I don’t write as often about San Francisco gold coinage as I do about the southern branch mints, but I buy and sell a lot of rare San Francisco issues in all denominations and I have a good overall handle on the health of this market…Read More
There are numerous San Francisco which are well known for their typically ratty appearance. This blog is not about these issues; it is about some of the seemingly more available issues which—in my experience—are surprisingly difficult to locate with good eye appeal.Read More
As I have discussed in prior blogs, a paradigm shift has occurred in the rare date gold markets in the last two-three years. Formerly unpopular areas of the market such as San Francisco half eagles and eagles and No Motto Philadelphia eagles (and others) have gone from “cool but hard to sell” to “top of the food chain” in a short period of time. There are a number of reasons why this has happened; some obvious and some not-so-obvious. What I find interesting is that the two collections responsible for this Tipping Point weren’t great old-school holdings like Eliasberg and Bass.
In January 2012, the San Francisco stamp auction firm of Schyler Rumsey sold the Broadus Littlejohn collection of US gold coins. This little-known collection hinted that something was afoot in the rare date gold market. Instead of focusing on traditional bellwether rare date gold items like Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles and half eagles (of which there were extensive date runs in the sale), the strength was in the eagle date run, especially the rare San Francisco coins from the 1860’s and the rare low mintage Philly coins from the 1870’s.
The Littlejohn sale was off the radar for many collectors and dealers, and even though I wrote a detailed analysis about the prices realized, I don’t think its impact was felt at the time.
What most dealers didn’t know (confession: myself included) was that there had been an all-consuming rare date gold buyer way off the grid. The Bently Collection, which focused on Western rarities from San Francisco and Carson City, was being quietly amassed, and it contained quantities which seem borderline unimaginable.
The Bently collection was a strange amalgam of coins ranging from no-grades to Condition Census pieces. Mr. Bently was a voracious consumer of certain issues (as an example, he appears to have had a “thing” for 1870-CC double eagles, and he owned more of them at one time than any other collector in history) and if he liked an issue, he’d buy it in “VG details” or MS65.
Which brings me to the gist of this story: the Bently Effect. How ironic is it that a little-known uber-accumulation of coins is probably more responsible for impacting the rare date gold market than once-in-a-lifetime master collector like Harry Bass? How much of it is the coins themselves, and how much is it the timing of the sale(s)? How much of it is the impact and reach of the internet? How much of it is just pure blind luck and changing trends within the market?
While I have been dazzled by the scope and breadth of the collection, I have been mostly underwhelmed by the coins themselves. For every nice, original coin in the Bently holdings, there are numerous coins that are either damaged or heavily processed. Bently was, I doubt, a bottom feeder and I doubt he was buying solely with price in mind. From what I know about Mr. Bentley, he was an older gentleman who sold his company and decided to enjoy his final years enjoying nice things. His primary supplier was faced with the age-old dilemma with this sort of numismatic supernova: do I sell my super-secret mega customer a few nice coins every week or do I sell him everything I can get my hands on? I would have chosen the former, but some dealers would choose the latter… (And who’s to say that this isn’t the better strategy from a business standpoint?)
A very curious set of circumstances happened while the Bently coins were being accumulated. Carson City double eagles became extremely popular and rose significantly in price; not as a result of Mr. Bently’s purchases but rather as a consequence of new collectors in the market and two large wholesale promotions. That Mr. Bentley had hundreds and hundreds of CC double eagles ranging from common dates in VF to rarities in Uncirculated was understandable given his interest in double eagles and western coins. That his estate came on the market at exactly the perfect time is one of those delightful coincidences that seemed to follow Mr. Bently around; a smaller version, perhaps of his life story.
A sophisticated collector recently asked me an interesting question about this collection; would Bently have been better off buying two or three nice 1875-CC double eagles (say MS62 to MS63) than twenty marginal (EF40 to AU50) examples? Possibly. But for many rare issues in the first three Bently auctions, the appearance of the coins themselves has had little consequence to their prices realized.
If you accept my statement that market areas such as rare San Francisco eagles are currently very hot, and you accept my premise that many buyers of such coins don’t really know the difference between a nice original coin and a processed but commercially acceptable one, you’ll suddenly understand why I have been pretty awed at the prices that a lot of the Bently coins have brought. As a dealer who has lived through decades of malaise for coins like 1860-S half eagles, to suddenly not be able to buy an AU58 after bidding close to $20,000 seems mystifying.
But we live in an era of Instant Numismatic Expertise and any collector can suddenly be armed with the same rarity and price information that an expert collector or dealer has taken years to accumulate. (Of course, accumulating this information and actually being able to make sense of it are two entirely different things…)
Looking back at the remarkable Bass sales of 1999-2001, one thing that instantly hits me is that could just as easily have been conducted by the Chapman Brothers in 1899-1901. I remember that the insanely great Bass II sale in 1999 was essentially carved up by ten or so bidders with no internet and almost no mail bidding. Imagine something like this happening today.
The Bently Effect is a set of circumstances that have come together to create the Perfect Wave in the history of the dated gold market. A market hungry for rare coins like 1864-S half eagles and eagles. A lack of availability of these coins (partly due to the fact that Mr. Bently had bought nearly every available example in the last 5+ years). A shift in taste in the dated gold market with Big and Western suddenly being the new “in” coins. The ability of Heritage to properly catalog, market and sell these coins (Kudos to whoever is managing the Bently collection and resisting the temptation to sell too many duplicate coins at once, as have other ultra-comprehensive sales in the past). And, last but not least, the power of the new Internet-driven market which has forever changed the coin business, in ways in which we still do not (in 2014) totally understand.
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 email@example.com.
If you are a collector of San Francisco gold coins, there are a few buying tips I’d like to offer. These range from pretty basic to pretty savvy, and they can be applied (in some cases) to other series if San Francisco coins are not your particular cup of chai.
1. Don’t Pay Shipwreck Prices for non-Shipwreck Coins
It is an established fact in the market that coins from the major shipwrecks are worth a premium over non-shipwreck coins. This is especially true for S.S. Central America coins with low shipwreck populations. But this information can be misinterpreted and can cause a collector to overpay. Let me give you an example.
Recently, I was offered a decent quality AU58 1855-S double eagle by another dealer. As part of his sales pitch, he mentioned that an example had recently sold for $7,931; thus his coin, priced at $7,500, seemed like a good deal. What he conveniently failed to mention to me was that this auction price was for a coin pedigreed to the S.S. Central America and that the last non-SSCA coin had brought $5,288. Once I mentioned this, his reaction was a simple “oh…I forgot to mention that, huh?”
When you are figuring prices for S mint coins, especially Type One double eagles, the sales records for shipwreck coins have little bearing on non-shipwreck coins and vice versa.
2. Don’t Pay Full Shipwreck Prices for Re-Packaged Coins
The premiums that shipwreck coins sell for are packaging-dependent. In other words, an AU58 1855-S double eagle from the S.S. Central America is worth more (quite a bit more in fact) if it is in an original PCGS gold-foil holder than in an NGC holder. Why? Because in this instance, the coins from the SSCA were originally graded by PCGS, and collectors want them in their original packaging.
Another example: in 2013, three PCGS/CAC MS66 1857-S double eagles in their original gold-foil holders were sold at auction, and they brought $32,900, $32,900, and $33,030. Two NGC MS66 examples sold this year and they realized $17,625. Why? Because the market clearly realizes that these coins were formerly PCGS MS65’s and because they are no longer in their original holders.
3. Premium Quality San Francisco CAC Coins Can Be Worth Significant Premiums
As I have previously discussed, many San Francisco issues do not come nice, and it is likely that their CAC populations will be very low. Let me give you two quick examples.
The 1862-S half eagle is a very scarce date in all grades and it is seldom found choice and original. PCGS has graded 39, and CAC shows a current population of just two coins; an EF40 and an EF45. Now granted that many 1862-S half eagles in PCGS holders have not been sent to CAC, but the fact two only two have been approved (and none above EF45) indicates that this is an issue that is not seen with a nice, natural appearance.
As another example, let’s look at the 1862-S eagle; a date which is nearly as rare as its half eagle counterpart. PCGS has graded 45 examples and CAC shows a current population of just two: an EF45 and an AU55. Again, not all the PCGS coins have been sent to CAC, but my feeling is that the percentage of 1862-S eagles (and half eagles) with CAC approval will remain very small; probably less than 10% of the coins graded.
It seems to me that CAC approved examples of the 1862-S half eagle and eagle should be worth a fairly significant premium above their non-CAC counterparts.
4. How Do You Price Very Rare Date San Francisco Gold?
When it comes to rare/very rare San Francisco gold coinage, most published price guides are of little to no use. Auction prices are far more relevant, and this is how I price such coins. So how do you price a coin in, say, EF45 when the last auction record was in 2008?
Here are some of the factors that I take into consideration when pricing San Francisco gold. First, is the coin fundamentally rare? In the case of the aforementioned 1862-S half eagle and eagle, these are issues which are rare in all grades. Secondly, how nice is the coin which is being offered to me? Is it abraded, not terribly original and softly struck, or is it relatively free of marks, original and well impressed for the issue? If it is the former, an older auction record might have some weight with my pricing. If it is the latter, I know I will have to stretch; maybe considerably.
5. The Two Distinct Groups of San Francisco Gold
As San Francisco gold becomes more popular, we are seeing a distinct bifurcation of the market: the coins made prior to 1879 which tend to be rare in all grades, and the coins made after 1879 which tend to be rare only in high (or very high grades).
I think we will continue to see quite a bit strength in the rarity-driven market as collectors tend to be more interested in coins like 1862-S half eagles in VF than in 1892-S half eagles grading MS64. The market for condition rarities will be more hit or miss. Certain coins, including many of the “top pops” from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, will be eagerly absorbed into collections. Others may prove far harder to sell.
6. Year Sets Will Become Popular
There were six different denominations of gold coinage produced at the San Francisco mint. There were just four years in which all six denominations were made, and one of these includes a unique issue (the 1870-S three dollar). This leaves collectors with three possible choices for six-coin year sets: 1856, 1857, and 1860.
None of these three years contains an impossible rarity, and the first two years could even be completed in Uncirculated grades. The 1860-S is the most difficult set as the half eagle and the eagle are both rare in all grades, and virtually impossible to find above AU55.
I don’t think these sets are The Next Big Thing in coin collecting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few savvy collectors attempted to complete at least one year.
7. Learn What Real Color Looks Like
There are numerous high-value San Francisco gold coins in both PCGS and NGC holders which have questionable color. I suggest you learn what original color looks like for the San Francisco issues which are of interest to you. Notice I didn’t suggest you learn how to grade; I think most of you taking the time to read this have other things to do with your few free minutes per day. But I do think it’s important to learn that, as an example, all 1862-S quarter eagles are supposed to have a certain shade of color, and if you see one which isn’t close to this shade, it’s likely been enhanced.
How do you learn what original coins look like? Look at catalogs with old time collections (Bass, Norweb, James Stack, and Eliasberg) and study the hues/patterns of color that these coins had. Go to the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs and study the Bass coins. Carefully study the raregoldcoins.com Coinapedia to see hundreds of pictures of unmolested, original coins.
8. Learn How to Differentiate Strike vs. Wear on Type One and Type Two Double Eagles
Many new collectors of San Francisco gold are thrown off by the difference between strike and wear on Type One and Type double eagles; two of the most popular series from this mint.
As you begin to learn about these coins, you will begin to determine that certain issues are always found with weakness on the hair or on the stars or even at the centers. Learn which issues are struck which way. This is reasonably easy to do as photo archives for higher grade San Francisco double eagles can be found on ha.com or on PCGS Coinfacts.
9. Best Value Grades
I have written before on Best Value Grades. As San Francisco gold coins become more popular and increase in value, I think this is an important point for collectors to consider.
10. Does Size Matter?
So far, the San Francisco gold coin renaissance has been led by large-size coins: eagles and double eagles. Will this increase in popularity carry over to smaller coins?
I can see gold dollars and three dollars from this mint becoming popular due to the possibility of these being collected by series, and the possibility of these sets being completed.
The quarter eagles from this mint I’m not as sure about. The fundamentals of these coins make sense to me. Other than the 1854-S, all the issues are obtainable and many can be purchased in Uncirculated grades for under $5,000. But with the exception of the Civil War issues, these coins have just not yet caught on with collectors.
The “wild card” series is the half eagles. These are already reasonably expensive coins and in the case of the Civil War rarities, and they are more expensive than most any southern branch mint half eagle while (currently) being far less popular. It is hard to call a moderately popular (but indisputably rare) issue like an 1862-S half eagle “undervalued” when it is already a pricey coin. But “value” is relative, especially in the rare date gold market and I think San Francisco half eagles—at least those struck prior to 1878—are destined to become very avidly collected in the next few years.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Type One (1854 only)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your new San Francisco gold collection!
After many years of neglect, the Liberty Head gold coinage from the San Francisco mint is becoming popular with collectors. This makes sense as it is, for the most part, affordable and there is no denying the historic connotation(s) of the early issues. In my experience, one of the most collectable groups of gold coins from this mint is the eagle coinage from 1854 through 1878. The first quarter-century of eagle coinage from the San Francisco mint is full of rarities and it makes an especially challenging set for the collector of means. In this two-part article, I'll take a look at each date in the series (from 1854 through 1878) and at some important varieties as well.
In Part One, which is included here, we'll cover the No Motto dates produced from 1854 through 1866. In the second part, which will be published next month, we'll cover the With Motto issues from 1866 through 1878.
1854-S: A popular issue due to its status as the first eagle from this mint but one of the easier gold coins dated 1854-S to locate due to its large initial mintage of 123,826. The 1854-S is mostly found in EF40 to AU53 grades. It is scarce in properly graded AU55 to AU58 and extremely rare in Uncirculated. The only Uncirculated 1854-S eagle that I have seen was an NGC MS62 that was owned by Kagin's around six or seven years ago; it was later sold to a West Coast specialist. This date is most often found with abundant abrasions and impaired luster and any choice, original piece is scarce.
1855-S: The mintage for eagles dropped to just 9,000 during this year and the 1855-S eagle is a rare, under-appreciated coin. I believe that there are around fifty to sixty or so known in all grades with most in the VF30 to EF45 range. In About Uncirculated, the 1855-S eagle is quite rare and of the ten to twelve known, almost all are abraded AU50 to AU53 pieces. I have never seen an 1855-S eagle that graded higher than AU55 and just two or three at that level. PCGS has graded a single coin in AU58 and there are currently none known in Uncirculated. Despite the rarity of this date, it generally trades in the $5,000-7,500 and it seems like exceptional value to me.
1856-S: The mintage for San Francisco eagles rose to 68,000 in 1856 and the 1856-S is one of the more readily available early dates from this mint. There are hundreds known in the EF40 to AU50 range and this date is available--at reasonable levels--even in AU55 to AU58. For many years, the 1856-S eagle was unknown in Uncirculated but a few high grade examples were found in the S.S. Central America treasure. The finest is a PCGS MS63 that is ex Christie's 12/00: 73, where it sold for $19,550. At least one or two others exist in PCGS MS62 including ANR 5/05: 378, which also brought $19,550. Varieties are known with a Medium S (as on 1854 and 1855) and a Large S which is significantly scarcer. As with the 1854-S, this is a date that is very hard to find with original color and minimally marked fields.
1857-S: The rarity of this date is somewhat skewed by the availability of the double eagles dated 1857-S but it is actually a relatively scarce coin. A few hundred are known and these tend to be in the EF45 to AU53 range. Properly graded AU55 to AU58 examples are very scarce, especially with natural color and choice surfaces. There were a few high quality pieces found in the S.S. Central America treasure and the best of these, graded MS64 by PCGS, is ex Heritage 2/09: 2906 ($53,188), Christie's 12/00: 74 ($40,250). There is at least one other 1857-S eagle that has been graded MS63 by both PCGS and NGC. All examples have a Medium S mintmark and there appears to be at least two different date positions.
1858-S: Beginning with this issue, the eagles from the San Francisco mint become rarer than the previous dates (with the exception of the 1855-S) and part of this is attributable to low mintages. Of the 11,800 eagles made at this mint in 1858, it is likely that only fifty or so are known today and most are seen in very low grades. Interestingly, this date is slightly more available in AU grades than one might expect with as many as fifteen known. I have never seen an Uncirculated 1858-S and only one or two AU58's that I thought were accurately graded. No example stands out in my memory as being the clear finest known as nearly all have been dipped and are very heavily abraded. This is a date that the fussy collector is going to have a hard time appreciating and it might be smart to consider a decent EF45 to AU50 instead of the banged-up AU55 to AU58 coins that are seen from time to time.
1859-S: The mintage of this issue is a low 7,000; the smallest amount for any San Francisco eagle produced through this year. There are fewer than fifty known and the 1859-S is a rare issue in all grades. The average example is in the VF30 to EF40 range and an accurately graded EF45 is extremely scarce. In AU grades, the 1859-S eagle is very rare with fewer than ten known. PCGS has graded just one in AU55 with none better while NGC has graded an AU58 and an MS60 (neither of which I have seen in person). All 1859-S eagles have a Large S mintmark which seen on the reverse of the 1859-1862 San Francisco eagles as well.
1860-S: Only 5,000 examples of the 1860-S were made and this is clearly among the rarest gold coins of any denomination from this mint. This is an issue that is generally seen well worn, with subdued luster and with abraded surfaces. There are as many as six or seven properly graded AU examples known as well as two in Uncirculated. The finest is an NGC MS62 that appears to be ex Stacks 9/06: 1491 ($36,800) and the second best is ex Superior 5/08: 132, S.S. Republic ($36,800). All 1860-S eagles have the same Large S mintmark that is seen on all SF eagles made between 1859 and 1862. While not an inexpensive issue, the 1860-S seems undervalued to me and it still does not get the respect that its Civil War counterparts have generated in recent years.
1861-S: Surprisingly, the mintage figure for 1861-S eagles is higher than in previous years and there were a respectable 15,500 produced. This date is scarce but not nearly as rare as the 1859-S or 1860-S. There are an estimated 80-90 known with enough in the VF-EF range to supply most of the collectors in this series. The 1861-S eagle becomes rare in AU and is very rare in properly graded AU55 and above. It is unique in Uncirculated with the only piece currently accounted for being an NGC MS61 that is ex Heritage 1/12: 4977 ($54,625). There are some reasonably attractive 1861-S eagles known with a decent amount of original color and nominally abraded surfaces. All 1861-S eagles have a Large S mintmark.
1862-S: The 1862-S eagle is considerable scarcer than the 1861-S, despite their relatively similar mintages; a total of 12,500 of the 1862-S were made. It appears that many were melted and those that did survive tend to show extensive circulation with the typical survivor grading VF25 to EF40. The 1862-S is rare in EF45 and very rare in About Uncirculated with probably no more than a half dozen or so accurately graded pieces known. The finest, by a huge margin, is the unique NGC MS61 that brought a remarkable $103,500 in the Heritage 4/11 sale. The next best that I have seen after this coin is an AU55 from the Bass collection. The 1862-S typically shows light golden-orange color, flat radial lines within the atars and plenty of abrasions on the surfaces. This is the last year in which the Large S mintmark would be used until it was resurrected in 1865.
1863-S: An even 10,000 eagles were made at the San Francisco mint in 1863. The 1863-S is a bit rarer overall than the 1862-S with around 45-55 known in all grades but it is actually slightly more available in higher grades. There seem to be as many as a dozen extant in AU grades and there are three in Mint State. The finest is Heritage 10/95: 6330 ($27,500), ex Norweb II: 2188 ($7,700) and this is graded MS61 by PCGS. The second finest, also graded MS61 by PCGS, is ex Bass IV: 684 ($18,400). The third finest is an NGC MS61 that was last sold as Goldberg 2/09: 1535 ($37,950). The reverse uses a Medium S mintmark. Despite the overall rarity of this issue, there are some reasonably attractive examples known and with some patience, the collector should be able to find an 1863-S eagle in the EF45 to AU53 range that is acceptable.
1864-S: I have written extensively about this issue and have stated before that it is not only the rarest eagle from this mint but the second rarest Liberty Head eagle, trailing only the 1875. The mintage was just 2,500 (the lowest for any San Francisco eagle) and the survival rate is low as well. Around 20-25 are known in all grades with many either very well worn (I have seen examples in grades as low as VF20) or damaged. The 1864-S is unknown in Uncirculated and exceedingly rare in AU with just two or three known. The finest is a PCGS AU55 that is ex Bass III: 656. This will be the single most difficult coin in the set for the specialist who is working on a SF eagle set. The few coins that are available (I have handled just two in the last decade) tend to be cleaned, well-worn and unappealing. As I have said before, if you have a chance to acquire one, throw caution to the wind!
1865-S Normal Date: There are two varieties of 1865-S eagle known. The first, which has a Normal Date, is the rarer with an estimated three dozen or so known. The total mintage of this date is 16,700 and it is possible that around 5,000 to 7,000 were struck with the Normal Date obverse. This variety is usually seen with bright surfaces, multiple bagmarks and a sunken appearance which is especially prominent at the reverse center. I have never seen or heard of an Uncirculated 1865-S Normal Date eagle and am aware of just two or three with claims to the AU55 to AU58 range. While not an inexpensive coin, I think it is still undervalued given the fact that it is among the ten rarest issues in the entire Liberty Head eagle series. An advanced San Francisco eagle collection with a nice mid-to-high level AU will have a coin that is not likely to ever be improved.
1865-S Inverted Date: There are few United States gold coins with a higher "cool factor" than this variety. The 186 in the date was originally punched upside down and was then corrected. This can be seen with the naked eye and it is a variety that is not seen on more than a handful of other United States issues. While more available than its Normal Date counterpart in terms of overall rarity, the Inverted Date is rarer in high grades. It is extremely rare in AU with no more than three or four known and it is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated with exactly two known. The finest is a PCGS MS64 that is originally from the Brother Jonathan hoard. It sold for $115,000 in 1999 and when it was resold by Bowers and Merena in their 8/01 auction it brought only $81,650; the second finest is an NGC MS62 from the S.S. Republic that is now owned by a western specialist. This is an issue that is generally seen with a very flat strike at the centers and heavy wear which impairs the luster. Most are in the VF-EF range and have been dipped as well as showing excessive abrasions. A nice EF-AU example of this fascinating variety would make a great addition to a San Francisco eagle set.
1866-S No Motto: This variety was struck early in 1866, before the changeover to the With Motto variety; the 1866 Philadelphia eagles are only known with the new With Motto reverse. A total of 8,500 No Motto 1866-S eagles were coined and this is rare coin in all grades. There are around four dozen known with most in low grades (VF to EF). The 1866-S No Motto eagle is extremely rare in properly graded AU with maybe a half dozen properly graded pieces known. The finest that I have personally seen is Bass IV: 689, graded AU58 by PCGS, that sold for $21,850 a decade ago. This is an overlooked issue that is comparable to the 1860-S and 1865-S eagles in terms of overall rarity and as rare, if not rarer, in high grades.
In 1866, the San Francisco mint changed over to the With Motto design and this continued until the Liberty Head design was abolished in 1907. In next month installment of this two-part article, we'll look at the 1866-S to 1878-S dates.
Would you like to collect these interesting San Francisco eagles? If so, Doug Winter can guide you. Email him today at email@example.com and let him explain even more about these fascinating coins!
Collector K.U. recently asked me to help him construct a compact, meaningful list of San Francisco gold coins to form the basis of his collection. The parameters were as follows: the dates selected must have historic and/or numismatic significance, they must be selected for being the best value grade for the issue in question and, where possible, they should be dated around the Civil War era or earlier. I gave this list some thought and tried to narrow down the list to a dozen or so coins. I eliminated the 1854-S quarter eagle due to financial considerations and the 1854-S five dollar due to realism. I then tried to include at least one example of each of the six denominations of gold coins struck at the SF mint and, because of the collector's taste, limited the set to those issues struck in the 19th century. (I might have included the 1920-S eagle and a rare date Saint or two if the list had been longer...)
As I've pointed out before, San Francisco gold coinage of the Liberty Head design can basically be divided into two groups: the "golden era" issues struck from 1854 through around 1878 and the other issues made from 1878 until the new 20th century designs were incorporated in 1908. I personally find the former much more interesting due to their low mintages, the fact that they tended to be actively used in commerce and are thus often exceedingly rare in higher grades and their low overall survival rates.
Without further ado, here is the list:
1. 1854-S Gold Dollar: In my opinion, one of the ways in which to make this set more interesting was to include as many first year of issue coins as possible. The 1854-S is an ideal choice for inclusion in this set given its first-year status. With a mintage of 14,632 this is not really a scarce coin but it is not really easy to locate in higher grades. I am fond of the 1854-S because it tends to be much better made than the other branch mint gold dollars of this era and I find it to be quite undervalued. A nice Uncirculated example could be located in the $5,000-7,500 range and for the collector on a more limited budget, it is possible to acquire a really solid AU 1854-S dollar for less than $2,000.
2. 1856-S Gold Dollar: I wasn't originally going a second gold dollar in the set but the numismatic significance of this issue is hard to overlook. The 1856-S is the only Type Two gold dollar from this mint and it is also the only Type Two from any mint that was made in 1856; a transitional year in which the new Type Three design was struck at the Philadelphia and Dahlonega mints. The 1856-S is fairly easy to locate in lower grades and becomes rare only once the MS62 to MS63 level is reached. Many examples show a dramatically double punched mintmark which doesn't add value but which does increase the "coolness" factor exponentially. A choice circulated example can be purchased for $3,000 to $5,000 while a nice Uncirculated piece has become a bit pricey at $7,500-15,000 and up.
3. 1862-S Quarter Eagle: The obvious picks for quarter eagles are not so obvious. The 1854-S is out of the question due to its hefty price and the next few "early dates" (the 1856-S and 1857-S) aren't that interesting. So, given the collector's interest in Civil War issues, I selected the rarest Civil War quarter eagle from this mint: the 1862-S. Only 8,000 were produced and I have found the 1862-S to be a tough, elusive coin that is still not entirely recognized by rare date gold collectors. I've only handled one Uncirculated 1862-S in 25+ years of buying choice SF gold (the finest known PCGS MS63+ I purchased in the February 2012 Goldberg sale for $43,250) and know of just one or two others. A nice EF example, when available, is still affordable (in the $2,500-3,500 range). A mid-range AU is hard to find but still not priced at more than $5,000-7,500.
4. Scarcer Date 1870's Quarter Eagle in Uncirculated: You can't have just one quarter eagle in this set, right? But there really isn't a date from the post-Civil war era that stands out to me so my suggestion is to buy a better date issue from the 1870's (such as the 1871-S or 1872-S) in MS62 or MS63. These coins are legitimately scarce in this grade (with on order of five to ten known) but are not that expensive with prices ranging from around $4,500 up to $7,500 and more. What I like about these types of coins is that they tend to be well made, attractive and there are very few known in grades higher than MS63. A few sleeper dates are known and these include the 1870-S, 1873-S and 1876-S but even these aren't terribly expensive...yet.
5. 1855-S Three Dollar: To be varied and complete, this set needs a Three Dollar gold piece so why not include the first-year-of-issue 1855-S? Only 6,600 examples were made but this issue is generally available in EF and AU grades. And prices remain very reasonable for this issue, despite its numismatic significance. I recently sold a choice, original EF45 with CAC approval in the mid-3's and also sold a decent PCGS AU55 in the low 10's. In high grades, the 1855-S becomes very rare and I am aware of only three to five Uncirculated examples as well as a unique branch mint proof which is now in an East Coast specialist's complete set of Proof Threes.
6. 1855-S Half Eagle: Even if this collector had unlimited funds, he wouldn't be able to buy an 1854-S half eagle. So, for all intents and purposes, an 1855-S is the first-year-of-issue for the half eagles from this mint. As you might expect with a coin that had 61,000 struck, this isn't a real condition rarity and decent EF's are reasonably plentiful and very affordable. Lower end AU's remain a good value in the $2,000-3,000 range but properly graded AU55 to AU58 examples are rare and undervalued. I can only recall having seen one Uncirculated example (a PCGS MS62, ex Bass II: 1077). A piece of advice about 1855-S half eagles: be patient. There are a lot of crummy examples out there but a few nice ones do exist and with prices still so reasonable for this issue it pays to be selective.
7. 1864-S Half Eagle: This formerly obscure issue is becoming famous and well it should; it is the second rarest Liberty Head half eagle and a very rare issue in all grades with around two dozen or so known from the original mintage of just 3,888. Despite this coin's great rarity, it is not yet priced at the level that I believe it should be. I recently sold a PCGS VF30 for $21,500 which seems like a lot for a coin graded VF30 but, when you consider this date is far rarer than a number of coins that sell for six figures. I don't often say this but here is an issue that you should throw caution to the wind and be very aggressive if one becomes available. I think the 1864-S half eagle has great upside potential and as San Francisco gold grows more and more popular, this has the potential to be a six figure coin.
8. 1876-S Half Eagle: This has been a favorite "sleeper" date of mine for years. Only 4,000 were struck and it is an issue that exceeds the better known Civil War issues from the 1861-1863 era in terms of overall rarity. I regard it as the second rarest collectible half eagle from this mint (after the 1864-S) and I believe that there are fewer than fifty known in all grades. It is an easy issue to identify as all known examples have a dramatic ring-like punch in Liberty's earlobe. There is one known in Uncirculated: the Garrett I: 487 coin that sold for $34,000 back in November 1979 and which I think is one of the single most desirable (and least well known) Liberty Head half eagles of any date or mint. From time to time, EF's are available and they still can be had for less than $5,000 (cheap!!) while a decent AU will cost two to three times this amount.
9. 1854-S Eagle: The 1854-S is not even close to being the rarest early date SF eagle of this denomination but as the first-year-of-issue its certainly the most historic and a great Gold Rush artifact. The 1854-S has a high original mintage of 123,826 and there are certainly 500+ known in all grades (making it arguably the most available coin in this collection). But it has a coolness level that is off the proverbial charts and it is affordable. I sell nice AU's in the $2,500-3,500 range and I recently sold a great-looking PCGS AU58 for $5,750. Most examples are very abraded and few have original color; hold out for pieces that are relatively mark-free and nicely toned. I have only seen or heard of one Uncirculated 1854-S eagle, an NGC MS61 that was sold privately by a West Coast dealer around six years ago.
10. 1864-S Eagle: I've written extensively about this issue so I won't flog a dead horse. But I will say, for the dozenth time, this coin is rare, rare, rare. It is the second rarest Liberty Head eagle after the 1875 and it is certainly a coin that would sell for six figures if it were in almost any series other than the Liberty Head eagles. I just offered a lovely PCGS VF30 with CAC approval on my website and was surprised (but not really surprised) to get multiple orders for it within the first day it was listed. I would offer the same comments with this issue as I would with the 1864-S half eagle: if you get the chance to buy one that you can live with, act quickly and decisively.
11. 1854-S Double Eagle: The 1854-S is an odd coin. It seems like it shouldn't be that rare (over 140,000 were made) and the population figures aren't all that low. But the survival rate is astonishingly low with just a few hundred known. And what PCGS or NGC figures won't tell you is that nearly all the Mint State 1854-S double eagles are from the S.S. Yankee Blade shipwreck. This means that examples in any grade with original surfaces are rare and I have only seen two examples in Uncirculated (a PCGS MS60 and an NGC MS61) that didn't have seawater surfaces. After years of being inexpensive, the 1854-S got discovered a few years ago and it has probably tripled in price in the last three years. I still think its not a bad value and, in fact, just sold a PCGS AU50 for less than $9,000.
12. 1857-S S.S. Central America Double Eagle in MS64 to MS65: I wasn't going to put this issue in the proposed San Francisco collection but after some thinking, I just had to add it. How can you collect San Francisco gold from the 1850-1880 era and not own a nice SSCA 1857-S? They are big, beautiful, historic coins that beg to be included in any set. My parameters are pretty straightforward on this issue: buy a coin in the original gold foil SSCA PCGS holder, get the original bells and whistles that came with it and avoid a piece that has turned in the holder. That leaves probably over a thousand available coins in the $10,000-15,000 price range.
13. 1861-S Paquet Reverse Double Eagle: The thirteenth--and final--coin in the set is probably the most expensive but certainly among the most interesting. The story of the Paquet has been told many times before but I think the important things to remember about this issue is that it was virtually unknown until examples were found in Europe in the 1950's. It jumped dramatically in price a few years and mid-range AU's were topping out at over $125,000. Prices have receded since then but I note that demand for this issue is coming back. It is extremely hard to find examples with good eye appeal and many of the "real" EF's have been scrubbed into AU50, AU53 and even AU55 holders. My advice: if you see a good looking Paquet and the price isn't goofy, get aggressive. I'd budget at least $75,000 for a nice Paquet.
Do you need help devising a collection of United States gold coins? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and perhaps I can answer your questions with a blog just like this one.