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...


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.


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.


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.


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!!!


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.


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 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 dwn@ont.com

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Like the PCGS Genuine Holder

If you've followed my blogs in the past few years you know that I'm a Coin Purtist. I tend to be particularly pure when it comes to "no grade" coins. Loosely defined, a "no grade" is a coin with a problem (or problems) that preclude it from getting into a regular PCGS or NGC holder. This can range from harsh cleaning to scratches to rim damage to a hole.

Until two weeks ago I had never (as in not one single time...ever) had a coin on my website that was not in a regular PCGS, NGC or ANACS holder. But I made an exception to this Winter Rule when I bought an 1864-S half eagle in a PCGS Genuine holder at the recent Los Angeles ANA show.

The coin I bought had clearly been around the block (a few times...) It had been mounted in a soldered bezel and when it was removed it lost detail at the borders. The surfaces had some roughness and the coin had probably been recolored at one time to make it look more original. That said, I still liked this coin alot.

Why? Because it had one thing going for it: extreme rarity. Many people don't know this, but the 1864-S half eagle is the second rarest Liberty Head half eagle after the 1875 and there are as few as 20-30 pieces known in all grades. This is clearly an issue that does not become available very often. To put it in perspective, it is rarer than an 1870-CC double eagle and not much less rare than the celebrated 1854-O and 1856-O double eagles.

But here's the kicker. I sold this 1864-S half eagle for just a touch over $5,000. To me, this seemed like remarkable value. And I wasn't the only person who felt this way. Three collectors ordered the coin within two days of it appearing on my website RareGoldCoins.com.

So am I going to become a regular player in the PCGS Genuine market? I seriously doubt it. But I am going to be more attentive to affordable examples of extremely rare coins like the 1864-S half eagle. Would I buy an 1864 Philadelphia half eagle that was damaged? Absolutely not. But the next time I see a major rarity in the Liberty Head gold series that is fairly priced yet extremely rare, I will give some serious thought to adding it to my inventory.

The 1864-S Half Eagle

Anyone with a passing knowledge of United States gold coinage is aware of the three rarest issues from the San Francisco mint: the unique 1870-S Three Dollar gold piece, the exceedingly rare 1854-S half eagle and the very rare 1854-S quarter eagle. But not everyone realizes what the next rarest gold issue is from this mint. Read on for the answer. The rarest collectible gold coin from the San Francisco mint is the unheralded 1864-S half eagle. I regard this as the second rarest collectible Liberty Head half eagle after the 1875 and the 1864-S also has the added value of not being available in Proof as the 1875 Philadelphia half eagle is.

There were a total of 3,888 half eagles produced at the San Francisco mint in 1864. While this is certainly a low mintage figure, it doesn’t really stand out in the Liberty Head half eagle series. In fact, there are 11 issues with lower production figures (1861-D, 1863, 1865, 1869, 1871, 1872, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1877 and 1887). Unlike the majority of these ultra-low mintage issues, the 1864-S has an incredibly low survival rate. In my opinion, there are about 20 examples known in all grades.

Not only is the 1864-S rare in terms of overall rarity, it is also extremely rare in high grades. Of the 20 or so known, I estimate that at least half grade EF40 or lower. The 1864-S is extremely rare in properly graded EF45 and it is exceptionally rare in About Uncirculated with an estimated four or five known. There is also one remarkable Uncirculated 1864-S half eagle in existence which will be discussed in greater detail below.

According to the most recent population figures from PCGS, they have graded a total of 14 examples in all grades including three in AU (two in AU50 and one in AU53) as well as a single example in Uncirculated. NGC has a total population of ten coins with three in AU (one each in AU53, AU55 and AU58). I have personally seen two or three coins that I regard as AU. One of these is Bass III: 500 ($23,000; as PCGS AU53) which I am fairly certain is the same piece as the NGC AU58 which is now in an eastern dealer’s inventory. Another was sold back in the 1980’s in a PCGS EF45 holder but which would certainly grade AU50 or better by today’s standards.

The 1864-S half eagle is easily distinguishable by its obverse strike. This includes weakness on the stars at the left and considerable flatness on the hair at the top of the head, the bun and the tip of the coronet. The curls around the face are usually very weak as well. Interestingly, this weakness does not fully correspond to the reverse. The upper portion of the reverse is quite sharply detailed while the lower portion is not quite as sharp with weakness noted on the arrowheads and arrow feathers, the talons and the lower part of the mintmark. The surfaces are usually abraded and may show light mint-made striations in the fields. The luster tends to be dull and grainy and most are worn to the point that little—if any—natural mint luster is present. The natural color is a medium to deep orange-gold. As one might expect, this is an incredibly hard issue to find with original color and surfaces and I doubt if more than three or four original pieces remain.

As I mentioned above, there is one truly remarkable 1864-S half eagle known. This piece is graded MS65 by PCGS and I think the grade is extremely conservative as the coin is virtually “as struck.” This coin first surfaced in 1956 when it sold in the Melish sale for a whopping $70. It was purchased by the Norwebs and it remained in their collection until 1987 when it was purchased at auction by Harry Bass for $110,000. It was last sold in 1999 when it realized what I thought was, at the time, a very reasonable $176,000 in the Bass II auction. It was purchased by a Southern collector who, to the best of my knowledge, does not own any other San Francisco Liberty Head half eagles and, for that matter, may not have more than a handful of Liberty Head gold coins from any mint in his holdings. To his credit, he realized what a great coin this Gem 1864-S half eagle was and he was determined to purchase it, whatever it took.

In looking back at my Bass II catalog, I noted that my reaction when I saw the coin for a second time (in 1999) was “world’s coolest San Francisco gold coin.” This half eagle is certainly not worth anything close to an 1854-S but it is probably my single favorite San Francisco gold coin of any date or denomination. It is the only known Uncirculated example of an extremely rare issue and it just happens to be a Gem. One has to wonder how it survived. My guess is that it was an assay coin that was sent to Philadelphia and kept by someone there as a souvenir.

Despite the extreme rarity of this date, it is still relatively affordable. The last example to sell at auction was a decent PCGS EF45 which brought $19,550 when Heritage auctioned it as Lot 3489 in their 2006 FUN sale. Coin World Trends for an AU50 is $45,000 which, again, seems pretty reasonable when one considers that only six examples have been slabbed in AU50 or better between the two services combined.

Liberty Head Half Eagle Series

Think you know the Liberty Head half eagle series pretty well? OK, then here is a test. Everyone (well, almost everyone...) knows that the extremely rare 1854-S is the rarest single issue in this long-lived series. But what is the rarest collectible date ? The answer and some interesting analysis can be found below. So have you given some thought to this question? If you answered the 1864-S, pat yourself on the back and give yourself a Gold Star because you know your Liberty half eagles! (For those of you who are about to complain and say, “Hey, Doug, how about the 1875?” my answer is that while this date is the rarest as a business strike, there are also Proofs known and the total number of 1875 half eagles is probably narrowly more than the 1864-S).

With a mintage of just 3,888 you have to figure that this is a rare coin. But there are other dates in the series with lower mintage figures, including the 1865, 1869, 1872, 1875, 1876 and 1877. As a rule Philadelphia coins were saved with greater frequency than those from the branch mints and almost no one saved any 1864-S half eagles. My best estimate is that no more than twelve to fifteen pieces are known.

As of January 2008, PCGS had graded just thirteen 1864-S half eagles including three in Extremely Fine, three in About Uncirculated and one in Uncirculated (more about this coin later) while NGC had graded ten with four in EF and three in AU.

In the last decade or so, I have personally seen a very small number of 1864-S half eagles in any grade. The last one I can recall selling at auction was a PCGS EF45 that Superior sold in May 2006 for $22,425 while an NGC EF45 brought $31,050 in David Lawrence’s July 2004 auction. Back in 2000, the Bass III coin, graded AU53 by PCGS, sold for an incredibly reasonable $23,000 and, at the time, that was one of the two best examples I had ever seen. I have also seen an NGC AU58 in the inventory of an East Coast dealer.

There is one 1864-S half eagle known that is so much better than any other survivor that it deserves special mention. I first saw this coin in October 1987 when it sold in the Norweb collection auction. The Norwebs had, in turn, purchased it in 1956 out of Abe Kosoff’s Melish sale.

This coin is in a PCGS MS65 holder but this doesn’t begin to tell the whole story about how incredible it is. The coin is essentially perfect and could easily grade MS66 or even MS67. Its only “fault” is the fact that isn’t all that well struck with some weakness visible on a few of the stars on the obverse and on portions of the upper obverse and corresponding reverse. It is by a large margin the nicest San Francisco half eagle from this era that I have ever seen and when I saw it again at the Bass sale back in 1999 I wrote the following in my catalog “world’s coolest San Francisco gold coin.”

As I was figuring my bids for this sale, the 1864-S kept popping into my mind. I badly wanted to buy this coin for myself or, at the very least, persuade one of my clients to put it away for a few years so I would have access to it when the market for coins like this would be stronger.

The coin opened for $60,000 and I bid up to $120,000 but I got cold feet and dropped out. It wound up selling for $160,000 to a Southern collector who, to the best of my knowledge, to this only owns one San Francisco gold coin—this 1864-S half eagle. And that is a hell of a San Francisco gold coin collection.

What would this 1864-S half eagle sell for today? I thought it would bring as much as $250,000 back in 1999 and had it been in a sale other than Bass II (which had FAR too many great coins for its own good...) it might have. Today, I figure it would bring at least twice this and maybe more.

Despite the obvious rarity of this coin, I think the 1864-S half eagle is still extremely undervalued. The current Trends value for an EF40 is just $14,250 in EF40 and $45,000 in AU50 with no prices listed for higher grades.

The 1864-S half eagle remains one of my favorite 19th century United States gold coins and I am confident that its true rarity will be fully appreciated in the near future.