Two Sales, Three Coins, One Opinion: One Dealer's Quick Take on the ANA Auctions

The ANA week has never been easy for a small numismatic firm like mine to handle, and when I learned that this year’s version included not one but two companies’ auctions I let out an audible groan. This was repeated when I saw the offerings online: both Heritage and Stack's Bowers had impressive sales, and I would need to carefully view them.

I booked flights to Orange County and Dallas to view the sales in person and at my leisure. One thing I have learned about auctions is that viewing conditions have to be ideal. For me this means the following: my special coin lamp, my music played loud over headphones, no distractions, and plenty of time to take notes on the coins I’m most interested in. I can’t do this at a coin show as, by then, my nerves are frazzled and I can’t properly concentrate. And when I don’t pay full attention, I make mistakes. In my level of dealing, a small mistake can equate to thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars so I want to be cautious, careful, and critical.

The sales were very successful for me. I spent in excess of $2 million dollars including a record-setting purchase of the ultra-rare 1861 Paquet double eagle. (But that’s another story.) The tale I want to tell here is about three coins which I have chosen for what I believe to be their overall level of interest to gold coin enthusiasts.

1. The One I Got at My Price

Lot 11077, courtesy of Stack's Bowers

Lot 11077, Stack's Bowers. 1804 Small 8 over Large 8 half eagle, PCGS AU55, Old Green Holder.

A good client of mine has been searching for the “right” 1804 half eagle for the better part of two years. We’ve bid on a few at auction and always come up just a hair short; on others I’ve put the kibosh to the coin due to quality issues. The above referenced coin, after I saw it in person, was exactly what this collector would want and I knew it was a coin he would be excited about.

After we discussed it on the phone, we debated the value. I told him it was a coin I would gladly bid $10,000 on to stock it for my inventory. We decided to go to $11,000 in the sale, and I was told, “Don’t let this one get away.”

The coin opened at $9,000 and another floor bidder jumped in at $10,000. I bid $11,000 and waited to see if my bid would be topped. After a long pause, it wasn’t, and the coin was mine.

The collector texted me about fifteen seconds after the lot had closed and asked, “Was that our bid?” When I told him it was, I got back a short but rewarding text: “YESSSS!!!!!!!” He was happy, I was happy, and the coin now has a great new home where it will be appreciated for years and years.

2. The One I Ripped

Lot 12010, courtesy Stack's Bowers

Lot 12010, Stack's Bowers. 1854-S double eagle, PCGS MS64, ex SS Central America.

I’m going to be honest. It took me longer to “like” the SSCA coins than most gold coin experts. I had trouble with the coins due to the conservation and the lack of “originality.” But as time has marched on, I have come to like these coins, and certain coins from this wreck really excite me. This 1854-S was one coin that truly floated my boat.

This specific coin was the single finest of only 25 examples of this date found on the S.S. Central America. In addition, the 1854-S is a condition rarity in the Type One double eagle series, and it is desirable as the first double eagle from the brand new San Francisco mint. Not to mention the fact in person this coin was outstanding; quite possibly the best 1854-S double eagle I had ever seen and clearly finer, in my opinion, than the PCGS MS65 which sold for $115,000 in the Heritage 10/08 auction.

With this information at hand, I decided that I would bid up to $80,000 hammer on this coin and I might even stretch a bit if I had to. The coin, it turned out, was reserved by the consignor at $57,500. This meant that a $60,000 bid was required for a potential sale. The auctioneer opened the lot, I bid, and in a matter of seconds, it was hammered to me at $60,000, meaning I purchased it all in at $70,500. I considered this to be an excellent purchase and I grinned quietly, waiting for my next lot to come up in a few minutes.

3. The One That Got Away

Lot 4120, courtesy of Heritage

Lot 4120, Heritage. 1865-S double eagle, NGC Improperly Cleaned, Uncirculated Details.

I don’t generally buy “problem coins” and I never, ever, ever doctor said pieces, but this lot was a really big riddle to me. It was the first and only truly Gem example of this date that I had ever seen except for one big problem: it had been lightly cleaned around the date years ago. Without this cleaning, this was a slam-dunk MS65 and, as an example with original surfaces (i.e., not from the Brother Johnathan or Republic shipwrecks) it could easily be worth $50,000++.

I had a dealer friend who is smarter than I am about such coins look at this and he agreed with me that it was a “no grade” now and likely a “no grade” in the foreseeable future. Still, I was haunted by this coin, and I threw in a bid of $5,000 just for the heck of it.

The coin wound up bringing $11,162.50, and I can guess which dealer bought it even without knowing the answer. I will be on the lookout for this coin in the near future and I won’t be shocked if it is in a “regular” MS65 holder and priced at some crazy number.


So there you have it: two sales, three coins, and one very tired dealer’s opinions. I greatly enjoyed my participation in both of these sales, and thanks go to Stack's Bowers and Heritage for putting on such a great group of coin auctions.


Do you buy rare gold coins?

Do you have coins to sell?

Would you like to have the world’s leading expert help you assemble a set of coins?

Contact me, Doug Winter, directly at (214) 675-9897 or by email at

Why is San Francisco Gold Hot Right Now?

As recently as a few years ago, I was wondering why San Francisco gold coins weren’t as popular as I thought they should have been (a blog from one year ago, for example). But a combination of factors has quickly turned the market for certain San Francisco gold coins, and still other factors bode well for the future popularity of nearly all gold coins from this facility.

Why have San Francisco gold coins gone from unpopular to popular in a relatively short period of time? I think there are a few factors at play.

The first is obvious: rarity has really become en vogue in the coin market in the last few years, and it is hard to argue with the fact that most pre-1878 San Francisco gold coins are both absolute and condition rarities. You don’t have to suspend disbelief when, for example, you look up the number of coins graded at PCGS for 1860-S eagles and you see a whopping 23 graded (and assuming the typical number of resubmissions, this might equate to as few as 15 separate examples). Many new collectors have become attracted to coins which are rare not just because a piece of plastic says so.

The second is less obvious: I see younger collectors coming into the rare date gold market and these individuals tend to not want to buy the coins that their parents were attracted to. Which, in certain cases, means out with the southern branch mint coins and in with the western mints. If you think about it, Charlotte and Dahlonega coinage has reigned supreme in dated gold popularity circles for over 25 years. Maybe it’s just time the pendulum swung somewhere else, and San Francisco coins became popular as a result.

The third is simultaneously obvious and not obvious: the various shipwrecks full of San Francisco double eagles have focused considerable attention on large-sized coins from this mint, and the newly-discovered Saddle Ridge Hoard is likely to do this yet again. Does the typical collector who buys an 1857-S S.S. Central America double eagle in MS65 suddenly take an interest in 1857-S gold dollars or quarter eagles? Probably not, but you can certainly make the connection between the new interest in San Francisco gold with all the publicity these finds have generated in both the pre-internet and internet eras.

The Saddle Ridge Hoard motivated me to provide readers with a basic guide to San Francisco gold coins of all denominations, and to provide some collecting tips as well.

Before we look at each denomination and type, a couple of things need mentioning for beginning collectors. The San Francisco mint opened in 1854 and struck gold coins, with occasional interruptions, until 1930. Gold coins were struck in the following denominations: dollars, quarter eagles, three dollar gold pieces, half eagles, eagles, and double eagles.

Gold Dollars

Type One (1854 only)

1854-S $1.00 PCGS MS64 CAC

The 1854-S dollar is a one-year type which saw a mintage of 14,632. It is common in circulated grades and available from time to time in the lower Mint State grades. It becomes rare in MS63 to MS64, and Gems are extremely rare. There are probably two or three known in MS65, and the best I have personally seen is the Pittman I: 863 coin, now graded MS65 by PCGS, which was recently sold to a California specialist; it brought $33,000 back in its 1997 auction appearance. I like this issue a lot and find it to be much undervalued, given its numismatic significance as a dual first-year-of-issue and one year type.

Type Two (1856)

1856-S $1.00 NGC MS64 CAC

The ill-fated Type Two gold dollar design was introduced in 1854, but it didn’t reach the San Francisco mint until 1856; a year in which the Philadelphia and Dahlonega mints were already striking dollars with the new Type Three design.

The 1856-S dollar is a common issue in circulated grades and a surprisingly high number exist from the original mintage of 24,600. It is moderately scarce in the lower Uncirculated grades, rare in properly graded MS62 to MS63, and very rare above this. I have never seen a Gem, and maybe four or five in MS64 which I thought were choice. The current auction record for this date is $52,875, set by an NGC MS64 with CAC approval which sold as Heritage 2/13: 3910.

There are two varieties known for this date: the normal mintmark, and the visually impressive S/S which is actually the most common of the pair.

The 1856-S is another numismatically significant issue which is a one-year type.

Type Three (1857-1860 and 1870)

1857-S $1.00 NGC MS61 CAC

Type Three dollars were made at the San Francisco mint for just five years, including a ten year gap between the fourth and the final issue. The first four issues all have reasonably similar mintages (between 10,000 and 13,000) and similar rarity profiles. All are usually seen in EF45 to AU55 grades and are very scarce in the lower Mint State grades. Most are exceedingly rare in MS63 and above, and non-existent in Gem. The 1870-S has a mintage of only 3,000 coins but it is more available than its earlier counterparts, especially in comparatively high grades.

The Type Three gold dollars from San Francisco are very affordable and a nice About Uncirculated set could be assembled for around $10,000. I think these coins are very undervalued, especially in properly graded MS61 and above.

Liberty Head Quarter Eagles (1854-1863, 1865-1873, 1875-1879)

1854-S $2.50 PCGS VF35, ex Norweb

The quarter eagles from this mint begin with the second rarest gold coin ever produced in San Francisco: the 1854-S. A mere 246 were struck, and there are an estimated dozen or so known with the single finest of these grading AU50 at PCGS. For many years, the 1854-S quarter eagle was a neglected Classic Rarity. Prices began to appreciate around ten years ago and have risen since, but I still feel that the 1854-S is an undervalued coin compared to other less rare 19th and 20th century issues.

The other San Francisco quarter eagles from the pre-Civil War years are less interesting (and far more available) than the 1854-S. The Civil War issues themselves are scarce with the low mintage (8,000 struck) 1862-S leading the way.

The 1865 through 1873 issues form one of the more undervalued groups in all of American numismatics. These coins are certainly not rare in circulated grades, but nice AU coins are typically available in the $1,500-2,500 range and these represent excellent value. Most of these dates are even available, from time to time, in the lower Uncirculated and are still comparably affordable.

This denomination was terminated by the San Francisco mint after 1879. Today, quarter eagles from this mint are not terribly popular with collectors. This could very easily change and a nice quality set, minus the rare 1854-S, is still within reach of the collector with an average budget. In fact, if I were a collector with a budget of around $2,500 per coin, I would seriously look at specializing in San Francisco quarter eagles.

Three Dollar Gold Pieces (1855-1857, 1860 and 1870)

1855-S $3.00 PCGS MS61

Production of this odd denomination was a seeming afterthought at the San Francisco mint with only one issue, the 1856-S, having a significant original mintage figure. The four obtainable San Francisco three dollar gold pieces are all reasonably obtainable in EF and the lower AU grades, but all are scarce in properly graded AU55, rare in AU58, and very rare in Uncirculated.

The rarest collectible three dollar gold piece from this mint is the 1855-S with an original mintage of just 6,600. It is a numismatically significant issue due to its status as a first-year issue, but unlike its counterparts the 1854-O and 1854-D, it is not a one-year type and it is not as popular as the two southern coins. The 1855-S is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated and there is a single Proof known which brought $1,322,500 in Heritage’s 8/11 auction.

The 1870-S is a unique issue which is in the ANA Museum. It was purchased by Harry Bass from the Eliasberg sale in October 1982, and when it next becomes available, it will shatter all prices records for a gold coin from the San Francisco mint.

As far as collecting this series goes, it is short-lived and fairly easy to complete with just four issues (not including, of course, the unique 1870-S). For $30,000 or so, a nice AU set could be assembled. An Uncirculated set is possible, but it would be very challenging, especially if the collector is careful to avoid coins graded MS60 and MS61 which are debatable as to their “newness.”

Liberty Head Half Eagles

a. No Motto, 1854-1866

1856-S $5.00 NGC AU58

The thirteen coin San Francisco No Motto Liberty Head half eagle is a very challenging set. Only one or two coins (the 1856-S and 1857-S) are reasonably easy to find in collector grades and every date in this series is, at the very least, rare to extremely rare in the higher AU grades.

The kingpin of this set, and arguably the most valuable gold coin ever struck at this mint is the 1854-S. Only 268 were made, and just three are known today with one in the Smithsonian Institution and the others in private collections. The finest of the three is the Eliasberg coin, currently owned by a Texas collector, which could bring $4-5 million or more if offered for sale today.

The next rarest No Motto half eagle from this mint is the 1864-S of which an estimated 30 or so are known including one gem PCGS MS65+ example which is ex Norweb/Bass.

Many of the San Francisco No Motto half eagles are either unknown or unique in Uncirculated, and even the reasonably common 1856-S and 1857-S are very rare in Uncirculated with just three or four known for the former and seven to nine for the latter.

For many years, demand for the rare No Motto half eagles from San Francisco languished. This was due to a combination of factors including conspicuous overgrading of available coins by the services, the lack of published references, inflated values in published price guides, and more.

Around three or four years ago, No Motto half eagles from San Francisco became more popular. Interestingly, prices rose from the bottom up. I began noticing coins like 1858-S half eagles in VF25 and 1860-S half eagles in VF30 selling for very strong prices at auction, especially if they were in PCGS holders, choice and original for the grade, and eye appealing for the issues. Coin like 1858-S or 1860-S half eagles graded AU55 haven’t quite shown this level of appreciation, but this tends to be because most of the coins of this caliber are not CAC quality.

b. With Motto, 1866-1888, 1892-1906

1867-S $5.00 PCGS EF45 CAC

The With Motto half eagles from San Francisco can basically be divided into two distinct groups: the rare (and mostly) interesting issues from 1866 to 1876 and the available (and mostly) uninteresting issues from 1877 to 1906.

The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the half eagle denomination in 1866 but no before dual varieties were produced at the San Francisco mint. 9,000 of the No Motto half eagles were struck compared to 34,000 of the With Motto coons and the latter are more available.

My favorite “sleeper” date from this era is the 1867-S which is rarer than its mintage of 29,000 would suggest. There are only 60-80 known in all grades, and I have never seen one above AU55. Despite this issue’s obvious scarcity, it is affordable and I recently sold a pleasing PCGS EF45 for just a hair over $3,000.

1876-S $5.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

The 1876-S is the single rarest With Motto half eagle from this mint. Only 4,000 were produced and this date is not often seen above AU50. It is unique in Uncirculated with the Garrett coin having been graded MS64 by PCGS; nothing else known comes close.

Beginning in 1877, mintage figures increase for half eagles from San Francisco and by the end of the 1880’s, they sometimes exceed 1,000,000 coins. Many of the San Francisco half eagles from the 1880’s, 1890’s and early 1900’s exist in significant quantity in grades up to MS64 and the high mintage 1901-S is common even in Gem Uncirculated.

The “sleeper” issue for the late dates from San Francisco is the 1894-S. It has a much lower mintage than the other post-1878 dates. This date is not often seen above MS62 although an amazing NGC MS69 (ex Clapp/Eliasberg) is known; it recently sold for $176,250.

The With Motto half eagles from this mint are not as popular with collectors as the No Motto issues. This means that there are some great values in this sub-set, especially in the 1867-1876 date range. The later dates are currently of interest primarily to type collectors but it is certainly possible that they may receive more focus from date collectors in the future.

Indian Head Half Eagles (1908-1916)

The attractive incuse Indian Head design was created by Bela Lyon Pratt and it was used on both the quarter eagle and half eagle denomination. The San Francisco mint produced half eagles using this design from 1908 through 1916.

1915-S $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

There are no great rarities in the nine-coin Indian Head half eagle set from San Francisco, unlike the eagles and double eagles from this era. All of the San Francisco issues of this type can be easily found in AU grades and even in the lower Mint State range at reasonably affordable prices. These issues tend to become scarcer (and expensive) in the MS63 to MS64 range and nearly all are very rare in MS65.

Indian Head half eagles tend to be collected in one of two ways: in affordable AU58 to MS62 grades or in challenging MS64 to MS66 grades. In the case of the former, the San Francisco specialist will have an easy time. In the case of the latter, he will be greatly challenged as dates like the 1913-S and 1915-S are extremely rare in Gem.

Liberty Head Eagles

a. No Motto, 1854-1866

1864-S $10.00 PCGS VF30

Unlike its quarter eagle and half eagle counterparts, the Liberty Head eagle series contains no stoppers like the 1854-S from both denominations. That said, the No Motto eagles from San Francisco contain many very dates and one—the 1864-S—which has finally been recognized as a truly rare issue.

The 1854-S eagle is an interesting issue as it has a comparatively high mintage of 123,826 and it is rather easy to locate in EF and lower AU grades. The real “sleeper” among the early San Francisco eagles is the 1855-S with a mintage of just 9,000. This date is unknown in Uncirculated and very rare in AU. Other early dates from this mint which are rare to very rare include the 1859-S and the 1860-S.

I mentioned the 1864-S eagle in the opening paragraph of this section and I think some more comments are in order about this date. Of the 2,500 struck, there are likely no more than 25-30 known. For close to a decade, most of the available specimens were sold to one collector and now that his collection is being sold, price records for this date are being shattered. Heritage recently sold a PCGS EF45 for $117,500 and it is likely that this price will be eclipsed if a nicer example is made available in the coming months.

Despite the great fanfare that the 1864-S eagle has recently received, other rare issues in this series remain fairly priced. I am a big fan of the 1860-S but I like the Civil War issues as well. With the exception of the 1854-S, 1856-S and 1857-S, virtually all of these No Motto issues are nearly unobtainable above AU50, especially with original color and choice surfaces.

b. With Motto (1866-1889, 1892-1903, 1904-1907)

1870-S $10.00 NGC AU55

As with the half eagles from this mint, there are two distinct rarity profiles for San Francisco With Motto eagles. The coins struck from 1866 through 1878 tend to be very scarce to rare in all grades and virtually impossible to find in Uncirculated. while the post-1878 dates were struck in greater quantities and are much more available. In fact, the 1901-S has the highest mintage figure of any Liberty Head eagle and it is the single most available date of this type to locate in MS65 to MS66 grades.

The top “sleeper” dates in the With Motto series? In the earlier dates, I like the 1870-S and the 1876-S (although this second date is not really a secret any longer) and in the later dates, I like the 1894-S and 1895-S; two issues which are very scarce in Uncirculated.

It is feasible to collect the With Motto San Francisco eagles by date as there are no stoppers and many of the later issues can be found in comparatively high grades. While this type hasn’t really been much collected by date, perhaps the discovery of some interesting With Motto San Francisco eagles in the Saddle Ridge Hoard might spur interest.

Indian Head Eagles (1908-1916, 1920 and 1930)

1908-S $10.00 PCGS MS64 CAC

Augustus St. Gaudens’ Indian Head design was introduced on the eagle denomination in 1907, but the first San Francisco coins were not struck until 1908. They were produced without interruption through 1916, then in 1920 and 1930.

The two rarest San Francisco issues of this type are the 1920-S and 1930-S. Both were heavily melted and didn’t see much in the way of circulation. The 1920-S is the rarer of the two and it is extremely rare in higher grades. The finest known is the famous PCGS MS67 from the Duckor collection that realized $1,725,000 in March 2007. The finest known 1930-S is also graded MS67 by PCGS and it realized $299,000 in a January 2009 auction.

A date which is not as well-known is the 1913-S. This is the true “condition rarity” among San Francisco eagles of this design. It is only moderately scarce in the lowest Uncirculated grades but it is rare in MS63, and Gems are extremely rare. The finest known is an NGC MS67 (formerly graded MS66 by PCGS) which brought $299,000 in 2009, and $287,500 in 2007.

A Gem set of San Francisco Indian Head eagles would be extremely difficult to complete and very expensive as well. A set in MS63 to MS64 (with a few Gems included) is more feasible, but certainly not an easy accomplishment.

Liberty Head Double Eagles

a. Type One, No Motto (1854-1866)

1854-S $20.00 NGC AU58+ CAC

For a variety of reasons, Type One Liberty Head double eagles are the single most avidly collected series of gold coins from the San Francisco mint. These coins are big, they can be found in relatively high grades, they are affordable, and only two issues—the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto—are hard to locate.

The first year of issue, the 1854-S, is a curious coin. It is reasonably available in higher grades but nearly every known example has matte surfaces from exposure to seawater. High-grade examples with original surfaces are extremely rare.

Many dates of this type are plentiful in Uncirculated due to shipwrecks such as the S.S. Central America, S.S. Brother Jonathan, and the S.S. Republic. Nearly every serious collector has seen or may even own a nice Uncirculated 1857-S double eagle from the Central America. There were thousands of choice to gem examples of this date, and they spurred considerable interest in other San Francisco double eagles and shipwrecks coinage in particular.

1861-S Paquet $20.00 NGC AU53

The rarest Type One double eagle from this mint is the 1861-S Paquet Reverse. A total of 19,250 were struck but most were melted and an estimated 100 or so are known today, mostly in EF40 to AU50. This issue is unknown in Uncirculated, and most seen have very heavily abraded surfaces, poor luster and negative eye appeal.

1866-S No Motto $20.00 PCGS EF40 CAC

Another interesting variety is the 1866-S No Motto. 120,000 were struck before orders were received to changeover to the new With Motto reverse. Many were melted but this variety has lately become very popular with collectors. A PCGS MS62+ from the Saddle Ridge Hoard is the new finest known and this is likely to be the single most highly valued and sought-after coin from this treasure.

Type One doubles from San Francisco are popularly collected by date. With the exception of the 1854-S, 1861-S Paquet, and 1866-S No Motto, all eleven coins can be obtained in nice AU grades for four figure prices. This set could not be completed in Uncirculated due to the current status of the Paquet and most high-budget collectors “settle” for an AU55 or AU58 example.

b. Type Two, With Motto (1866-1876)

1866-S $20.00 With Motto, NGC MS61

The 11 coin set of Type Two Liberty Head double eagles is very popular as well and, unlike the Type One series mentioned above, it can be completed in Uncirculated grades. The two rarest San Francisco Type Two issues in higher grades are the 1866-S With Motto and the 1867-S. Both of these are seldom seen above MS60 to MS61 and are characterized by heavily abraded surfaces and soft strikes.

A few of the Type Two San Francisco issues are relatively plentiful in MS62 to MS63 and, as a result, they are popular with type collectors. These include the 1875-S and the 1876-S.

The “sleeper” date of this type is the 1873-S Closed 3 which is an issue almost never seen above MS60 to MS61.

c. Type Three, With Motto and value spelled TWENTY DOLLARS (1877-1885, 1887-1907)

1877-S $20.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

Type Three San Francisco issues are typically divided into two groups: those from 1877 to 1881 which are condition rarities and the later issues which tend to be far more available, even in higher grades.

The 1877-S through 1881-S double eagles are all extremely scarce above MS62 and mostly unknown (at least until the discovery of some exceptional pieces in the Saddle Ridge hoard) in Gem Uncirculated. These dates tend to be extremely abraded hence the reason most are graded AU58 to MS61 by the services.

The Type Three double eagles from 1882 onwards are found a bit more often in MS63 and even MS64 grades but nearly all dates are rare to very rare in MS65.

This is an easily completable series which should see the most immediate benefit from the Saddle Ridge Hoard due to the fact that most of the coins in this 1,400+ piece group were of this type. Some dates, such as the 1889-S and 1890-S, are suddenly far more available in MS64 and MS65 than before as a result of discoveries from the hoard but these coins are likely to be quickly absorbed into the market.

St. Gaudens With Motto (1908-1911, 1913-1916, 1920, 1922, 1924-27, 1930)

The beloved St. Gaudens double eagle was produced in huge quantities at the San Francisco mint. Dates range from very common to very rare.

The San Francisco double eagles which are hard to find are rare as a result of heavy meltings. As an example, there were 558,000 double eagles made at this mint in 1920 but the survival rate is low and today the 1920-S is represented by fewer than 300 coins. In Gem, this date is extremely rare with probably no more than four or five known.

The single rarest St. Gaudens double eagle from this mint is the 1930-S. It has the lowest mintage of any date from San Francisco except for the 1908-S (which was saved as a first year of issue) and around 125-150 are known, mostly in the MS62 to MS64 range.

Collectors don’t typically specialize in San Francisco Saints as they tend to focus on either the whole series if they have big ambitions, or they dabble in the series with occasional forays into the higher grade type coin realm and/or slightly better dates.

So there you have it. In around 4,000 words an encapsulation of the various types and designs of San Francisco gold coinage, with pieces ranging from super common to exceedingly rare (and even in the case of the 1870-S $3.00, unique).

I personally feel that the future for better quality gold coins from this mint is rosy. I’ve seen a strong influx of new collectors into this area of the market, and prices have risen accordingly. But there are many undervalued, sleeper issues that are as good a value as anything in the U.S. gold coin market.


Do you buy rare gold coins?

Do you have coins to sell?

Would you like to have the world’s leading expert with you assembling a set of coins?

Contact me, Doug Winter, directly at (214) 675-9897 or by email at


Why Do San Francisco Gold Coins Get No Love?

The City by the Bay gets my vote as by far the nicest city in which the U.S. Mint ever struck coins.

San Francisco is a cultural hotspot with museums galore and a long history of supporting the arts. It relishes its history, isn't afraid of it's somewhat sketchy past, and is home to more upscale, artsy residents per capita than probably anywhere else in the country. It should be a hotspot for collecting and its 19th century gold coinage should be as — or more popular — than its Podunk Western cousin, Carson City, right?

Actually it's not. San Francisco gold gets (relatively) no love from coin collectors. It's not a great coin town and, curiously, there are far fewer collectors for San Francisco gold coins than one would expect. This market is finally beginning to show some legs but it is still far less popular than I think it should be.


I think there are a lot of reasons. some clear and obvious, some far-fetched and obtuse. Let's look at a few reasons why San Francisco gold coins aren't that popular (yet), what the current trends in the market are and what the future holds for these issues from the Barbary Coast.

1. There Are "Too Many" Issues

San Francisco produced gold coins with virtually no interruptions from 1854 through 1916 and, sporadically in the 1920's and early 1930's. This is the longest production run of any branch mint and only the Philadelphia mint struck more coins during this time period.

Clearly, there are a lot of gold coins struck at the San Francisco and not all of them are "interesting." This is a contrast to the southern mints of Charlotte and Dahlonega which had shorter production runs and from which every coin has some degree of numismatic scarcity and desirability. The pre-1879 San Francisco Liberty Head gold coins tend to be far more interesting than their post-1879 counterparts and, admittedly, these later issues tend to be viewed as a group which sort of just drags on and on.

This plethora of issues tends to intimidate the novice collector. To state, "I'm a collector of San Francisco gold," entails denominations ranging from gold dollars to double eagles and, quite frankly, this is intimidating. It is important for the potential San Francisco collector to immediately become a specialist and focus on either one denomination or a subset (i.e., No Motto half eagles from this mint).

Which brings us to the all-important point number two...

2. There's No Reference Book on San Francisco Gold Coinage

Reference books exist on virtually all the mints that struck U.S. gold coins and specialized books by Bowers, Dannreuther, Akers, Goe and others cover early gold, certain non-southern branch mints. But, to date, there is no single specialized reference work on San Francisco gold.

For years, I've given this project strong consideration but the amount of work it will take to write a San Francisco gold coin book is staggering. And it's a real Catch-22: the market will be jumpstarted by said book but who wants to spend the time, effort and money to undertake this project when it will probably sell 500 copies and go overlooked? It's truly a labor of love and the handful of dealers that I think are qualified to write such a book (myself included) are probably too busy buying and selling coins to pen a 400-500 page opus on SF gold. 

Until a good standard reference book on these coins is published, the market is destined to trail areas such as Carson City, Charlotte, Dahlonega and New Orleans.

3. There's No Marketmaker(s) In This Series

If you want to buy a nice Dahlonega half eagle, there is a small but stable core of suppliers that collectors know where to turn to. Same with Type One double eagles, Proof gold and early gold, to name a few. But who is an iconic marketmarker for San Francisco half eagles; a dealer you know is always going to have a nice date run of Civil War era coins or some Gem semi-scarce issues from the 1880's and 1890's? At this point, there is no one dealer who is "Mr. San Francisco gold."

1861-S Paquet $20.00 NGC AU53

Ironically, there has been some exceptional marketing in one area of the San Francisco coin market: Type One and Type Three double eagles. The former has been the domain of a West Coast firm for over a decade and it began as an off-shoot of the S.S. Central America shipwreck. They had a brainstorm many years ago which proved prescient: you buy a gorgeous 1857-S double eagle in MS64 or MS65 and you get hooked; the next logical step is a date set of Type One double eagles from this mint. That's why coins like the 1854-S, 1861-S Paquet Reverse and the 1866-S No Motto have tripled in value in the last decade.

If this West Coast marketer started to focus on San Francisco gold which complimented its double eagle focus, it might be a huge shot in the arm for these coins. If a collector bought a nice 1857-S double eagle, wouldn't he want to assemble a date set of 1857-S gold? In theory yes but there is one problem. While there are thousands of Gem and Superb 1857-S double eagles available, all the other denominations from this year are rare to very rare in Uncirculated and non-existent in Gem. How do you explain to a new collector that the AU58 1857-S eagle he is being offered to go with his 1857-S double eagle in MS65 is the best available coin for that denomination?

4. Modern Coins Have Hurt the "Unusual Date" San Francisco Market

A coin like an 1864-S eagle is clearly a "rare date" issue with an avid collector base. And a 1901-S eagle is clearly a "generic" issue which is bought and sold like a commodity by investors and investor-collector hybrids. Then there coins like, say, an 1883-S eagle which is not really a rare coin but is clearly not a common generic issue. I sort of jokingly refer to these as "unusual dates."

Before modern coins became popular, "unusual date" San Francisco gold was popular with marketers and it might sell for a 20%, 30% or even a 40+% premium over common dates. The sales pitch was easy to make: here is a coin which is fifty times more rarer than a generic issue for just a 30% premium. It made sense.

But today, most of the firms that would sell these "unusual dates" are focused on moderns where the supply is unlimited and the margin are consistent. And this has not only destroyed the market premium for a coin like an 1883-S eagle in MS62, it has hurt the ability for a coin like the 1883-S to be used an entry portal into the rarer coins from this mint, like the 1864-S eagle.

If a few of the firms which used to sell "unusual date" San Francisco gold would resume their programs, this might be good for the long-term health of the market.

5. One Of The Horses Has To Finish Last In The Race....

If we throw out Denver as a branch mint (because it's my blog, I get to make the rules) that leaves us with five branch mints. One has to be the most popular (I'm going to give that honor to Carson City although I could see a case for Dahlonega and one has to be the least popular. To paraphrase the immortal words of my high school baseball coach, "in a horse race, one of the animals has to finish last."

But if one branch mint has to finish last in a Numismatic Popularity Contest, why San Francisco? With all the newly created wealth in Northern California from nerd-centric professions such as engineering, entrepreneurship, social media, etc. one has to wonder if the time is coming for San Francisco gold coins.

Interestingly, a few of my newer clients are in their 30's, have made a good deal of money from Internet or tech-related businesses and are from the bay Area or Silicon Valley. They are very attracted to SF gold and when they "run the numbers" (as you would expect a Tech Wonk to do) they quickly conclude that these issues seem like great value when compared to southern gold.

So could this be the future of the San Francisco gold market? Hard to say but if these few new collectors are any indication and at least one or two of the problems listed above is addressed, than we may be seeing a strong new market developing right before our very eyes.

Are you interested in San Francisco gold coinage? Would you like to assemble a world-class collection of gold from this mint? Whether you are Mark Zuckerberg or Mark the Dude from Around the Block, I can help! Please feel free to email me directly at to discuss your new San Francisco gold collection!


1856-S $20.00 PCGS MS63 CAC

While not indicated as such on the insert of the holder, my guess is that this coin is from the S.S. Central America shipwreck. It doesn't have the "look" that most of the coins from this source show but the luster is just a tiny bit semi-matte in texture and the color, a medium orange-gold hue, is suggestive of some exposure to seawater. Regardless of its origin, this coin has amazing detail, exceptional surfaces and a really great look for an early date San Francisco Type One issue. There are just a few tiny scuffs in the fields that are hard to see with the naked eye and a tiny pinprick-sized grease stain on the cheek is mentioned solely for future identification. The 1856-S is many, many times rarer in this grade than the 1857-S and to find any date other than the 1857-S in MS63 (and with this appearance) is no easy task. The last PCGS MS63 1856-S double eagle to sell at auction was Heritage 1/10: 2245 that realized $15,525 and PCGS MS63 examples have been routinely bringing between $12,000 and 14,000 at auction since early 2005.

Is It Time to Buy an S.S. Central America Double Eagle?

For many years, it's been no secret that I haven't been a big fan of the 1857-S double eagles that trace their origin from the famous S.S. Central America shipwreck. I've written that price levels of these coins haven't made sense to me and I've have had problems with their appearance. More than a decade after they were first released onto the market, has my opinion changed? I believe that this is (finally) a sensible time to purchase an S.S.C.A double eagle. But there are some important parameters for the collector to follow when considering a purchase. Some of these are as follows:

1. Be Selective. There are over 5,000 1857-S double eagles from this shipwreck and they range in grade from Extremely Fine to Mint State-67. With this wide variety of grades, there are a tremendous number of coins to choose from. At any given major auction, there are typically three to five available and it isn't terribly hard to find them in specialist dealer's inventories. I have noticed a huge variation in quality for coins in the same grade. As an example, I've seen some in MS63 holders that I've loved and I've seen some in MS63 holders that I thought were horrible. Spend 10-20% more and buy a coin that is high end and attractive. In some instances, you will be able to buy nice, high end examples for little or no premium.

2. Find the Sweet Spot. In my opinion, the "right" grade range for one of these 1857-S double eagles is MS63 to MS64. There is not much of a premium for these two grades over AU and lower Mint State grades and when you buy a coin that grades MS63 to MS64 you are getting good value. In the current market, AU58 examples can bring as much as $3,500-4,000. An MS63 is worth around $7,000-8,000 while an MS64 is worth $8,000-9,000. It seems to me that an MS63 at around 2x the price of an AU58 is good value. And it also seems to me that an MS64 at around $1,000 more than an MS63 is good value as well.

3. Stick With Coins in Original Holders. It is important to focus on 1857-S double eagles that are in their original gold foil PCGS holders. And having the original box and other packaging is an added benefit. Avoid coins that are not in these holders and stay clear of NGC graded S.S. Central America double eagles. They may be nice coins but they have been cracked from their original holders and probably upgraded.

4. Avoid Coins That Have "Turned" in the Holder: All of the coins in this treasure were conserved after they salvaged. The conservation process has been well-documented and, in some cases, the work was outstanding. But there are other coins that have "turned" in the holder. These can be identified either by very hazy surfaces or unnatural splotchy golden color. Avoid these coins and look for pieces that are bright, lustrous and evenly toned. At this point in time, coins that haven't turned are probably not going to.

5. Disregard The Die Varieties. All 1857-S double eagles from the shipwreck are attributed to a distinct die variety. There are over 20 varieties known. Some are probably rare but it is even rarer to find a collector who cares. I'd suggest not paying a premium for these.

6. If You Are Buying a PL or DMPL Example, Carefully Study the Market. A very small number of 1857-S double eagles were designated as either Prooflike (PL) or Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) by PCGS. These are some of the most visually arresting coins from the shipwreck. I have seen a few pieces in the last few years bring extremely high premiums. These are no doubt very scarce and very flashy coins but I question the premium that they are currently bringing. If you do decide to purchase such a coin, carefully check auction prices for comparable examples and make certain that the price you are paying is in line with the last auction trade.

Now that I've told you the coins to avoid, let me tell you my ideal S.S. Central America double eagle and let me tell you why my opinion about these coins has changed over time. My ideal 1857-S double eagle from this shipwreck would be a choice, high end PCGS MS64 in a gold foil holder with original papers and box. It would be very lustrous and bright with no haze or discoloration. I'd expect to pay $8,000 to $9,000 and I'd expect to be able to find a nice one within a month or two of beginning my search.

What made me change my mind about these coins? For years, I thought they were very overpriced. I don't remember the exact issue price but I do know that whenever I would buy the coins from original investors, they would have to sell them at a loss; often a considerable one. I didn't like it that there was no real secondary market for these coins and that many of the investors who bought them had been told that they would appreciate in value.

What changed about these coins, at least for me, was the creation of a secondary market. A few of the larger firms that sell Liberty Head double eagles have done a great job of creating this market. For many new double eagle collectors, a bright, shiny high grade 1857-S is a great starter coin and this has created a new level of demand that hasn't exited since the coins were being sold (and heavily hyped) over a decade ago.

Another thing that changed my mind about the S.S. Central America coins is their comparative value with other Type One double eagles in higher grades. As an example, compare an MS64 1857-S to an 1861 in this grade. Prior to the discovery of this hoard, the 1861 was the "generic" date of this type and it was certainly the only coin that was seen, from time to time, in MS64. In 2001, an MS64 1857-S in a PCGS gold foil label was a consistent seller at auction for $6,900. At that same point in time, an 1861 would sell for $10,000 to $12,000. Today, the same 1857-S is only worth $8,000 while an MS64 1861 would sell for $18,000-20,000+. Non-1857 S double eagles in high grades have become expensive and hard to locate. This has increased demand for the 1857-S double eagles and I wouldn't be surprised to see them reach $10,000 in the next year or so.

One last observation about my about-face. I've seen thousands of 1857-S double eagles from this shipwreck and I've got to admit, that they've grown on me. Ten years ago, when conservation was not so widespread, these coins appeared funky and I hated the way they looked. Today, with conservation more readily accepted (and way more widespread) they don't look so funky anymore. I love the quality of strike and blazing luster that many of them show and they are certainly an interesting contrast to the dirty, crusty often bagmarked AU Type One double eagles that are a staple of my day-to-day business. Do I love these coins? Not really. But I've become more accepting of the way they look and have always loved their back story. Today, if a collector asks me "should I buy an S.S. Central America double eagle my answer will typically be "yes, but with a few red flags." A few years ago, my answer would have been a quick and curt "no."