Beginning with this article, I'm going to focus, from time to time, on issues that I regard as "forgotten rarities." These are coins that are truly rare but which, for a variety of reasons, do not get the fanfare that they deserve. I plan on featuring a selected gold rarity once every month or so. The first issue that I want to discuss is the 1863 eagle. I'm going to try to avoid "condition rarity" issues in this series. In other words, I'm featuring coins that are rare in the most absolute sense of the word. And I think the 1863 eagle has this concept of rarity absolutely nailed.
There were only 1,218 eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint in 1863. For all denominations other than the double eagle, mintages were extremely low this year, which makes sense given the economic conditions of the Civil War (at the beginning of the year it was still not readily known if the Union forces would prevail). The low mintage of this issue, combined with a generally low survival rate for gold coins of this era, meant that the 1863 eagle was a rarity from the time it was struck.
I regard the 1863 as the third rarest business strike issue in this entire series, trailing only the 1875 and the 1864-S. I believe that there are around 30-35 known in all grades. As of March 2010, the combined total of coins graded at PCGS and NGC was 37 but this figure is clearly inflated by resubmissions; NGC, as an example, shows eight coins alone in AU58.
The surviving examples tend to be in the VF-EF grade range. Eagles of this era were clearly used in commerce and those that were not later melted tend to show numerous abrasions and signs of rough handling. I can't recall having seen more than three to five 1863 eagles that had original color and reasonably clean surfaces. Many have been cleaned or processed and properly graded AU examples are very rare.
Since 2000, there have been only six auction records for 1863 eagles that have not been damaged, harshly cleaned or ungradable by PCGS and NGC. The most recent record of note was Heritage 1/05: 30496, graded AU58 by NGC, that realized $28,750. This coin was not choice for the grade, in my opinion, yet it was still a bargain given its rarity and comparatively high degree of preservation.
The finest known 1863 eagle is a coin that has been graded MS63 by both PCGS and NGC and it appears in both firms population reports as such. The coin was last sold as Bass IV: 683 for $52,900 in 2000. Harry Bass purchased it out of the 8/91 Mid American sale where he paid a then-strong $104,500. It is one of the very few coins in the Bass collection that was sold at a significant loss and, in retrospect, it was one of the single best values in any of the four Bass sales conducted between 1999 and 2000.
There is a second Uncirculated 1863 eagle. It has been graded MS62 by NGC and it was uncovered in the treasure of the S.S Republic.
The valuation of the 1863 eagle is way off the mark, in my opinion. The most recent Trends shows values of $9,000 in EF40, $12,000 in EF45, $17,500 in AU50, $25,000 in AU55 and $32,500 in AU58. Given the paucity of recent trades, it is hard to state with certainty exactly what this issue is worth. But it seems to me that $12,000 for an EF45 example of a coin as rare as this is very good value, especially when compared to other less rare eagles of this era.
One of the ways that I can determine the true rarity of a coin is by how many that I have handled in the last few years. After checking my records, I see that I have not handled an 1863 eagle since 2005 and I've only had a total of two in the last dozen years. Considering the fact that I've handled probably a dozen 1870-CC eagles in the last decade (if not more), this shows me that the 1863 eagle is an incredible rarity.
I'd love your suggestions about which gold coins are "forgotten rarities." If you have any suggestions for future pieces in this series please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.