Collector K.U. recently asked me to help him construct a compact, meaningful list of San Francisco gold coins to form the basis of his collection. The parameters were as follows: the dates selected must have historic and/or numismatic significance, they must be selected for being the best value grade for the issue in question and, where possible, they should be dated around the Civil War era or earlier. I gave this list some thought and tried to narrow down the list to a dozen or so coins. I eliminated the 1854-S quarter eagle due to financial considerations and the 1854-S five dollar due to realism. I then tried to include at least one example of each of the six denominations of gold coins struck at the SF mint and, because of the collector's taste, limited the set to those issues struck in the 19th century. (I might have included the 1920-S eagle and a rare date Saint or two if the list had been longer...)
As I've pointed out before, San Francisco gold coinage of the Liberty Head design can basically be divided into two groups: the "golden era" issues struck from 1854 through around 1878 and the other issues made from 1878 until the new 20th century designs were incorporated in 1908. I personally find the former much more interesting due to their low mintages, the fact that they tended to be actively used in commerce and are thus often exceedingly rare in higher grades and their low overall survival rates.
Without further ado, here is the list:
1. 1854-S Gold Dollar: In my opinion, one of the ways in which to make this set more interesting was to include as many first year of issue coins as possible. The 1854-S is an ideal choice for inclusion in this set given its first-year status. With a mintage of 14,632 this is not really a scarce coin but it is not really easy to locate in higher grades. I am fond of the 1854-S because it tends to be much better made than the other branch mint gold dollars of this era and I find it to be quite undervalued. A nice Uncirculated example could be located in the $5,000-7,500 range and for the collector on a more limited budget, it is possible to acquire a really solid AU 1854-S dollar for less than $2,000.
2. 1856-S Gold Dollar: I wasn't originally going a second gold dollar in the set but the numismatic significance of this issue is hard to overlook. The 1856-S is the only Type Two gold dollar from this mint and it is also the only Type Two from any mint that was made in 1856; a transitional year in which the new Type Three design was struck at the Philadelphia and Dahlonega mints. The 1856-S is fairly easy to locate in lower grades and becomes rare only once the MS62 to MS63 level is reached. Many examples show a dramatically double punched mintmark which doesn't add value but which does increase the "coolness" factor exponentially. A choice circulated example can be purchased for $3,000 to $5,000 while a nice Uncirculated piece has become a bit pricey at $7,500-15,000 and up.
3. 1862-S Quarter Eagle: The obvious picks for quarter eagles are not so obvious. The 1854-S is out of the question due to its hefty price and the next few "early dates" (the 1856-S and 1857-S) aren't that interesting. So, given the collector's interest in Civil War issues, I selected the rarest Civil War quarter eagle from this mint: the 1862-S. Only 8,000 were produced and I have found the 1862-S to be a tough, elusive coin that is still not entirely recognized by rare date gold collectors. I've only handled one Uncirculated 1862-S in 25+ years of buying choice SF gold (the finest known PCGS MS63+ I purchased in the February 2012 Goldberg sale for $43,250) and know of just one or two others. A nice EF example, when available, is still affordable (in the $2,500-3,500 range). A mid-range AU is hard to find but still not priced at more than $5,000-7,500.
4. Scarcer Date 1870's Quarter Eagle in Uncirculated: You can't have just one quarter eagle in this set, right? But there really isn't a date from the post-Civil war era that stands out to me so my suggestion is to buy a better date issue from the 1870's (such as the 1871-S or 1872-S) in MS62 or MS63. These coins are legitimately scarce in this grade (with on order of five to ten known) but are not that expensive with prices ranging from around $4,500 up to $7,500 and more. What I like about these types of coins is that they tend to be well made, attractive and there are very few known in grades higher than MS63. A few sleeper dates are known and these include the 1870-S, 1873-S and 1876-S but even these aren't terribly expensive...yet.
5. 1855-S Three Dollar: To be varied and complete, this set needs a Three Dollar gold piece so why not include the first-year-of-issue 1855-S? Only 6,600 examples were made but this issue is generally available in EF and AU grades. And prices remain very reasonable for this issue, despite its numismatic significance. I recently sold a choice, original EF45 with CAC approval in the mid-3's and also sold a decent PCGS AU55 in the low 10's. In high grades, the 1855-S becomes very rare and I am aware of only three to five Uncirculated examples as well as a unique branch mint proof which is now in an East Coast specialist's complete set of Proof Threes.
6. 1855-S Half Eagle: Even if this collector had unlimited funds, he wouldn't be able to buy an 1854-S half eagle. So, for all intents and purposes, an 1855-S is the first-year-of-issue for the half eagles from this mint. As you might expect with a coin that had 61,000 struck, this isn't a real condition rarity and decent EF's are reasonably plentiful and very affordable. Lower end AU's remain a good value in the $2,000-3,000 range but properly graded AU55 to AU58 examples are rare and undervalued. I can only recall having seen one Uncirculated example (a PCGS MS62, ex Bass II: 1077). A piece of advice about 1855-S half eagles: be patient. There are a lot of crummy examples out there but a few nice ones do exist and with prices still so reasonable for this issue it pays to be selective.
7. 1864-S Half Eagle: This formerly obscure issue is becoming famous and well it should; it is the second rarest Liberty Head half eagle and a very rare issue in all grades with around two dozen or so known from the original mintage of just 3,888. Despite this coin's great rarity, it is not yet priced at the level that I believe it should be. I recently sold a PCGS VF30 for $21,500 which seems like a lot for a coin graded VF30 but, when you consider this date is far rarer than a number of coins that sell for six figures. I don't often say this but here is an issue that you should throw caution to the wind and be very aggressive if one becomes available. I think the 1864-S half eagle has great upside potential and as San Francisco gold grows more and more popular, this has the potential to be a six figure coin.
8. 1876-S Half Eagle: This has been a favorite "sleeper" date of mine for years. Only 4,000 were struck and it is an issue that exceeds the better known Civil War issues from the 1861-1863 era in terms of overall rarity. I regard it as the second rarest collectible half eagle from this mint (after the 1864-S) and I believe that there are fewer than fifty known in all grades. It is an easy issue to identify as all known examples have a dramatic ring-like punch in Liberty's earlobe. There is one known in Uncirculated: the Garrett I: 487 coin that sold for $34,000 back in November 1979 and which I think is one of the single most desirable (and least well known) Liberty Head half eagles of any date or mint. From time to time, EF's are available and they still can be had for less than $5,000 (cheap!!) while a decent AU will cost two to three times this amount.
9. 1854-S Eagle: The 1854-S is not even close to being the rarest early date SF eagle of this denomination but as the first-year-of-issue its certainly the most historic and a great Gold Rush artifact. The 1854-S has a high original mintage of 123,826 and there are certainly 500+ known in all grades (making it arguably the most available coin in this collection). But it has a coolness level that is off the proverbial charts and it is affordable. I sell nice AU's in the $2,500-3,500 range and I recently sold a great-looking PCGS AU58 for $5,750. Most examples are very abraded and few have original color; hold out for pieces that are relatively mark-free and nicely toned. I have only seen or heard of one Uncirculated 1854-S eagle, an NGC MS61 that was sold privately by a West Coast dealer around six years ago.
10. 1864-S Eagle: I've written extensively about this issue so I won't flog a dead horse. But I will say, for the dozenth time, this coin is rare, rare, rare. It is the second rarest Liberty Head eagle after the 1875 and it is certainly a coin that would sell for six figures if it were in almost any series other than the Liberty Head eagles. I just offered a lovely PCGS VF30 with CAC approval on my website and was surprised (but not really surprised) to get multiple orders for it within the first day it was listed. I would offer the same comments with this issue as I would with the 1864-S half eagle: if you get the chance to buy one that you can live with, act quickly and decisively.
11. 1854-S Double Eagle: The 1854-S is an odd coin. It seems like it shouldn't be that rare (over 140,000 were made) and the population figures aren't all that low. But the survival rate is astonishingly low with just a few hundred known. And what PCGS or NGC figures won't tell you is that nearly all the Mint State 1854-S double eagles are from the S.S. Yankee Blade shipwreck. This means that examples in any grade with original surfaces are rare and I have only seen two examples in Uncirculated (a PCGS MS60 and an NGC MS61) that didn't have seawater surfaces. After years of being inexpensive, the 1854-S got discovered a few years ago and it has probably tripled in price in the last three years. I still think its not a bad value and, in fact, just sold a PCGS AU50 for less than $9,000.
12. 1857-S S.S. Central America Double Eagle in MS64 to MS65: I wasn't going to put this issue in the proposed San Francisco collection but after some thinking, I just had to add it. How can you collect San Francisco gold from the 1850-1880 era and not own a nice SSCA 1857-S? They are big, beautiful, historic coins that beg to be included in any set. My parameters are pretty straightforward on this issue: buy a coin in the original gold foil SSCA PCGS holder, get the original bells and whistles that came with it and avoid a piece that has turned in the holder. That leaves probably over a thousand available coins in the $10,000-15,000 price range.
13. 1861-S Paquet Reverse Double Eagle: The thirteenth--and final--coin in the set is probably the most expensive but certainly among the most interesting. The story of the Paquet has been told many times before but I think the important things to remember about this issue is that it was virtually unknown until examples were found in Europe in the 1950's. It jumped dramatically in price a few years and mid-range AU's were topping out at over $125,000. Prices have receded since then but I note that demand for this issue is coming back. It is extremely hard to find examples with good eye appeal and many of the "real" EF's have been scrubbed into AU50, AU53 and even AU55 holders. My advice: if you see a good looking Paquet and the price isn't goofy, get aggressive. I'd budget at least $75,000 for a nice Paquet.
Do you need help devising a collection of United States gold coins? Email me at email@example.com and perhaps I can answer your questions with a blog just like this one.