The City by the Bay gets my vote as by far the nicest city in which the U.S. Mint ever struck coins.
San Francisco is a cultural hotspot with museums galore and a long history of supporting the arts. It relishes its history, isn't afraid of it's somewhat sketchy past, and is home to more upscale, artsy residents per capita than probably anywhere else in the country. It should be a hotspot for collecting and its 19th century gold coinage should be as — or more popular — than its Podunk Western cousin, Carson City, right?
Actually it's not. San Francisco gold gets (relatively) no love from coin collectors. It's not a great coin town and, curiously, there are far fewer collectors for San Francisco gold coins than one would expect. This market is finally beginning to show some legs but it is still far less popular than I think it should be.
I think there are a lot of reasons. some clear and obvious, some far-fetched and obtuse. Let's look at a few reasons why San Francisco gold coins aren't that popular (yet), what the current trends in the market are and what the future holds for these issues from the Barbary Coast.
1. There Are "Too Many" Issues
San Francisco produced gold coins with virtually no interruptions from 1854 through 1916 and, sporadically in the 1920's and early 1930's. This is the longest production run of any branch mint and only the Philadelphia mint struck more coins during this time period.
Clearly, there are a lot of gold coins struck at the San Francisco and not all of them are "interesting." This is a contrast to the southern mints of Charlotte and Dahlonega which had shorter production runs and from which every coin has some degree of numismatic scarcity and desirability. The pre-1879 San Francisco Liberty Head gold coins tend to be far more interesting than their post-1879 counterparts and, admittedly, these later issues tend to be viewed as a group which sort of just drags on and on.
This plethora of issues tends to intimidate the novice collector. To state, "I'm a collector of San Francisco gold," entails denominations ranging from gold dollars to double eagles and, quite frankly, this is intimidating. It is important for the potential San Francisco collector to immediately become a specialist and focus on either one denomination or a subset (i.e., No Motto half eagles from this mint).
Which brings us to the all-important point number two...
2. There's No Reference Book on San Francisco Gold Coinage
Reference books exist on virtually all the mints that struck U.S. gold coins and specialized books by Bowers, Dannreuther, Akers, Goe and others cover early gold, certain non-southern branch mints. But, to date, there is no single specialized reference work on San Francisco gold.
For years, I've given this project strong consideration but the amount of work it will take to write a San Francisco gold coin book is staggering. And it's a real Catch-22: the market will be jumpstarted by said book but who wants to spend the time, effort and money to undertake this project when it will probably sell 500 copies and go overlooked? It's truly a labor of love and the handful of dealers that I think are qualified to write such a book (myself included) are probably too busy buying and selling coins to pen a 400-500 page opus on SF gold.
Until a good standard reference book on these coins is published, the market is destined to trail areas such as Carson City, Charlotte, Dahlonega and New Orleans.
3. There's No Marketmaker(s) In This Series
If you want to buy a nice Dahlonega half eagle, there is a small but stable core of suppliers that collectors know where to turn to. Same with Type One double eagles, Proof gold and early gold, to name a few. But who is an iconic marketmarker for San Francisco half eagles; a dealer you know is always going to have a nice date run of Civil War era coins or some Gem semi-scarce issues from the 1880's and 1890's? At this point, there is no one dealer who is "Mr. San Francisco gold."
Ironically, there has been some exceptional marketing in one area of the San Francisco coin market: Type One and Type Three double eagles. The former has been the domain of a West Coast firm for over a decade and it began as an off-shoot of the S.S. Central America shipwreck. They had a brainstorm many years ago which proved prescient: you buy a gorgeous 1857-S double eagle in MS64 or MS65 and you get hooked; the next logical step is a date set of Type One double eagles from this mint. That's why coins like the 1854-S, 1861-S Paquet Reverse and the 1866-S No Motto have tripled in value in the last decade.
If this West Coast marketer started to focus on San Francisco gold which complimented its double eagle focus, it might be a huge shot in the arm for these coins. If a collector bought a nice 1857-S double eagle, wouldn't he want to assemble a date set of 1857-S gold? In theory yes but there is one problem. While there are thousands of Gem and Superb 1857-S double eagles available, all the other denominations from this year are rare to very rare in Uncirculated and non-existent in Gem. How do you explain to a new collector that the AU58 1857-S eagle he is being offered to go with his 1857-S double eagle in MS65 is the best available coin for that denomination?
4. Modern Coins Have Hurt the "Unusual Date" San Francisco Market
A coin like an 1864-S eagle is clearly a "rare date" issue with an avid collector base. And a 1901-S eagle is clearly a "generic" issue which is bought and sold like a commodity by investors and investor-collector hybrids. Then there coins like, say, an 1883-S eagle which is not really a rare coin but is clearly not a common generic issue. I sort of jokingly refer to these as "unusual dates."
Before modern coins became popular, "unusual date" San Francisco gold was popular with marketers and it might sell for a 20%, 30% or even a 40+% premium over common dates. The sales pitch was easy to make: here is a coin which is fifty times more rarer than a generic issue for just a 30% premium. It made sense.
But today, most of the firms that would sell these "unusual dates" are focused on moderns where the supply is unlimited and the margin are consistent. And this has not only destroyed the market premium for a coin like an 1883-S eagle in MS62, it has hurt the ability for a coin like the 1883-S to be used an entry portal into the rarer coins from this mint, like the 1864-S eagle.
If a few of the firms which used to sell "unusual date" San Francisco gold would resume their programs, this might be good for the long-term health of the market.
5. One Of The Horses Has To Finish Last In The Race....
If we throw out Denver as a branch mint (because it's my blog, I get to make the rules) that leaves us with five branch mints. One has to be the most popular (I'm going to give that honor to Carson City although I could see a case for Dahlonega and one has to be the least popular. To paraphrase the immortal words of my high school baseball coach, "in a horse race, one of the animals has to finish last."
But if one branch mint has to finish last in a Numismatic Popularity Contest, why San Francisco? With all the newly created wealth in Northern California from nerd-centric professions such as engineering, entrepreneurship, social media, etc. one has to wonder if the time is coming for San Francisco gold coins.
Interestingly, a few of my newer clients are in their 30's, have made a good deal of money from Internet or tech-related businesses and are from the bay Area or Silicon Valley. They are very attracted to SF gold and when they "run the numbers" (as you would expect a Tech Wonk to do) they quickly conclude that these issues seem like great value when compared to southern gold.
So could this be the future of the San Francisco gold market? Hard to say but if these few new collectors are any indication and at least one or two of the problems listed above is addressed, than we may be seeing a strong new market developing right before our very eyes.
Are you interested in San Francisco gold coinage? Would you like to assemble a world-class collection of gold from this mint? Whether you are Mark Zuckerberg or Mark the Dude from Around the Block, I can help! Please feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your new San Francisco gold collection!