As I have mentioned before, I have long been a fan of the low mintage Three Dollar gold pieces struck during the 1880’s. I like these coins because of their very low original mintage figures and their relative affordability. Even though the Three Dollar gold series is currently showing a slowdown after two or three years of intense activity, these particular issues are still in great demand. Let’s take a quick look at these low mintage Threes from the 1880’s. 1881: This is the rarest of the five issues we are focusing on, from the standpoint of high grade rarity. There were just 500 pieces struck for circulation of which an estimated 100-150 are known today. Unlike many of the other Three Dollar gold pieces from the 1880’s, the 1881 was not saved by contemporary dealers and hoarders and most of the survivors are in the EF40 to AU55 grade range. This issue is nearly always seen with prooflike surfaces but most have poor eye appeal due to the fact that they have been cleaned or dipped. In addition, most have major abrasions in the fields and many show hairlines as well. There are probably no more than two dozen known in Uncirculated and many of these are marginal quality coins that grade MS60 to MS61. A properly graded MS62 is extremely scarce while an MS63 is rare. I know of approximately four or five examples that grade MS64 and just one Gem: a superb MS66 that has been graded by PCGS.
This is an issue that, in my opinion, is worth full Trends, if not more. For a nice AU55, I would expect to pay in the area of $8,000 to $10,000 while an AU58 is worth around $9,000 to $12,000. The Trends values for Uncirculated examples are fairly accurate although I think that a PCGS MS65 might actually bring more than the current Trends listing of $65,000.
1883: A fairly large percentage of the original mintage of 900 examples struck has survived. I would estimate that there are 200-250 pieces known and very few of these grade below AU53 to AU55, suggesting that the 1883 did not readily circulate. This issue is not really all that rare in the lower Uncirclated grades but it becomes rare in MS62 to MS63 and it is very are in MS64 and better. Most 1883’s are prooflike and many show very nice original color, unlike the 1881 which is almost never seen with good eye appeal.
In the last few months, I have sold a number of nice AU 1883 Three Dollar gold pieces in the higher AU grades for under $5,500. I still can’t get over what a great deal this is. Think about it. A United States gold coin with a mintage of fewer than 1,000 business strikes in very presentable condition for such a reasonable price. Here’s another thing to think about when pondering the 1883 (or any of these other dates). A very common date Three Dollar gold piece in AU58 will cost the collector $2,250 or so. For a little more than double this number, he can buy a truly scarce coin like an 1883. Seems like a no-brainer to me…
1884: For many years this date was my “secret sleeper” in the Three Dollar gold series. I would buy every single example I could find and despite being willing to pay more than anyone else for this date I was still not able to buy many. The 1884 is the second rarest collectible date in the series (trailing only the 1877) as far as overall rarity is concerned. There were 1,000 examples struck of which an estimated 100-125 are known today. The majority of these grade MS60 or better, suggesting that the 1884 was a date that did not see much—if any—circulation. This is borne out by the fact that PCGS has graded only two coins lower than AU55.
I believe that the 1884 remains very undervalued. The current issue of Trends shows a value of $5,000 for this date in AU55 as opposed to $4,000 for the 1883 and $4,500 for the 1886. Given the rarity of the 1884 it should be priced at a premium of at least 50% over these two dates. In MS62, the 1884 is accorded a Trends value of $12,000. This is the same as for the 1885 in this grade and just $1,000 more than the 1883 and the 1886. I would suggest that if you are offered an 1884 at anywhere near Trends prices, you should purchase it.
1885: A total of 801 business strikes were produced. The 1885 was saved in much greater quantity than the 1884. An estimated 200-250 pieces are known; giving this date one of the highest survival rate of any 19th century American gold coin produced for circulation. That said, the 1885 is still a tough coin to locate and I have always found examples to be easy sellers when they are in my inventory. The overall eye appeal for this date is probably the best of the five in our discussion and there are some higher grade 1885’s known with superb color and luster.
The 1885 is almost never seen in grades below AU55 to AU58. It is scarce but still obtainable in the lower Uncirculated grades and only moderately rare in MS63 to MS64 (the PCGS and NGC population figures for MS63 and MS64 coins, by the way, are hugely inflated by resubmissions). I estimate there are as many as eight to ten Gems known and the finest I am aware of is a superb PCGS MS67.
1886: The 1886 has the exact same business strike mintage figure as the 1884: 1,000 pieces. The 1886 is less scarce than the 1884 in terms of overall rarity but it is much scarcer in higher grades. In fact, the 1886 is the second rarest of these five low mintage dates in Uncirculated, trailing only the 1881. There are an estimated 150-200 examples known with perhaps as many as 20-30 known in Uncirculated. The 1886 is generally seen with Prooflike surfaces. Many have been cleaned at one time and, for some reason, this date is found with deeper and more intense abrasions on its surfaces than are other Three Dollar gold pieces from this era.
Most 1886 Three Dollar gold pieces are found in the AU50 to MS60 range. This date is quite scarce in MS61 to MS62. It becomes very rare in MS63 and it is extremely rare in MS64. I am aware of just one Gem: a PCGS MS65 which I recently sold and which was earlier in the Richard Jewell collection (it is plated in my book on Three Dollar gold pieces). Current Trends values for this date are very low, in my opinion, and any example that can be bought for 80-100% of Trends is an excellent value, especially in MS60 and higher.