Collecting 'Transitional' Coins

Throughout the history of gold coin production in the United States there have been a number of instances where two different designs were produced simultaneously, or at least within the same year. I call these “transitional” coins and I think they would make for a very interesting collecting focus for the gold coin specialist.In the gold dollar denomination, the most obvious transitional issue occurred in 1854 when both the Type I and the Type II issues were produced. Both of these are relatively common although the Type Two becomes scarce in the higher grades and rare in MS64 or better. In 1856 two designs were produced: the Type Two and the Type Three. Since the Type Two was only made in San Francisco this year and there are no 1856-S Type Three gold dollars this isn’t a transitional issue in the sense of the 1854. There are some very interesting transitional issues in the quarter eagle denomination. In 1796 both No Stars and With Stars designs were produced. Both of these are rare in all grades and because of price constraints they would be considered one of the stoppers of a transitional set. The next transitional issue occurred in 1834 when both the Capped Bust and the Classic Head quarter eagles were struck at the Philadelphia mint. The former is an extremely rare coin in all grades while the latter is common in grades up to and including MS63.

More transitional issues exist in the early half eagles than in virtually all other denominations combined. The reason for these transitional issues tends to be different than, say, for the 1854 Type One and Type Two dollar when the design was changed to facilitate improved striking.

There are two types of half eagle dated 1795: the Small Eagle reverse and the Large Eagle reverse. The former was actually produced in 1795 and it is relatively common. The latter was struck in either 1797 or early 1798 using a backdated obverse die. Only 1,000 or so 1795 Large Eagle half eagles were made and this clearly would be one of the stoppers to a transitional set.

A similar circumstance exists with 1797 half eagles. Small Eagle reverse coins from this year are known with both fifteen and sixteen stars on the obverse. These are very rare but not impossible to locate. There are also 1797/5 half eagles with the Large Eagle reverse. These are extremely rare and include two die varieties that are presently unique and housed in the Smithsonian.

Another transitional year occurs in 1798. A small number of half eagles (probably no more than 400-500) were made using the Small Eagle reverse. This is a very rare coin today with only seven or eight examples known. The more common 1798 half eagles have the Large Eagle reverse. These are moderately scarce in terms of overall rarity but they can certainly be found with much greater ease than their Small Eagle counterparts from this year.

Yet another transitional year for half eagles occurred in 1807. This is a direct result of a design change. The first issues struck this year had the Heraldic Eagle reverse while the latter issue employed the new Capped Bust obverse and John Reich’s new reverse. Both of these issues are relatively common in all grades up to MS63.

1834 saw another design change in the half eagle denomination and the transitional collector has two issues to focus on: the rare Capped Bust (or “Fat Head”) and the more common Classic Head. The Capped Head is found with two varieties (the Plain 4 and the Crosslet 4) as is the Classic Head. Interestingly, on both design types the Crosslet 4 is significantly rarer.

The next transitional half eagle occurs in 1866 when the San Francisco mint produced coins with and without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse. Despite having a much lower mintage, the No Motto coin is actually comparable in overall rarity to the With Motto issue. Both are very rare in the higher AU grades and virtually non-existent in Uncirculated.

The final transitional issue in the half eagle denomination occurred in 1908 when the design changed from the old Liberty Head to Bela Lyon Pratt’s new Indian Head design. Both of these issues are very common and the transitional collector with a virtually unlimited budget could aim as high as MS66.

In the early eagles there is only a single transitional year: 1797. The first 1797 eagles used the Small Eagle reverse. Only 3,615 were struck and around five to six dozen are known. This issue is typically seen in circulated grades and it becomes extremely rare in anything approaching Mint State.

Later in the year, the new Heraldic Eagle design was first used on this denomination. Slightly over 10,000 examples were produced and this is a relatively available coin, although it is very rare in grades above MS61 to MS62.

One of my favorite pair of transitional eagles are the two types of 1839. The first, also known as the Type of 1838, is easily distinguished by Liberty’s neck being very curved and ending over the right side of the final star. It is the more common of the two and while relatively available in most circulated grades, it is very scarce in AU55 and better and rare in Uncirculated. The second variety is known as the Type of 1840. On this issue, Liberty’s neck is less curved and it ends well before the final star. It is very scarce in all grades and rare in AU.

In 1866, the San Francisco mint was not informed of the changeover to the With Motto reverse until they had struck 8,500 pieces with no motto. The 1866-S No Motto eagle is a rare coin in all grades today. The With Motto variety is also rare although it is a bit more obtainable in the AU grade range. Both are unknown in Uncirculated.

1907 saw a changeover from the Liberty head design to the new Indian Head design. The transitional collector has some difficult decisions about which coins to include in his collection as three major variations of the Indian Head eagle from 1907 exist: the rare Wire Edge, the very rare Rolled Edge and the common No Motto.

In 1908 there are no less than two transitional Indian Head eagles. The Philadelphia and Denver mints both struck No Motto and With Motto coins. Luckily for transitional collectors, all four of these are relatively common except in Gem Uncirculated. The 1908-D No Motto is the rarest of the four and this issue is extremely rare in properly graded MS65.

The United States twenty dollar gold coinage contains more interesting transitional coins for the specialist. The first of these is the 1866-S No Motto and With Motto. The former is a very scarce coin in all grades and it remains unknown in Uncirculated. The latter is fairly common in circulated grades and scarce in Uncirculated with nearly all of the two to three dozen known in Uncirculated grading MS60 to MS61.

The termination of the Liberty Head design in 1907 meant that an interesting group of transitional coins from this year are available. The 1907 Liberty Head issues were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints and all three are common in grades up to MS63. The 1907-S is very rare and underrated in Gem Uncirculated.

Augustus St. Gaudens’ redesign of the double eagle was introduced in 1907. Most transitional collections would include one High Relief from this year as well as a 1907 No Motto. Both issues are readily available in Uncirculated grades and the latter is abundant even in MS65 to MS66.

To assemble a complete set of the various Transitional coins that I discussed above would be an amazing accomplishment, given the rarity and prohibitive cost of many of the issues. That said, I think this would be a great set that would be a fun challenge for the collector who is up to it.