In my opinion, the 1854-D is to Three Dollar gold pieces as the 1907 High Relief is to St. Gaudens double eagles. It is an issue whose rarity has been overstated but whose level of demand is always destined to be very high. Because of its extreme popularity, the 1854-D is probably the single most in-demand coin from Dahlonega and I personally love to buy and sell these pieces. The 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece has a number of factors that make it a very high demand issue. It is the only date of this denomination from Dahlonega and it has an original mintage figure of just 1,120. It has the lowest mintage figure of any branch mint Three Dollar gold piece (except, of course, the excessively rare 1870-S) and only one Dahlonega coin, the 1856-D quarter eagle, has a lower overall mintage figure.
Given the usual survival rate for Dahlonega coinage of this era, one would expect there to be only two to three percent of the original mintage figure (or twenty-five to thirty-five pieces) to exist. Surprisingly, as many as 100-125 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces are known; a rather amazing percentage of the original mintage figure. Why do so many exist? I would suggest that either a number were saved as souvenirs or a significant hoard was known at one time. Given the fact that most 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces show a decent amount of circulation, I doubt whether a hoard was ever known.
Of the 100-125 that exist, I believe that two to four are Uncirculated, twenty-two to twenty-seven are About Uncirculated, twenty-nine to forty are Extremely Fine and the remainder are Very Fine or below (this figure includes a number that are damaged and/or repaired). My in-grade rarity estimates are far different than the figures which can be gleaned from the PCGS and NGC population figures. The reasons for this are that, in my opinion, many 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces slabbed by both services are overgraded. In addition, the value spread between one adjectival level and the next (i.e. Extremely Fine versus About Uncirculated) are great enough that many have been repeatedly submitted.
There are a number of mint-made features that make the appearance of this coin extremely recognizable. Inserted below is a picture of a very nice 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece (graded AU-58 by NGC) which I recently bought and then sold to a collector. Take a careful look at both the obverse and the reverse and then read the following paragraphs.
One of the features that makes the 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece so easily recognizable is its quality of strike. By looking at the obverse of a few examples, it is possible to determine an 1854-D without even turning it over to see its mintmark.
The U in UNITED is always weak while the TED is very heavy and shows doubling. The denticles on nearly every piece known are non-existent from 7:00 to 3:00 on the obverse and all of the reverse except from 3:00 to 8:00. The obverse and reverse rim areas at the top are very flat in appearance and serve as strong contrast to the better detail seen in the middle.
A few other diagnostic features are seen on all known examples. There is always a bold clashmark on the obverse at the throat of Liberty and another behind the headdress. On the reverse, there are clashmarks in the wreath as well as separation of the bow knot at the right and the leaf at the left as a result of overzealous polishing of the dies. Any 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece that lacks these diagnostics is highly suspect and is probably not genuine.
This issue is usually found in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50 range and tends to show noticeable abrasions on the surfaces. Most have been cleaned at one time and any 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece with original surfaces and color (as on the piece illustrated above) is very rare and worth a strong premium over the typical piece.
If you are offered an uncertified example, I would strongly recommend that it be sent to PCGS or NGC as many 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces have been repaired. Most often, pieces have been rim filed or re-engraved on the edges. I have seen at least ten (if not more) that have shown this damage and some are repaired quite expertly and may fool the beginning collector.
The 1854-D has never been an affordable coin but prices have climbed quite a bit in the last few years. A few years ago, a collector could expect to locate a very respectable example for $10,000-12,500 with some patience. Today, it is very hard to find one for less than $20,000 that is not a "dog." Although some dealers (and collectors) now feel that this issue is overvalued, I do not. The simple reason for this is the strong demand for nice pieces versus the reasonably limited supply. Numismatics Economics 101 says that if demand exceeds supply, then prices will rise. This has clearly been the case with the 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece.
Listed below is the current Condition Census for the 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece. Note the extremely strong price realized by the PCGS MS-61 example in the recent Heritage January 2004 sale of the Green Pond collection; a new auction record for his date.
Harry W. Bass foundation. Mint State-62 or better. Fully struck. This coin is currently on exhibit at the American Numismatic Association Museum.
Great Lakes collection, ex Larry Hanks, Superior 1/96: 2277 ($74,800; as PCGS MS-61), Winthrop Carner, Kevin Lipton, George Elliott, Mid American 1/87: 1814, RARCOA Auction 81: 386 ($72,500). Graded Mint State-62 by PCGS.
Other coins that have been graded as Uncirculated by one of the major services include the following:
Robert L. Hughes, ex Heritage 1/04: 1037 ($92,000), Green Pond collection. Graded Mint State-61 by PCGS.
Private collection, ex National Gold Exchange/Ken Goldman, Bowers and Merena 5/98: 1034 ($72,600). Graded Mint State-61 by NGC.
Steve Contursi inventory, ex Stack's/Sotheby's 10/01: 318 ($48,875), Browning collection. Graded Mint State-61 by NGC.
Private collection, ex Heritage 1999 FUN: 7664 ($57,500; as PCGS AU-58), Leon Farmer collection, Hancock and Harwell, Stack's Auction 84: 1328 ($24,200), Arthur Montgomery, Stack's Goshen (2/78): 1093. Graded Mint State-61 by NGC.
Private collection, ex Kingswood 3/01: 438 ($46,575), Stack's 10/99: 658 ($52,900). Graded Mint State-60 by PCGS. Identifiable by a large mint-made defect in the right obverse field.