Dual Rarities: Great American Gold Coins

There are coins that are rare because of their grade ("condition rarities") and there are coins that are rare because only a small number survive ("absolute rarities"). Then there are coins that are a whole different category: I call them "dual rarities." These are coins that stand out as having an amazing combination of date rarity and grade rarity. There are not many of these and even fewer exist in the arena of United States gold coinage. In this article, I'm going to choose one coin from each denomination which I think is the ultimate dual rarity. Before I begin, I want to establish three parameters for true dual rarity. These are as follows:

1.  The coin is a rare date. Whether due to low mintage or low survival rate, the coin is not easily available, even in lower grades.

2.  The coin is exceptional well-preserved for the issue. This is based not only on the date but the type. In other words, if the coin is a No Motto half eagle, it is not only exceptional for the date, it is one of the best of the entire type as well.

3.  Nothing close survives. There are coins that are dual rarities but other comparable examples exist for the date or for the type. An example (non-gold) is the 1845-O Dime, ex Eliasberg, graded MS69 by PCGS. It is the best early date Seated Dime known, its a rare date and the next finest known is somewhere in the AU58 to MS61 range. Now that's a dual rarity!

4.  Only business strikes qualify. Proofs, especially near early dates, are very interesting but they were made in limited editions for collectors and we can expect these to have survived. Branch mint proofs or specimen strikes are another story and despite being controversial and slightly esoteric, I'm going to let them qualify. Its my list and I can be the Dual Rarities Czar if I want to. So there...

1.  GOLD DOLLARS

This was a fairly hard denomination to choose a single coin from because there aren't a lot of truly rare gold dollars and the most famous issues (the 1849-C Open Wreath and the 1861-D) don't have a single really memorable survivor. So with some thought, I chose a coin that I actually had in my hands the other day and which was sort of an impetus for this article: the Brand-Akers 1863 gold dollar, graded MS68 by PCGS.

The 1863 is the single rarest Philadelphia gold dollar despite a mintage of 6,200 business strike. There are a number of branch mint gold dollars with lower mintages but they not to be found in supergrades. There are 14 Philadelphia gold dollars with lower mintages than the 1863 but these tend to have been saved in higher grades. A few of the dates have incredible individual coins known (the 1864 in PCGS MS69 quickly comes to mind) but they are not as rare, overall, as the 1863.

The Brand 1863 gold dollar was purchased by famed dealer-collector David Akers as Lot 29 in Part One of the Virgil Brand auction, held by Bowers and Merena in November 1983. It sold for $15,400. Akers kept this coin as part of his personal collection until a few years ago when he sold it via private treaty to a West Coast collector who is forming an incredible, high grade set of gold dollars.

The Brand 1863 dollar is a true "wonder coin" with amazing surfaces that literally drip with luster. When I was looking at it the other day, my first comment (made out loud) was "wow, what a coin! I'd be impressed with this if it was an 1880's date, let alone an 1863."

As I recall, this was Dave Akers' favorite gold dollar and that's saying something given that he a) saw, owned or sold nearly every great gold dollar in existence and b) personally loved gold dollars and collected them with an unbridled passion.

I love this coin for many reasons. First is the fact that it is one of the most aesthetically pleasing gold dollars that I've ever seen and it just happens to be a rarity. Second, it is the finest known by a long shot. I have personally handled an NGC MS66 and currently own a PCGS MS65 but neither of these is even on the same planet as the Brand 1863. Third, it has a great pedigree. Virgil Brand is probably the most underrated coin collector of all time. He has a reputation today of having been a hoarder and he certainly was happier owning ten of something than just one. But as his notebooks show, he put together a wonderful, sophisticated set that was one of the greatest ever. Brand's legacy has been further diluted by the fact that most of his coins were sold privately after his death but even the small fraction that was sold by Bowers and Merena from 1983 to 1985 was worth millions and millions of dollars. It is staggering to think what his complete collection would be worth today.

2.  QUARTER EAGLES

This was an easy, easy choice for me. The most valuable quarter eagle in existence is the Gem 1796 No Stars that sold for $1,725,000 in Heritage's 2008 FUN auction. It's old, beautiful, rare and gorgeous. But it still isn't my ultimate dual rarity quarter eagle. That honor belongs to....the Byron Reed 1864 quarter eagle.

Depending on whether you think the 1841 was struck in non-Proof format or not, the 1864 is either the first or second rares business strike Liberty Head quarter eagle from the Philadelphia mint and the second rarest issue of this design after the 1854-S. There are a few dozen known 1864 business strikes with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. There are exactly three known in Uncirculated which actually makes it more available than the 1865 quarter eagle but (and this is a big but) the 1864 in question is graded MS67 by NGC.

I first saw this coin in the Spink's October 1996 sale where it brought $132,000. I desperately wanted to purchase it and even offered to do it with no commission for my two biggest clients at the time but I had no luck. It was purchased by a West Coast dealer for his client who was, at the time, putting together an absurdly cool type set with as many dual rarities included as possible. It was graded MS67 by NGC many years ago and, by today's standards, I could easily see it in an MS67+ or MS68 holder.

You see great quality 1900-1907 quarter eagles from time to time. Not that long ago, I had a PCGS MS68 common date in stock that was an amazing coin. But it was a common date in an uncommon grade and a coin that I wouldn't have thought twice of buying in MS67. The Byron Reed 1864 is easily the finest quality early date Liberty Head quarter eagle that I've seen. It is nearly perfect with lovely rich yellow-gold color, razor sharp details and that certain "look" that you only find on very, very special coins.

There are so many reasons to love this coin. Its a Civil War rarity that is a big deal even in EF grades. It has amazing eye appeal. Its pedigreed to the famous Byron Reed collection and has been sold at auction only once since Reed acquired it in the 19th century.

This coin is owned, like many of the pieces in this article, by a major collector who understands the importance of it and considers it to be among the best of his many major rarities.

3.  THREE DOLLAR GOLD PIECES

This was a hard denomination to choose. I was leaning towards the Bass collection's 1854-D but this is a raw coin that I have never actually held in my hands (I've just seen it behind display glass) so I don't know if it is as great as I think it is. So, I'm going to cast my vote for a coin that is a bit more esoteric but which is easily the most valuable three dollar gold piece known: the unique branch mint proof 1855-S. This coin was last sold for $1,322,500 (as an NGC PR64 CAM ; it was recently crossed to a PCGS holder at the same grade and designation) in Heritage's 8/11 auction.

When examining any branch mint proof, you have two ask two basic questions: is the coin really a proof and is there a compelling reason why the issue would exist as a proof. In the case of the 1855-S three dollar, the answers are both resoundingly "yes."

I first saw this coin back in the mid-1980's and even then, knowing a fraction of what I know today, I was totally convinced the coin was a proof. It looks just like a Philadelphia proof of this era and, if you didn't flip it over and see the "S" mintmark on the reverse, you'd swear it was made at the Philadelphia mint. And there is a very compelling reason for this coin to exist as it is the first year of issue for three dollar pieces from San Francisco and there are known proofs for the quarter dollar and half dollar of this date.

The grade of this coin is not as absurdly high as most of the other coins on this list but, in the case of Proofs, I don't think this is as important. Proofs are either nice or not nice; there is little aesthetic difference between a PR64 and a PR66. What really matters about the 1855-S is that it is totally unique and it has a multiple level of demand that no other three dollar gold piece, with the possible exception of the 1854-O and 1854-D, possesses. And given the fact that there are no "wonder coin" 1854-O or 1854-D threes currently known, I give the dual rarity prize for this denomination, in a rout, to the Proof 1855-S.

This coin is currently owned by an eastern collector who added it to his set of Proof Three Dollars. It is almost certainly the most comprehensive set of proofs for this denomination ever assembled and quite likely the finest as well.

4.  HALF EAGLES

It took me about two seconds to choose the dual rarity that I felt was the "essence" of this denomination. It's a coin that I have written about in glowing terms more than once and, in my opinion,  it is one of the single greatest 19th century coins of any denomination. The coin is the Bass/Norweb 1864-S half eagle.

First a little background about the issue. The 1864-S is the second rarest half eagle from this mint after the excessively rare 1854-S and it is the third rarest half eagle of this design after the 1854-S and the 1875. There are around two or three dozen 1864-S half eagles and most are in low grades; typically in the VF-EF range. There is nothing even remotely close to Uncirculated for this date...with one exception and, boy, is it ever an exception.

While first attracting attention back in 1956 in Abe Kosoff's "Melish" sale, the 1864-S half eagle really came to light when it was sold as Lot 875 in the Norweb I auction, held by Bowers and Merena in October, 1987. At the sale, Harry Bass, knowing this was a "have to have it" coin, paid a strong $110,000. It was then sold in Bass II, by Bowers and Merena in October 1999, for $178,250. Since that time, it has been off the market and, as far as I know, it is still in a southern collector's set.

Back in 1999, this coin was graded MS65 by PCGS and I thought, even then, that the grade was very conservative. Other than some weakness of strike, I recall the Norweb/Bass 1864-S half eagle being nearly perfect and other than some later date S mint coins of this type, I also remember it being among the best Liberty Head half eagles of any date that I've ever seen. I'd have to think this coin would grade at least MS66 to MS67 today and with barely any other 1864-S half eagles known in grades above AU50.....well, you get the point. Dual Rarity!!!

5.  EAGLES

I'm not ashamed to admit that I have bias towards pre-1900 issues when it comes to all American coins. As you've no doubt noticed in this article, all the coins--so far--have been dated in the 1850's and 1860's. Well, I'm going to go outside my comfort zone with the ten dollar denomination, especially because there is really no single Liberty Head eagle that stands out to me as a classic dual rarity (although the Eliasberg Gem Uncirculated 1850-O would be the closest thing to this...). I'm going to go into the 20th century with this denomination.

In their March 2007 auction, Heritage sold a PCGS MS67 example of the 1920-S eagle for a record-shattering $1,725,000. This coin was not only one of the single best Indian Head eagles of any date that I've ever seen, it was one of the two or three rarest dates in the entire series and clearly the finest known.

The 1920-S eagle is a much different issue than the other dates listed in this article. It is far more available than, say, the 1864-S half eagle and far more available in Uncirculated than all of the other issues that we are discussing. There are a few hundred 1920-S eagles and a few dozen Uncirculated pieces exist, including at least four or five Gems. But you have to approach 20th century coins differently than 19th century coins as the former tends to be more condition rarity in nature while the latter tends to be more absolute rarity. To me, the 1920-S eagle comes closest to being a true dual rarity as it is a comparably tough issue in all grades and is recognized as one of the keys within this popular series.

There's some pretty cool background information about this coin. Steve Duckor purchased it in the June 1979 Stack's auction for $35,000 which was alot of money for him back then and alot of money for an Indian Head eagle. He held it for nearly three decades and his timing was just right as when he sold in in early 2007, the coin market was very strong, the economy was still rolling along and, most importantly, at least three very wealthy collectors needed this specific coin for their set. I was sitting next to Steve when the coin sold and I can still remember the look on his face after it hammered. To say he looked stunned is an understatement.

Today, this coin is in the Bob Simpson collection where it is part of the finest known set of Indian Head eagles. It is now graded MS67+ by PCGS and it remains one of the most amazing coins of any denomination that I have ever seen.

6.  DOUBLE EAGLES

You're probably thinking I'm going to choose the 1933 double eagle, aren't you. But here's why I'm not: besides the fact that the coin isn't theoretically legal to own (at least yet), I have the sneaky suspicion that the group that was "discovered" a few years ago in Philadelphia might not be the only ones known. Just a hunch but...

The coin I chose as my dual rarity double eagle may very well be the most valuable double eagle in existence but it is probably the least well-known single piece of the six that are featured in this article. The coin I've selected is the 1861 Paquet Reverse that was struck in Philadelphia. There are exactly two examples of this issue known to exist. One, graded MS61 by PCGS, sold for $1,610,000 in the Heritage 8/06 auction. The other, graded MS67 by NGC, was last sold at auction in the Norweb III sale (all the back in 11/88) for a then-strong $660,000.

This coin has an interesting back story. It features a one-year redesign by Anthony Paquet that was created in an attempt to improve the quality of strike for this issue. It failed and most of the Philadelphia strikings were melted; the San Francisco pieces of this design were actually released and over 100 are known today, mostly in lower grades.

The one thing that hurts the 1861-P Paquet double eagle is that it is a slightly obscure issue that could be considered a pattern. My argument against this is that it is widely known enough that the vastly inferior MS61 (mentioned above) brought over $1.6 million in a market that was less appreciative of rarities (and double eagles) that what we are seeing in late 2012/early 2013.

And then there is the coin itself. It is an absolutely smashing Gem that would be a great coin even if it were a common date. It is nearly flawless with the sort of naked-eye appearance that most of the other coins on this list all have and what makes it, in my opinion, so special.

I am virtually certain that when this coin does finally sell, it will set a record price for any coin ever produced. It is currently in strong hands but when it does sell, look out for some fireworks in the auction room.

So there you have it: my list of the ultimate dual rarities. Every coin on the list is a great piece for a variety of reasons and every piece is something that a sophisticated, wealthy collector would love to own. These coins combine grade and rarity like no others do.

Assembling a Date Set of Civil War Gold Coins: Part Two, 1863

The first installment of this three-part article discussed the various Civil War gold issues struck in 1861 and 1862. The second part looks at the very interesting gold issues from 1863; a pivotal year in the history of the brutal war and a very significant year in the annals of American numismatic history. 1863 $1.00

1863 Gold Dollar: While 6,200 business strikes were made, this is a rarer date than most casual collectors know. I regard it as the single rarest gold dollar from the Philadelphia mint; rarer even than the 1875 with a mintage of just 400 pieces. The odd thing about the 1863 is that when available, it is likely to be found in the lower Uncirculated grades. As an example, there are a total of forty graded by PCGS but over half of these (twenty one to be exact) are in Uncirculated. There are a few Gems known. The finest is an incredible PCGS MS68 owned by a California specialist that, I believe, is from the Brand collection. There is also a PCGS MS66 that is owned by a collector.

This is an issue that is well made but one which tends to have problems with original surfaces and luster. I have seen a few really nice 1863 gold dollars but most have been cleaned or dipped and have poor eye appeal as a result. Any nice example of this issue is very desirable. For the advanced Civil War collector, the opportunity to acquire a piece grading MS64 or above would be quite special and should be looked at as important.

1863 $2.50

1863 Quarter Eagle: As you might recall from the first part of this series, the mintage for the 1861 quarter eagle was an absurdly high 1,283,878. Thus, there was no real need for business strike quarter eagles in 1863. The 1863 is a proof-only issue with just thirty struck. This makes it a key rarity in the Civil War gold set and, of course, the single rarest (and most expensive) issue from 1863.

There are around twenty 1863 quarter eagles known. Most are in the PR63 to PR64 range but there are a few gems remaining including some with lovely Deep Cameo contrast between the devices and the fields. I know of at least four or five PR65's and there may be a few more. The current auction record for this date is $149,500 for Heritage 1/07: 3107, graded PR66UC by NGC.

I have mixed feelings towards the 1863 quarter eagle. In some ways, I think it is a very undervalued issue as it is the third rarest Liberty Head quarter eagle (after the 1854-S and the 1841) in terms of total known. But if you look at it merely as a Proof issue from this era, it sells for a huge premium over dates like the 1864 and 1865 which are actually as rare--if not rarer--in terms of the total known as Proofs. What needs to be remembered is that if collecting Liberty Head quarter eagles by date ever becomes fashionable, the demand for this date is likely to exceed its supply and today's price levels are inevitably going to seem cheap.

1863-S $2.50

1863-S Quarter Eagle: As you might expect, the 1863-S quarter eagle tends to be overlooked due to the rarity of its Proof-only Philadelphia counterpart. With just 10,800 struck, it is scarce in its own right. There are an estimated 100-125 extent with most in ther VF-EF range. An accurately graded AU50 to AU55 1863-S quarter eagle with nice color and surfaces is scarce and a properly graded AU58 is very rare. There are three or four in Uncirculated including two Gems: ANR 3/06: 1457 that sold for $50,600 (it is ex Eliasberg: 198) and the Dodson: 41 example that brought $18,700 all the way back in May 1992 when it was sold by Mid-American.

There are a few examples known of this date that are very weakly struck at the centers; this seems to be the result of an improper alignment of the dies. Most are well detailed but have unoriginal surfaces. The natural coloration for this issue is a medium to deep rose-gold to reddish hue which can be very appealing. For most Civil War date collections, a nice AU example of the 1863-S quarter eagle will suffice but I think Uncirculated pieces, if available, are good value.

1863 $3.00

1863 Three Dollars: This is one of the odder issues from the entire Civil War era. With just 5,000 business strikes made, you would expect the 1863 three dollar to be a rarity. While it is reasonably scarce from an overall standpoint, it is the most available Civil War issue of this denomination in Uncirculated and there are actually as many as a dozen to fifteen Gem to Superb Uncirculated pieces known. I have seen 1863 Threes that grade as high as MS67 to MS68 and I know of an example in a well-known dealer's collection (graded MS67 by PCGS) that is probably the single best business strike Three Dollar gold from the Civil War era of any date.

Nearly all 1863 Threes have prominent clashmarks at the centers and numerous mint-made die striations in the fields. The quality of strike is usually sharp and the luster tends to be excellent. There are a number of outstanding examples known and the collector should be able to find a great piece for his Civil War set. I'd suggest at least an MS64, if not a Gem.

1863 $5.00

1863 Half Eagle: There were 2,442 business strike half eagles made at the Philadelphia mint in 1863. There are around three dozen known today and while a number have been graded AU50 and better by NGC and PCGS, this is an extremely rare coin in higher grades. It is unknown in Uncirculated and I have seen maybe six to eight that I thought were truly About Uncirculated. The best I can recall was the PCGS AU58 Bass II: 1143 coin which went cheaply at $13,800 and it has been years since I've seen an AU example with even the slightest amount of eye appeal.

This is a date that saw quite a bit of circulation and the few that survived the melting pot tend to have excessive abrasions on the surfaces. In addition, nearly every 1863 half eagle that I have seen has been cleaned or dipped. As a result, examples with even decent eye appeal are exceedingly rare and the collector who only wants nice, original coins for his Civil War date set is going to find the 1863 half eagle to be a very frustrating issue. That said, I'd suggest waiting for the best available piece which is likely to be around AU55 or so.

1863-S $5.00

1863-S Half Eagle: Demand for gold coins remained high in the western states during the Civil War and the mintage figure for the 1863-S half eagle was 17,000; nearly seven times more than for the 1863 Philadelphia half eagle. The 1863-S is certainly not seven times more available than the 1863-P; it saw heavy use in commerce and was later melted extensively. I have seen estimates that as many as sixty to seventy-five are known but this seems high; the likely number is more like fifty to sixty-five with most of these in very low grades. There is a single 1863-S half eagle known in Uncirculated (it is graded MS61 by PCGS) and there are maybe as many as seven to ten in AU. The current record for the date is $25,875 set by the NGC 58 sold as Lot 9489 in Stack's 6/11 auction.

When available, this date is found with better eye appeal than the 1863-P but not by much. The luster tends to be decent but most 1863-S half eagles are abraded (often heavily) and show evidence of cleaning or dipping. Any coin with original color and surfaces is rare and desirable. The Civil War collector should look for a nice AU53 to AU55 for his set.

1863 $10.00

1863 Eagle: And now we get to my favorite 1863 gold issue: the 1863-P eagle. The mintage of this issue is a tiny 1,218 business strikes and by most accounts, there are around thirty or so known. The 1863 is the second rarest Liberty Head eagle from this mint after the 1875 and it is one of the hardest issues of the entire design to locate in all grades despite not being all that well known. This date is unique in Uncirculated (a PCGS MS63) that is ex Bass IV: 683 (at $52,900) and earlier ex MARCA 9/91: 755 (sold to Harry Bass for a then-remarkable $104,500). There are around six to nine known in About Uncirculated and I can't recall having seen more than two or three that I felt were AU55 or AU58.

My comments for this issue are very similar to the 1863-P half eagle. It is a coin that saw rough use in commerce and the few that survive tend to show numerous abrasions, often in obtrusive locations. You can almost forget about eye appeal when it comes to this date, but I'd say that if you ever have the chance to obtain an 1863 eagle with an even remotely decent appearance, I'd suggest you approach it aggressively.

1863-S $10.00

1863-S Eagle: There were 10,000 eagles struck at the San Francisco mint in 1863. This is a rare issue although not as much so as the 1863-P. I believe that there are around fifty or so known with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. As surprising as it seems, there may be as many as three 1863-S eagles known. The best is a PCGS MS61 that is ex Heritage 10/95: 6330 and before this was in the Norweb collection. The Bass IV: 684 coin was also a PCGS MS61. NGC has graded an MS61 that was last sold as Goldberg 2/09:1535. There are also a few reasonably nice AU's known including at least one from the S.S. Republic graded AU58 by NGC.

As with nearly all SF Civil War era gold, the 1863-S eagle is seldom found with natural color and surfaces. It is an issuee that is somewhat better made than in its half eagle counterpart and the few higher grade pieces known have better than average quality luster. This will not rove to be as challenging an issue to find as the 1863-P eagle but it is a rarity in its own right and any collection that has a nice AU55 or better example will probably never need to improve upon this.

1863 $20.00

1863 Double Eagle: After the 1862, the 1863 is the hardest Philadelphia double eagle from the Civil War to locate. There are a few hundred known in all grades with EF40 to AU50 examples being the most often seen. This date becomes scarce in the higher AU grades although it is far more available than, say, the 1863-P half eagle or eagle. In Uncirculated there are around two dozen known with most in the MS60 to MS61 range. The finest known is a single MS64 graded by PCGS; I believe this was once sold as Akers 8/90: 1960 and it brought $41,800 long before the Type One double eagle market was as active as it is today.

This is a well made issue that is better struck than the 1863-S double eagle and generally less abraded as well. The patient Civil War gold coin collector should be able to locate a nice AU example without much of a problem. An Uncirculated coin, at least in the MS60 to MS61 range, will be available from time to time as well. Anything that grades MS62 or finer will prove extremely hard to locate.

1863-S $20.00

1863-S Double Eagle: The mintage for this one issue (966,570) is considerably more than all the other San Francisco gold denominations combined. Much of the newly discovered gold from California and Nevada was being used to produce double eagles and these coins saw active use in commerce.

The 1863-S double eagle is the most common gold coin of this year in circulated grades. It is possible to procure a presentable example in the $2,000-3,000 range and a nice Choice AU for around $5,000. In Uncirculated, the rarity of this date takes on a different profile. The 1863-S is scarce in MS60 to MS61 and very rare in properly graded MS62 with maybe five or six known. In MS63 there are probably another three or four. The finest known is currently an NGC MS64* that recently sold for $43,125 as Lot 5041 in the Heritage 1/12 auction.

As a year, the 1863 is one of the most interesting of the Civil War era. It is a year that has some really scarce coins but unlike the 1861, it has nothing that is impossible to find at any price (the 1861-P Paquet) or expensive due to its rarity and/or popularity. 1863 is a year that will prove extremely challenging to locate in higher grades and there are no "slam dunk" issues like the 1861 and 1862 gold dollars that will be easy to locate even in Gem grades.

In the upcoming third and final installment of this series, we will look at the 1864 and 1865 gold coinage. If you have questions or comments about these--or any--coins, please feel free to contact me via email at dwn@ont.com