State of the Market Report: San Francisco Gold

In the third part of my State of the Market, I kick it West Coast style and take a look at what’s happening with the gold coins from the San Francisco mint. Are these coins still as dead as the proverbial doorknob or has some breath been jumpstarted into this long-overlooked part of the market? Looking at the market for San Francisco gold coins from a macro perspective, I’d have to say that the overall health of these coins is pretty weak. However, this blanket statement most certainly can not be applied across the board. There are segments of this market that are unquestionably strong and that will, I feel, continue to show strong growth in popularity.

The strongest area in the San Francisco market is rarities and essential one-year type coins. As an example, price levels on 1854-S quarter eagles have increased dramatically over the past few years. In 1999, the finest known example from the Bass Collection sold for just a shade over $135,000. In an auction earlier this year, Heritage sold an example that was clearly not as nice as the Bass coin to a knowledgeable dealer for $345,000. Two other key dates that have seen strong price appreciation in the past few years are the 1864-S half eagles and eagles.

One San Francisco coin that, were it to become available, would almost certainly become one of the most expensive coins ever sold would be the 1854-S half eagle. Only two or three examples are known and just a single piece is in private hands. If this coin were to come up for sale while the market for ultra-rarities remains strong, it could bring as much as $4-6 million.

There are a few other segments in the San Francisco gold coin market that I see strength in. One of these is gold dollars. In the past few years, every time I’ve owned an affordable, nice quality example of a date like the 1857-S or 1858-S, it has sold very quickly. Collectors looking for San Francisco gold dollars tend to be interested in coins in the AU50 to MS61 grades and priced in the $1,750-5,000 range. In my experience, higher grade San Francisco gold dollars are not as easy to sell.

Another group of coins from San Francisco that maintain an active level of collector interest are Three Dollar gold pieces. This is interesting because of the fact that, viewed as a whole, this series is currently not in favor. Pleasing Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated examples of the 1855-S, 1857-S and 1860-S have remained very desirable and have not declined in price like the majority of the Philadelphia Three Dollar gold pieces from this era. The one San Francisco Three Dollar gold piece that has declined in popularity is the 1856-S. This is the result of a very large number being available for sale in the last year or two.

The market for San Francisco double eagles has shown some ups and downs in the past year. High grade examples of the scarcer Type One issues remain in demand and the 1861-S Paquet and 1866-S No Motto have experienced greater price increases in the past two or three years than nearly any Liberty Head gold coins. I have noticed some price resistance on average quality Type Two double eagles from San Francisco and the market for most Type Threes from this mint is down significantly from the high levels of a year or two ago.

There are at least two areas of the San Francisco gold coin market that remain very weak: the rare date half eagles and eagles from the 1850’s through the mid-1870’s and the semi-scarce issues from the 1880’s through the early 1900’s. The reason for the weakness in these two areas is the same: lack of collector interest.

The half eagles and eagles struck in San Francisco between 1854 and 1877 are, for the most part, very rare. But they have never had the collector support that characterizes the southern branch mints or Carson City. As I’ve mentioned before, the lack of a standard reference work on these coins has certainly not helped. But I think there is another factor that keeps collector level down.

A coin like an 1861-S half eagle in AU55 or an 1860-S eagle in AU53 is unquestionably rare. But both of these are already quite expensive; $10,000 or so in the case of the half eagle and $20,000 or so in the case of the eagle. This is a lot of money for a series with virtually no collector interest. If prices were adjusted downwards to reflect these coins as sleepers or potential rarities and not established rarities, perhaps more pioneers would enter the market.

Another factor that hurts these coins is that most are very ugly. There is a huge price spread between grades for coins like an 1860-S eagle. Because of this price spread, there is considerable temptation to take a nice original EF45, scrub it to death and get it upgraded to AU53. In theory, lots of value has been added but now you’ve got an already unpopular coin like this 1860-S eagle that is now bright-n-shiny and that has a very high Trends valuation to boot.

I’ve weighed in on semi-scarce San Francisco gold coins before. I don’t like coins like this very much as, to me, they represent the unglamorous segment of an unpopular area in the market. That said, if you had bought coins like an 1882-S eagle in MS62 a few years ago, you did pretty well, if only because of the rise in bullion prices.

One area of San Francisco gold that continues to shine is high quality 20th century rarities. In the past year, we have seen record prices for a number of Indian Head eagles and St. Gaudens double eagles from San Francisco. The fabulous PCGS MS67 Duckor 1920-S Indian Head eagle at $1,725,000 was a remarkable price for this coin but what was even more incredible was the fact that at least three or four bidders were actively pursuing this coin at the $1million level.

San Francisco gold has underperformed other areas of the rare date gold market but it is not the hopeless laggard it was as recently as two or three years ago. I think we will continue to see small pockets of popularity. Some currently moribund areas that I would keep an eye on include Civil War issues from this mint and Condition Census or Finest Known gold dollars, quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles struck prior to 1878. In addition, I think better date Indian Head half eagles and eagles from San Francisco will be a very strong area in the market in the near future.