Why Don't More People Collect 20th Century U.S. Gold Coins by Date?

Why don't more people collect 20th century gold coins by date? The four major designs (Indian Head quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles and St. Gaudens double eagles) are clearly among the most beautiful United States issues ever released. They are relatively short-lived and none of them are impossible to complete due to fabulously expensive or incredibly rare individual dates. So why, then, do these series lag such non-gold 20th century designs as the Lincoln Cent, Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar when it comes to numbers of active set collectors? I can think of a number of reasons. Some are pretty obvious while some are pretty far-fetched and I'm throwing them out there only to encourage debate. Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

1. 20th century U.S. gold is typically marketed as type coins and not by date. Traditionally, people have viewed coins like Indian Head half eagles as something you just need one of, not dozens. Simultaneously, higher grade 20th century gold coins are frequently sold more as "investments" than collectible coins. Over the last two decades, I have seen many collectors burst on the scene in a specific 20th century series only to flame out and sell their coins back a year or two later. The Steve Duckors and Austin Fursts of the 20th century gold world are alot rarer than their quick-in quick-out counterparts.

2. "They all look the same." A new collector once told me this when he decided not to continue with the Indian Head eagle set that I was helping him build. Now, I don't agree with this. If you become a student of, say, the Indian Head half eagle series it becomes clear that a 1911-D looks a lot different than a 1916-S. Its struck differently, has a different texture and has different coloration as well. But these subtleties are often lost on novice collectors.

3. There's too much difference in value for barely distinguishable quality. For many key date 20th century U.S. gold coins, the difference in price between an MS64 and an MS65 can be huge. As an example, an MS64 1913 Saint Gaudens double eagle is worth $7,500 or so while a no-question asked MS65 is worth over $50,000. It takes a real leap of faith for a new collector to pay a 7x premium for a difference in quality that he not only doesn't see but probably doesn't understand. The creation of CAC has made it a little less scary for a new collector to pay huge premiums for MS65's but from personal experience I know that the value for Gem coins just isn't always there.

4. There is no up-to-date reference work. David Akers wrote a terrific book on 20th century United States gold but it was published in 1988 and the information is out-of-date (not to mention that the book is out-of-print and fairly scarce). If Akers or a new expert were to take this book and update it with information that was relevant to the current coin market, this would be a huge shot in the arm for 20th century gold.

5. There is no sense of nostalgia inherent with these coins. People buy coins like 1909-S VDB Cents or 1916-D Dimes because they couldn't afford one when they were ten years old and filling holes in their blue Whitman folders. No one is haunted by the 1927-D Saint that they couldn't save enough money from their paper route to afford when they were a kid.

6. High grade 20th century gold coins are very expensive. It is a pretty serious financial commitment to collect Saints in Gem or Indian half eagles in MS64 and up. This obviously limits the number of people who can collect these coins.

7. Affordable grade 20th century gold is ugly. OK, maybe not "ugly." But you'll have a hard time convincing me that an Indian Head gold coin in EF and AU grades is remotely attractive. This is not the case with Liberty Head gold coins which is really attractive with limited wear.

8. Pricing information for many 20th century gold coins is hard to come by. Yes, its easy to figure out what a common date Saint is worth in a PCGS MS64 holder. But its not so easy to determine what a 1913 is worth in an NGC MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder with CAC approval. If someone published accurate pricing information on the 20th century series, I believe it would jump-start collector interest.

9. There are few "go to" retail dealers for better date 20th century gold. If you collect 19th century Liberty Head gold, there are some obvious candidates who to buy from (and I'd like to think that DWN is one of them). The person who, in my opinion, is the sharpest dealer for rare date 20th century gold is Kevin Lipton and Kevin is a wholesale dealer who probably is going to be hard for many collectors to deal with as he has no website.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, 20th century gold coins deserve to have more date collectors than they currently do. These are attractive, interesting coins. They are within reasonably short-lived series and unless you attempt a Gem set, they are within the price range of many collectors. I'd be curious to know what your take is on why they are not as popular as Lincoln Cents or Mercury Dimes and invite you to send me an email at dwn@ont.com with your input.

MPF For St. Gaudens Double Eagles

One of the consequences of the soaring gold market is the evaporation of the Market Premium Factor (or "MPF") for certain semi-scarce dates in the St. Gaudens double eagle series. This scenario presents the savvy collector with what appears to be an interesting short-term opportunity. The term Market Premium Factor was invented, as far as I can tell, by my friend the newsletter writer/publisher Maurice Rosen. It refers to the premium that a better date coin sells for versus a common date. If a common date in a series is worth $1,000 and a slightly better date sells for $1,200 it has an MPF or 20%.

In the wake of the Great Saint Malaise, some dates that were formerly accorded market premium factors of 10-30% are suddenly selling for generic prices or just a bit more. There are a number of reasons why the generic double eagle market is currently as weak as it has been in recent memory. With gold blasting through the $1,000 mark, the gold content of a $20 Lib. or a Saint is enough that it becomes a sizable outlay of cash for the typical collector or investor; especially if being purchased in bulk quantities. Many new collectors and investors who are purchasing gold are buying modern U.S. mint products and eschewing older American gold. And many of the large-scale marketers who sold vast quantities of $20’s in the past are turning their focus to areas of the market where the profit margins are greater. These are the coins that, it seems to me, are good value right now.

Let me give you some examples of semi-better date Saints that are selling for the same price as generics but which are a lot scarcer (and, by the way, just in case you think I happen to have a double row box of these sitting in the back of my safe, I don’t...)

The 1910 is a date that I’ve always thought was pretty tough to find in properly graded MS64 and it is genuinely scarce in MS65. According to the most recent PCGS population figures, there are 1,057 graded in MS64 and 158 in MS65. Compare this to the common 1924 that has a current population of 60,451 in MS64 with 38,752 in MS65. In theory, the 1910 is 57 times scarcer in MS64 than the 1924. I’m not saying that the 1910 should sell for an enormous premium over the 1924. But in stronger markets, I can remember getting a decent premium for this date in grades as low as MS62.

Some of the other semi-better dates that have had good MPF’s in the past but which are currently selling for generic price levels (or close to generic levels) include the 1907 No Motto, 1908-D No Motto (in MS63 and below), 1909-S, 1910-D, 1912 and 1913 (in the lower Uncirculated grades) and 1920 (again, in MS63 and below).

Before you run out and buy a bunch of these, I have a caveat for you. One of the reasons that the MPF has evaporated many Saints is because of loose grading. I’m guessing that if you can find CAC approved 1910 double eagles in MS64, they ARE going to sell for a premium; as well they should. If you look at the price structure for many of the more common Saints graded between MS61 and MS64 you’ll note very small price spreads. One of the major reasons for this is that there is often very little difference in quality between these grades (!).

That said, I still like the idea of buying a group of 1910 Saints in PCGS MS64 for common date prices if you have the opportunity. At these levels, you have very little downside other than the price of gold dropping and with the current state of the United States economy I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon.

Four 20th Century Gold Rarities and the Stories Behind Them

All four of the 20th century American gold types that were produced contain key issues that are very popular with collectors. This article takes a look at four of these: the 1911-D quarter eagle, the 1909-O half eagle, the 1920-S eagle and the 1921 double eagle. What do these four coins have in common? More than you would think. With the exception of the 1921 double eagle, each has a comparatively low mintage figure and is recognized as a key issue within its respective series. Each is very popular with collectors. And all four are relative “late discoveries” among collectors that have only recently been recognized as rarities within their series and have shown price appreciation befitting this status.

I. 1911-D Quarter Eagle

The Indian Head quarter eagle has proven to be one of the more popular of the four 20th century United States gold types. It is a short-lived set with just fifteen coins. Unlike its three counterparts, this series does not contain any impossible rarities and it can be completed in nice Uncirculated grades by a collector of reasonably average means. Because of this series brief duration and its relative ease of completion, it was a natural to be promoted on a large scale. And, unlike with other 20th century coinage, Indian Head quarter eagles have always been available in large enough quantities to make promotion readily feasible.

As soon as the first coin dealer realized that Indian Head quarter eagles were a great set to promote, the status of the 1911-D rose dramatically. Here was a coin that was an obvious candidate to be the superstar of the set. It had the lowest mintage figure by a huge margin and it was a legitimately scarce coin. As the Indian Head quarter eagle series became more and more popular, price levels for the 1911-D ran amuck. Today, many observers (including myself) feel that this is now among the more overvalued United States gold coins.

It is interesting to look at the numbers of 1911-D quarter eagles graded by PCGS and price levels. As an example, PCGS and NGC have graded over 1,200 1911-D quarter eagles in MS63 and MS64. Even assuming that a number of these are resubmissions, that is still somewhere in the area of 600-800 coins. According to the most recent Coin Dealer Newsletter, dealer bids for this date are $20,500 and $29,000, respectively, in MS63 and MS64. By the most optimistic standards, let’s say that there are currently 200 or so collectors and investors assembling high grade sets of Indian Head quarter eagles. That still means that the supply of these coins is generally more than enough to meet the demand. The bottom line is that while I think this coin has a great story behind it, it is wildly overvalued in the middle Uncirculated grades. (In MS65, the 1911-D is a truly rare coin and I think its current value of $80,000++ is legitimate). When and if the firms that are actively promoting Indian Head quarter eagles wind-down their marketing efforts, I can see MS63 and MS64 examples of this date losing a significant amount of their value.

II. 1909-O Half Eagle

The 1909-O has long been recognized as a key issue in the Indian Head half eagle series but its true scarcity in Uncirculated grades was not always recognized. This is true, of course, with most dates in this series. Before grading became as specialized as it is today, collectors who focused on Indian Head half eagles were unlikely to know—or care—if a coin was an MS63 or an MS64 or an MS65. The rarity of these coins in Gem really only became apparent once modern grading standards were applied to United States gold issues in the late 1970’s - early 1980’s.

The 1909-O has the lowest mintage figure of any Indian Head half eagle. In fact, it is one of just three issues in the series with an original mintage of less than 100,000 coins. There were 34,200 struck and this issue was clearly used in commerce as most of the survivors are in the EF40 to AU55 grade range. What is very surprising about this issue is that almost no examples were saved as souvenirs by local collectors or wealthy New Orleans residents who clearly must have found the 1909-O half eagle to be an interesting coin; after all, it was the first example of this denomination to be struck at New Orleans since 1894 and it was the first with the novel new incuse Indian Head design.

By the 1960’s, it was clear that this date was very rare in Choice to Gem Uncirculated and looking at auctions from this era, one sees some comparatively high prices realized for examples of the 1909-O half eagle that were described as Choice. But prices for this date really came into their own in the mid to late 1970’s when high grade rarities reached price levels that went unequalled for many years.

Today, specialists know that the 1909-O is rare in properly graded MS62, very rare in MS63 and extremely rare in MS64. The population figures for this issue appear to be very inflated as witnessed by the current PCGS population of 21 coins in MS64 (in my opinion, it is unlikely that there are more than four or five accurately graded MS64 examples known). There are two or three Gems known including the Eliasberg coin which is now in a PCGS MS66 holder and which is, without a doubt, the single most valuable business strike Indian Head half eagle in existence.

Is the 1909-O half eagle overvalued? I think the current prices that this issue fetches in AU55 to MS61 seem too strong, given the relative availability of such coins and the fact that most are dramatically overgraded. In MS62 and higher I don’t think this coin is overvalued. My reasoning behind this is the fact that the 1909-O is the only Indian Head half eagle that has multiple levels of demand. It is considered desirable by New Orleans gold collectors, one-year type coin specialists and Indian Head half eagle aficionados. These multiple levels of demand ensure that the 1909-O is likely to continue to be one of the key 20th century American gold coins.

III. 1920-S Eagle

Between 1916 and 1929, only one eagle was produced at the San Francisco mint: the 1920-S. This is a coin which is far rarer than its original mintage figure of 126,500 would suggest. It appears that virtually all of these coins were melted and that almost none of the 1920-S eagles that were struck were released into circulation. I can’t recall having seen more than three or four that showed signs of actual circulation (and these were, in all probability, pocket pieces that had been carried as souvenirs).

There are a number of features that are unusual about the 1920-S, besides the fact that it is the only San Francisco eagle of this design struck in over a decade. Most Indian Head eagles are exceptionally well struck and show very strong fine detail at the centers. The 1920-S is the most poorly produced Indian Head eagle of any date. It is the only issue that typically shows pronounced weakness of strike. Many examples are weak on the hair below the word LIBERTY and on the corresponding portion of the reverse. In addition to this, the luster is often inferior and the overall level of eye appeal is inferior to that seen on other San Francisco eagles of this type. I presume that the reason for this is the fact that the people making these coins at the San Francisco mint hadn’t had much practice on any eagles, given the fact that none had been struck since 1916.

The price history of the 1920-S is interesting as well. This was a relatively expensive coin in the 1940’s and 1950’s but its price flattened in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It became popular again the 1970’s and early 1980’s but when the Indian Head eagle series dropped in popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the 1920-S flattened. In fact, prices for this date in almost all grades were remarkably stagnant throughout the 1990’s. It has only been during the past few years that prices have risen, especially in higher grades. As an example, in Heritage’s July 2006 auction, a high end PCGS MS64 example sold for a remarkable $172,500. As a mater of comparison, the last two PCGS MS64 1920-S eagles offered by Heritage brought $41,400 and $55,200, respectively, when sold at auction in 2002 and 1999.

Today, the 1920-S is recognized as the third rarest issue in the series, trailing only the 1907 Rolled Edge and the 1933. Interestingly, the 1920-S has proven to be a far scarcer coin than the 1930-S; a date with which it was historically paired. But third-party grading has shown that the 1920-S is actually not the rarest San Francisco eagle in Gem Uncirculated. This honor belongs to the 1913-S. And another date in the series, the 1911-D, is comparable in rarity to the 1920-S in Gem, if not even a bit rarer.

IV. 1921 Double Eagle

The fourth and final coin in our discussion of 20th century gold issues is the rarest, although it is not necessarily the best known. Although some experts might disagree, I would rank the 1921 as the rarest Philadelphia double eagle of this design. Unlike its closest competitor the 1932, the 1921 is most often seen in the AU55 to MS61 range and it is extremely rare in MS64 and above.

The true rarity of this date was not known to the early generation of St. Gaudens double eagle collectors. Back in the day, the issues that were most actively sought were the mintmarked coins from the mid-1920’s. But hundreds of these were eventually located in Europe and in all grades below MS64; most of these coins are now only moderately scarce. Unlike dates such as the 1924-D, 1925-S and 1926-S, the 1921 was not exported to Europe. The “story behind the story” of the 1921 is very interesting and the true rarity of this date can be better understood when this is discussed.

Two things conspired to make the 1921 double eagle a rare coin. The first was that most of the mint’s production capacity and efforts in 1921 went towards silver dollars. Millions of Morgan Dollars were produced after a near-two decade hiatus and these were followed by the new Peace Dollar which was a complex, hard to produce High Relief design. Secondly, the United States economy in 1921 was going through a post-World War One slump which would continue until the middle part of the decade. Few gold coins were circulating in the early 1920’s and there was not a great deal of demand for double eagles in 1921. As a result, many of the 528,500 1921 double eagles that were struck were melted.

In addition to being rare because of mass meltings, this issue is rare because of the way it was produced. The 1921 is among the worst struck St. Gaudens double eagles and it is generally seen with poor luster. This shoddy level of workmanship meant that most examples were of inferior quality before they were produced. Coupled with the fact that the survivors tend to show heavy marks from rough handling and copious hairlines from numismatic abuse, the 1921 is among the rarest dates of this type in the higher Uncirculated grades.

It is likely that somewhere in the area of 60-80 examples are known. The PCGS and NGC population figures are both inflated with the AU58 and MS62 numbers showing the greatest number of resubmissions due to attempts to garner upgrades. The 1921 becomes an extremely rare coin in MS63 and above. There are probably no more than four to six known that grade MS63 or higher.

In 2005, I had the honor of handling the finest known 1921 double eagle. At Heritage’s Morse sale, my ex-partner and I purchased a PCGS MS66 example for $1,092,500. At the same sale, an MS65 example sold for $805,000 while and MS64 realized $402,500. Today, all three of these coins have been placed in prominent collections where they will, no doubt, remain for many years.

If any other high grade 1921 double eagles become available for sale, I would expect to see them sell for record prices. This is one 20th century issue whose rarity can not be disputed and it seems highly unlikely that any hoard or accumulations of this date are going to appear at any time in the future.

St. Gaudens 100th Anniversary

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of Augustus St. Gaudens incomparable Indian Head eagle and double eagle designs. Assuming that this is an anniversary that will be met with much fanfare (and accompanying numismatic promotion) how can the savvy collector or investor take advantage of this? In my opinion, it would seem that the most obvious target for a promotion would be the High Relief double eagle. The reasons are obvious: its the first year of issue for the largest gold denomination, it’s a gorgeous design and a popular low mintage coin that, while scarce, can be accumulated in a large enough quantity to promote. This is a great theory except for one flaw: High Reliefs have been actively promoted for the last two or three years and are at historic all-time price highs.

But does this mean that High Reliefs are not a good investment at this point in time? If I were buying a High Relief strictly as an investment, I think I’d look at it as a very short term hold—like maybe a year or so. One of the nice things about these coins is that they tend to have very tight buy/sell spreads and even if your coin does not appreciate much in value, you’ll probably have minimal downside. From a long term standpoint, I’d probably pass on a High Relief and wait until prices come down.

How about the “regular relief” 1907 Saint—do these have a good future from an investment standpoint? I would say that yes, they do. But I wouldn’t mess with them in grades lower than MS65 due to the fact that they are very common. In MS66 I think this variety is a good value and an MS67 is a great addition to your collection if you can find one.

The Indian Head eagles are a very intriguing group of coins. There are three varieties known: the Rolled Edge, The Wire Edge and the No Motto.

The Rolled Edge is, in theory, a regular issue even though only 48 are believed to have been struck. This is one of the most attractive United States gold issues and it is going to cost you over $200,000 for an MS64 example.

A coin that is also attractive but a little less rare is the Wire Edge 1907 eagle. It has an original mintage of just 500. Curiously, this rare coin hasn’t seen much in the way of promotion in the past few years and, unlike its counterpart the 1907 High Relief double eagle, it has remained pretty flat (pun intended…) from a price standpoint. I am a big fan of the Wire Edge $10 in grades from MS63 to MS66 and I think this issue will see a big price increase in the next few years.

What about the more plebian 1907 No Motto eagle—will this issue be promoted and will it see price increases? I would say yes on both accounts. I’m sure you’ll see lower end Uncirculated coins peddled on a mass-market scale. I would stick to examples that grade MS64 and above. I really like this coin in MS66 and MS67 as it is a short-lived two year type and it is an extremely attractive coin in higher grades.

So, getting back to our original question, how can the investor best capitalize on what may be a 100th anniversary craze for the 1907 St. Gaudens eagles and double eagles? The way I see it, there are four ways of reacting:

    Go a bit crazy and buy a nice High Relief and a Wire Edge. Even if they don’t show strong short-term appreciation, you’ll still own two very liquid blue chip coins that will be cornerstones of your collection.

    React with moderation and buy nice MS64 to MS66 examples of the 1907 “regular issue” eagles and double eagles. Again, you’ll own two neat coins which you’ll enjoy.

    Do nothing and grumble about yet another pesky coin promotion.

    Decide to beat the crowd to the next promotion: the 100th anniversary of the Bela Lyon Pratt design Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle. A nice matched set of MS64 or MS65 coins might make a great way to welcome in 2008.

A Collector's Guide To Indian Head Half Eagles

Among the various United States gold coins produced during the 20th century, Indian Head half eagles are sort of the red-haired stepchild. They do not get the respect accorded to the dynamic St. Gaudens Indian Head eagles or double eagles and have never been as actively collected as the Indian Head quarter eagle. There are a number of reasons why the Indian Head half eagle series is not as actively collected as its three 20th century gold counterparts. I believe that the major reasons are as follows:

    This is, by far, the rarest 20th century American gold coin in higher grades. Even the most common dates in the series are rare in MS65 and a number of dates are nearly impossible to find even in MS63 to MS64. Simply put, this set is a bear to collect in Gem condition.

    Indian Head half eagles are extremely hard to grade. I’ve met very few people who truly know how to grade this series and both PCGS and NGC can be wildly inconsistent when it comes to Indian Head half eagles.

    This series has, somewhat by happenstance, fallen through the cracks. Indian Head quarter eagles are an easy series to complete and have been actively promoted. Everyone loves Saints and the massive size and lovely design of these coins make them ever-popular. Indian Head eagles have gone through ups and downs in terms of popularity but they currently seem to be in strong demand and I know of at lest four or five collectors currently putting together Gem sets.

    Which leaves Indian Head half eagles…a series which, up to now, has been out of the limelight for many years. I do think this is going to change, as evidenced by the fact that prices for common dates have jumped considerably in the past two years and I believe that a number of collectors are beginning to assemble sets.

How should Indian Head half eagles be collected? I can think of a number of ways. Here are three which make sense to me:

By Date: Assembling a complete set of Indian Head half eagles, as I mentioned above, is very challenging. The higher grade the set, the greater the challenge. If the collector wants to put together a set with the coins in the AU55 to MS62 range, he will find the set to be fairly easy to finish.

The two most expensive coins in the lower grade range for this set are the 1909-O and the 1929. The 1909-O is relatively plentiful in AU grades but because it is a very popular one-year type it is in great demand. Expect to pay between $7,500 and $12,500 for a nice AU coin and $35,000-40,000+ for an MS62. The other expensive coin in this set is the 1929. This date doesn’t really exist in grades lower than MS62 to MS63.

You’ll be looking at $15,000-20,000 for a nice example in this grade range. You should be able to assemble a complete set of Indian Head half eagles in AU55 to MS62 grades in a fairly short period of time for $75,000.

Moving up to an MS63 to MS64 set is a much more challenging and expensive proposition. Even the common dates are going to run around $4,000 for a nice MS63 and $6,000 for an MS64.

The 1909-O is extremely hard to find in MS63 and if you can locate one it’s going to set you back $60,000 or more. In MS64, this date is generally offered at the rate of once per year to year and a half and I would expect that the next nice PCGS example that shows up will sell for close to $200,000. The 1911-D is a very hard date to find in MS63 to MS64 grades. The former will cost at least $10,000 while the latter is easily a $50,000 coin.

The San Francisco dates produced from 1911 to 1915 are common and inexpensive in AU55 to MS61 grades but they become scarce in MS62 and very scarce to rare in MS63 to MS64. The most expensive of these is the 1913-S which is generally priced at around $10,000 in MS63 and $35,000+ in MS64. The 1914-S is a little less expensive but every bit as hard to locate, especially in MS64. And the 1915-S is extremely hard to find in MS63 and higher grades. You can expect to spend around $20,000 for a nice PCGS MS63 and close to $50,000 for a high end PCGS MS64.

To assemble a set of Indian Head half eagles in MS63 to MS64 you are probably going to have to spend $250,000+ and can expect the project to take at least two years.

Putting together a Gem Uncirculated set of Indian Head half eagles is one of the real challenges in all of numismatics. In fact, it is a harder set to assemble than the Indian Head eagle or St. Gaudens double eagle set.

Let’s say that you want your set to include only coins graded by PCGS in MS65 or higher. The 1909-O has a population of one in MS65 and one better. The 1909-S has a population of one in MS65 with three better. The 1910-S has a population of three in MS65 and one better. The 1911-D has a population of one in MS65 and none better. Still not intimidated? How about the 1914-S and the 1915-S which still have never had a single example graded above MS64 by PCGS? Even if you have an unlimited budget and a tremendous amount of patience, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to assemble a complete set in MS65. If you are willing to compromise somewhat by including a few MS64’s, then it might be possible to assemble a world-class set over the course of three to five years with an expenditure of well over $1 million. Obviously, this is a “big boy” set that isn’t for everyone. But with most of the current specialists in 20th century gold focused on other denominations, this set seems like a great opportunity.

By Year: An easier and more affordable way to collect Indian Head half eagles is by year. This series was struck for ten different years between 1908 and 1929. For most of these years, the collector has the option of including a Philadelphia issue which is inevitably cheaper than a branch mint counterpart. In addition, the Philadelphia coins tend to come very well struck and most have nice eye appeal. This set can be spiced up a bit by throwing in some of the more affordable branch mints. As an example, the 1908-S is surprisingly affordable in grades up to and including MS64 and it usually sells for just a small premium over a common Philadelphia coin.

A number of the Denver issues are also very affordable. The 1908-D and 1910-D are very scarce in higher grade but do not sell for a premium in the MS62 to MS63 range. The 1909-D is one of the more common dates in the entire set and can be found even in MS65. The 1914-D is similar to the 1908-D and the 1910-D in that it has a much lower population than the Philadelphia half eagles from these years but it typically has just a very small market premium in grades up to and including MS64.

The two most challenging dates in a year set are the 1916-S and the 1929. In 1916, the San Francisco mint was the only facility that produced Indian Head half eagles. This issue is actually not all that rare in MS63 and MS64 and for $5,000-10,000 the collector will be able to find a nice piece without a great deal of effort. The 1929 is the final year of issue for this design and it is a date that is far rarer than its original mintage figure would suggest. It is almost never found in grades below MS62 to MS63 and, as I mentioned above, a nice example in this grade range is currently valued at around $15,000-20,000.

An MS62 date set should cost around $30,000 with well over half of the price attributable to the 1929. This is an easy set to assemble.

An MS63 date set should cost around $60,000 with around a third of the price due to the 1929. It is a fairly good challenge to assemble this set and a few coins might prove hard to find but it should be completable in six months to a year.

An MS64 date set should cost around $90,000. This set is fairly challenging but can generally be assembled within a year.

An MS65 date set will cost at least $300,000. It will be a very hard set to assemble. The 1916-S and the 1929 are both very rare in MS65 and some of the supposedly common Philadelphia and Denver years will prove to be harder to find than expected.

By Type: Most people collect Indian Head half eagles as a type coin. The beauty of this series is that there is only a single type.

The easiest way to fill a hole in your type set with an Indian Head half eagle is to pick a common date. In higher grades, the most common issues are the 1908, 1909, 1909-D, 1911, 1912, 1913 and the 1915. All seven of these dates have hundreds of examples known in MS64 and, in the case of the 1909-D, there are thousands and thousands of pieces known in MS63.

There are a few scarcer date Indian Head half eagles that do not bring a large premium over a common date but which are appreciably harder to find in MS63 and higher grades. These include the 1908-D, 1908-S, 1910-D, 1914 and 1914-D. These “semi-scarce” dates are favorites of mine for type collectors as they offer excellent value for the savvy collector who is willing to stretch a bit to buy a rarer coin for his set.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, all Indian Head half eagles are rare in properly graded MS65. PCGS has graded only 573 examples of this type in MS65 and this number is unquestionably inflated by resubmissions. By far the most common date in the series in MS65 is the 1908. The two next most available are the 1909 and the 1909-D. After these three dates, the rarity level jumps appreciably. As recently as a few years ago, dealers had a hard time selling PCGS graded MS65 common date Indian for $10,000. Today, they are very liquid in the low-to-mid $20,000 range.

I feel that the real sweet spot in this series is in the MS64 grade (I would not be surprised to see these jump in price to $7,500-8,500 in the next few years) and for lower population issues in MS65.

I also stated earlier that one of the reasons this series is not as popular as other 20th century gold issues is that it is extremely difficult to grade. Here are a few tips to make buying these coins easier:

Every Indian Head half eagle I have ever seen has friction on the Indian’s cheek bone. Many new collectors are confused as to why the grading services will call a coin MS64 or even MS65 that seems to be AU based on wear. Because of the nature of the design, these coins are always going to show friction in this area. When you are looking at an Indian Head half eagle, ignore the cheekbone and look, instead at the eagle’s breast feathers and the left obverse field. These are areas that are much more telling when it comes to true wear.

It is important to learn each issue in the series in regards to luster, surface texture and strike. As an example, did you know that the early San Francisco issues tend to come very well struck while the issues from 1912 through 1915 are often poorly struck and show peculiar die deterioration around the borders? It is important for the collector to work with a dealer who really knows these coins, especially if he is working on a higher grade set.

In my opinion, the two most important factors when considering the grade of an Indian Head half eagle are coloration and luster. If a coin shows some scattered marks but it has wonderful original rose-gold or rich orange coloration, it is likely that this piece will be bumped up a point or two by the grading services. Similarly, an Indian Head half eagle with dynamic, booming luster is considered very desirable by specialists and such coins are often accorded high grades.

There are a number of potential factors that are considered negatives when considering an example of this design. Coins with dark, dirty coloration are undesirable—which is one reason why many collectors do not purchase Indian Head half eagles in grades lower than AU55 to AU58. Coins with very weak mintmarks should be avoided. A number of the San Francisco issues in the 1910’s are sometimes seen with mintmarks that are so weak they can be hard to detect with the naked eye. There is never any good reason to buy a coin such as this.

When examining population figures for higher grade coins in this series, there is quite a bit of consistency between PCGS and NGC. In my opinion, NGC does a very good job grading Indian Head half eagles and I do not think that coins in their holders (especially rare and very rare dates) should be penalized. As with most of the 20th century gold series, the popularity of the PCGS Set Registry has given many collectors a pro-PCGS bias which has occasionally forced them into making bad decisions in the assembling of their collections.

The Indian Head half eagle series is a wonderful group of coins for the collector who seeks a challenge and who wants to be involved in a set that currently is out of favor. I believe that this series will become considerably more popular in the coming years and that rarities such as the 1909-O, 1911-D, 1914-S and 1915-S will be accorded the same level of respect that the key issues in the $10 Indian and $20 St. Gaudens series currently hold.

Fab Five St. Gaudens Double Eagles

For many people, the name the Fab Five refers to the starting players for the famous University of Michigan basketball team in the early 1990’s who played for the national championship in 1992 and again in 1993. But for the collector of United States gold coinage, this term refers endearingly to the five St. Gaudens double eagles produced between 1929 and 1932. The Fab Five are, more specifically, the 1929, 1930, 1930-S, 1931-D and 1932 double eagles. All of these are far rarer than their mintage figures would suggest. Recent research has shown that most of the late date Saints were never released for circulation and that a great majority were subsequently melted.

So what’s the story behind the Fab Five and why have they become so popular with collectors?

Other than the catchy marketing name, these coins have a lot going for them. As I mentioned above, all five are quite rare. But unlike a number of the other rare issues in the popular St. Gaudens series (such as the 1920-S, 1921, 1924-S, 1925-S and the 1926-D) the Fab Five tend to come very nice when offered for sale. In fact, you will rarely see an example of the Fab Five in grades below MS63. All of these dates tend to come with very good luster, sharp strikes and rich multi-hued coloration. They are popular because they are truly rare coins that come with really good eye appeal. And they are in demand because they are the last dates in this series you can (legally) own…for now.

The rarity levels of the Fab Five have often been misunderstood. In my opinion, the correct order of availability from rarest to most common is as follows: 1930-S, 1931-D, 1929, 1932 and 1931.

The 1930-S is easily the rarest of these, both in terms of overall and high grade levels. There are probably no more than three or four dozen known with most in the MS62 to MS64 range. There were two MS66 examples in the Morse collection which sold for $253,000 and $207,000, respectively, in 2005. I am aware of two or possibly three other examples that grade MS66.

Because of its status as the only Denver coin in the Fab Five, the 1931-D is very popular. The population figures at both PCGS and NGC are greatly inflated by resubmissions and this date is actually very rare in any grade. There are two known in MS66: an example in the Duckor collection and the Morse 11/05: 6713, Thain Price coin that is now in the Kutasi collection.

The 1929 is a greatly misunderstood date. Its population figures in MS63 and MS64 are tremendously inflated by resubmissions. In Gem, this is among the rarest of the Fab Five and there are only three in MS66 including a piece in the Duckor collection.

The 1932 is a curious issue. A greater percentage of the surviving coins are known in high grades (i.e. MS63 to MS65) than for the other Fab Five issues. When available, this issue tends to have excellent color and shows fewer deep marks than the other dates of this era but the luster, which has a semi-matte texture, is not as flashy as on the other Philadelphia pieces. There are six pieces graded MS66 by PCGS and this includes an example from the Morse collection that sold for $138,000 in November 2005.

The most obtainable Fab Five issue is the 1931 of which perhaps as many as 125-150 pieces are currently known. This is another date that, like the 1932, tends to come with excellent eye appeal when it is offered for sale. Most pieces I have seen grade MS64 to MS65 but MS66 examples are very rare with just eight graded by PCGS. There is also a single example known in MS67 which sold for $264,500 in the Heritage November 2005 Morse collection auction.

As the popularity of the St. Gaudens series has increased over the past few years, prices for these five dates have risen dramatically. In most cases, they have doubled in the past three to five years but this is understandable when one considers the high level of demand and the small supply. I expect the Fab Five to remain some of the most popular 20th century United States gold issues in the coming years.

1907 High Relief Double Eagle

If there is a more popular United States gold coin than the 1907 High Relief double eagle, I’ve yet to encounter it. This is a coin that just about everyone aspires to own. It is beautiful, historic and, in its own way, extremely desirable. The story behind this issue is interesting. I won’t go into the full detail here (it would take many pages to be properly told). Theodore Roosevelt hated the Liberty Head design and secretly hired the famous sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens to redesign the larger gold denominations. St. Gaudens produced what is now regarded as easily the most spectacular imagery ever seen on a United States pattern issue (the Ultra High Relief of 1907).

This design proved to be impossible to strike and it incurred the wrath of the Mint Engraver Charles Barber who felt slighted that an outsider was hired to design a United States coin. He eventually “improved” the design in such a way that the final product in 1907 barely resembled the majestic Ultra High Relief that St. Gaudens produced.

The “normal” High Relief coins also proved to be very difficult to strike and, of course, met with strong opposition from Barber. There were 11,250 examples produced before the design was changed again later in the year. A remarkably high percentage of these coins have survived. PCGS shows over 4,000 graded as of the middle of 2006 and, in my opinion, there are as many as 5,000-6,000 High Reliefs known.

There are two varieties of High Reliefs. The more common is the so-called Wire Edge. The Wire Edge coins were the first High Reliefs struck and they show excess metal on the edge which produced a sort of “fin.” This problem was later corrected and the final High Reliefs struck are known as “Flat Edge” coins. In my experience, the Flat Edge coins are about four or five times scarcer than the Wire Edge coins. The Flat Edge coins sometimes bring a 5 to 10% premium but, more often than not, they do not command a premium. I think they are excellent value, especially if priced as a “common date.”

NGC has designated a number of High Reliefs as Proofs. While there are unquestionably such things as Proof High Reliefs, it is my opinion that the coins marked as such by NGC are NOT actual Proofs. The coins in NGC proof holders clearly have a number of raised die swirls on the surfaces and are probably among the first pieces struck. But they have the same edge as a “normal” High Relief and the true Proofs have a noticeably different edge with different shaped and positioned edge lettering.

In recent years, prices have shot up for High Reliefs. This has been the result of a number of well-managed promotions. But High Reliefs, if you think about it, are coins that sell themselves and it is inevitable that in a strong coin market, they are the sort of coin that is likely to show a strong level of appreciation. New collectors and investors are always attracted to High Reliefs and I expect that prices for these coins in MS60 and higher will continue to be strong for some time.

When buying a High Relief, there are a few things I would suggest you look for. First and foremost is coloration. An original, untampered-with example should display very rich green-gold or yellow-gold color. Look for a piece that has even color with similar hues on the obverse and the reverse.

You should also avoid pieces that show obvious friction on the relief details but you need to understand that because of the nature of this coin’s design, most examples do show some “rub” on Liberty’s and the eagle’s breasts. Finally, you need to look carefully at the surfaces and make certain that the High Relief you are being offered does not have any serious marks or prominent abrasions. This is a coin that is common enough that if you do not like what you see, be patient and wait for the right example.

Indian Head Quarter Eagles

In the past few years, Indian Head quarter eagles have been very successfully promoted. A not-as-well-known but equally successful promotion has doubled the price of common date MS65 Indian Head half eagles in the past year. I have recently witnessed an interesting trend that I think might foretell the next price run-up in the 20th century gold coin market. A few dealers are starting to quietly accumulate better date Indian Head eagles, especially issues such as the 1908-D With Motto, 1909-D, 1909-S, 1912-S, 1914-S and 1915-S. The desired grade range for these coins is MS63 to MS65 with most of the activity seen in the MS64 range as this is a “sweet spot” from the standpoint of price (most MS65’s are expensive) and rarity (many of these dates are nearly impossible to find in Gem).

It makes sense to me for a lot of reasons that this series is due for a promotion. The coins are beautiful (I personally like the design even better than the St. Gaudens double eagle), the set is relatively short (only thirty-six coins including the 1907 Wire Edge and Rolled Edge varieties) and, unlike Saints, it can realistically be completed. Most importantly, this series is a sort of final frontier in 20th century gold as it is really the only denomination left that hasn’t been promoted and seen significant price run-ups.

This is a great set for a collector to assemble but it takes deep pockets, especially in MS64 and higher grades. How can the collector of more modest means take advantage of what could become an interesting market play in the coming years? I would suggest purchasing a few slightly better dates in MS64 or MS65. There are only two truly common issues in this series: the 1926 and the 1932. They are currently valued in the $2250-2500 range in MS64 and around $5000-5250 in MS65. I’d suggest the collector look for marginally scarcer dates such as a 1908 With Motto, 1912, 1913, 1914 or 1914-D. These currently sell for modest premiums in MS64 and MS65 despite the fact that they are many times rarer than the 1926 or 1932.

A few buying tips: avoid coins with heavily spotted surfaces as they are hard to sell (a few small, unobtrusive spots are OK), be careful for coins with deep, detracting marks (especially on the face of Liberty) and watch out for coins with funky color (yes, they are even in NGC and PCGS holders).

Assembling A Set of 20th Century Liberty Head Double Eagles

For the beginning collector, one of the best gold coin sets to consider is a set of 20th century Liberty Head double eagles. This set contains eighteen issues produced at three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) between 1900 and 1907. There are a number of reasons why this set is a natural for many fledgling numismatists. These coins are big, attractive and contain nearly an ounce of gold; most of the eighteen dates can be found in reasonably high grade and there are no very expensive single issues. As a rule of thumb, it makes sense to assemble this set in Mint State. For the very common issues, I would suggest purchasing coins in the Mint State-63 to Mint State-64 range. For the scarcer issues (specifically the 1902 and the 1905) I would suggest looking for attractive, high quality Mint State-62 examples.

Before we start, here are some rules of thumb that the collector should keep in mind:

1. Try to assemble a set with a nice "matched" look. Your set will have more eye appeal if the coloration and the quality of the surfaces are nicely matched on each coin. If you are bothered by abrasions, wait for coins that are as clean as possible for the grade. If hairlines are what annoy you most, avoid coins that you do not like. The beauty of this set is that none of the coins is so rare that you will need to compromise your standards.

2. Don't overspend on the common issues. There are a number of coins in this set that are reasonably affordable in Mint State-63 or Mint State-64 but become very expensive in the next grade up. I would suggest that the coins which should be the most expensive in this set are the rarities: 1902 and 1905.

3. Try and include at least one Gem. Mint State-65 Liberty Head double eagles are currently an extremely good value at current price levels (around $3,500 as of late October 2003) and every set should have one lovely Gem.

4. Buy my book on Type Three Double Eagles. Self-serving, yes, but if you are going to collect this series than you should have the best reference work on it. (Contact me for ordering information at dwn@ont.com). I would also suggest that you have access to a PCGS and NGC population report and a recent copy of Coin World Trends to help you with pricing.

Listed below is a quick date-by-date analysis, along with suggestions of which are the best "value grades" for each date and approximate price ranges for each issue.

1900: The 1900 is a very common date that can be found in all grades up to and including Mint State-65. For most collectors, a Mint State-63 ($700-900) or Mint State-64 ($1,200-1,500) will suffice.

1900-S: This is one of the harder dates in this series to find in Mint State-63 or better although its high original mintage figure suggests that some nicer pieces could be laying in wait. A nice Mint State-62 is just $600-700 but I think Mint State-63 examples are still good values in the $1,650-1,950 range. Look for coins with good color and luster and no severe marks.

1901: This is one of the most common dates in the set. You can actually find nice Mint State-65's (these are currently worth around $4,000) but most collectors will be content to purchase a Mint State-64 in the $1,250-1,500 range. Avoid examples which are overly spotted as many 1901's are found as such.

1901-S: Despite a high mintage figure, this date is very elusive in higher grades. But I would caution the collector that it is possible a group of better quality examples (in this case Mint State-63 and above) could turn-up in Europe. I would stick with a nice, premium quality Mint State-62 and expect to spend $700-900.

1902: The 1902 is one of the two keys in this series and with an original mintage figure of just 31,254 coins, it is unlikely that any large hoards will be found. Nice Mint State-62's currently trade for around $1,200-1,500 and are very good values. A Mint State-63 will cost $6,500-7,500 (if available) and may be out of the price range of many collectors.

1902-S: As with a number of the San Francisco issues in this set, there is a big price spread between Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 for the 1902-S double eagle. You can buy a nice Mint State-62 for just $500-600 while a Mint State-63 will run you $2,500 to 3,000. Seems to me like this is a coin that makes more sense in Mint State-62.

1903: The 1903 is an extremely common issue and can be found even in Mint State-65. I would personally recommend a nice Mint State-63 ($700-800) or a Mint State-64 ($1,250-1,500). A Gem makes an interesting alternative to a 1904 as your single "super grade" coin in the set as it is considerably scarcer yet sells for essentially no premium.

1903-S: A much easier coin to find in higher grades than the 1900-02 San Francisco issues, the 1903-S can be obtained in Mint State-63 for around $1,000-1,250. In my opinion, this is the best value grade as a Mint State-64 jumps to $2,500-2,750.

1904: The 1904 is the most common Liberty Head double eagle by a huge margin. It is extremely easy to locate in Mint State-64 and even in Mint State-65. In my opinion, I would rather buy this date in Mint State-64 and have a slightly better date (such as a 1901 or 1903) in Gem in this set. Given the availability of specimens, I suggest you be picky when buying a 1904.

1904-S: The 1904-S is the most common San Francisco date in this set and it is the only issue that can be found in Mint State-65 for just a small premium over the common 1904. Given the fact that it is a mintmarked issue, I would suggest at the very least buying a nice Mint State-64 ($1,250-1,500) or even "stretching" for a 65 coin ($4,000-4,500).

1905: Traditionally, the 1905 has been regarded as the rarest 20th century Liberty Head double eagle. While I personally think the 1902 is scarcer, there is no denying that the 1905 is a very tough coin. I think Trends is a bit too high for better quality pieces and that $3,000-3,500 is the right number to pay for a decent quality Mint State-62. Trends for a Mint State-63 is $15,000 but I have seen examples trade in the $9,000-10,000 range.

1905-S: This is yet another date with a big price difference between Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 but with a big enough population in Mint State-63 to convince me that a PQ Mint State-62 is the way to go. With nice Mint State-62's selling for just $550-650, this is a good value.

1906: The 1906 is not as tough an issue as the 1902 or the 1905 but it is scarce in its own right. A nice Mint State-62 coin is currently valued at $800-900 while a Mint State-63 jumps up to $3,500-4,000. Because of this large price spread, I would suggest trying to locate a very high-end Mint State-62 with good color, luster and surfaces.

1906-D: The 1906-D is not a rare date but it is historically significant as the first double eagle produced at the Denver mint. It is quite a bit harder to locate in higher grades than the 1907-D. Given its desirability as a first-year issue, I'd look to purchase a nice Mint State-63 which should cost $1,600-1,900.

1906-S: This issue is easy to find in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 and only moderately scarce in Mint State-64. You can find a Mint State-62 for just $550-650 while a Mint State-63 will cost $1,300-1,600. I would probably go with a Mint State-63 but there is certainly nothing "wrong" with a Mint State-62 and its current $50-100 premium over a common 1904.

1907: A nice Mint State-63 example, which should be available for $600-700, is probably just fine for most 20th century Liberty Head double eagle collections. Should a collector wish to purchase a Mint State, these are readily available in the $1,400-1,800 range.

1907-D: The 1907-D is the final of two Liberty Head double eagles produced at the Denver mint. It is not a particularly scarce coin and it can be found in Mint State-63 and Mint State-64 grades without a problem. The former is currently valued at $1,110-1,400 while the latter is a very good value in the $1,450-1,750 range. A Mint State-65 coin should cost $3,500-4,000. I would consider stretching for one of these, not so much because it is a rare coin but because it is the only Denver issue that can be fond in Gem condition.

1907-S: This final-year-of-issue double eagle from the San Francisco mint is comparable to the 1907-D in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 but is much scarcer in higher grades. A Mint State-62 coin can be purchased for $550-600 while a Mint State-63 will cost $1,500-1,750.

Many new collectors are intimidated by Liberty Head double eagles because of the price that the rare issues command and the seeming impossibility of completing a set. I feel that a 20th century date set is a great place to begin, due to the affordability of these issues and the fact that many can be purchased in Mint State-62 and Mint State-63 grades for under $1,000.