The Gold Coinage of The San Francisco Mint: Part One

PART ONE: GOLD DOLLARS, QUARTER EAGLES and THREE DOLLAR GOLD PIECES Gold coins were struck at the San Francisco mint from 1854 through 1930. During this 76 year period, gold dollars, quarter eagles, three dollar gold pieces, half eagles, eagles, and double eagles were produced.

Traditionally, the popularity of San Francisco issues has trailed the other branch mints. But with the discovery and recent sales of the Brother Jonathan and S.S. Central America shipwreck hoards, both of which contained large amounts of choice, high grade San Francisco coins, this mint seems poised to gain many new collectors.

The following analysis will give a brief overview of the gold dollars, quarter eagles and Three Dollar Gold Pieces produced at the San Francisco mint. In future articles, the five dollar through twenty dollar issues will be studied.

I. Gold Dollars

A total of seven gold dollar issues were produced at the San Francisco mint. Surprisingly, these seven issues encompass all three major types of gold dollar. This is an easy set to assemble in any grade up to and including the higher range of About Uncirculated. All San Francisco gold dollars are quite scarce in Uncirculated.

1854-S: A popular coin due to its status as a first-year-of-issue and a one-year type. Generally seen very well struck and with good luster. Slightly scarce in circulated grades although not all that difficult to locate in the higher AU grades. Around 40-50 are known in Uncirculated with most in the Mint State-60 to Mint State-62 range. The best I've seen was the Pittman gem (later graded MS-65 by PCGS) that sold for $33,000 in October 1997.

1856-S: This is the only Type Two issue from this mint and the only Type Two dollar dated 1856 from any mint. It is much more common than the Charlotte and Dahlonega Type Two issues but it is currently scarcer than the 1855-O. There are around 15-20 known in Uncirculated although the number could swell considerably if any were found along with the other coins in the S.S. Central America holdings.

1857-S: Only 10,000 were struck and approximately 125-150 are currently known. This issue is usually seen well worn with Very Fine to Extremely Fine being typical. It is scarce in low-end AU, rare in the higher range of this grade and very rare in Uncirculated. Most are seen with somewhat soft strikes, poor luster and with mint-made planchet problems. Examples may exist in the S.S. Central America treasure. The best I've seen was the PCGS MS-63 that brought $16,100 in the October 1999 Bass II sale.

1858-S: Same mintage as the 1857-S and very similar in terms of its overall and high grade rarity. Unlike the 1857-S, this date's rarity in high grades is not jeopardized by the S.S. Central America. There are around 10-12 known in Uncirculated including one gem in a PCGS MS-65 holder. Usually seen well worn with poor luster and heavily marked and/or hairlined surfaces. Very undervalued in Uncirculated; a nice Mint State-61 to Mint State-62, when available, will cost $5,000-7,000.

1859-S: Just a bit less rare than the 1857-S and 1858-S in terms of overall rarity but comparable in Uncirculated with around a dozen known. This date is generally a bit better struck and is found with better color and surfaces than the 1857-S and 1858-S. It is most often seen in Extremely Fine grades and it becomes rare in properly graded About Uncirculated-55. In Uncirculated, the 1859-S is much harder to locate than the heralded 1859-D. The best I've seen was a choice PCGS MS-63 in the 3/98 Bowers and Merena sale that brought $14,300.

1860-S: The most available of the 1857-S to 1860-S date run but still a very tough issue in all grades with maybe 175-225 known. In Uncirculated, the 1860-S is more available than the 1857-S through 1859-S but it is still a scarce issue with around two dozen known. I recently sold the finest known, a PCGS MS-64, to a Northern California collector. Generally seen with an acceptable strike but often on poor planchets and with little--if any--originality remaining.

1870-S: Only 3,000 were struck, making this the lowest mintage gold dollar from San Francisco. Less rare than its tiny mintage figure would suggest but still a very scarce coin in all grades. Usually seen in About Uncirculated-50 to Mint State-62 grades, suggesting that this issue saw little actual circulation. There are probably 25-30 known in Mint State including three or four gems. Usually well struck and semi-prooflike with rose or orange-gold color.

II. Quarter Eagles

A total of twenty-three quarter eagles were produced at the San Francisco mint between 1854 and 1879. This includes one of the great 19th century American gold rarities: the 1854-S. The rest of the dates range from very scarce to common and this set can easily be completed (excepting the 1854-S) in Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated grades for a very reasonable sum.

1854-S: Only 246 examples were struck and approximately a dozen are known today. Nearly all of these are very well worn and the finest known by a considerable margin is the PCGS AU-50 that brought $135,700 in the October 1999 Bass II sale. This is one of the great American rarities yet it remains curiously overlooked and undervalued in comparison to other issues. Obviously, this is the stopper in any San Francisco quarter eagle set.

1856-S: The mintage figure for this issue is a more robust 72,120. There are currently 115-135 known but it is probable that many are included in the S.S. Central America treasure. There are currently fifteen to twenty known in Uncirculated including a gem PCGS MS-65 that realized $23,000 in the Bass II sale.

1857-S: This is another currently scarce issue that is destined to become far more available as more coins from the S.S. Central America are brought into the numismatic market. In the June 2000 Sotheby's sale of S.S. Central America coins, there was a magnificent, virtually perfect 1857-S quarter eagle and one would have to think there are others waiting to be offered to eager collectors.

1859-S: After a one-year hiatus, coinage of San Francisco quarter eagles resumed. This is a very scarce issue in all grades with around 85-95 pieces known. It is usually in Fine to Very Fine grades and it becomes scarce in Extremely Fine and rare in About Uncirculated. Approximately five to seven are known in Uncirculated with the best of these a PCGS MS-64 that brought $23,100 in the 1996 Bowers and Merena Rarities sale. In high grades, this is an extremely undervalued date.

1860-S: This is the most available of the early 1860's quarter eagles from San Francisco but it is still a scarce coin with around 125-135 known. Mostly seen in Very Fine to Extremely Fine and with soft strikes, poor luster and heavily abraded surfaces. A bit more available in Uncirculated than sometimes acknowledged with as many as 10-12 extant but still an extremely undervalued issue in any Mint State grade. A PCGS MS-63 brought $8,625 in the Bass II sale and this was the finest 1860-S I can recall having seen.

1861-S: Similar in overall rarity to the 1860-S but much scarcer in high grades and an extremely rare date in Uncirculated with just three to five known; the finest of which is a NGC MS-62 that I sold to a Kansas collector in the Spring of 2000. Often seen with mint-made planchet striations and weakness of strike on the eagle's right leg; very hard to find with original color and good luster.

1862-S: This date gets my vote as the rarest collectible San Francisco quarter eagle. There are approximately 70-80 known with most of these grading Extremely Fine-45 or lower. I know of two or three real Uncirculated examples and the finest of these was the PCGS MS-62 that brought $21,275 in the October 1999 Bass II sale. Usually found well struck and in rich yellow gold but often cleaned and with impaired luster.

1863-S: The second rarest collectible San Francisco quarter eagle but more available in high grade than the 1862-S. A few are seen with weakness on the bun of the hair. Of the three to five that exist in Uncirculated, there are two gems known: Eliasberg: 198 and Mid American 5/92: 41 (now in a PCGS MS-64 holder)

1865-S: An extremely underrated date that is much scarcer than its original mintage figure of 23,376 would suggest. Around 90-100 are known with most grading EF-45 or lower. A rare coin in AU and a very rare one in Mint State with maybe six to eight known. The finest known is a PCGS MS-64 but the best I've seen in years is the PCGS MS-62 that brought $6,900 in the Bass II sale. Most have weak strikes, especially at the center of the reverse. At current price levels, one of the best values of any Liberty Head quarter eagle.

1866-S: One of the more common dates from the 1860's but still a major rarity in Uncirculated and almost never seen in the higher AU grades. Of the 200 or so known, most are very well worn, weakly struck and show inferior luster. The Bass II coin, graded MS-61 is the only Uncirculated piece to sell at auction in years; I sold the Eliasberg coin, graded MS-62, to an eastern collector in 1999. Another very undervalued date in higher grades.

1867-S: Most seen have a very weak strike at the central reverse. Around 165-175 are known with most grading Very Fine to Extremely Fine. Scarce in AU and very rare in Uncirculated with approximately 10 known. The Bass II coin, graded MS-63, was sold by me to a Kansas collector in 2000 and a PCGS MS-64 is included in the 2000 ANA sale.

1868-S: Comparable in terms of its overall and high grade rarity to the 1867-S. Most are Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-55 with decent luster but softness of strike. There are a pair of PCGS MS-64's known; the other known Mint State coins are in the 60 to 61 range. An extremely undervalued coin in high grades.

1869-S: The most common San Francisco quarter eagle from the 1860's and by far the most available in high grades. There are approximately 15-20 known in Uncirculated including at least one truly superb piece graded MS-66 by PCGS (which was included in the Bowers and Merena 2000 ANA sale). Usually seen with a somewhat sunken appearance on the obverse but with excellent luster.

1870-S: One of the more underrated San Francisco quarter eagles and a favorite "sleeper" issue of mine. Approximately 110-120 exist but this date becomes extremely scarce in the middle ranges of AU and it is very rare in Mint State with probably no more than ten known. Despite the true rarity of this coin, a very presentable MS-60 to MS-61 is valued at only $3,500-4,500. The Bass II coin, graded MS-62 by PCGS, sold for a strong $10,925.

1871-S: The relative availability of the 1871-S in Uncirculated suggests that a small hoard existed at one time. There are as many as two dozen examples known in Mint State including at least three to five gems. This is a well produced issue with very good luster and color; most show weakness on the eagle's right leg. The attractiveness and relative affordability of high grade specimens make this a good type coin for the collector seeking a single superior quality quarter eagle from this mint.

1872-S: A touch scarcer overall than the 1871-S but far rarer in high grades. There are around 165-185 known with perhaps two dozen in About Uncirculated and another six to eight in Uncirculated. Not as well struck as the 1871-S but generally seen with pleasing rose and orange-gold color. This is another issue that is genuinely undervalued in high grades.

1873-S: One of the more available issues from this decade but not an easy coin to locate in choice, original AU-55 or better and genuinely rare in Uncirculated with approximately twelve to fifteen known. The best I've seen is a PCGS MS-64 that bounced around a number of auctions in 1993 and 1994 before it found a home in a private collection.

1875-S: Very similar to the 1873-S in terms of its overall and high grade rarity. There are approximately 200-225 known with most of these in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-55 range. This is a very underrated issue in Uncirculated with around twelve to fifteen known. The finest known is a PCGS MS-65 in a private collection. Often seen with weakness of strike at the centers and, especially, on the eagle's right leg.

1876-S: A more available coin than its tiny mintage figure of 5,000 would suggest. Often seen in the middle grades of About Uncirculated and with a similar appearance, suggesting a small hoard may have existed. Always seen with a raised mint-made diagonal bar on the throat of Liberty. There are around twelve to fifteen known in Uncirculated and the best I have seen was the PCGS MS-63 Bass II coin that realized $8,912 in October 1999.

1877-S: The second most common San Francisco quarter eagle and fairly similar in terms of overall and high grade rarity despite a considerably lower mintage of 35,400. Easily located in any circulated grade and not especially rare in the lower Uncirculated grades but surprisingly scarce in Mint State-63 and very rare above this. I have only seen one or two gems.

1878-S: The most common San Francisco quarter eagle by a huge margin, as one might deduce from its comparably high mintage figure of 178,000. Common in all grades up to and including Mint State-61 but much harder to find in MS-62 and MS-63 than generally realized and actually a very rare coin in MS-64 and above.

1879-S: The last quarter eagle struck at this mint and an issue that is considerably scarcer than generally regarded. In fact, many people still view the 1879-S as a common date but it is actually hard to locate in all grades and it is very rare in Mint State with around 12-15 known. Often seen semi-prooflike and with deep reddish-gold color. An exceptional value at current price levels.

III. Three Dollar Gold Pieces

Three dollar gold pieces were produced at the San Francisco mint from 1855 through 1857, in 1860, and again in 1870. The undisputed highlight of this quintet is the 1870-S which is unique and regarded as one of the great rarities of American numismatics. The other issues are all fairly scarce overall and they become quite rare in any grade approaching Mint State.

1855-S: Only 6,600 were struck and this is the rarest collectible Three Dollar gold piece from San Francisco. Approximately 115-125 are known with most in the Very Fine to Extremely Fine range. Quite rare in the lower AU grades, very rare in AU-55 or better and extremely rare in Uncirculated with just three to five known. The Pittman II coin, which was later graded MS-63 by NGC, sold for $35,750 in May 1998 and it is the best business strike I've seen. There are a small number of Branch Mint proofs known, unquestionably struck to commemorate the introduction of this issue to the San Francisco mint.

1856-S: Far and away the most available San Francisco Three Dollar issue with as many as 350-400 known from the original mintage of 34,500. Easy to find in lower grades and only marginally scarce in nice About Uncirculated but very rare in full Mint State with perhaps a dozen known. The two best I've seen are the PCGS MS-64 that brought $34,500 in the October 1999 Bass II sale and an NGC MS-64 that sold for $35,650 in Heritage's 1998 FUN sale. Varieties exist with small and medium mintmarks.

1857-S: Approximately 200-225 are known and this date is relatively common in lower grades. It becomes very scarce in properly graded AU-50, very rare in the higher AU grades and it is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated; moreso, in fact, than either the 1855-S or 1856-S. The PCGS MS-63 in a private collection is the only truly Uncirculated piece I know of; maybe two or three others exist.

1860-S: 7,000 were struck and this underrated date is actually very close in terms of overall rarity to the better-known (and more expensive) 1855-S. It is almost never seen better than AU-55 and it is extremely hard to find pieces that have not been cleaned. The only unequivocally Uncirculated piece I've ever seen was the PCGS MS-62 in the Bass II sale that sold for $19,550; awfully good value when one considers this date could well be unique in Uncirculated!

1870-S: This issue is one of the true enigmas of American numismatics. Like the similarly dated half dime, the 1870-S three dollar gold piece is unique. The only known example is well worn and actually has initials scratched into the obverse fields (!). Nonetheless, this did not stop Harry Bass from paying $687,500 for this coin when it was sold as part of the Eliasberg collection in 1982. Today, it would probably bring $2 to 3 million dollars at auction. The Harry Bass Foundation, who currently owns this coin, plans to loan it to the American Numismatic Association museum collection later this year and, by early 2001, it should be on view in Colorado Springs.