When Is Deep Cameo/Ultra Cameo Proof Gold Worth a Premium?

Having recently handled a considerable number of impressive Proof gold coins, I've been thinking about when a specific coin is worth a premium because of is status as a Deep Cameo (PCGS' modifier) or Ultra Cameo (NGC's modifier). After a brief explanation of these terms, I'd like to use a few examples of the coins I've sold to illustrate scenarios in which I feel a premium is merited. Proof gold coins are struck specially for collectors in very limited numbers. They are made with care using specially prepared planchets and typically struck with multiple blows of the dies. One of the features of most pre-1900 American gold coins in Proof is that they show cameo-like contrast between the devices (which are frosted) and the fields (which are watery and reflective). Collectors appreciate this appearance; as well they should, as a gold coin with deep, strong cameo contrast can have wonderful eye appeal.

The question most collectors ask about cameo proof gold coins is when are such pieces worth a price premium.

Given the fact that most pre-1900 proof gold coins have very low mintage figures, we can assume that nearly every piece is going to show some degree of cameo. But there are a few coins for each year that have extreme cameo contrast. We can assume that these are either the very first pieces produced or they were coins that were made with extra care for their visual appeal.

Let's look at a proof gold coin with an original mintage figure of 30 coins as an example. The typical survival rate for a proof gold coin struck between 1860 and 1880 is around 50% (for large denominations such as eagles and double eagles this figure is probably more like 25-33%). Given this figure, let's say that fifteen or so are known.

Of these fifteen, there are probably at least a few that are either impaired or they have been cleaned and/or processed to the point that they do not have an original appearance. So let's say the number of pertinent coins is around ten. There might be seven or eight that have been graded by PCGS and/or NGC and given the designation "cameo." Then let's say that the other two or three coins have been designated as "ultra cameo" or "deep cameo." How much more are these coins worth?

In my opinion, if these coins have great eye appeal and are not overgraded, they are probably worth a 10-20% premium over a regular cameo example. This is making the assumption that they are significantly rarer than their regular cameo counterparts. In the case or large denominations, where eye appeal is so critical, this premium might even be a bit higher.

I'd like to use two specific coins to illustrate my theory about ultra cameo/deep cameo premiums. These are a pair of gold dollars that I recently sold.

The first coin is an 1862 gold dollar graded PR66 Deep Cameo by PCGS and awarded a sticker by CAC.

1862 $1.00 PCGS PR66 DCAM CAC

This Civil War issue has an original mintage figure of 35 coins of which slightly fewer than half survive. In my experience, the mint did an excellent job of producing proof gold coins in 1862 and the overall quality of most of the gold dollars I've seen has been above average. In other words, Proofs of this year are supposed to come with good contrast and there should be no premium whatsoever for a coin that is a regular cameo.

But if you take even a casual look at this specific coin, you'll see that it has incredible eye appeal. The appearance is "black and white" with the type of contrast that can literally be seen across the room. I felt that this was one of the best looking Proof gold dollars that I had ever viewed and this was a reason that I purchased the coin at the 2012 FUN show.

As I was figuring a value for this coin, I had to decide on what sort of a premium its beauty would compel me to pay. I certainly wouldn't have paid a 50% premium (although in certain silver series, a premium of this sort isn't uncommon) but I felt a 10-20% premium was certainly in keeping with its stunning appearance.

This was an instance where I wasn't so much paying a premium for an ultra cameo coin's rarity (there are a few other 1862 gold dollars known with a deep cameo/ultra cameo appearance) as I was for its beauty. What was even more appealing to me was the fact that this coin has a "natural" deep cameo appearance.

You almost never seen proof gold coins anymore with the old-time, deep, hazy look that you used to see when collections like Norweb, Pittman, Eliasberg or Childs were sold. In fact, I would venture to say that most collectors and dealers who have entered the hobby after 1990 have seen virtually no truly original Proof gold coins (a welcome exception to this was the amazing Henry Miller collection of Proof gold that Heritage sold at their FUN auction in January 2011. While not every coin in this group was original, some were just amazing and it was refreshing to see Proof gold coins that looked like this after so many years of character-free pieces being offered...).

What's even harder to find these days are "old time gem" proof gold coins that aren't so hazy or richly colored that they don't show deep cameo contrast. That's why a coin like this 1862 dollar is special, in my opinion, and it merits a strong premium. It was original yet it was commercially viable for those collectors who don't "get" originality.

The next coin I'd like to discuss is a PCGS PR65 Deep Cameo 1871 gold dollar also awarded approval by CAC. While this coin has a mintage which is close to the 1862 (a total of 30 versus 35 for the 1862) it is rarer due to the fact that it appears that a portion were melted after they went unsold in 1871. It is possible that as few as eight to ten are known and this is actually one of the single rarest Type Three dollars in proof.

1871 $1.00 PCGS PR65 DCAM CAC

One interesting fact about this date is that it is not a year that tends to come as well made as the 1862. In 1871, the amount of contrast wasn't as great and many survivors in all gold denominations show lintmarks or slight planchet irregularities. It is also a date that, as a Proof, tends to be a little rarer than the 1862 in higher grades. I believe that this 1871 is the second finest known, trailing just a single PR68 at NGC.

This coin has nice cameo contrast although not as much so as on the 1862. In the case of this coin, I think its premium is predicated more on rarity than on extreme eye appeal. It is the only PCGS example in PR65 or better to have been designated as a Deep Cameo and this fact, I believe, gives it at least a 10-15% premium over a regular cameo example in the same grade.

In summary, I feel that the two reasons to ascribe a strong premium to any proof gold coin due to its status as a deep cameo/ultra cameo are either extreme eye appeal (or beauty) and extreme rarity (status as the only example of an issue with this designation or else the single highest graded with this designation). Obviously, the best scenario is a proof gold coin that is both extremely rare and extremely beautiful. In this case, the premium could be very high; maybe as much as 25-50%.

Two Cool Proof Civil War Gold Dollars Sold by DWN

Douglas Winter Numismatics recently sold two very rare and very beautiful Proof gold dollars from the Civil War era. These were an 1862 graded Proof-64 Deep Cameo by PCGS, and an 1864 graded Proof-66 Deep Cameo by PCGS. Both coins had also been approved by CAC. I'd like to share some information about these pieces with you and discuss very rare but comparatively affordable Proof gold from this era as well. 1862 graded Proof-64 Deep Cameo by PCGS, CAC approved

The rarity of Proof 1862 gold dollars is not widely recognized, probably due to the fact that business strikes are very common and were minted to the tune of 1.36 million pieces. Proofs are another story with just 35 coins struck for collectors. On the PCGS website, it states that "between 18 and 25 are known," but this number seems high to me given the typical survival rate for small-size gold proofs of this era. I believe that the number known is more likely in the area of 15 to 18, with the average piece grading PR64 to PR65.

As of the end of October 2011, PCGS has graded a total of 17 Proof 1862 gold dollars. This includes seven in PR65 and two in PR66 with no adjectival modifier(s), as well as two in PR64 Deep Cameo and two in PR65 Deep Cameo. NGC has also graded 17 Proofs for this date. Included in this number are four in PR65 and two in PR66 with no modifiers, as well as two in PR66 Ultra Cameo and a single coin in PR67* Ultra Cameo. I believe that these numbers are significantly inflated by resubmissions, especially in PR65.

The finest known Proof 1862 gold dollar is clearly the NGC PR67* Ultra Cameo that was last sold as Scotsman 10/08: 790 ($51,750). It was earlier ex Eliasberg: 50 and it is one of the nicer Proof gold dollars of this era that I have ever seen.

A number of Proof issues of this denomination are challenging to distinguish between Proof and business strike manufacture. This is not the case with the earlier Type Three Proofs. Business strikes from the 1856-1872 era tend to seldom come with the deep, reflective surfaces that are seen on the 1872-1889 issues and these early Type Three Proofs have an overall "look" that is totally different from business strikes of this era.

The 1862 dollar that is illustrated above is a choice enough coin for the grade that I think it merits a paragraph or two to discuss why it is "only" a PR64.

While not necessarily clear on the image, there are a few very light hairlines on the obverse that very narrowly preclude a PR65 grade. How hairlined can a Proof gold coin be to still garner a PR65 grade?

Back in the early days of PCGS and NGC, the grading services were extremely strict when grading Proof gold. A coin with any signs of friction or hairlines (even hairlines that were not from past cleanings) was automatically knocked out of the Gem level and this meant that larger denomination Proofs (specifically eagles and double eagles) were almost never seen in PR65 and were essentially unknown above this.

In today's market, a Proof gold coin can have a few very light hairlines and still grade PR65. But in order to garner a PR66 or higher grade, a coin has to be exceptional. And what about lintmarks or other mint-made features on the surfaces? Lintmarks (which are cause by polishing the blank planchets before striking in order to attain a highly reflective surface) are generally overlooked in the grading process unless they are extensive or they are situated in extremely obvious focal points such as the cheek of Liberty or exposed in the left obverse field.

1864 graded Proof-66 Deep Cameo by PCGS, CAC approved

In 1864, mintages of Proof gold coins actually increased to 50 pieces. Given the severe economic climate of the war-ravaged country, this seems like wishful thinking on the part of the U.S. Mint, and it is likely that at least some of these coins went unsold and were melted.

PCGS estimates that "17 to 22 examples survive." As with many of their estimates, I find them a bit on the high side. My guess for total number known is around 14 to 18, and this is based on the fact that there are only 12 auction appearances for Proof 1864 gold dollars dating back to the early 1990's.

The 1864 gold dollar is rarer than than the 1862 in high grades with at least a few pieces known in the PR62 to PR63 range. It is extremely rare in Gem, and there appear to be around four or five known that grade PR65 and higher grades.

As of the end of October 2011, PCGS had graded seven in all. The best non-cameo was a single PR66, while the best Deep Cameo was the PR66 DC shown above. NGC shows a very inflated population of 16 in all grades. The single highest graded was a PR67 Cameo. They have also graded two in PR66 Ultra Cameo.

The aforementioned NGC PR67 Cameo has never appeared at auction and I have not seen it. The record price at auction is $32,200, set by Heritage 10/11: 4625, which sold for $32,200. This is the exact coin shown above. I bought it for a client in an NGC PR66 Ultra Cameo holder, crossed it to a PCGS PR66 Deep Cameo holder, and received approval at CAC.

This coin has terrific overall eye appeal with deep, reflective fields that are strongly contrasted by the devices. There are a few very small lintmarks (as made), but no hairlines.

It is interesting to note that the collector I purchased this coin for has been working on an 1864 gold proof set for a number of years. The gold dollar was the last coin he needed and the set is now complete. I find this to be a real endorsement of the rarity of the 1864 gold dollar in Proof; given that this collector was able to find the rare (and expensive) eagle and double eagle of this year before he could locate the humble (and more affordable) gold dollar.

Which brings us to the final topic of this blog: it has been said again and again that Proof gold is the "caviar" of American numismatics. There is no question about the fact that Proof gold is an expensive area to collect and that specializing in this area of the market is ambitious, to say the least.

But within the area of Proof Gold, there are pockets of value. I have always liked the smaller-size (dollar and quarter eagle) issues with mintages of 50 or fewer in PR63 to PR65 grades. As an example, the 1862 dollar that I discussed above was a beautiful PCGS PR64 Deep Cameo example with CAC approval. Without knowing the market, would you care to venture a guess of this coin's value? $20,000? $30,000? More?

Surprisingly, I listed and sold this coin in the mid-teens.

Say a collector had a budget of $30,000-40,000 to spend each year on Proof gold. Would he be better off buying a few relatively common coins in exceptional grades (an example of such a piece would be a 1902 quarter eagle in PR67 cameo) or a few very rare coins in choice but not as spectacular grades?

Being someone whose numismatic decisions are typically based around rarity, I'd go with two very rare low mintage coins in the $20,000 range as opposed to one more common but spectacular coin in the $40,000 range. The exception would be if I were putting together a type set of Proof gold and I needed just a single example of each type. Then, I would tend to go with a coin like an 1886 gold dollar in PR66 as opposed to, say, an 1866 gold dollar in PR64.

Do you have questions about Proof gold? Feel free to contact me via email at dwn@ont.com and I would be happy to answer them for you.

1859 $1.00 NGC PR65 Ultra Cameo CAC

One of 80 Proofs struck; most were unsold and later melted. Today there are probably no more than twenty or so known known and this is clearly among the finest of the survivors. This superb fresh-to-the-market Gem has an amazing amount of contrast between the frosted devices and the reflective fields. This contrast gives the coin a full "black and white" appearance that is very impressive to say the least. There is a tiny mint-made "C" shaped lintmark in the left obverse field that serves as identification. Otherwise, this piece is extremely solid for the grade with great visual appeal. As with all pre-Civil War Proof gold, the 1859 dollar is an extremely rare issue and most are seen in the PR63 to PR64 range. There have only been two auction records for comparable examples since the 1990's: Heritage 11/02: 7485 ($17,250; graded PR65 UC by NGC) and Goldberg 9/03: 1057 ($13,225; graded PR65 DC by PCGS). The highest graded example that I have personally seen was Heritage 2010 ANA: 3395 ($32,200; graded PR66 by NGC) and it lacked the contrast or overall eye appeal that this piece shows. A truly rare and very important piece of Proof gold.