When examining surviving populations of branch mint gold coins it is easy to forget just how scarce some of these issues are in higher grades. I’d like to demonstrate a little numismatic “magic trick” and turn 200 into 20 (or less) right in front of your very eyes. Let’s take a random issue and play around with survival numbers. How about the 1848-C quarter eagle?
The 1848-C is a date that doesn’t get much attention. It’s certainly no big deal, rarity-wise, in lower grades but it is scarce in the lower AU grades, very rare in the higher AU grades and exceedingly rare (and overlooked) in Uncirculated.
A total of 16,788 1848-C quarter eagles were produced. As with most Charlotte quarter eagles, it has a survival rate of around 1%-2% of the original mintage figure. I estimate that 150-200 are known, although this figure does not take into account what are probably a number of low grade and/or damaged specimens. Of these 150-200 coins, I estimate that at least 70-100 grade VF or below by my standards (which, by the way are not necessarily the same as NGC’s or PCGS’) and another 56-70 grade EF40 to EF45. All of a sudden the population of higher grade 1848-C quarter eagles has shrunk considerably.
I believe that 22-26 examples of this date are known in the various AU grades. That seems like a reasonably decent number of coins; certainly a large enough pool of coins for the casual collector to choose from, right? This number does not take into account that many of the 22-26 coins have problems. Certainly at least half of these two dozen or so coins have been cleaned, processed or unnaturally brightened. Suddenly, the available population of nice higher grade 1848-C quarter eagles has been reduced to maybe a dozen coins.
But these dozen coins include another potential monkey wrench which might thwart the collector seeking a nice 1848-C quarter eagle. If you read my book on Charlotte quarter eagles, you’ll learn that this issue is notorious for poor strikes and that a number were produced from severely swollen dies which leave the coins looking like a mess. So now these dozen coins might now be reduced down to as few as seven or eight nice, original (or “original-ish”) AND decently struck 1848-C quarter eagles. Assuming that there are at least four or five collectors assembling circulated Charlotte quarter eagle sets by date, this means as few as three or four pieces might become available in, say, a two or three year period. I’d say that qualifies as a pretty rare coin.
These numbers do not apply to all branch mint gold issues. There are certain dates that, for a variety of reasons, have a much higher overall survival rate or because of hoards have a higher percentage of high grade coins among the survivors.
A few examples of branch mint dates that have uncommonly high survival rates include the 1854-D $3.00 (I estimate that as much as 10% of the original mintage figure exists) and the 1838-D $5.00. There are generally pretty obvious reasons why issues like these have higher survival rates than usual. In the case of the 1854-D $3.00 it is because this is a one-year type coin and the novelty factor of a Dahlonega Three Dollar gold piece probably caused a number to be saved as souvenirs by curious locals. The same is probably the case with the 1838-D $5.00. This is a first-year-of-issue and it seems almost certain that a few were saved as curiosities by Dahlonegonians. (By the way, I just made up that word. I wonder if the correct expression isn’t actually Dahlonegites??)
There might also be another reason to consider in regards to high grade rarity for certain branch mint issues. A few dates have had their populations of higher grade pieces swelled by the (possible) existence of hoards. I surmise this to be the case with issues such as the 1857-D and 1858-C quarter eagles and the 1841-D half eagle and know this to be a fact for issues like the 1856-D half eagle.
The bottom line is that many branch mint issues are much, much scarcer in higher grade (say AU55 and above) than their certified populations might suggest. As a rule of thumb, even the “common” issues such as 1849-D gold dollars or 1847-C quarter eagles are far less available in choice AU than one might expect and these issues are certain to get scarcer in the coming years.