Around a year ago, I was outbid on an amazing PCGS MS63+ 1821 half eagle. I was pretty bummed at the time as this was a coin which I truly wanted to own. But the final price realized was just too much and I walked away from the coin.Read More
I am often asked for ideas about what to collect, especially ones that are a little bit "out of the box." I recently had a conversation with a long-time collector about new directions for his set and we discussed the possibility of starting a transitional set of 19th century American gold coins.
By "transitional," I am referring to a coin that was struck as two different types during the same year. An example of this would be an 1854 gold dollar from Philadelphia which was produced as both as Type One and Type Two issue. Let's take a look at some of the transitional coins that are available to collectors who are considering this approach.
A pair of coins which is not a transition would be an 1861-S and 1861-S Paquet Reverse double eagle. This is the case because the 1861-S Paquet reverse was not used in any other year. An 1866-S No Motto reverse and an 1866-S With Motto are a transitional pair because the newer reverse was used in the following year(s).
1. GOLD DOLLARS
The Liberty Head gold dollar was produced from 1849 through 1889. There were a total of three types and there are a few interesting possibilities for the transitional collector.
In 1854, the Philadelphia, Dahlonega and San Francisco mint produced gold dollars with the Type One design. During the same year, a Type Two gold dollar was made at the Philadelphia mint as well. Both the 1854 Type One and Type Two gold dollars are common, although the latter becomes scarce and expensive in the higher Uncirculated grades. A transitional pairing of the 1854-P Type One and Type Two dollars could easily be assembled in MS63 to MS64 grades.
In 1856, there was a Type Two gold dollar made at the San Francisco mint and well as Type Three issue at Philadelphia and Dahlonega. These are not transitional issues, in the strictest sense of the word, as they were made during the same year but at different mints.
2. QUARTER EAGLES
Production of this denomination began in 1796 and continued all the way until 1929. During this period, there were a number of transitional issues.
The first transitional pair of quarter eagles occurs in 1796 when both the No Stars and the With Stars issues were made. A total of 963 examples of the No Stars were struck and just 432 of the With Stars. While the more common of the two, the No Stars is better known and considered more desirable by many collectors. The 1796 With Stars is a very rare coin in all grades and is generally seen in lower grades than its No Stars counterpart. This transitional pair will be the most expensive part of such a set with nice AU-Uncirculated examples costing at least $250,000-300,000 and possibly more.
While the 1796 transitional set will be the most expensive quarter eagles in this set, the rarest coin will be the 1834 With Motto, which is the final year of issue for the Capped Head Left (reduced size) type struck from 1829 to 1834. There were 4,000 of these struck but nearly all were melted and today an estimated 20 or so exist. Later in the year, the better-known Classic Head design was introduced and the first-year-of-issue 1834 is common in grades up to MS63 and sometimes obtainable in MS64. A transitional pair of 1834 quarter eagles could, in theory, be obtained for less than $100,000 but the earlier issue from this year might take years of waiting to locate.
No other transitional pairs exist for the quarter eagle denomination.
No transitional pairs exist for the three dollar gold piece.
3. HALF EAGLES
The half eagle denomination began in 1795 and ended in 1929. It is fertile ground for the transitional collector with a number of interesting pairs extent, especially during the first few years of production.
The 1795 half eagle exists with both the Small Eagle reverse (employed on this denomination from 1795 through 1798) and the Heraldic Eagle reverse (used from 1795 until 1807). The 1795 Small Eagle is a reasonably common coin by the standards of early half eagles and it is, as one might expect, extremely popular. The 1795 Heraldic Eagle is considerably scarcer, especially in higher grades, although it is more obtainable. A nice transitional pair of 1795 half eagles will run $100,000 or so but, in my opinion, it is one of the most visually arresting contrasts in all of American coinage.
Another transitional pair exists in 1797. Two different 1797 Small Eagle half eagles are known; the 15 star obverse and the 16 star obverse. Both are very rare although the former is more difficult to find and is not often offered for sale. There is a 1797/5 Heraldic Eagle known which is also very rare although it is at least obtainable; two other 1797 Heraldic eagle varieties (the 15 star and the 16 star non-overdate) which are unique and located in the Smithsonian. A transitional set of 1797 half eagles would be expensive ($200,000+) and hard to assemble but it would make an exceptional item and would be a highlight of this set.
In theory, a 1798 transitional set could be assembled as well but the Small Eagle is exceedingly rare with just eight known; the last example to sell at auction (a PCGS EF40) brought $264,500 back in 2000. The Heraldic Eagle variety from this year is reasonably common. It is possible that this set could be assembled but it would take deep pockets and considerable good fortune to even have a shot as obtaining a 1798 Small Eagle in today's rarity-conscious market.
The next transitional set in the half eagle denomination is the 1807 Bust Right and 1807 Bust Left. Both issues are reasonably common and a set could be put together, if so desired, in grades as high as MS64 to MS65. For $20,000-30,000, a more reasonably price alternative would include two nice AU coins.
A very interesting and very rare transitional pair occurs in 1829 with the Large Date (Large Diameter) and Small Date (Small Diameter). Both of these issues are very rare and generally trade once every few years. We're talking in excess of $1 million dollars for this pair and even having the money is no assurance that a set could be assembled.
A really interesting pair of transitional pairs exists for the 1834 half eagles. The Capped Head Left reduced diameter type began in 1829 and continued until 1834. During this year, both Plain 4 and Crosslet 4 varieties. Both are quite rare with the latter being harder to find. Later in the year, the new Classic Head variety was introduced and, again, both Plain 4 and Crosslet 4 coins are known with the latter being considerably rarer. It would be difficult but not impossible to put together this "pair of pairs" with the two Capped Head coins in AU-MS grades, the Plain 4 Classic Head in a grade as high as MS64 and the Crosslet 4 Classic Head in the lower MS grades.
The next group of transitional pair half eagles occur in 1842 and 1843. 1842 Philadelphia half eagles are known with Small Letters and Large Letters reverse varieties. The former is the type of 1839-1842 while the latter began in 1842 and continued all the way through 1866. Both are scarce and undervalued with the Large letters being the rarer of the two. A pair could be assembled in nice AU grades for $10,000-15,000.
The same transitional pair exists for 1842-C half eagles. The 1842-C Small Date is very rare in all grades while the Large Date is more available. An EF-AU pair would cost $20,000-25,000 to assemble.
With the 1842-D half eagles, the exact opposite rarity pattern is seen. The Small Date is the more obtainable (although it is very rare in Uncirculated) while the Large Date is rare and almost impossible to find above AU55. A nice AU pair could be assembled for $25,000-35,000.
This transition occurred for New Orleans half eagles in 1843-O. The Small Letters is slightly scarcer than the Large Letters but both are reasonably easy to find in EF and AU grades. A pair in AU could be purchased for less than $10,000.
The next transitional pair for half eagles occurs in 1866 when the San Francisco mint made 9,000 No Motto coins and34,920 With Motto coins. The former is extremely scarce while the latter is scarce but a bit more obtainable. The 1866-S No Motto is seldom found above AU50 while the With Motto is seldom found above AU53 to AU55. A pair of AU examples would cost around $20,000.
The final transitional pair for half eagles occurs in 1908 when both the Liberty Head and Indian Head types were struck. The 1908 Liberty Head was made only at the Philadelphia mint and it is common in grades up to MS64. The Indian Head type was made in 1908 at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. It's possible to assemble a 1908-P half eagle set in MS65 for less than $20,000.
The first transitional pair for the ten dollar eagle denomination occurs in 1797. The first coin struck this year was the Small eagle reverse of which only 3,615 were made. This is a rare coin in all grades and a very rare one in AU55 and above. Later this year, the large Eagle reverse was adapted and 10,940 were made. This issue is much easier to locate and it is sometimes seen in MS62 or even MS63 grades. An AU set would cost at least 175,000-200,000 but it would be easier to assemble than the similarly dated half eagles (see above).
A less obvious but still important transitional pair occurs in 1839 with the Large Letters and Small Letters reverses. The former, which is the more common, employs the same size lettering as seen on the 1838. The latter, which is far rarer, uses the same size lettering as seen on the 1840 (and onwards). It is possible to assemble this set in AU for $25,000 or so but finding a nice 1839 Small Letters reverse will prove challenging.
In 1866, the San Francisco mint struck No Motto and With Motto eagles. The No Motto coins had a mintage of 8,500 and are very scarce in all grades. The With Motto coins are more available but only 11,500 were struck. Both issues are extremely hard to find above AU50. A nice EF-AU pair would cost $25,000-35,000.
A potential transitional gold coin collector will have much to keep him busy with 1907 and 1908 eagles. In 1907, three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) made Liberty Head eagles. Later that year, the new Indian Head design by Augustus St. Gaudens was introduced.
There are actually three distinct types of 1907 Indian Head eagle: the Wire Edge, the Rolled Edge and the No Motto. The latter is by far the most common although it is probably the least numismatically interesting. Most transitional collectors purchase a 1907-P Liberty Head in MS63 to MS65 grades and a 1907 No Motto in MS63 to MS64. Adding the Wire Edge is a nice touch but it should be noted that a nice Uncirculated example runs around $50,000. And, in the parameters we discussed earlier in this article, these are not a true transitional pair as the Wire Edge design was not fully adapted in 1908.
The final transitional pair for this denomination occurs, as a "pair of pairs", in 1908. Both the Philadelphia and Denver mints struck No Motto eagles followed by With Motto issues. None of these are rare in grades below MS65 and a nice MS64 set is an accomplishment which is readily attainable.
5. DOUBLE EAGLES
The best known transitional Liberty Head double eagle pair is the 1866-S No Motto and With Motto issues. Only 12,000 or so of the former were produced and it is a rare issue whose price has soared in the last decade. The 1866-S With Motto is much more available although it can be challenging to locate in any Uncirculated grade. An About Uncirculated pair will run at least $50,000 and possibly more if the collector is fussy about quality for the No Motto.
In 1907, there was a radical change in the design of the double eagle and, as with the eagle from this year, there are pieces which use the old Liberty Head design (from Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) and the new St. Gaudens design. There are two important varieties of St. Gaudens double eagle from 1907: the High Relief which uses Roman numerals for the date and the Arabic numerals. These were all struck at the Philadelphia. An ideal transitional set, in my opinion, would include a 1907-P Liberty Head double eagle and a 1907 Arabic numerals. A slightly more advanced set could include a High Relief as well. The two coin set is easy to assemble in MS64 for around $5,000.
A second transitional set occurs in 1908 when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the double eagle. The 1908-P and 1908-D issues exist with a No Motto reverse; the same two dates were made with the With Motto reverse, as well as a 1908-S.
Transitional collecting is not for everyone and, as you can see from reading this article, a complete set is extremely expensive due to the rarity of certain 18th century transitional issues. I really like the idea of assembling a mostly-complete transitional set and would be happy to discuss such a set in detail if you'd like to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To my way of thinking, early gold coins (i.e., those struck prior to 1834) and among the most collectible and interesting areas in all of American numismatics. No, these coins aren't cheap and they are, in reality, somewhat overvalued when you compare them to many mid-19th century Liberty Head issues. But there is a pride-of-ownership factor associated with owning a 200 year old gold coin that you get from nothing else. 1. An Overview
When we refer to "early gold," this typically includes quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint from 1795 through 1834. I'd also like to include the Classic Head coinage of 1834-1838 as these pieces are more affordable and this article will then be of greater relevance as it will cover a more broad scope of collecting budgets.
The various types of early gold are as follows:
Quarter Eagle: No Stars on Obverse, 1796 only Quarter Eagle: Capped Bust Right, 1796-1807 Quarter Eagle: Capped Bust Left, 1808 only Quarter Eagle: Capped Head Left Large Size: 1821-1827 Quarter Eagle: Capped Head Left Reduced Size: 1829-1834 Quarter Eagle: Classic Head, 1834-1838
Half Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-1798 Half Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1795-1807 Half Eagle: Capped Bust Left, 1807-1812 Half Eagle: Capped Head Left Large Size, 1813-1829 Half Eagle: Capped Head Left Reduced Size, 1829-1834 Half Eagle: Classic Head, 1834-1838
Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-1797 Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1797-1804
The total number of types that most collectors pursue are fourteen. This includes six each of the quarter eagle and half eagle, and two eagles. The rarest and most expensive of the individual types are the 1796 No Stars and 1808 quarter eagles, and the 1829-1834 Capped Head Left, Reduced Size half eagle. For each of these three types, "entry level" coins will approach six figures and choice, significant pieces can run into the mid-six figures.
2. What to Buy to Get Started
Before you begin an early gold collection, I think its a good idea to spend $500-1,000 putting together a library of reference works.
The best book for new collectors is the Bass/Dannreuther reference that is published by Whitman. While it is oriented more towards die varieties than general collecting, it is still an extremely useful book.
I have written some good general articles on collecting early gold and these can be found in both the "articles" and "market reports" section of my website.
There are not many other books that deal specifically with early gold. The Akers books on United States gold coins are out-of-date but still of use. And the Harry Bass Research Foundation website (hbrf.org) has wonderful images of extremely choice gold coins in all three denominations, including extremely rare Proofs and specimen strikes.
One of the best sources of information for collectors of early gold are auction catalogs. Some of the sales held during the last few decades that had very strong holdings of early gold include Eliasberg (1982), Norweb, Bass, Keston, the "Apostrophe" sales, Archdiocese of Buffalo, Ed Price and many of the Heritage FUN and ANA Platinum night sessions. Do a search on the web for coin book dealers (there are a number of good ones) and ask for their help in putting together a nice group of 15-20 catalogs that are essential additions to any early gold library.
3. Deciding What to Collect
After you've decided to collect early gold, your next question is what direction is your collection going to take.
Basically, there are two paths that a new collector can take: collecting by type or specializing in a specific series and collecting by date. The path you take will depend on your budget.
Collecting early gold coins by date is ambitious (to say the least) due to the number of very rare coins in each of the three denomination. A date collection can be modified and made less expensive by deciding to collect only by date and not by variety. As an example, a collector working on early quarter eagles might opt to purchase only an 1804 with 14 stars on the reverse due to the fact that the 13 star variety is very rare and very expensive.
The decision to collect early gold is, of course, predicated on a collector's budget. If the collector has a reasonably modest budget, my suggestion would be to focus on the half eagles struck between 1800 and 1812 in the Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated grade range. This is a great date run as there are no rare issues (except for varieties) and every coin will be available in the $7,500-12,500 range depending on grade.
If a collector has a healthy budget available, the possibilities are almost limitless. A high quality type set, featuring one example each of the fourteen issues listed above, would be challenging and numismatically significant.
Two sets that I have been able to work on for clients are date runs of quarter eagles from 1796 to 1834 and Capped Head Left half eagles from 1813 to 1829. These are both truly challenging. There is a tremendous amount of subtle strategizing inherent in both sets as they include many issues that might come up for sale once every three to five years. It can be hard to figure out what to pay for a very rare date whose last auction record was as much as a decade ago!
4. Where to Buy
As a collector you have two options on where to purchase your early gold coins: from a specialist dealer or at auction. As a dealer who specializes in early gold, I obviously would suggest that you buy from me, but the answer is not so cut and dry.
Early gold can be quite complex to collect. Many early gold coins have been cleaned or "doctored" and it takes an expert to determine which are nice for the grade and which are average. This is an area that a collector would be smart to deal with a specialist and he will need to do some research into who he should buy from, as there are only a handful of United States coin dealers who really know the intricacies of the early gold market.
Certain very rare early gold coins are almost never offered for sale except at auction, so the auction market is always going to be a factor for the collector. I suggest hiring a dealer and paying him a standard 5% fee for viewing and executing bids.
Be forewarned that you are never going to buy a good coin "cheaply" at auction. Auctions are best used to pursue very rare coins or very high grade coins. They may not be the best source for more run-of-the-mill pieces (and I am not saying this in a derogatory sense) which a specialist dealer will have access to at more reasonable prices.
Some auctions are great sources for early gold coins because they offer pieces with impressive pedigrees. I am an advocate of buying early gold with strong provenance when possible and, for better or worse, many such coins wind-up in auctions. I know of at least a few collectors who are as interested in early gold coins with pedigrees and they are in the coins themselves. They would consider buying a duplicate or even a triplicate of an issue they already own because it has a great pedigree.
5. CAC or non-CAC?
There are areas of the rare coin market that CAC has made strong inroads on and others where it has had little or no impact. In my opinion, early gold is an area where CAC has made a very strong impact. CAC typically rewards originality and as the vast majority of early gold coins aren't original, CAC examples are often selling for premiums that range from 5% to 20%.
I think the early gold coins that are most impacted by CAC approval are common date pieces in higher grades. So many of the Capped Bust Right and Capped Bust Left half eagles that I see in MS63 to MS65 holders have been played-around with that I think a CAC stickered coin is an important purchase for the inexperienced collector.
I think CAC stickers are not as important on very rare early gold coins and more common issues in lower grades.
If you are looking at an early gold coin with a total population of a few dozen coins, you are not able to be as selective as with an issue which has hundreds of coins surviving. While I would never suggest buying a very rare early gold coin with problems (such as damage, signs of harsh cleaning, repairs, etc) I would (and will continue to) buy a coin like an 1804 14 star reverse quarter eagle or a half eagle from the mid-1820's that was decent-looking but not nice enough to be approved by CAC.
I also note less of a premium being given to less expensive early gold coins with CAC approval but I wouldn't be surprised if this changes as buyers of these coins are becoming more sophisticated and want nicer quality pieces.
6. Value Plays/Best Value Grades
Every collector wants to buy coins that are good value. Collectors of early gold are no different. There are some issues that I think are very good values. (important note: I think that any properly graded, choice early gold coin with natural surfaces is a good value but the following list are coins that are the best values).
Virtually all pre-1834 quarter eagles are rare and until a few years ago, they were priced at levels similar to the far more available half eagles of this era. This isn't the case anymore and a nice example of a reasonably available date of the Capped Right design (such as the 1802, 1805 or 1807) is now a $15,000-20,000 coin.
Early quarter eagles that I find to be undervalued include the 1798 (the only relatively affordable 18th century issue) and the 1806/4.
I like the Capped Head Left type of 1821-1827 and find this to be the most undervalued early quarter eagle type. Survival rates tend to be low and the five issues of this design are often overlooked. My two favorite dates of this type are the 1821 and the 1826/5.
There are so many early half eagles that I feel are undervalued that instead of listing them by date and discussing them, I'm going to focus on "best value grades" instead.
For circulated coins, I like AU55 and AU58 grades. An early half eagle graded AU55 to AU58 is going to show minimal wear and have a decent amount of remaining luster. There isn't a huge price spread between an AU50 and an AU58 common date early half eagle (the spread right now is a few thousand dollars at most) and if you are collecting half eagles by type, it makes sense to me to go for an AU55 or AU58.
In the Uncircuated grades, I tend to shy away from MS60 and MS61 coins (which are often "rubby") and stick with MS62's which, for the most part, are actually "new."
For type collectors with higher budgets, a nice MS64 early half eagle typically makes more sense to me than an MS65 at multiples of the price. The last few common date early half eagles that I have sold in MS64CAC have been nicer than some of the low-end MS65 non-CAC coins that I've seen offered at auction.
Since there are not many early eagles, there are few coins that I regard as undervalued. Among the common dates, I actually prefer the 1799 to the 1801 or the 1803 given its 18th century origin.
7. Let's Not Forget Classic Heads....
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I wasn't going to overlook the Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles. These designs were produced from 1834 to 1838 at the Philadelphia, Charlotte and Dahlonega and New Orleans mints. The branch mint issues include the 1838-C, 1839-C, 1839-D and 1839-O quarter eagles as well as the 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles.
The great thing about Classic Head gold is its affordability. As an example, I just sold an absolutely beautiful 1834 Classic Head half eagle graded AU55 by PCGS and approved by PCGS for just a touch over $2,000. Nice examples of most of the Philadelphia quarter eagles and half eagles of this type can be obtained for $2,000-4,000. Even Uncirculated examples, at least in MS60 to MS62, are not out of the price range of most early gold collectors.
I would suggest that if you are purchasing a Classic Head gold coin for type purposes that you be extremely selective. These coins are not rare and really nice examples can be found with patience. Pay a little extra for original coins with great color and, if possible, buy a slightly better date like an 1837 quarter eagle or an 1836 half eagle for just a small premium over the common 1834.
Classic Head gold can be collected in a number of different ways. You can buy just two coins and have a complete type set, or you can buy eleven coins and have complete year sets of both denominations. The addition of the branch mint issues will add some cost to a Classic Head collection, but these issues are still affordable in the EF40 to AU50 grade range.
8. Some Final Words
Its hard to convey in 2000~ words the ins and outs of collecting early gold coins, but hopefully this article will serve as motivation to become involved in an aspect of the hobby that I find fascinating. If you have any specific questions about early gold, please feel free to contact me via email at email@example.com and I will do my best to answer them.
BD-7, R-4. Small 8 over Large 8 (also known as the Normal/Large 8 variety). From the standpoint of varieties, the 1804 half eagle contains some of the most visually impressive varieties in the entire early gold series. One of my favorites is the 1804 Small 8 over Large 8 which has among the most dramatic repunchings seen on any American coin ever produced. This variety is moderately scarce with an estimated 100-150 known, mostly in lower grades. This very lustrous example has attractive light yellowish-gold color with slightly deeper greenish hues at the obverse border. From the standpoint of wear (or lack of it) and "meat," this piece grades at least AU58 but it has been net graded down to an AU55 by PCGS due to a small scrape on the obverse from the cap up through the space between IB in LIBERTY. The reverse of this coin is especially choice and it grades at least MS61 on its own accord. Heritage 8/11: 7515, also graded AU55 by PCGS and approved by CAC, realized $12,650. This is one of six examples of this variety to have been approved by CAC in AU55 with nine better.