About five years ago, a dealer who specialized in ultra-expensive United States coins had an advertising campaign that said, basically, your entire coin collection should be able to fit into a single PCGS/NGC coin storage box. Such a box holds exactly twenty coins. This was obviously an elitist sentiment and it was generally derided as being pretentious. But I thought it had some merit. In numismatics, quality is always a surer bet than quantity (although a large quantity of great quality is best of all...)
I recently got a phone call from a wealthy new collector who asked me to draft a very interesting proposal for him. He was interested in collecting coins but he had very little spare time available to devote to learning about them. So he asked me to come up with a list of ten coins that, in my opinion, were the most significant United States issues.
As I got to thinking about this list of coins, I drew up the following parameters:
The coins had to be very historic.
Their historic significance had to be easily understood, even by someone who didn't know much about U.S. History or coinage.
They had to be coins that were always in demand, in good markets and bad.
They had to have multiple levels of demand. In other words, they had to be considered desirable by a number of different groups of collectors.
They had to be attractive in terms of their design.
They had to be rare, but not so rare that they commanded an inordinate date premium.
This collector gave me some other parameters to consider as well. While wealthy, he did not have unlimited funds; nor did he like coins enough that he wanted to put an inordinate amount of his net worth into his collection. This collection would not consist of the "finest known" or the "best" of anything. Rather, it would consist of ten attractive, original, above-average quality examples of the ten most interesting and readily liquid United States coins. In essence, this collection would be themed as the "coolest coins ever struck in the United States," if you will.
Here is the list that I prepared for this collector, along with why I thought each coin should be in this small but special collection.
1. 1776 Continental Dollar
This is not a regular issue coin but, rather, a proposed or speculative issue. Varieties are known in silver, pewter and brass and with different spellings of the word CURRENCY. For this set, I would suggest a pewter piece with the spelling "CURENCY" and the lack of the designers initials (represented on this coin as "EG FECIT," which is believed to signify that the design was by Elisha Gallaudet).
It is probable that these coins did circulate in colonial America and that they did have a recognized value. This fact makes them a legitimate candidate for the first "dollar" struck in this country as well as the largest coin, in terms of size, issued prior to the establishment of the United States. The magical date 1776 makes them even more desirable, in my opinion. And, finally, the charming design on the reverse (featuring thirteen interlinked rings with the name of each colony and symbolizing unity) is believed to have been suggested by Benjamin Franklin.
For this set, I would opt for a very slightly worn piece; perhaps in the About Uncirculated-55 to 58 range. I like the idea that the coin saw some light circulation during the colonial era but would want it to be lustrous and well struck. Such a coin would cost $7,500-$10,000; making it an exceptional value for such an incredibly historic issue.
2. 1792 Half Disme
After obtaining its independence from Great Britain, one of the first legislative acts that the United States considered was the establishment of its own coinage. The first experiments were conducted in 1792. Most of the initial United States mint issues are extremely rare today. The most available is the 1792 Half Disme (the spelling of the word "Dime" was not changed until the beginning of the 19th century).
The story behind this coin is very interesting. George Washington was actively involved in its production and legend has it that he contributed his family's personal silverware for use in the striking of these coins.
Approximately 1,500 pieces were made and survivors are a bit more plentiful than generally realized. This is an extremely significant coin as it is the first United States issued struck by mint personnel in any quantity for use in circulation.
For this set, I would look for a nice About Uncirculated coin with original coloration and nice surfaces. The current value of such a coin is approximately $10,000-$15,000.
3. 1793 Chain Cent
The first two denominations to be struck by the United States mint were the half cent and the cent. Coinage for both began in 1793. Three designs are known for 1793 cents. The first, and most appealing in my opinion, is the Chain Cent.
A total of 36,103 1793 Chain cents were produced. The very first of these are easily identified by having the abbreviation AMERI. (for AMERICA) in the reverse legend. In my opinion, these are by far the most desirable of the major varieties and it is believed that around 7,000 were produced.
Chain Cents are often found very well worn and generally come with the obverse much weaker than the reverse. For this set, I would select a nice brown Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated piece. I would be very careful in making my selection and would look for a piece with good eye appeal, an above average strike and nice surfaces. Coins like this are rare and in great demand and I would expect to pay well in excess of current published values. An Extremely Fine coin is currently valued in the $20,000-$30,000 range while an About Uncirculated coin is worth $35,000-$45,000+.
4. 1794 Silver Dollar
The silver dollar was among the first coins authorized by the United States government. It is hard to think of a more significant coin for the fledgling United States than the dollar as it was the largest circulating coin at the time, both in terms of its size and its value.
This was a very difficult coin for the new mint to strike as they did not own equipment for coins larger than a half dollar. In addition, most 1794 dollars were struck from improperly aligned dies, making the date, the left stars, and the words UNITED STATES appear very weak.
Of the 1,758 pieces believed to have been struck, around 125 are known today. For this set, I would look for a nice, evenly worn Extremely Fine with as sharp a strike as possible. In particular, I would look for a coin with a well-defined date and reasonably sharp stars. This is another issue that is in great demand and nice coins always bring much more than published values. I would expect to pay between $75,000 and $90,000 for the right piece.
5. 1795 Eagle
The eagle, or ten dollar piece, was the highest denomination American coin until the twenty dollar gold piece was authorized in 1849. The essence of this coin is very easy to state in a few words: it is the first year of issue of the most important early gold type.
Only 5,583 1795 eagles were struck. There are a few hundred pieces known and this includes more high grade pieces than one might expect. The 1796 eagle is a much rarer coin and it is very undervalued in relation to the 1795. But I would much rather have the 1795 due to its significance.
For this set, I would choose a nice About Uncirculated example with clean surfaces, no significant adjustment marks, original color and a sharp strike. Such a coin, when available, would probably cost in the area of $30,000-$35,000.
6. 1836 Gobrecht Dollar
After a three decade hiatus, the silver dollar was resurrected in 1836. Its design was considered one of the most important projects undertaken by the new Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht. From 1836 to 1839, he prepared a number of designs; which are among the most attractive coins ever struck in the United States in my opinion. My personal favorite is the so-called 1836 "original" with the engraver's name on the obverse and the reverse with stars above and below the eagle.
1,000 of these were struck as Proofs at the end of 1836. They were made for circulation and can be distinguished from those struck in 1837 (but dated 1836) by the orientation of the eagle on the reverse. They are generally found with some degree of wear and, for some reason, uncleaned pieces generally have extremely deep toning.
For this set, I would select a Proof-62 to Proof-63 example with attractive coloration, minimal detracting hairlines and good overall eye appeal. I would expect such a coin to cost in the area of $15,000-$20,000.
7. 1850 Double Eagle
The first regular issue double eagles are dated 1850; examples were struck at both the Philadelphia and New Orleans mints. Although the Philadelphia issue is much more available than its branch mint counterpart, I have long felt that the 1850 double eagle was one of the most important United States coins. In a nutshell, it is the first collectible Double Eagle and the twenty dollar gold piece is the largest and most popular United States gold coin.
1,117,261 1850 double eagles were struck and this is not an especially scarce issue in circulated grades. There are around 40-60 known in Uncirculated with most of these in the MS-60 to MS-61 range. This date is often found with an especially sharp strike, nice coloration and very good eye appeal.
For this set, I would select a Mint State-61 example that was original, lustrous and minimally abraded. The cost of this coin would be in the area of $6,000-$9,000; making it among the best values in this collection.
8. 1861-D Gold Dollar
The 1861-D gold dollar is the only coin that can be positively proven to having been struck by the Confederacy. After the branch mint at Dahlonega was seized in April 1861, a small number (1,000-2,000) were produced. Unlike such issues as the 1861-C half eagle and the 1861-O double eagle, which had mintage figures that include Federal and Confederate strikings, every single 1861-D gold dollar is a Confederate striking. This makes these coins, in my opinion, among the most historic issues available to collectors.
There are approximately 75-100 examples known with the typical specimen grading About Uncirculated. This issue is generally found with a poor strike and some planchet irregularities.
The 1861-D gold dollar I would choose for this set would be a very high end About Uncirculated-58 with as good a strike and as clean surfaces as possible. The cost for such a coin would be in the range of $17,500-$20,000.
9. 1879 Flowing Hair Stella
The four dollar "Stella" (so named because of the prominent star on the reverse) was a result of discussions regarding international trade coinage during the 1870's. A very limited number were made, with two different designs, during 1879 and 1880. The most available of these is the 1879 Flowing Hair.
The official mintage figure for the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella is 425 coins, although it is possible that a few more were produced. Approximately half of the original mintage survives today, in grades ranging from Very Good to Gem Proof.
My choice of Stella for this set would be a Proof-63. I would try to look for a coin with nice original surfaces, pleasing color and minimal hairlines or marks. A coin of this quality would cost in the area of $50,000-$55,000.
10. 1907 High Relief Double Eagle
Theodore Roosevelt believed that United States coinage designs had, by the early 1900's, become stale and out of touch. He was particularly eager to redesign the four United States gold denominations. For the eagle and double eagle he hired the prominent sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens.
St. Gaudens' battle with the entrenched Mint personnel is well known as is their subterfuge of his spectacular original design. The "High Relief" that most collectors are familiar with today is a severely watered-down version of his incredible "Ultra High Relief" design. Nevertheless, the 1907 High Relief is still widely regarded as the most beautiful American gold coin.
11,250 examples of this design were struck and the survival rate is uncommonly high. Despite this coin's relative availability, it is still a highly priced coin. But it is priced relative to its extreme popularity and, in my opinion, it is an essential member of this ten coin set.
The High Relief that I would include would be a high end MS-64. The cost of such a coin would range from $14,000 to $17,000.
The total cost for this set, with each of the coins in the grade ranges described above, would be approximately $250,000-$350,000. It would probably take a number of years to complete this set, especially if the collector is very particular in regard to the quality of each piece.
It is my opinion that this would be a great set of coins to assemble. There are certainly other American coins that can also be considered "cool," but these are the ones that I find most appealing.