Assembling a Year Set of Civil War Gold Coins: Part Three, 1864

In the third part of this series, we look at the gold coinage of 1864. This was, of course, a pivotal year in the war's outcome as well as a very interesting year in the history of American gold coinage. Mintage figures were mostly very low and a number of rare, undervalued coins are known. From a personal standpoint, this is the most interesting year of Civil War numismatics and I still get very excited when I handle a high quality gold coin dated 1864. 1864 $1.00 PCGS MS67 CAC

1864 Gold Dollar: A total of 5,900 business strikes were produced along with 50 Proofs. The grade distribution of this date is odd, to say the least. The 1864 dollar is not often seen in circulated grades and almost never below AU55. It is seen with some frequency in MS61 to MS63 but, surprisingly, high quality Uncirculated pieces exist in enough quantity to suggest that a hoard existed at one time. There are a few exceptional coins known including four or five in MS68 and a PCGS MS69, ex Superior 2/05: 3402 at $77,000, which is the finest Civil War era gold coins I have ever seen. This issue is known for nice frosty luster and high grade coins show pleasing rose and orange-gold color. Most examples are extensively clashed. The advanced collector of Civil War gold coins should be able to find a really nice 1864 dollar for his set with an MS66 or MS67 not out of the question.

1864 $2.50 PCGS EF45 CAC

1864 Quarter Eagle: As most collectors realize, the quarter eagle denomination was an afterthought at the Philadelphia mint from 1863 to 1865. After a Proof-only emission of just 30 coins in 1863, the mintage for 1864 was 2,824 business strikes plus another fifty Proofs. The 1864 is among the rarest quarter eagles ever produced with an estimated twenty or so known in all grades. As with most of the Philadelphia gold issues from this era, the 1864 quarter eagle didn't see enough circulation to be found in lower grades (unlike the lower denomination gold issues from San Francisco) so most survivors are in the EF45 to AU55 range. There are three known in Uncirculated: an NGC MS61, a PCGS MS61 and an NGC MS67 (ex Byron Reed collection and sold by Spink's in October 1996 for $132,000). This issue is a major rarity and will prove difficult to acquire in any grade. I recently sold a choice PCGS EF45 with CAC approval for $19,500; nice AU's are now bringing in the low to mid 40's.

1864 $3.00 NGC MS62 CAC

1864 Three Dollars: Despite a low mintage of 2,630 business strikes (lower even than the quarter eagle of this year) the 1864 three dollar is only a moderately scarce issue. It is available in circulated grades and can be found in the lower Uncirculated range without much effort. It becomes scarce in properly graded MS63 and it is rare in MS64 and above. Gems are very rare. The finest that I have personally seen is the ANR 3/05: 627 coin, graded MS66 by PCGS, that sold for $36,800. This is a well-made issue with good luster and detail. Many examples show clashmarks in the fields as well as horizontal die finishing lines. For most Civil War collections, a nice MS63 to MS64 will suffice. Slabbed MS65's are extremely rare and many years might pass until one is offered.

1864 $5.00 NGC AU58

1864 Half Eagle: By 1864, the supply of gold bullion available to the Philadelphia mint was extremely low due to hoarding brought on by economic uncertainty. This is evidenced by issues like the 1864 half eagle which had a mintage of 4,170 business strikes plus another 50 Proofs. There are around five dozen 1864 half eagles known with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. This is a rare issue in AU55 to AU58 and it is extremely rare in Uncirculated. I know of just two: the Heritage 9/07: 3436 ($18,975) ex Bass II: 1148 coin (graded MS61 by PCGS) and Milas: 529 (which sold for $14,300 bck in 1995) which was graded MS61 by NGC. This is a coin that is seldom seen with good eye appeal. Most have been cleaned and show impaired luster as a result. For most advanced collectors, an AU55 to AU58 is about the best that can be hoped for.

1864-S $5.00 PCGS VF30

1864-S Half Eagle: Generally, Civil War gold coinage production was higher at the San Francisco mint than at Philadelphia due to more available bullion. This was not the case with the 1864-S half eagle (or eagle; see below) which saw just 3,888 struck. This is one of the great rarities of the entire Liberty Head half eagle series with an estimated twenty or so known. This issue also differs from many of the Philadelphia gold coins of this era in that few survivors exist over EF45. In fact, I can't account for more than three or four properly graded AU pieces. There is one sensational Gem known (graded MS65 by PCGS and better than this by today's standards) that is in a Southern collection and is ex Bass II: 1150 ($178,250) and Norweb I: 875 ($110,000). This is one of my absolute favorite United States gold coins of any date or denomination and a Civil War set that included this piece would truly be "one for the ages."

1864 $10.00 NGC AU53, courtesy of Heritage

1864 Eagle: The 1864 eagle is slightly scarcer than the 1864 half eagle in terms of overall rarity (around fifty are known from the original mintage of 3,530 business strikes) but it is a rarer coin in high grades. Although a few have been graded MS61 by NGC, I have never seen one that I felt was better than AU55/58 and I feel that there are fewer than ten properly graded AU examples known. This is an extremely hard issue to find with good eye appeal as most are very abraded and show impaired luster from having been dipped and/or cleaned. Any 1864 with original color and surfaces is very rare. For most Civil War collectors, an AU50 to AU53 example is about the best coin that may be available. With patience and luck it might be possible to find an AU55.

1864-S $10.00 PCGS VF30

1864-S Eagle: While the 1864 quarter eagle is probably rarer, the 1864-S eagle is the 1864-dated gold coin that most collectors would like to own. Of the 2,500 struck, it is likely that two dozen survive and this includes a number of very well worn or damaged examples. As rare as its half eagle counterpart is in higher grades, the 1864-S eagle is even rarer, I know of just two or three in AU and the best of these is ex Bass III: 656, graded AU55 by PCGS, that sold for $36,800 (it would bring four or five times this amount today, if not more...) The concept of eye appeal is irrelevant when it comes to this issue. Needless to say, any 1864-S with original color and surfaces is extremely rare and highly desirable. A Civil War gold set with the 1864-S eagle in EF would be impressive; a set with this issue in AU50 or higher would be a stunning accomplishment.

1864 $20.00 NGC AU50

1864 Double Eagle: What little gold that was available to the Philadelphia mint in 1864 was used primarily to make double eagles and 204,235 were struck; nearly as many as in 1862 and 1863 combined. Compared to the other Philadelphia issues from 1864 that I have discussed above, the 1864-P double eagle is common. But this being a double eagle, it is far more popular and it must be considered in that context. The collector who is seeking a circulated 1864 double eagle should be able to locate a nice piece without having to spend much more than $5,000. Finding an Uncirculated example is another story as this issue remains rare in Uncirculated, despite the fact that a small number were found in the S.S. Republic treasure. The finest known is a wonderful PCGS MS65 that is ex Heritage 8/11: 7651 (as NGC MS64+) where it sold for a record-breaking $207,000.

1864-S $20.00 PCGS MS62

1864-S Double Eagle: This is easily the most available gold coin dated 1864 as you would expect from its high mintage of 793,660. It is hard to state with certainty how many are known today but the actual number could be as high as 1,500-2,000 as examples are still being found in Europe. This date used to be exceedingly rare in Uncirculated but examples grading MS60 to MS63 were found in the S.S. Brother Jonathan shipwreck and then a smaller number of choice pieces were found in the S.S. Republic.. This second shipwreck s the source of the current highest graded 1864-S, an NGC MS65 that sold for a remarkable $115,000. This is an easy issue to find in nice AU grades and examples with original color and surfaces are still around. Non-seawater Uncirculated examples are very rare. For most Civil War collectors, a nice MS62 or MS63 "Bro Jo" would be a great choice for their set.

The gold coins dated 1864 contain some really rare issues (most notably the 1864-P quarter eagle and the 1864-S half eagle and eagle), but there are no "impossible" coins. As with all Civil War years, these coins are, for the most part, extremely rare in high grades. Ironically, some of the greatest individual Civil War coins are dated 1864: the Byron Reed 1864-P quarter eagle and the Bass/Norweb 1864-S half eagle are the two that come to mind.

In next month's fourth and final installment of this series, we will look at the gold coins dated 1865 and reach some final conclusions about collecting Civil War gold coins.

Please feel free to send my comments and suggestions regarding this article to

How Do You Price Really Special Coins?

In the recent Schuyler Rumsey coin auction, there were a number of coins that I would define as "really special." After the sale was over, I thought about the prices they brought and was initially pretty stunned. Upon further reflection, I still think that these coins brought strong prices but the numbers now make a little more sense . Let's take a look at some of these specific coins and then ask (and answer) a bigger question: how do you price a really special coin? This was not a condition-related sale and there were only a few coins that brought a tremendous amount of money because they were high grade for the issue. Examples of such coins include the 1852-O eagle in PCGS AU55 (Lot 982) that brought $18,400 and the 1870-CC eagle in PCGS EF45 (Lot 1030) that sold for $97,750. In both cases these coins sold to savvy dealers who clearly believed that the coins would upgrade significantly. If they don't upgrade, both coins will prove to be bad deals for their buyers.

But the coins that were of real interest to me in the sale were the still-slightly-under-the-radar rarities like the 1864-S eagle, the 1873 eagle and the 1876 eagle. These aren't coins that condition is solely relevant. They are what I call "fundamental rarities" or coins that are rare in all grades.

In the Liberty Head eagle series, the 1864-S, 1873 and 1876 are three of the rarest collectable issues. In fact, the only eagle that is rarer is the 1875 which is, for all intents and purposes, nearly impossible to find.

The 1864-S eagle in the Rumsey sale (Lot 1017) was graded VF30 by PCGS. It was a coin that I thought was accurately graded and, in spite of a scratch on the reverse, it was evenly worn and rather handsome for the grade. This coin sold for $34,500; by far a record price for the date in this grade. I know the buyer of this coin; he is a very sophisticated collector. The underbidder was a knowledgeable dealer. Were these two individuals crazy or were they savvy?

Before we can accurately answer that question, some background information about the 1864-S is in order. And after this, we need to look at ways in which really special coins (which any 1864-S eagle is) are priced.

The 1864-S is the second rarest Liberty Head eagle after the 1875. There are probably no more than 20-25 known to exist. In my experience, the opportunity to purchase one occurs maybe once every three to five years. This is verified by the fact that only one piece (Bowers and Merena 7/06: 1640, PCGS EF45 at $50,600) had sold in the last five years. To find a piece that was comparable to Rumsey:1017 you had to go all the way back to the Richmond I: 2074 example (graded EF40 by NGC and selling for $10,350 but a coin which, as I recall, was really no better than the PCGS VF30 being offered).

Using comparable auction prices to help determine the price of a rare coin has become commonplace in the last few years. In the case of the 1864-S, this was not a good method for at least two of the following reasons:

The number of auction records for VF30 1864-S eagles is virtually nonexistent. The last coin sold at auction as "VF30" was a raw, cleaned example in July 1997 that brought $8.050. Clearly, this is of no help.

Since the Richmond I: 2074 coin was sold back in 2004, the market for this issue has totally changed. This is proven by the $50,600 that an EF45 brought just two years later. But that was six years ago and, if anything, the number of collectors who want an 1864-S eagle in any grade has at least doubled--if not tripled.

Since we can safely state that using auction comparables to price an 1864-S eagle isn't going to work, then how about checking a published price guide like Coin World Trends? According to the most recent edition, values for the 1864-S eagle are $5,500 in VF20 and $12,500. These were probably accurate in 1992 but in 2012 they are clearly completely and utterly irrelevant in 2012 (but that's another story...)

Before I render my verdict on whether the 1864-S in the Rumsey sale was a good deal or a bad deal, I think there are two other points to touch on.

The first is opportunity cost. If you are a deep-pocketed collector and you are particpating in a challenging series with a number of really special issues included (Liberty Head eagles are a poster child for this) you always have to determine how often will you have the chance to buy an acceptable example. In the case of the 1864-S, it's been pretty well established that its going to be once every three to five years if you are lucky. So the chance to buy a decent one represents an exceptionally important opportunity for the serious collector.

Second is the fact that any really special coin is part of what I refer to as a transaction-driven market. What I mean by this is that when you buy an 1864-S eagle in PCGS VF30 for $34,500 you have essentially created a new market. Yes, this market is considerably higher than it was the last time that one traded. But the reality of the market is that since a VF30 just traded for $34,000 in a public transaction, all the geniuises that live by comparable auction prices realized are now going to see this $34,000 trade. Even if Trends ignores this transaction and keeps their estimated value at 1992 levels, the bar has still been raised.

Let's take a less involved look at the other two really rare date eagles that I mentioned above.

The 1873 eagle in the sale (Lot 1040) was graded EF45 by PCGS. It sold for $43,125.

While not as rare as the 1864-S, the 1873 eagle is still a seriously rare issue with an estimated three dozen or so known from an original mintage of just 800. I have handled two or three in the last five years and actually had a reasonably hard time selling them as I found this to be an issue that lacked the rarity recognition that other issues in the series have.

The last EF45 to sell at auction (an NGC EF45 coin) brought $11,212 in Superior's 9/08 auction. The last transaction of any sort was an NGC AU58 sold by Heritage in June 2010 that realized $27,600. Based on these two transaction and on my knowledge of the series, I figured that the 1873 in the Rumsey sale would bring somewhere in the $15,000-20,000 range.

Why did it sell for so much this time? I think there are a few reasons. First of all, at least two people really wanted this coin. Even though the opening bid was a very strong $24,000, these two bidders slugged it out until the final bell rang at $37,500. Strong price? Yes! Crazy price? Maybe not...

As I thought about the 1873, I had the following realization. For years, this was an absurdly undervalued date. The NGC AU58 that sold for 28 grand in 2010? Even though it wasn't a cosmetically appealing coin, even then I knew it was really cheap. And here's why. For years, the quartet of very rare business strike Type Three Philadelphia double eagles traded in the $5,000-10,000 range for decent EF examples. But after they suddenly got hot, prices rose to $20,000, then to $30,000, then even higher. An 1873 eagle is just as rare as any of the Big Five Philly Type Threes. Why should it sell at such a discount? Especially now that Liberty Head eagles have some strong collector support?

The 1876 eagle in the Rumsey sale (Lot 1047) was graded AU53 by PCGS and it also sold for $43,125. To me, this was a very surprising price.

I find the 1876 to be less rare than the 1873, despite a lower mintage of 687 coins. There are around forty to fifty known and I can recall having owned at least three in the last two to three years. Like the 1873, they were not an easy sell even with the fact that the mintage figure is the second lowest in the whole series after the 1875.

Heritage 10/10: 4892, graded AU53 by PCGS, was a good comparable to the Rumsey coin and it sold for $14,950. I figured the Rumsey coin might bring as much as $20,000 and it opened at just $13,000. Again, two bidders slugged it out and this time, the match lasted longer.

Good deal or bad deal? I liked the coin better than the 1873 (I thought it migt upgrade to AU55 if resubmitted) but I didn't think that the 1876 carried as much opportunity cost. In other words, I would have told a collector that if this one doesn't work out, it's possible that another decent coin will turn up in a year or so; maybe even less. So, on this one, I'm going to have to vote more towards the "not a bad deal but probably not a good deal" camp.

As is so often the case in my writing (and my thinking!) I've gotten a bit off track and still don't feel that I've totally answered the original question in this blog: "how do you price really special coins?"

I've mentioned above that published price information is not a good indicator for really rare coins. And while sometimes helpful, auction price data has to be very subtly interpreted to be truly helpful.

Ultimately, the price of a really special coin boils down to what your gut feels that it is worth. If you are willing to pay $25,000 for a decent 1864-S eagle and you've been waiting four years for the chance to buy one, shouldn't you be willing to pull the trigger at $30,000 or even $35,000?

What I find most helpful is knowing the series in question very well. As I mentioned above, the Liberty Head eagle series has become more popular in the last two or three years than at any time I can remember. So pre-2010 auction prices often have to be taken with a grain of salt. And it helps to know that certain other rare issues, like the 1883-O, have a number of recent auction trades and private sales in the $40,000-70,000 range. The 1883-O is more popular than the 1873 and the 1876 but it is of comparable rarity. If an AU50 example of this date is worth $50,000-60,000 then shouldn't an 1876 in AU53 be worth at least half this?

These are the sort of questions that make numismaics such an enjoyable pasttime to me. Do you have questions or comments regarding the values of really special rare coins? If so, please feel free to email me at

Collecting $10 Liberty Head Gold Coins

If you have deep pockets and lots of patience, assembling a set of $10 Liberty Head gold is one of the greatest challenges in all of U.S. numismatics. Even if you are lucky as far as locating the rarities in this series, you are looking at a $1-3 million commitment of funds and a time frame that should last at least three to six years; if not more. I once asked a $10 Lib specialist how he came to choose his set. To paraphrase his answer, he replied something along these lines: “gold dollars were too small, quarter eagles were too monotonous, three dollars and five dollars were incompletable (due to the 1870-S three and the 1854-S five) and double eagles were overpriced. That left the ten lib series...”

It’s hard to argue with brilliant logic like that. And there are a few more points to add. First, the coins are underpriced. As an example, there are a slew of issues that are really cheap (right now) when compared to coins like $10 Indians or Saints or even Liberty Head double eagles. The second is that these coins are big and contain nearly half an ounce of gold. So every time you buy a “boring” common later date issue you are still accumulating a nice chunk of this precious metal. Thirdly, you don’t (currently) have a huge number of collectors competing against you which means that if a rare undervalued coin comes up for sale, you just might be able to buy it very reasonably.

If I were a collector just beginning this series there are a few things that I would do right away.

The first is choosing a great dealer to work with you. Yes, this is a self-serving comment and yes I think I’m the right man for the job. That said, this is a long, complicated series that involves a lot of coin knowledge and good decision making. You can’t assemble a good set of $10 Libs with a mediocre dealer guiding you and you surely can’t do it on your own.

Secondly, I would set parameters for my set even before I began. I would draft a list that included every date in the series and make a decision what grade range I’d want for each date. The most common mistake that collectors make is that they overspend on the common issues and underspend on the keys. I would avoid paying big premiums for uninteresting dates in very high grades but I would make it a point to make the real rarities in the set as nice as possible.

As you can probably guess, I’d also stress learning what a choice, original $10 Lib looks like and sticking with that “look” throughout your set. It’s amazing how rare many of these coins are with choice, original surfaces. Let me give you an example. Take a seemingly uninteresting date like the 1868. PCGS has graded 116 as of September 2009 but only forty-one are in AU50 or better. Let assume that out of these forty-one there are a bunch of resubmissions and the actual number is around 25-30 distinct coins. Most are going to be dipped, heavily abraded unnatural examples that barely make the grade. I’m guessing that there are fewer than ten 1868 eagles known that would qualify as “choice and original” and which would be high enough grade-wise for an important set of $10 Libs. So, this seemingly mundane issue suddenly becomes a challenge to find. And this holds true for many dates throughout the series.

The complaint I hear from some collectors about the $10 Lib series is that it’s “too long.” Here’s a point to consider. It’s no more “long” than the Lincoln Cent series and I haven’t heard too many collectors complaining about Lincolns being uncollectable due to length. And this isn’t even beginning to consider all of the new die varieties that have crept into the Lincoln Cent set and are now “required” to make a set competitive in the Registry.

I’ve also heard collectors state that this series is “too hard” to collect. I actually don’t think this is true at all. If you want to assemble a complete set in Uncirculated, yes it is too hard (in fact, it’s impossible...). But if you want to do a set in VF-EF grades or even in AU and Mint State grades it is completable.

What are the stoppers to this set? The rarest $10 Lib is the 1875 which has as few as 6-8 business strikes known. In the last two decades I’ve only handled a single example and I am aware of a whopping three pieces having traded since the late 1980’s. The 1864-S is another very rare coin but it does come around a bit more frequently than the 1875. After this, there are dates like the 1844, 1863, 1873, 1876 and 1877 that are really rare but which are certainly attainable.

I was discussing the $10 Lib series with another dealer the other day and we came up with an interesting conclusion. If one serious collector started a set each year for the next five year, the entire supply/demand demand ratio of this series would be dramatically changed. And if a good book about the series were to be published in the next few years...well, all bets could be off.

The Ten Rarest Ten Libs

This article is about the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles. Notice that I didn’t say “the ten most popular” or “the ten most expensive.” Readers may be surprised that this top ten list does not include any Carson City issues (although I was tempted to include the 1870-CC) and just one from New Orleans. In looking over the list you will note that six of the ten coins are from Philadelphia and at least one or two are probably not all that familiar to even the most advanced collector of Liberty Head gold. Most of these dates have very low original mintage figures (one, the 1875, has a mintage of just 100 business strikes!) and nearly all have remarkably low survival rates. To qualify for this list, an issue requires a total population of under 50-60 coins.

In order of their rarity, here is my list of the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles. After this list, I am going to devote a paragraph or two to each issue, covering topics such as the total number known, rarity in high grades, the finest known, Condition Census information, etc.

1. 1875

2. 1864-S

3. 1873 Closed 3

4. 1863

5. 1865-S Normal Date

6. 1860-S

7. 1883-O

8. 1844

9. 1839 Head of 1840

10. The Coveted Last Spot on the List

1. 1875: The Philadelphia gold coinage of 1875 includes a number of issues with exceedingly low mintages. Only 400 examples of both the gold dollar and quarter eagle were produced but the survival rate is higher than expected. The three dollar is a Proof-only issue that has sold for over $100,000 since the 1970’s while the half eagle is a major rarity with probably no more than 10-12 known from the original mintage of 200. I believe that the 1875 eagle, however, is the rarest of all these impressive Philadelphia issues. I have seen it stated that as many as 12-15 are known but I believe that this figure is on the high side and that the actual number is more likely seven to nine. I have personally seen two or three that I would grade AU including Superior 6/97: 1541 and B&M 3/98: 2207 that were graded AU53 and AU50, respectively, by PCGS. The all-time auction record is $74,750 for an NGC AU55 sold as Lot 2102 in DLRC’s Richmond I auction in 2004.

Every business strike 1875 eagle (and I haven’t seen once since Heritage offered a PCGS VF35 in January 2006) is characterized by excessively abraded surfaces and inferior eye appeal. Some of the coins that have been certified as business strikes by both services are actually Impaired Proofs. Proof 1875 eagles have a different date position than business strikes and use a different reverse with the top of the second vertical stripe in the shield incomplete.

I believe that this is an extremely undervalued issue and if it were part of a more popular series it would be a $100,000++ coin.

2. 1864-S: The 1864-S is the rarest eagle from the San Francisco mint. Only 2,500 were produced and my best estimate is that around 25-30 are known. Unlike its cousin, the very rare 1864-S half eagle, the 1864-S eagle is unknown in Uncirculated and I have personally seen only two that I regard as AU - The Bass III: 658 (graded AU55 by PCGS; it sold for a remarkably cheap $36,800 back in May 2000) and a coin owned by a West Coast specialist. The all-time auction record is $50,600 set in the July 2006 B&M sale by a PCGS EF45.

This is a generally well-produced issue although most have weakness on the radial lines in the stars. I have only viewed a small handful of 1864-S eagles that had any mint luster and most are heavily bagmarked. This was an issue that saw considerable circulation and the majority of survivors are very well worn.

It is my suspicion that someone is hoarding lower grade 1864-S eagles. There has only been one example sold at auction in the last five years or so, despite a combined population of twenty-three coins at PCGS/NGC. Even assuming that this number is inflated by resubmissions, my instinct tells me that some savvy collector is sitting on a group of five to ten 1864-S eagles and torturing those of us who would love to buy an example.

3. 1873 Closed 3: All 1873 eagles (business strikes and Proofs) are found with a Closed 3 in the date. All other Philadelphia gold coins from this year are found with both an Open 3 and a Closed 3 variety. A total of 800 business strikes were produced along with 25 Proofs. There are an estimated 25-35 examples known. Unlike the 1875 and the 1864-S, most of the surviving 1873 eagles are not extremely well worn. In fact, the majority of the survivors grade in the AU range, suggesting that this issue saw little actual circulation. Most of the pieces I have seen are well struck and display satiny, slightly reflective luster. I have never viewed one that didn’t have heavy to very heavy abrasions and my guess is that most 1873 eagles were thrown into a bag and transported somewhere before being released into their brief period(s) of circulation.

The finest known is the ex: Warren Miller coin, graded MS60 by PCGS, which sold for $34,100 all the way back in October 1995. Prior to this, the coin had been sold as Stack’s 3/90: 1222. Bass III: 705 ($21,850; as PCGS AU58) is probably the second best. In all, I would estimate that there around a dozen or so in AU with most in tightly-held collections.

I recently sold a nice PCGS AU50 example to a prominent collector and this was the first 1873 eagle that I had owned in close to a decade.

4. 1863: All of the Civil War era Liberty Head eagles are scarce (with the exception of the 1861) but the 1863 is the key rarity in this subset. In fact, I regard it as among the very rarest 19th century Philadelphia gold coins. Only 1,248 business strikes were issued of which an estimated 30-40 are known. The finest is the superb Bass IV: 683 ex: MARCA 8/91: 755 that brought $52,900 in its last appearance (an amazing bargain) after Harry Bass had paid $104,500 for it back in 1991. The second finest known is an NGC MS62 from the S.S. Republic that is owned by a prominent Western collector. NGC has also graded an example in MS60.

Almost every example that I have seen grades EF45 or below and is characterized by excessively abraded surfaces. The luster is either soft and frosty or, less often, semi-prooflike and the strike tends to be bold with the exception of the curl directly above Liberty’s ear.

It has been a number of years since I have handled an 1863 eagle and the last example that I can recall having seen was an NGC AU58 that was sold at auction by Heritage back in 2005.

5. 1865-S Normal Date: Two varieties are known for this year. The better known is the spectacular 1865-S Over Inverted 186. The less visually impressive Normal Date is, ironically, the rarer of the two. I regard this as the second rarest eagle from San Francisco. I estimate that around 30-40 are known and nearly all grade EF40 or below. In fact, this is one of the rarest Liberty Head eagles from the standpoint of condition. I have never seen or heard of an Uncirculated example (although NGC has graded a coin in MS60) and I know of just three that I would call real AU’s (none better than AU50 to AU53).

The quality of strike is very distinctive with soft radial lines in the stars and a slightly concave appearance on the obverse. The reverse is better struck although many examples show weakness on the neck feathers. I have never seen an 1865-S Normal Date eagle that did not have heavily abraded surfaces and most have enough wear to lack any significant luster.

The record price at auction for this issue is $21,850 set by Heritage in January 2007 for a coin graded AU58 by NGC. I believe that a nice, original AU55 to AU58 could sell for considerably more in today’s market if it became available (or even exists).

6. 1860-S: Unless you know this series, you are probably not aware of the true rarity of the 1860-S. This is a very rare coin in all grades and one that is even harder to locate than its small original mintage of 5,000 would suggest. I believe that 35-45 are known including five or six properly graded AU’s and two in Mint State. This date was unknown in Uncirculated until two were found in the S.S. Republic treasure. The finer of the two, graded MS62 by NGC, is owned by a West Coast collector. The other, graded MS61 by NGC, sold for $37,375 in the Superior May 2008; an all-time auction record for this date.

The typical 1860-S is very well worn with VF to EF detail and shows signs of having been mishandled. The strike is typically soft with weakness on the stars and incomplete definition in the centers.

7. 1883-O: The 1883-O is the rarest eagle produced at the New Orleans mint. In my book “Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909” I suggested that 35-45 examples are known from the original mintage of just 800 coins. I still agree with this estimate. Since my book was published in 2006, very few 1883-O eagles have become available and the demand for this issue seems to have greatly increased.

Virtually every example that I have seen grades in the EF40 to AU50 range and is characterized by heavily abraded surfaces. Most are Prooflike and have had their luster disturbed by rough handling and/or numismatic abuse.

The finest known example, an NGC MS61PL (earlier graded MS60 by NGC), surfaced in a bid sale conducted by a dealer at the 2008 FUN show. It was purchased by a consortium of dealers and then sold to a private collector for a record price. With the exception of this coin, very few 1883-O eagles have been seen by me in the last three or so years.

8. 1844: I mentioned in the beginning of this article that there were a few coins on this list that were not well-known outside of the core collecting community of Liberty Head eagles. I would have to rank the 1844 as the number one sleeper in this group and it is a coin whose true rarity even surprised me as I was researching this group.

There were only 6,361 eagles struck in 1844 and my estimate is that 40-50+ are known. When you do find an 1844 eagle, it tends to be very well worn with VF and EF examples most often seen. I believe that there are fewer than ten properly graded AU examples known with most in the AU50-53 range. NGC has graded one in MS63 (I have not seen it) which may possibly be the Bell coin from 1944; they have also graded an MS61 example that Heritage sold in their January 2002 auction for a reasonable $10,063. The best example I have personally seen is an AU55 and I cannot recall having seen a nice 1844 eagle in over five years.

Every 1844 has two prominent die characteristics on the obverse. There is a horizontal die line below the first star and a series of vertical die scratches from the denticles out into the field near star three.

9. 1839 Type of 1840: I’m not totally certain that this variety belongs at the #9 spot on the list but I have always loved the 1839 Type of 1840 and it’s my list, so I’m going to put it into this slot, deserving or not.

This issue was created after the Eagle design was remodeled in 1839 and it is appreciably different from the Type of 1838 that was produced earlier in the year. It is rare in all grades with an estimated 50-60 known from the original mintage of 12,447. This issue is usually seen in very low grades with VF20 to EF40 examples being typical. It becomes rare in AU with around ten or so properly graded pieces known. In Uncirculated it is slightly more available than some of the other issues on this list. I would estimate that there are three or four known. The finest (and one of my single favorite American coins) is Pittman: 1912, ex: Farouk, Woodin. This coin sold for $143,000 back in May 1998 and it is now graded MS64 by NGC.

10. The Coveted Last Spot on the List: There were a number of other dates that offered strong claims for the #10 spot but there was so little separation between them in terms of overall rarity that I did not think it was fair to include one and exclude the others. These dates include the 1858, 1859-S, 1864, 1866-S With Motto, 1876 and 1877. If I had to choose one that was most deserving, I would probably pick the 1859-S, based on the fact that I have handled fewer examples of this than of the others in the last few years. But I could easily see collectors coming to the support of the 1876 or 1877 and the 1858 is certainly the best known date in this small group.

I personally find the Liberty Head eagle series to be among the most interesting in all of American numismatics. It is extremely challenging but, unlike many other hard series, it is not impossible to complete.