The Ten Rarest Three Dollar Gold Pieces

In my continuing series that has focused on the ten rarest coins in each denomination of United States gold coin struck from the late 1830’s to the early 1900’s, I’ve nearly reached the end of the road. The last major denomination to discuss is the enigmatic Three Dollar gold piece. This denomination was produced from 1854 to 1889. For more details and history behind the series I suggest that you read the book the Q. David Bowers and I wrote in 2005. It is available through Stack’s and fine numismatic booksellers everywhere.

The ten rarest Three Dollar gold pieces are as follows: 1. 1870-S

2. 1875 (Proof only)

3. 1876 (Proof only)

4. 1873

5. 1877

6. 1865

7. 1884

8. 1881

9. 1854-D

10. 1858

1870-S: The 1870-S is the only unique regular issue U.S. gold coin. The sole example resides in the Harry Bass core collection that is currently housed in the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs. Bass purchased it for $687,500 at the Eliasberg sale in 1982. It had been acquired by private treaty from Stack’s in January 1946 for $11,500. The coin is not visually impressive when you see it in person. It has the details of Extremely Fine/About Uncirculated but it was once used as a watch fob by the former Chief Coiner of the San Francisco mint. It has the numbers “893” scratched on the reverse above the wreath tips at 12:00. Nonetheless, it remains one of the two most desirable regular issue United States gold coins, along with the 1822 half eagle. What would this coin bring if sold in the near future? That’s a hard question to answer. There are not many collectors that specialize in this series and the coin itself, as I mentioned above, is not destined to win any beauty contests. That said, it’s unique and it’s a legitimate regular issue with no mystery or controversy trailing it. I’d set the over/under line at $5 million and probably take the over...if I were a betting man.

1875: This date has been a celebrated rarity for well over a century and it is the first United States coin to eclipse the $100,000 mark at public auction, all the way back in 1972. The mintage is traditionally said to be 20 pieces, all in a Proof format. We can deduce with certainty that more than this were made to satisfy contemporary demand. Today, there are between two and three dozen known. Ironically, the 1875 is among the least rare Three Dollar proofs from this era, in relation to the total numbers known. But the fact that business strikes do not exist make it a very rare issue from the standpoint of overall availability. Gems continue to sell in the $175,000-250,000+ range and the level of demand for the 1875 continues to be as strong as ever.

1876: The 1876 is the second Proof-only date in the three dollar series. Like the 1875, its reported original mintage (45 coins in this case) does not include examples that were made later in the year for collectors. I believe that as many as 50-60 are known and it is possible that the original mintage may have been as high as 75-100. The 1876 is actually one of the most common dates of this entire type as far as Proofs go but, as with the 1875, there are no business strikes known which make it very rare from the standpoint of total numbers extant. Proofs are usually seen in the PR63 to PR64 range and Gems are rare with probably no more than a dozen or so known. There are auction records for this date in the high five figures as recently as a year or two ago.

1873: The 1873 Three Dollar exists with two significant varieties. The first is the Closed 3 which was struck as both a business strike and a Proof. The exact mintage of business strikes is not known but it is estimated to be in the area of 750-1000 pieces. There are around 75-100 known in all grades with most seen in the EF40 to AU50 range. In Uncirculated, the 1873 Closed 3 is very rare with six to eight known. The highest graded are a small number of MS64’s but I can’t recall having seen one that I felt was better than MS63. Proofs of this variety exist and these are extremely rare with just half a dozen or so known. There are also Proof 1873 Three Dollars with an Open 3. The estimated mintage is 40-50 (despite a Mint report of just 25 being produced) with fewer than 20 believed to exist. Business strike 1873 Closed 3 Three Dollar gold pieces are usually seen with semi-prooflike or nearly fully prooflike surfaces and most show extensive vertical die striations in the fields.

1877: Until fairly recently, this was a secret date in the Three Dollar series whose true rarity was known mainly by specialists. It has become better known and with good reason. There were a total of 1,468 business strikes produced of which an estimated 75-100 exist today. Most are in the EF45 to AU55 range and this date is very rare in Uncirculated with fewer than ten accounted for. I have personally seen five or six that I regard as properly graded Uncirculated coins and nearly all are in the MS61 to MS62 range. The best 1877 Three Dollar that I am aware of is Bass II: 696, graded MS64 by PCGS, that sold for a very reasonable $30,800 back in October 1999. This date is almost always seen with fully prooflike surfaces but it is reasonably easy to distinguish business strikes from Proofs based on their “look.” The surfaces are usually “ticky” with numerous small abrasions in the fields. Even though prices have risen quite a bit for this date in recent years, attractive, original pieces are rare and remain a good value.

1865: This is one of the more popular dates in the Three Dollar series due to its status as a Civil War issue and its very low mintage of 1,140 business strikes. Unlike the 1861-1864 issues, it was not saved or hoarded and my best estimate is that only 85-115 exist today. It is comparable in rarity to the 1877 in higher grades with maybe a dozen (at most) known in properly graded Uncirculated. Unlike the 1877, there are a few Gems. The finest is an NGC MS67* that was sold in the Jewell Collection by ANR in March 2005 for $57,500. PCGS has graded two in MS66 with one in the Great Lakes collection. The 1865 is generally found with prooflike fields and the few that remain with original color are characterized by attractive rose, green and orange-gold hues. As with the 1877, prices have risen appreciably in the last decade but choice, original examples remain good values at current levels.

1884: Many non-specialists think that the 1881 is the rarest business strike Three Dollar from the 1880’s but this is incorrect. The honor actually belongs to the 1884 which is a rarer coin than the 1881 in spite of a higher mintage. There were a total of 1,000 business strikes made in 1884 and around 90-120 are known today. Interestingly, the 1884 is an issue that is all but unknown in circulated grades. To wit, the current PCGS population is 82 of which just 12 (or under 15%) are in circulated grades. It is probable those most were never released by the Mint and were later melted. Because of poor handling, there are not many Gems. The typical 1884 grades MS62 to MS64. There are fewer than ten in Gem. The highest graded pieces include three in MS67 recorded by NGC and two in MS66 seen by PCGS. Heritage recently sold an NGC MS67 for $43,125 but the finest I am aware of is the PCGS MS66 in the Great Lakes collection. This date is typically found with good eye appeal. Most are prooflike but there are a number of frosty pieces as well. The color is typically a light to medium yellow-gold.

1881: The 1881 Three Dollar is a scarce by virtue of its tiny original mintage of just 500. Other dates from this era have very low mintage figures as well but the 1881 was not saved as carefully by contemporary collectors or hoarders and an estimated 100-150 exist today. The typical 1881 saw a small amount of circulation and grades in the AU50 to AU55 range. In Uncirculated, the 1881 is extremely scarce with around two dozen known. The finest known by a significant margin is a PCGS MS66 in the Great Lakes collection. I have never seen another Gem. There are an estimated four or five known in MS64 and around ten in MS63. As one might expect, all business strikes of this date are found with nearly fully prooflike fields. Business strikes are not hard to distinguish from Proofs. The former have no space between the top ends of the wreath on the reverse while the latter have space. I personally like this date very much and feel that its low mintage figure will continue to ensure its popularity.

1854-D: At first I wasn’t even going to put this date on the list but then I said “hey, wait a minute, a Top Ten list for Three Dollars and no 1854-D? Are you kidding me?” So, here it is, even though it technically might not be rare enough to make the list. The 1854-D is certainly one of the most popular Three Dollar gold pieces and it is, of course, the only coin of this denomination from Dahlonega. Just 1,120 were struck of which around 125-150 are known. This issue circulated more than one might expect and most are in the EF40 to AU50 range. Properly graded AU’s are very scarce and this issue is extremely rare in Uncirculated with only three or four extant. The finest is a PCGS MS62 in the Great Lakes collection. In addition to being numismatically unique, the 1854-D has a very readily identifiable “look.” Most are flatly struck on the obverse denticles from 7:00 to 3:00 and are weak on the reverse border from 3:00 to 8:00. The 1854-D may not be the best value on this Top Ten list but it is probably the most liquid issue in the series and it is a coin that most collectors of U.S. gold would love to own at some point in time.

1858: The 1858 narrowly edges out the 1867 for the final spot in this Top Ten list. It is the scarcest pre-Civil War Three Dollar gold piece. There were just 2,133 business strikes made of which an estimated 125-150 exist. This date is typically seen in the EF40 to AU53 range and properly graded higher end AU’s are quite scarce. In Uncirculated, the 1858 is a very rare and much underrated issue. The finest known is a stunning PCGS MS65 in the Great Lakes collection. I have personally seen two others that I grade MS64 and another three or four that grade MS63. In all, I believe that there are no more than ten or so that grade Mint State by my standards. Higher grade 1858’s have nice luster and color and good overall eye appeal. The usual circulated piece offered in today’s market has been dipped and shows numerous surfaces abrasions. It is possible to purchase an appealing 1858 for less than $5,000 and this seems like really good value to me.

So there you have it. Another month, another Top Ten list. Hopefully these lists have provided you, the gold coin specialist, with some good reference information and maybe even some motivation to begin a new collection.