State of the Market Report: Early United States Gold Coinage

In the last five years, early United States gold has been one of the most active areas in the coin market. In this article, we will examine each of the major types of pre-1834 gold coinage and see how the market has performed. In addition, we will look at some future trends and make some predictions which may be of interest to the specialist. Early coinage has always been a popular area with collectors but all pre-1834 gold types have been just about the most avidly collected area of the coin market since the beginning of the current bull market. I think this is attributable to a number of factors including the following:

* In 2000, the oldest early gold coins became three centuries old which added a sense of age that was very impressive in comparison to more modern issues.

* Some excellent books and specialized research tools made these coins more accessible to new collectors.

* A number of dealers (myself included) steered many wealthy new collectors into this area of the market due to the "coolness factor" of these coins. The resulting spike in demand significantly reduced the already limited availability of these coins, resulting in an increase in price.

* Some important old-time collections (Pittman, Bass and others) came on the market, making a number of seldom-seen early gold pieces available to collectors. This spurred interest and a number of new collections were begun as a result.

I. Quarter Eagles, 1796 to 1834

A. Draped Bust No Stars, 1796 Only

As one might expect, this celebrated one-year type has seen a huge increase in price and demand in the past five years. In 2002, it was possible to find a nice AU example in the $60,000-70,000 range. Today, a similar coin is going to cost a collector $125,000 to $150,000.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this price increase except for the fact that grading standards for this type have become very lax in the last few years. Most of the 1796 No Stars quarter eagles that I see in AU holders are very low-end, unoriginal coins that would have been graded EF as recently as a few years ago. I still love this type and would recommend it to a wealthy collector as a blue-chip investment vehicle but I think great caution has to be taken when buying $100,000+ examples of this type.

The high water mark for this issue was in June 2005 when a superb PCGS MS65 example sold at auction for $1.38 million.

B. Draped Bust With Stars, 1796-1807

Five years ago, it was still possible for the collector of slightly above-average means to purchase a respectable example of this type. Today, the rarity of the With Stars quarter eagle type has been widely acknowledged and it is almost impossible to find a problem-free example for less than $15,000-20,000.

That said, I still think that this type is a great value and that it is undervalued when compared to the half eagles and eagles of this era. I am especially fond of the 1790’s dated issues. They have clearly risen in value, although nowhere near as much as the 1796 No Stars. As an example, I purchased a decent PCGS AU53 1797 quarter eagle in an auction in 2003 for around $50,000. Today, this coin would sell for around $70,000-80,000. An AU 1798 was worth around $30,000 five years ago and today it might sell in the $50,000-60,000 range. My gut feeling is that nice quality examples of these two dates aren’t going to be available for much longer at these levels and they should be purchased if and when they become available.

The 1802/1, 1804 14 Stars, 1805 and 1807 are the more common dates of this type. All four of these have become nearly impossible to locate with original color and surfaces. A common “type” example of one of these dates in the MS61 to MS62 range was reasonably available five years ago for around $20,000. Today, such a coin would cost $30,000-35,000 but most of the pieces I see in MS61 and MS62 holders are very unappealing. I have been advising collectors for many years that this type is undervalued and, despite the price rise in the past five years, I still believe that this is the case.

C. Capped Bust Left, 1808 only

As with all significant one year early type coins, the value of the 1808 quarter eagle has risen dramatically in the past five years. Today, a solid AU example is worth in the $100,000-150,000 range. Five years ago, it was possible to find an AU priced in the $40,000-50,000 range.

I wouldn’t have any qualms with the new price levels for this date if I actually liked many of the 1808 quarter eagles that I have viewed in the past year or two. The days of finding choice, original pieces in EF and AU holders may well be over, although I have seen a few examples in the last year graded AU55 and AU58 that I thought were acceptable for the grade.

I would expect that there will be some leveling off on prices for this issue in the coming year or two, if only because levels have risen so dramatically since 2002-2003. That said, I think a choice, attractive 1808 quarter eagle is a great coin to purchase. As long as there are collectors assembling type sets of early gold, there always is a very strong demand level for this one-year type.

D. Capped Bust Large Size, 1821-1827

Five years ago, I was literally begging clients to purchase examples of this type. This was one area of the early gold market that $10,000 would go a long way and this figure would buy you an impressive example of a legitimately scarce coin. The rap against early quarter eagles back then was that the coins were “too small” and that they were “too rare for their own good.” I thought these were silly reasons for these coins to be undervalued and, today, they seem positively quaint, given the new level of respect and interest that early quarter eagles command. Nevertheless, I still feel that quarter eagles of this type remain the most undervalued early U.S. gold coins.

The sort of coin that was available five years ago for $10,000+ is now more realistically a $20,000+ coin; not to mention the fact that it has become very hard to locate. But I still feel that any date in this series is an excellent value. I especially like the underrated 1821 and the low-mintage 1826.

I don’t think that the future of this type is date collecting as these coins are simply too challenging for most collectors. I think that the future is as a type coin and I would anticipate that five years from now it will be very difficult to find a nice, problem-free Capped Bust Large Size quarter eagle for much less than $30,000+.

E. Capped Bust Small Size, 1829-1834

The quarter eagles produced between 1829 and 1833 have also seen a surge of interest in the past five years. In 2002, you could buy a nice AU example of any of these dates for $7,500 or so. Today, a similar coin will cost you $12,500-15,000. Five years ago, an MS63 example of this type could be purchased for around $15,000-20,000. Today, a similar coin is more likely to cost in the area of $30,000-35,000.

I’d like to think that at least part of the reason that this type has shown such strong price increases in the last five years is due to the continual urging I’ve given clients to buy these coins. I have often written that I felt these were the best values in the early gold market. I still feel this way, although I have been pretty disappointed at the quality of a number of the coins I have seen lately in MS60 to MS63 holders.

That said, I think the future of this series remains very bright. Despite small original mintage figures, these coins exist in large enough numbers to make collecting by date a possibility. The stopper in the series remains the 1834 which, curiously, has become impossible to locate. I am not aware of a single example of this date appearing at auction since October 2004 and only two separate problem-free pieces appearing at auction since 2000. The last piece to sell was a PCGS AU55 which brought $35,600. Today, the same coin could bring as much as $65,000-75,000.

II. Half Eagles, 1795 to 1834

A. Draped Bust Small Eagle, 1795-1798

This type includes two relatively obtainable issues (the 1795 Small Eagle and the 1796/5) and three rarities (the 1797 15 and 16 Stars and the 1798 Small Eagle).

The 1795 has become one of the most popular early United States gold coins and for good reason. It is one of the first two gold coins struck by this country, it is charmingly designed and generally well produced and it can be found in relatively high grades. Five years ago, a collector could expect to find a nice AU for around $15,000 and a properly graded MS62 for around $50,000. Today, a nice AU should cost in the area of $40,000-50,000 while an MS62 will run around $100,000. I still recommend purchasing this issue in nearly any grade, as I feel it is a coin that will always be in great demand. I would definitely caution the new collector to seek an example with good eye appeal, nice surfaces and as much original coloration as possible. Nice, original coins are becoming extremely hard to find and I think they will begin to command a huge premium in the coming years.

The 1796/5 half eagle is many times scarcer than its 1795 Small Eagle counterpart but it does not command as much of a premium as one might expect. This has to do with the fact that it is not a first-year issue and, thus, is not as “sexy” a date. The 1796/5 has proven to be very rare and it is generally only offered at major auctions. I highly recommend this issue and feel that it is still an excellent value at its current level of $50,000-60,000 for a solid AU coin.

The great rarity of this type is the 1798 Small Eagle of which only seven or eight pieces are currently known. The last example to sell was a PCGS EF40 that brought $264,500 at auction in June 2000. I think this coin would easily sell for $500,000 today and I think a slightly nicer example, if available, could break the $1 million mark with ease.

B. Draped Bust Large Eagle, 1795-1807

For most collectors this type is dividable into at least two groups: the issues struck from 1795 to 1799 and those produced from 1800 to 1807.

The 18th century Draped Bust Large Eagle half eagles have proven to be extremely popular with collectors in recent years. As one can readily guess, they became especially popular around 2000, once they turned three centuries old. The two reasonably available issues are the 1798 and the 1799. These have both seen dramatic price increases in the last five years. As an example, a nice AU 1799 half eagle was worth $7,500-10,000 in 2002. Today, such a coin is valued at $15,000+. The increase in value is more dramatic in higher grades. Five years ago, with some careful searching, it was possible to find an MS63 1799 half eagle for around $40,000. Today, if such a coin became available (good luck convincing the guy who bought one in 2002 to sell his today!) it would sell for $65,000-75,000. Despite the new, higher levels, I still like the concept of an 18th century half eagle and would advise collectors to be on the lookout for nice 1798 and 1799 half eagles in EF45 and higher.

The common date half eagles from 1800 to 1807 have also shot up in value. Five years ago, nice AU coins were easily located in the $4,000-5,000 range. Today, similar coins are worth $10,000-12,500. I have mixed feelings about the value levels of these coins. Clearly, at around $5,000 they were very fairly priced. At $10,000 they are no longer cheap, especially when one considers the relative availability of these coins. I will no longer buy these common date half eagles for inventory unless they are wholesome, choice original coins with very good eye appeal. If they are bright-n-shiny, riddled with adjustment marks or vastly overgraded, low end coins, I will almost always pass.

What about higher grade common dates of this type? Five years ago, you could have purchased a common date in MS63 for around $12,500-15,000 and an MS64 for around $20,000-22,500. Today, the former costs around $25,000 and the latter runs $40,000-50,000+. I have mixed feelings about these. I think a fresh, original MS63 in the mid-20’s is still an excellent purchase and would recommend it to a collector or an investor. I’m a little less excited about a common date in MS64 at around $50,000 unless the coin is extremely high end and looks like it could gradeflate to an MS65 someday.

C. Capped Bust Left, 1808-1812

The Capped Bust Left half eagles are the most available and affordable early gold issues. They have proven to be remarkably plentiful in the AU50 to MS62 grade range and this makes them popular with collectors. For some reason, this type has never really appealed all that much to me. I don’t really care for the design and the relative availability of these coins make them seem like the Morgan Dollars of early gold.

In spite of my obvious early gold snobbery, this type has proven to be popular with collectors. It is the only series of early half eagles that could be realistically completed by date and there are a number of interesting varieties as well. In 2002, a nice AU type example was easily purchased for $3,500-4,500. Today, a nice AU commands $7,500-9,000+. Five years ago, a really nice MS63 common date was worth $12,000-14,000. Today, this same coin is worth $20,000+.

My opinion has changed on the desirability of this type. I generally like the quality of slabbed AU examples more than I do for the earlier Draped Bust type and I think any nice, original AU example that can be purchased for less than $10,000 is pretty decent value in today’s market. I have mixed feelings about higher grade examples. If I’m going to buy a $20,000+ MS63 for my inventory, it had better be a high end, attractive coin with original color and surfaces. Same holds true for an MS64, especially since we’re talking $40,000+ for a common date.

D. Capped Bust, Large Size 1813-1829

It’s hard for me to discuss this series without getting passionate as Fat Head Fives are probably my favorite series in the early gold issues. Why? Well, it’s clearly not the beauty of the design as this is arguably the most homely United States gold coin ever struck. For me, it’s all about the rarity and these coins are amazingly rare. When you kick out the “common” 1813 and 1814/3, the coins in this series range from downright rare (1818, 1820 and 1823) to virtually impossible (1819, 1821, 1824-1829). And we won’t even begin to mention the classic rarities like the 1815, 1822 and 1825/4.

The really rare coins in this series are hard to monitor as they trade so infrequently. When I look back at what prices were like in 2002, they seem amazingly cheap by today’s standards. As an example, in February of that year, a PCGS AU58 1827 sold in the Goldberg’s Benson II auction for $19,550. Today, a properly graded example is worth triple this amount.

What about the common 1813? Five years ago, a nice AU example would have cost you $4,000-5,000. Today, you’d have to pay around $10,000. In my opinion, this date is still a great value at less than $10,000. In 2002, a nice MS63 1813 would have been priced at around $12,500. Today, the same coin is worth $20,000. Again, I think it is an excellent value as it is the only reasonably obtainable date of this rare type and properly graded MS63’s are far, far scarcer than common date Capped Bust Left and Capped Bust Right half eagles despite being similarly priced.

E. Capped Bust, Small Size 1829-1834

As rare as the Large Planchet type of Fat Head half eagles is, the Small Planchet is even rarer. At least with the earlier type, the collector has a chance to buy such relatively common and affordable issues as the 1813 and the 1814/3. But the Small Planchet type offers no such chance for collectors with limited budgets. This is a series with seriously rare coins with seriously high price tags. And rightfully so.

If you were smart enough to be purchasing 1829-1834 half eagles in 2002, give yourself a large pat on the back. You are smart and you made yourself a lot of money. Let’s say you decide that you want to start buying these coins in 2007. How does the future of your investment look? I’d say pretty good. Now that nearly everyone understands how rare these coins are and appreciates them, I think the levels for the series will continue to soar. I’d just give my usual warning on expensive coins: if you are going to pay $50,000+ for a fat Head half eagle, make certain you know what you are doing. Buy a coin that is attractive for the date and grade and which is original as possible.

So there you have it: the DWN State of the Market Report on early gold coinage. I doubt if anything I wrote in this article is terribly surprising to people who read my articles on a normal basis. I’ve always loved early gold and I will continue to be an active participant in this market for as long as I am a coin dealer.