A client of mine recently asked me an interesting question about whether the addition of a specific Charlotte half eagle would—or wouldn’t—remove the stigma of Incompleteness from his set. I thought this was an interesting question and it got me to thinking about how the presence or absence of certain issues relate to rare gold coin collecting. Not everyone is cut out to work on a complete set. Some collectors do not have the patience; others do not have deep enough pockets. To some collectors, a complete set is monotonous and an exercise in futility. To others, it is an interesting challenge with defined goals.
So what exactly constitutes a complete set?
There is no standard answer to this question. As an example, what should a collector do if he collects Three Dollar gold pieces and he doesn’t want to spend $200,000+ to purchase nice examples of the 1875 and 1876. These are issues that were struck only as Proofs and, in theory, they do not need to be included in a set of Three Dollar gold pieces if the focus is business strike issues. In my opinion, a set of Threes is not technically complete without an 1875 or an 1876 but I can fully understand a collector’s decision to not purchase these two issues due to the fact that they were not struck for circulation.
In the case of Three Dollar gold pieces, what is the collector supposed to do about the proverbial elephant-in-the room, the unique 1870-S? My suggestion would be to ignore this date as its extreme rarity makes it an essentially impossible issue to obtain.
In the Charlotte series there are a few issues that are open to debate as to whether they should or should not be in a complete set. In my opinion, both varieties of 1842-C quarter eagles (Large Date and Small Date) and both varieties of 1842-C half eagles should be included. These are design variations which are readily visible to the naked eye. A set that has only one of these could be called a complete date set but it would not be a complete variety set.
What about mintmark variations on Charlotte coins, such as an 1850-C Weak C. Is a set complete without one of these pieces? This is a striking variation and it is not, in my opinion, an essential component of a set unless the set is very in-depth and it includes die varieties and strike variations. In this case, I would then include interesting items such as an 1855-C half eagle with a cud reverse or an 1840-C half eagle with broad and narrow milling.
The Dahlonega series has a few issues that are difficult to decide where they fall as far being included in a set or not. Clearly, the 1842-D Small Date and Large Date half eagles should both be included in the set as they are design variations. What about the interesting 1846-D/D and 1848-D/D half eagles? I have always regarded them as members of a complete set but can totally understand the argument that they are die varieties. And if these two varieties are included than what about the less well-known but equally significant 1840-D and 1841-D Small D and Tall D varieties? Again, my position on these is that they are die varieties and should only be included in a highly specialized collection that includes significant naked-eye die varieties.
And what about New Orleans gold coinage? I have always considered the 1843-O Large Date and Small Date quarter eagles to be essential components of a complete set as well as the 1843-O Small Letters and Large Letters half eagles. In my opinion, anything else is a die variety which does not need to be complete.
What about the 1854-O and 1856-O double eagles; two issues which now cost over $250,000 each for a presentable example? Sorry, but a set of New Orleans gold coinage that is complete except for these two coins is impressive but still not finished. These two coins are totally legitimate regular issues with no stigma of controversy attached to them. If you are a serious enough collector to want to assemble a full set of circulation strike New Orleans gold coins, you just have to face up to the fact, unpleasant or not, that there are two very, very expensive coins waiting for you down the road. And, for better or worse, these two coins are probably going to define the quality of your set.
(Oh, and by the way, the 1841-O half eagle does not exist. So don’t worry about filling a phantom hole…even if this coin is mentioned in the Redbook and the Breen Encyclopedia).
OK, so what about 20th century issues?
In my opinion, an Indian Head half eagle set is very straight forward. The Indian Head eagle set has traditionally required a 1907 Rolled Edge and 1907 Wire Edge to be considered complete. This is a pretty tricky question. The Wire Edge was issued in a large enough quantity that I think its safe to say that it was a regular issue and, thus, it should be included in any set. The Rolled Edge is a much tougher call. Only 50 or so pieces were produced and the fabric of this coin suggests that it is experimental in nature. The 1907 Rolled Edge is listed in the Judd book as a pattern (but, then again, so is the Wire Edge…) but it has traditionally been included in the regular issue set. I’m not certain what the right answer is but I think most advanced collectors have decided that they will purchase the Rolled Edge.
The St. Gaudens set contains some really tricky “include it vs. don’t include it” issues. Obviously, the Ultra High Relief does not belong in a regular issue set. Neither, of course, does the (currently) illegal 1933. What about the Wire Edge and Flat Rim varieties of High Reliefs? To me, it’s obvious that these are strike-related varieties and they do not constitute any sort of design change. The 1927-D? It’s a regular issue coin and you don’t have a complete set of Saints if you don’t have a 1927-D.