Liberty Head Eagles and The Condition Census: Part One

I have written extensively about the Condition Census as it applies to United States gold coins: what it is, its origin and significance and specific examples of issues and a listing of the Condition Census. I recently had an interesting conversation with an advanced collector about his holdings, and he mentioned to me that there were specific instances where he owned virtually the entire Condition Census for the denomination in which he specialized. This was not some idle boast; what he said was true and it inspired me to think about writing a series of articles which focus on Condition Census listings.

The first denomination that I’m going to focus on is Liberty Head eagles. This is a series which has gone from overlooked to in demand in a reasonably short period of time. As recently as four or five years ago, I can remember offering unquestionable Condition Census examples of more obscure (i.e., Philadelphia and San Francisco) issues for very reasonable sums and having them sit on my website for weeks before they sold. Today, when I get such coins in—which is not very often—they sell almost immediately and typically with multiple orders.

Before I begin, there is a major caveat to discuss which concern not only the Condition Census but any study that deals with rankings of coins in regards to their appearance. Just because the plastic that encases a coin says that it grades, for example, MS62, this doesn’t mean it’s “better” than another example of the same date that grades MS61, MS60 or even AU58. When I say that in order to qualify as a Condition Census example a coin must grade in the AU55 to AU58 range, this is making an assumption that the coin in question is choice, original and eye appealing.

1. No Motto, 1838 to 1866

1838:  There are at least four to six known in Uncirculated so, in theory, an 1838 eagle would have to grade at least MS60 to MS61 to qualify as a Condition Census example. However, I might include a really choice AU58 as well.

1839 Head of 1838:  This variety is more common in Uncirculated than sometimes realized with probably over 10 known. To qualify as a Condition Census example a coin would have to grade MS61 to MS62.

1839 Head of 1840:  This variety is extremely rare in higher grade and I am aware of just two in Uncirculated. A nice AU55 would easily qualify as Condition Census.

1840:  The 1840 eagle is common in lower AU grades but rare in AU58 and extremely rare in full Mint State with just four or five known. An MS60 is easily in the Condition Census

1841:  There are five or six Uncirculated examples of this date. I would regard any 1841 eagle which grades MS60 or better as Condition Census.

1841-O:  This very rare date is unknown in Uncirculated and exceedingly rare above AU55. A choice, original AU53 to AU55 is easily in the Condition Census for the issue.

1842 Small Date:  This is the rarer of the two varieties for the year. Three or four exist in Uncirculated meaning that a properly graded AU58 is in the Condition Census.

1842 Large Date:  With just five or six known in Uncirculated this variety is rare in high grades as well. I would give the cut-off for Condition Census inclusion as MS60 to MS61.

1842-O $10.00 NGC AU58

1842-O:  The 1842-O is a very rare coin in high grades with an estimated four or five in Uncirculated. A choice, original AU58 is in the Condition Census.

1843:  The 1843 is a lightly regarded issue but it is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated with just two or three known. Again, a properly graded AU58 is in the Condition Census.

1843-O:  There are five to six known in Uncirculated. An 1843-O eagle which grades MS60 to MS61 qualifies as Condition Census.

1844:  The 1844 is the rarest eagle from this mint struck prior to the Civil War. There are only one or two in Uncirculated and the bottom end of the Condition Census goes all the way down to AU53 to AU55.

1844-O:  An MS60 example of this date is in the Condition Census as there are maybe five to six in Uncirculated. A choice, original AU58 might qualify as well.

1845:  There are just two or three known in Uncirculated which means a nice AU58 easily qualifies as Condition Census.

1845-O:  Virtually all No Motto eagles from this mint are very rare to extremely rare in Uncirculated. Only three or four of this date exist in Mint State which means a nice AU58 is in the Condition Census.

1846:  Another extremely rare issue in Mint State with just one or two known to me. I would place a choice AU55 in the Condition Census.

1846-O:  Two or three are known in Uncirculated. A choice AU58 easily qualifies as Condition Census.

1847:  This is one of the few No Motto eagles from the 1840’s which is not extremely rare in Uncirculated and more than 20 1847’s are known in MS60 or better. To qualify in the Condition Census, an example must be MS62 and choice for the grade.

1847-O:  The 1847-O is the most common No Motto New Orleans eagle in Uncirculated with more than 10 known. I would place the cut-off for Condition Census at MS62.

1848:  This date is much scarcer in Uncirculated than the 1847 or 1849 but a few very nice MS63 to MS64 examples are known, making MS62 the level for the Condition Census.

1848-O:  There are actually as many as seven or eight known in Uncirculated including some in the MS64 to MS66 range. This makes the level for Condition Census a high MS63.

1849:  More than 20 exist in Uncirculated including some as high as MS64. A nice, original MS63 would easily qualify in the Condition Census.

1849-O:  I doubt if more than two or three are known in Uncirculated and none of these are much better than MS60 to MS61. A nice AU55 is in the Condition Census.

1850 Small Date:  This is the scarcer of the two varieties and there are just five or six known in Uncirculated. I’d put any example in MS60 or better in the Condition Census listing.

1850 Large Date:  While more available overall, this variety iss still quite rare in Mint State with maybe six to eight known. The Condition Census would include any example grading MS61 or finer.

1850-O:  This overlooked condition rarity has just one or two known in Uncirculated. A properly graded AU58 is in the Condition Census.

1851:  This date is harder to find in Mint State than other “common dates” of this era. There are probably fewer than a dozen known and an MS61 would qualify as Condition Census.

1851-O:  Around ten or so are known in Uncirculated, mostly in the MS60 to MS61 range. To be in the Condition Census, an 1851-O eagle would have to grade MS61 and be choice.

1852:  An estimated 12-15 exist in Mint State. I believe an MS62 is comfortably within the Condition Census.

1852-O $10.00 NGC AU55

1852-O:  This date is hugely rare in Uncirculated with just one or two extant. A properly graded AU55 qualifies as Condition Census.

1853:  Slightly more available than the 1852 in Uncirculated with around 15 or so known. An MS62 is in the Condition Census.

1853-O:  A very rare issue in Uncirculated with just three to five known. A choice, original AU58 is in the Condition Census.

1854:  Very rare in Uncirculated with fewer than ten known. MS61 examples are in the Condition Census.

1854-O Small Date:  This is the rarer of the two varieties and only two or three known in Uncirculated. I think a choice, original AU58 would qualify in the Condition Census.

1854-O Large Date:  This variety is more available in higher grades but it is still very rare in Uncirculated with just four or five known. Again, a properly graded AU58 is Condition Census.

1854-S:  The first eagle from this mint and very rare in Uncirculated with four or five known. An AU58 is Condition Census.

1855:  More than 15 are known in Uncirculated. MS62 seems to me to be the qualifying grade for Condition Census consideration.

1855-O:  Just two or three exist in Uncirculated and not many more in AU58. A properly graded AU55 would qualify.

1855-S:  This overlooked rarity n unknown in Uncirculated and exceedingly rare in AU58. The Condition Census includes any properly graded AU55.

1856:  There are 15-20 in Uncirculated with most in the MS61 to MS63 range. An MS62 is in the Condition Census.

1856-O:  There are only one or two in Uncirculated and not many in AU58. I’d include a properly graded AU55 in the Condition Census.

1856-S:  There are around a half dozen known in Uncirculated including a few as high as MS63 to MS64. Still, any properly graded MS60 or better is Condition Census.

1857:  I am aware of just two in Mint State and would place a properly graded AU58 in the Condition Census.

1857-O $10.00 NGC AU55

1857-O:  This date is unknown in Uncirculated and exceptionally rare in AU58. I would place a properly graded AU55 in the Condition Census.

1857-S:  Thanks to the SS Central America a few nice Mint State pieces exist but I would still put any properly graded MS60 or finer example in the Condition Census.

1858:  This date is probably unique in Uncirculated and the Condition Census extends down as far as AU55.

1858-O:  There are fewer than ten known in Uncirculated but this is a more available date in Uncirculated than commonly recognized. I’d place the Condition Census cut-off at around MS61.

1858-S:  Beginning with this issue, the S mint eagles become impossible to find in U;ncirculated. Condition Census is AU55 and maybe even as low as AU53 if eye appeal is given weight.

1859:  A very rare and overlooked coin in higher grades with just three or so known in Uncirculated. Condition Census is AU58 and above.

1859-O:  There is nothing close to Uncirculated known and even a nice AU53 is well within the Condition Census.

1859-S:  Unknown in Uncirculated and I’ve never seen one better than AU55. Condition Census is AU50 to AU53.

1860:  Fewer than ten exist in Uncirculated and just two or three grade above MS62. Condition Census is likely in the MS61 range.

1860-O:  As many as five or six are known in Uncirculated which means that any piece grading MS60 or above is in the Condition Census for this issue.

1860-S:  This is one of the real condition rarities in the series and I’d place even a properly graded AU50 to AU53 in the Condition Census.

1861:  This is the last date of this design type which is available in higher grades. Two to three dozen are known in Uncirculated including some nice MS63’s and MS64’s. I’d still place a properly graded MS62 in the Condition Census.

1861-S:  Unique in Uncirculated and extremely rare in the higher AU grades. Condition Census is AU55.

1862 $10.00 NGC AU55 CAC

1862:  Unknown in Uncirculated and extremely rare in the higher AU grades although a touch more available than the other P mints of this era. I’d place a choice, high end AU55 in the Condition Census.

1862-S:  Unique in Uncirculated and exceedingly rare in AU55 and above. Condition

1863:  Another very rare date although one does exist in Uncirculated. I think Condition Census is as low as AU50 to AU53.

1863-S:  Relatively common with a whopping two to three known in Uncirculated (that’s a little coin humor, reader…). Condition Census is AU55 but a nice AU53 might qualify as well.

1864: Another date with two or three known in Uncirculated but still very rare in grades as low as AU55 to AU58. Condition Census examples grade in this range.

1864-S:  The rarest No Motto eagle; unknown in Uncirculated and exceedingly rare in Uncirculated. An AU50 is in the Condition Census and I’d suggest even a properly graded EF45 could be as well.

1865:  Unique in Uncirculated and exceedingly rare in AU55 and above. An AU53 qualifies in the Condition Census.

1865-S Normal Date:  The rarer of the two varieties and one of the keys to the series in AU. Condition Census is in the AU50 to AU53 range.

1865-S Inverted Date:  Quite rare but more available than the Normal Date. This variety is unique in Mint State. Condition Census begins around the AU53 mark.

1866-S No Motto $10.00 NGC AU53

1866-S No Motto:  Yet another issue which is unknown in Uncirculated and extremely rare in properly graded AU55 and above. Condition Census would certainly include a properly graded AU53.


So there you have it…a lot of rare coins with very few known in Uncirculated and a proposed Condition Census for each.

In the next article in this series, I will look at the slightly less interesting but still very collectible With Motto type.


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Which Rare Gold Coins Will Be Demand in 2014?

A few years ago, when my blog was more of a newsletter, I used to write an annual piece entitled “What’s Hot, What’s Not.” I’ve never had the heart to go back and look at these; analyzing my analysis has never had appeal. But these were popular features and I thought I would bring them back - but with a twist. Instead of pondering about what will be “hot” in 2014 and what won’t, I thought it would be more interesting to speculate on what are some potentially in-demand areas.

1. Coins Priced Below $2,500

As I write this, the market for interesting gold coins priced at $2,500 and below is extremely strong. Case(s) in point: I used to run a weekly e-mail based sale of coins I called E-Specials which were two or three interesting gold coins priced in the $750-1,250 range. I used to be able to go to a major show and buy a dozen coins like this so the E-Specials would be pre-set for a month or more. Now, I can’t find many coins like this anymore, and I’ve punted the E-Specials.

So, what qualifies as an “interesting” gold coin in this price range? From my selling experience with E-Specials, I found that the parameters that always met with selling success were: PCGS graded, CAC approved, and dated prior to 1880. The interest factor for coins in this price range was greatly improved when I offered large sized issues; i.e., eagles and double eagles.

If I had to list a few specific coins in the $1,000-2,500 price range that I feel will be in demand in 2014 and may show some appreciation as a result, I’d include the following:

1852-D $5.00 PCGS EF45

  • Dahlonega half eagles in EF40 and EF45. The level of demand for nice D mint half eagles is very strong now, especially if they are choice, original coins. In the last few years values have crept up from around $1,600-1,800 to around $2,200-2,500+, and I see no price resistance to even higher numbers for the right coins.
  • With Motto New Orleans eagles in MS61 and MS62. I’ve written this before but if some clever marketer would quietly assemble a position in common and slightly better date With Motto (1888-1906) eagles from New Orleans, prices could go up 20-40% without anyone batting an eyelash. The possibility exists that set collecting could drive this series as no dates are rare and many are available even in MS63 and MS64.
  • Low grade scarce/rare date issues.  One of the major changes in the rare date gold market in the last three to five years has been the sudden surge in demand for affordable examples of tough dates. As an example, a coin like an 1861-S eagle is too expensive in higher grades for most collectors. But a nice Fine or Very Fine can be bought for a few thousand dollars and if the coin is worn but cosmetically appealing, it has a strong level of demand that didn’t necessarily exist a few years back.

2. Coins Priced in the $5,000-10,000 Range

Coins in the price range are my “bread and butter” but I would say this middle range (“middle” at least in the sense of rare gold coins) is the weakest part of the coin market going into 2014. Collectors who buy coins in this range are far more selective now than they were a few years ago, and a coin has to have an “it” factor to sell for $5,000, $7,500, or $10,000. I’ve invented a term called Multiple Levels of Demand to define what I regard as coins that have “it.”

As with coins priced below $2,500, coins priced at around $10,000 have to be interesting, and they have to have good visual appeal. Here are a few areas that I think will be in strong demand in 2014.

1841-D $5.00 NGC AU58 CAC

  • Properly grade AU58 branch mint quarter eagles and half eagles. Nice slider examples if southern branch mint gold coins remain one of the best values in all of 19th century numismatics. As I’ve explained before, a properly graded AU58 (not a coin that “looks like an MS64;” these don’t exist) is a coin that is being rewarded for positive eye appeal while a typical MS60, MS61 and even an MS62 is a coin with faults which are being punished. Most collectors would rather have a nice, natural AU58 Dahlonega half eagle at $5,000-6,000 than a “rubby” MS61 at $9,000-$11,000 and it is hard to blame them.
  • Better date Three Dollar gold pieces. This is a series that has been out of demand for too long and with a little bit of promoting, I could see some improved level of collector demand in 2014 and beyond. There are some great values in this series right now and, interestingly, there are more nice coins available in the $5,000-7,500 range than in many other comparably priced types.

1915 $10.00 PCGS MS65 CAC

  • MS64+CAC Indian Head gold.  From what I’ve seen, the quality of MS64+ Indian Head quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles is pretty nice and the typical example is visually better than MS64. As long as premium aren’t excessive over an average quality MS64, I can see the market expanding even further for these coins in 2014; especially when the price jump to MS65 is at least double or triple.

3. Coins Priced at $20,000 and Over

At this level, the air gets a lot thinner, but the market for nice quality expensive (notice I said “expensive” and not “trophy”) coins is as strong now as I can recall at any time since 2006-2007. Buyers of expensive coins are very discriminating (as they should be), but in my experience, the “right” coins in the $20,000-50,000 range are selling very well and will continue to do so in 2014.

There are a number of areas which fit into this category which I think have good upside in 2014. Here are a few of them.

  • Really exceptional branch mint gold coins in MS63 and MS64. If you look at auction prices from 1999-2001 and compare the values of a coin like an 1847-C quarter eagle in PCGS MS64 then versus now, you will typically see a slight overall decline. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that many coins have been graded MS63 or MS64 which are not nice. But in my opinion, a choice, original CAC-quality Dahlonega half eagle in MS63 or a beautiful, naturally toned Charlotte quarter eagle in MS64 is truly rare. These coins may not have date collector demand in these high grades but there are numerous type collectors looking for one or two great coins in all of these series. Watch for demand to increase in 2014 and beyond.
  • Rare date Proof gold in PR64 and PR65. Many of the Proof gold coins from the 1860’s, 1870’s and early 1880’s have tiny original mintages and fewer than half are known. Despite the rarity of a coin like an 1874 quarter eagle in Proof, the focus has been more on large denomination coins (eagles and double eagles) or super-grade pieces in the PR66 to PR68 range. While they are not often available, comparably “affordable” Proof gold dollars, quarter eagles, three dollar gold pieces and even half eagles seem to be increasing in demand and I see no reason that this will not continue through 2014 and beyond.

1863 $5.00 NGC MS60 CAC

  • Truly rare business strikes in Condition Census grades. The level of demand for formerly obscure business strike rarities will increase in 2014 as well. One thing I noticed in 2013 was that when I listed a choice, higher grade example of a truly rare coin on my website, I got multiple inquiries and not just from the “usual suspects.” As an example, I listed two very nice 1863 half eagles on my site in 2013 and I heard from numerous collectors for each of them, including two silver dollar collectors who wanted to buy an 1863 “just because it was cool” and a few dealers who I’ve literally never sold a coin to before.

4. Trophy Coins

In virtually all collectibles areas, the truly great “trophy” items are in huge demand and this will continue in 2014. The NGC MS63 Brasher Doubloon that will be sold by Heritage in a few weeks at the 2014 FUN auction could very well set a record for any coin - and there will be a number of million dollar+ coins in this sale and other auctions immediately afterwards.

A decade ago, the sale of a million dollar United States coin was front-page news; today it is relatively commonplace. As more “big money” discovers the coin market, I look for many exceptional prices realized in 2014, both at auction and via private treaty.

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The Best Values in Todays Rare Coin Market

There are many issues that face collectors in the coin market of 2010. A lack of quality coins is driving many collectors to seek new areas of specialization. Both PCGS and NGC have recently added “plus” grades which will no doubt change certain areas of the market as well. More than ever, collectors are gravitating towards areas that offer value. The days of new collectors and uninformed wealthy investors arbitrarily throwing money at plastic rarities are over and we appear to be back to a collector-oriented market. So what are some of the areas in this new market that offer the best value to collectors? I have chosen three price ranges ($1,000-5,000; $5,000-10,000 and $10,000 and up) and included some of the series and/or types that I feel are especially good values. Some are currently popular; some are not. What I have tried to focus on are coins that are actually available in some quantity and issues that I gladly buy to put into my own inventory when they are available.

1. $1,000-5,000

a) Gold Dollars, 1865-1872: The eight year run of gold dollars produced at the Philadelphia mint from 1865 through 1872 doesn’t include any real rarities but nearly all of these coins are scarce and undervalued in MS63 to MS64 grades. Most are priced in the area of $1,500-2,000 in MS63 and $2,000 to $3,000 in MS64 (the 1865 is rarer and more expensive in both grades) and they seem like good value to me. Take the 1872 as an example. Just 3,500 business strikes were made and only a few hundred exist in all grades. In MS64 this coin is worth around $3,000 yet it might take me months to find a decent example in this grade. Yes, gold dollars are small but this is a very collectible series and one with a number of really undervalued issues.

b) Classic Head Quarter Eagles: I’m a big fan of this series in properly graded AU55 to MS62 grades. Note that I stress properly graded as many of the coins that I see are either low end or unappealing due to having been processed. The Philadelphia issues, with the exception of the rare and much undervalued 1839, are affordable in this grade range with pieces valued at $1,750 or so at the lower end and around $5,000 at the higher end. The mintmarked coins are, of course, far more expensive and are not necessarily “good values” although I am an avid buyer of any mintmarked Classic Head quarter eagle in EF40 and better that is choice and original. For collectors at the lower end of this budget range, a nice set of About Uncirculated Classic Head Philadelphia quarter eagles is a fun and challenging endeavor.

c) Three Dollar Gold Pieces: After a few years of collector and investor popularity, this series has recently gone quiet. I don’t necessarily believe that all three dollar gold pieces are good value. In fact, I feel that some formerly undervalued issues are now marginal value at best (primarily due to the fact that many are grossly overgraded and have absolutely no eye appeal). What I do like about this series is that prices are actually down versus where they were five to seven years ago; which is pretty remarkable when one considers that gold has essentially doubled in price since then. Given the lack of collector interest, a new collector can buy PQ quality three dollar gold pieces for a very small premium right now. There are many coins on the market and with some patience, a really nice partial set of Threes could be assembled. The dates I still regard as undervalued include the 1858, 1862, 1864, 1870-72 and the ultra-low mintage issues from the 1880’s.

d) No Motto Half Eagles and Eagles: In the $1,000-5,000 range there are few areas in the United States gold coin market that offer better value than No Motto half eagles from the Philadelphia mint in the higher About Uncirculated grades. As an example, I frequently sell very nice common date AU58 half eagles from the 1840’s for under $750. That might not seem like a big thing until you consider that an ultra common With Motto half eagle in AU58 is worth $350 or so. In the case of the eagles from this era, many of the common date issues from the 1840’s are still available in nice AU58 for less than $1,500. I love the idea of a large size, visually attractive U.S. gold coin that was made well before the Civil War being highly affordable.

e) Crusty Original Charlotte and Dahlonega Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles in Extremely Fine: It will be very interesting to see what percentage of Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles and half eagles receive a “plus” designation from PCGS and NGC in the coming years. If they are strict with their standards I believe that the number could be as low as 10-15% of the total submissions. As someone who is a strong buyer of nice, affordable branch mint gold I can tell you that choice, original pieces with natural color and surfaces have become exceptionally hard to locate. You can still buy nice Extremely Fine Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles and half eagles in EF40 and EF45 for less than $3,000. I think these are wonderful values given their history and rarity.

2. $5,000-10,000

a) Early Half Eagles in Choice, Original About Uncirculated: Given the fact that early half eagles have doubled in price in the last five to seven years, I’m not certain that calling them “undervalued” is the right term. But even at current levels, I like the values that Bust Right (1795-1807) and Bust Left (1807-1812) half eagles offer in the higher AU grades. These are exceptionally historic issues and they are instantly appealing to virtually any new collector or investor who has the resources to afford them. These individuals might not want to assemble a date set of Bust Left half eagles but at $9,000-11,000+ for a high quality About Uncirculated example it is likely that these will become a centerpiece of any new collection. As with the Extremely Fine C+D coins I mentioned above, it will be interesting to see what percentage of early half eagles are given a plus designation by PCGS and NGC.

b) Affordable Uncirculated Dahlonega Half Eagles: If I had to choose the quintessential Dahlonega gold coin for the new collector, I’d select something like an 1847-D or 1853-D half eagle in properly graded MS61 to MS62. These coins are big, rare, attractive and reasonably priced at less than $10,000. What’s even more interesting about coins like this is that they are priced at essentially the same level as they were in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. Yes, gradeflation has pushed many AU58 coins into MS61 and MS62 holders. But the popularity of Dahlonega half eagles is as high in 2010 as at any point I can remember. If you can locate a few CAC or “plus quality” Dahlonega half eagles in MS61 to MS62 at today’s levels, I’d suggest that you jump on them.

c) No Motto Half Eagles and Eagles in MS62: MS62 is the “sweet spot” for most No Motto gold. The coins in MS60 to MS61 holder are often questionable as to their “newness” but most MS62 gold from this era tends to have a pretty nice overall appearance. What’s most interesting about this grade is its price point. Take, for example, a common No Motto half eagle like the 1847. In MS62 it can be purchased for around $3,000. In MS63, the same issue is going to run at least $6,000. In the eagle series, the price differences are more extreme. An 1847 eagle in MS62 is a $7,500 coin but in MS63, if available, it could cost $20,000 or more. I believe that more collectors will begin to focus on high quality No Motto gold from the 1840’s and 1850’s in the near future and there are still many issues that a $5,000-10,000 per coin budget can secure a piece that is not that far removed from the Condition Census.

d) Type Two Liberty Head Double Eagles: The Type Two series has sort of fallen through the cracks in recent years. Type One double eagles are remarkably popular with collectors and the Type Three series seems to be an area that is a marketer’s delight right now. That has left the Type Two series as a sort of void. There are two areas in this market that I currently like as good values. The first are the scarcer date Philadelphia issues from 1866 to 1872 in About Uncirculated and above. The second are choice, original common dates in MS62 to MS63. The scarce Philadelphia issues have retained most of their value despite not having promoted in the last few years; imagine what an influx of new collectors might do to prices for these coins. Common dates in MS62 and MS63 are scarce and have dropped quite a bit in price from their highs of a few years ago. At $3,500-4,000 for a choice MS62 and $11,000-13,000 for a nice MS63 I like the value that these offer as type coins.

3. $10,000-25,000

1. Capped Head Quarter Eagles: In this price range, it is hard to beat the Capped Head quarter eagles (produced between 1829 and 1834) for value. All of these issues were produced in limited quantity and even the most “common” date (the 1829) has considerably fewer known than the early half eagles and eagles in this price range. After the market highs of 2006 and 2007, prices on Capped Head quarter eagles have dropped around 15-20% but few pieces have been available at the new lower levels. I especially like choice, original examples that grade between AU55 and MS62. In this grade range you are typically getting an aesthetically appealing coin. A nice About Uncirculated pieces will cost in the mid-teens while an MS62 that is properly graded will run in the low to mid 20’s. The “sleeper” date in this series is the 1833 while the 1832 is tougher than many people realize as well.

2. Classic Head Half Eagles in MS63 and MS64. I’ve already mentioned Classic Head quarter eagles in the first part of this article. I also like high grade Classic Head half eagles. In MS63 and MS64 this type is scarce and when these coins are nice they typically have great cosmetic appeal with lovely coloration and surfaces. Classic Head half eagles were made from 1834 to 1838. The commonest issues are the 1834 Plain 4 and the 1835. If you’d like an example of this design for type purposes, you are very likely going to buy an 1834 or an 1835 but the 1836 and 1838 are much scarcer and priced at just a 10-20% premium in the MS63 to MS64 range. Current price levels are around $11,000-12,000 for a nice MS63 and $18,000-20,000 for a nice MS64. Considering that a full Gem MS65, if available, will run around $60,000-65,000+, I think these MS63 and MS64 examples offer really good value.

3. Condition Census No Motto Issues: This area is a pretty narrow focus, I admit, but I think some of the best values in the entire coin market are in the $10,000-25,000+ Condition Census quality No Motto issues. This includes half eagles and eagles produced in the 1839-1866 era. I would throw the quarter eagles from this era into the mix as well. If you can find them, very high grade (in this case MS63 and higher) Philadelphia gold coins from the 1840’s and 1850’s seem like the best values in this area. The coins tend to be very well made, very attractive and genuinely rare in this grade. Given the fact that there are not many date collectors of these coins, they need to be viewed more as type issues. But it is hard to argue with their rarity in high grades, especially due to the fact that most smaller denomination Philadelphia gold coins struck prior to the Civil War are unknown in Gem and excessively rare even in MS64.

The Condition Census Defined

I make frequent reference to the term “Condition Census” in many of my articles, blogs and individual coin descriptions but it has been brought to my attention that some beginning collectors do not know what this term means. The concept of the Condition Census is credited to Dr. William Sheldon who employed it in the late 1940’s with the publication of his seminal work “Early American Cents.” The census was a “scientific” way of arriving at a coin’s value by listing, in serial order, the finest known example of a specific die variety and then a list of the next five finest. For each specific variety of early cent, a “basal value” was listed and a coin’s worth on the open market would be that value times the grade. As an example, if a specific variety had a basal value of $5 and it was graded EF40 by Sheldon’s standards, the value of the coin would be approximately $200.

This system seems somewhat quaint in the coin market of the 21st century, but the concept of the Condition Census has been co-opted to apply to a host of other series besides Large Cents. In some cases, the system is practical; in others it clearly is not.

When specifically applied to United States gold coins, the concept of a Condition Census sometimes makes sense. As an example, it is possible for an expert to create a list of the five or six finest examples of a rare issue such as an 1841-D quarter eagle. It is not practical to create a list of the five or six finest 1924 double eagles as there are numerous examples that could qualify in the Condition Census and it is virtually impossible to substantiate a claim that one is better than the other.

Sheldon’s concept of basal value certainly no longer applies to coins (when they became $10,000+ items, how could you establish an accurate basal value?) but the validity of listing the finest known examples of a specific date or major variety remains interesting to collectors. And the value of such a listing has become more and more important as collectors enter their sets into the PCGS and NGC Registries.

Most of my books have included listings of finest known and Condition Census branch mint gold coins. But beginning with my new book on New Orleans gold, I have stopped listing a Condition Census. I did this for a number of reasons. The first is that grading standards for most gold coins have clearly changed. So it made little sense to list a coin that last appeared at auction in 1997 versus another similarly graded coin that appeared for sale in 2005; in nearly all cases the 1997 coin was clearly better. The second factor was that owners of these coins (mainly dealers) were continually breaking them out of one holder and putting them into another in attempt to increase the value of the coin. It looked ridiculous, in my opinion, to have the same Condition Census coin appear in my listings as a PCGS MS61, then as an NGC MS62 and still later as a PCGS MS62.

What I have tried to do to replace this system is to list “significant examples” of a certain date. As an example, if there are five Uncirculated examples of a specific New Orleans half eagle known to exist, I’ve tried to list them all. They may not necessarily be listed in order from “best” to “worst” but I have included their prices realized when they appeared at auction and let the numbers speak for themselves.

One problem with a Condition Census listing is that there is a somewhat arbitrary nature in creating any such list. Grading will always have a degree of subjectivity attached to it and a coin that is graded MS61 may, in my opinion, not be as nice as one graded MS62 or even MS63. Let me give you a great example. A few years ago I was asked to look through what was probably the single greatest collection of Dahlonega gold ever assembled. For nearly every date, the collector had multiple coins and, in some cases, he had what were probably the first, second and even third finest known. He made the decision to reduce his holdings and wanted me to select the single coin for each date that I thought was the finest. I remember choosing an 1855-D half eagle in AU58 as a nicer coin than one in MS63 and eventually listed the AU58 coin ahead of the MS63 (both coins were graded by PCGS, in case you were wondering...) in my Dahlonega Condition Census listings.

A Condition Census listing is only valid if the person making the list is very knowledgeable and has no ulterior motive for making one coin “better” than another. I’ve always been impressed by the Large Cent collectors who, for the love of the game, keep meticulous Census listings not only for each variety but, in some instances, for die states. Now that’s what Numismatics is all about!

All About The Condition Census

The concept of Condition Census was first introduced to numismatics by noted Large Cent collector and researcher Dr. William Sheldon in the 1940's. Since then, it has been refined to include a listing of approximately the five or six finest examples of a specific date or type or in the case of series such as Large Cents or Bust Half Dollar, a specific die variety. All of my books on branch mint gold coins contain Condition Census information and I actively maintain a database with updated information for Charlotte, Carson City, Dahlonega and New Orleans issues. Some of these Condition Census databases can be purchased from me.

People who are new to rare coin collecting may not understand this information and this brief article is an attempt to make sense of the data which is contained in a typical Condition Census listing.

The three listings below are for 1839-D half eagles. They represent the coins that, in my opinion, are the finest examples of this date that exist. Obviously, this listing does not include coins that have never appeared at auction or which have traded privately in transactions of which I am not aware. In addition, there are probably links in these pedigree chains of which I am not aware; i.e., dealers who have sold or brokered one or more of these coins during a period of time in which the coin's history was not known.

1839-D Half Eagle Condition Listings

Private collection, ex New York Gold Mart (Ron Karp), Numisma (Stack's/RARCOA/Akers) 11/95: 1451 ($16,500), Winthrop Carner, Stack's 5/95: 433 ($24,200), Ed Milas. Graded Mint State-62 by NGC.

Green Pond collection, ex Heritage 1999 ANA: 7666 ($19,550), Chestatee collection (Duke's Creek duplicates), Hancock and Harwell, Leon Farmer collection. Graded Mint State-62 by PCGS.

Alabama collection via Al Adams, ex Bowers and Merena Bass IV sale, 11/00: 352 ($25,300), Harry Bass collection, Kreisberg 11/70: 1693. Graded Mint State-61 by PCGS.

As these three listings show, there are two Mint State-62 1839-D half eagles known. I regard the NGC MS-62 as the better one so it is listed first. There is more than one Mint State-61 piece known but the coin rated as #3 above is, in my opinion, the best and it is therefore listed as the first MS-61 in the Census.

The location of coin #1 is not currently known to me so it listed in a "private collection." There are other cases when I know the location of a coin but the collection wishes to remain completely anonymous.

This coin was either purchased directly or indirectly (I am not certain which) from New York Gold Mart, a firm owned by dealer Ron Karp, who in turn, purchased it directly out of a November 1995 auction where it was Lot 1451 and sold for $16,500. It was consigned to this sale by a dealer named Winthrop Carner who had purchased it from the Stack's May 1995 auction for $24,200. Prior to this, it was in the collection of Ed Milas, a well-known Chicago dealer. I am not aware of any pedigree information before it was obtained by Milas.

The second finest known 1839-D half eagle is a PCGS Mint State-62 coin that is in the Green Pond collection. It was obtained directly by this collector from the Heritage 1999 ANA sale where it brought $19,550. It was consigned to the sale by the owner of the Chestatee collection which was, in fact, a group of duplicates from the Duke's Creek collection. Before this, it had been obtained via private treaty from the Georgia firm of Hancock and Harwell who purchased it from a collector named Leon Farmer. I am not certain where the coin was before this, thus there is no earlier information listed.

The third finest known 1839-D half eagle is currently in an Alabama collection and it was obtained from the Bass IV sale held by Bowers and Merena in November 2000. In this sale, the collector employed the dealer Al Adams as his agent, which is why it is listed as being "via" him instead of "ex Al Adams." Harry Bass bought the coin from a November 1970 Abner Kresiberg sale.

Depending on your knowledge of Dahlonega gold coins and the players in the rare coin market, the information listed above either makes complete sense or it looks like the Dead Sea scrolls in ancient Hebrew.

To comprehend any Condition Census, you must learn the market participants. Learning the names of the dealers and auction companies is easy. Learning the name (real or assumed) of the collectors is harder and will take longer for the newcomer.

Assuming that you have read this article and have decided to make use of a Condition Census, your next question should be: how can I use this information to my best advantage? Some suggestions are as follows:

    Condition Census information can help you determine what to pay for a coin. The listings for high grade 1839-D half eagle shown above give an indication of what these pieces have brought at auction in the past ten years.

    Condition Census listings can help identify the pedigree of a coin. If you have purchased a high grade piece and you discover it is from a famous collection such as Bass, Eliasberg or Pittman, you have added value to your collection.

    A Condition Census will teach you which auction catalogs you should add to your numismatic library. You will see certain names mentioned again and again in any Condition Census. If you do not have this catalog in your library, you should consider purchasing it.

    A Condition Census will inform you which dealers are players in the market and which are not. My name is mentioned all through the 19th century branch mint gold Condition Census listings since I have handled so many of these coins in the past. This, in my opinion, verifies my claim as being an expert in this area. If a dealer you are buying high end pieces from claims he is an expert but has never owned important coins, this may be a sign that you need to look elsewhere.

Even if you collect lower grade coins which are not close to being Condition Census quality, you should still become familiar with these listings. In numismatics, knowledge is power and having this information will make you a better collector in every sense of the word.