hand, is rarer than its comparatively higher suggests. There are an estimated 70-90 known with a few more in EF and AU than its No Motto counterpart. But this date is also unknown in true Uncirculated (NGC has graded an MS61 which I feel is no better than AU58).
The 1866-S No Motto/With Motto gold coinage are the only transitional design pairs from the San Francisco mint. This makes these three sets numismatically significant and the rarity of the half eagles and eagles make higher grade assemblages extremely challenging.
8. 1930-S Eagle and Double Eagle
The 1930-S eagle and double eagle are the two final gold coins struck at the San Francisco mint. They are issues with a similar story: reasonably high mintages (96,000 for the former and 74,000 for the latter), almost none released for circulation, and extremely low survival rates.
The 1930-S is not only the last eagle made at the San Francisco mint, it is the only issue of this denomination made after 1920. Almost all of the original mintage was melted and of the 200-300 known, essentially all are Uncirculated. There are a number of Gems and the finest known is likely the Duckor/O’Neal PCGS MS67 which sold for $299,000 in Heritage’s January 2009 auction.
The San Francisco mint produced double eagles more actively in the 1920’s than they did eagles and the last issue prior to 1930 was the 1927-S. The 1930-S has the fourth lowest mintage of any St. Gaudens double eagle, but it is the rarest San Francisco issue and the rarest of the famous Fab Five late dates from this series. Probably no more than 60-70 are currently known, and nearly all are in Uncirculated and none appear to have been released by the Mint for general circulation. The Simpson Collection has a lovely PCGS MS66+ which is likely the finest known.
The 1930-S eagle and double eagle are coins which combine condition rarity with numismatic significance and they appeal to many collectors for these reasons.
9. 1861-S Paquet Reverse Double Eagle
A strong case can be made for terming this the rarest Type One double eagle from San Francisco (its only competitor is the 1866-S No Motto) and it is certainly an issue with multiple levels of demand. The Paquet reverse is noticeably different from the regular Longacre design with taller letters and a naked-eye “look” which is clear to even a neophyte collector.
The 1861-S Paquet was mostly unknown to collectors until the 1950’s when examples were located in Europe. It remains a very scarce coin although there are now an estimated 200-300 known, mostly in lower grades. I do not believe that a genuinely Uncirculated example is known, and I am aware of no more than two or three properly graded AU58 pieces.
For many years, this variety was undervalued and prices really only began to rise after it became well-publicized in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Values peaked around 2007-2008 then dropped, but have now climbed back. To own a really nice Paquet, you are looking at spending at least $75,000, and a Condition Census example is now worth upwards of $175,000-200,000.
I regard the 1861-S Paquet as the most numismatically significant double eagle from this mint and it is a coin whose level of demand in the Type One series is exceeded only by the rare 1854-O and 1856-O.
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