1854-D Three Dollar Gold Piece

I recently purchased a very unusual 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece. If you are even a casual aficionado of Southern gold coins, you are probably aware that a) the 1854-D is a rare and popular issue and b) it has a very established set of diagnostics. However, as this coin (and a few others) proves, not all 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces are cut from the same cloth. If you look at page 145 of the second edition of my book “Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint” you will read the following diagnostic criteria about the 1854-D Three Dollar:

“(On the obverse) the denticles from 7:00 to 3:00 are so weak as to appear non-existent. The entire upper part of the rim has a very flat appearance. (On the reverse) the denticles are almost always very weak and they can usually be seen only from the 3:00 to 8:00 area with the rest of the border appearing very flat.”

Now take a look at the picture below and focus your attention on the obverse and reverse borders. You will note that there are complete and full denticles on both sides. I have personally seen or owned as many as 75 examples of this issue and the coin illustrated here is just the third 1854-D that I know of with full denticles. The other two are in the Bill House and Harry Bass Core/ANA Museum collections.

Before we go any further with this quick diagnostic study of the 1854-D Three Dollar gold piece, here is a picture of a “normal” example (courtesy of Heritage Numismatic Auctions). Note the weakness on the denticles and then also file the following diagnostics away in your memory for future reference:

1. Weakness on the U in UNITED 2. Large clashmark at the throat of Liberty and a smaller clashmark at the back of the neck (this may be hard to see in the photo) 3. Reverse clashmarks from the S in DOLLARS into the wreath above 4. Detached leaf to the left of the 1 in the date 5. Separation of the right bow knot (the one on the viewer’s left) from the wreath due to die polishing

What I find especially interesting about the 1854-D “full strike” is that it has essentially the same diagnostics as the “weak strike” coin. I had always assumed that the full strike coins represented an earlier die state; struck, perhaps, before the dies clashed and were lapped. But this is clearly not the case. We can see this because the full strike coin has virtually identical diagnostics to the weak strike coin. The only difference is that the clashmark in the right obverse field is not as pronounced on the coin with full denticles.

So what makes this coin different from other 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces? There are two interesting features that might hold a clue to its special status. The first is that it has a mint-made lamination on the obverse; something I cannot remember on many other examples of this date. The second is that the surfaces of the full struck coin are somewhat reflective (this is hard to see from the picture); again, an unusual circumstance for the issue. Could this coin have been specially struck as a presentation piece?

My best instinct tells me that the full struck coins represent the very first 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces. After a small number were made with full denticles, something happened during the minting process that caused the rest of the coins to be improperly struck. Given the fact that all 1854-D Three Dollar gold pieces were struck in one day, it is hard to say exactly what caused this failure.