Ten Buyer's Tips for San Francisco Gold Coin Collectors

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 dwn@ont.com.

1894-O $5.00 PCGS MS62

While typically lumped with the 1893-O, the 1894-O is far scarcer in all grades. It is seldom seen above AU58 to MS60 and most of the Uncirculated examples known are excessively baggy MS60 to MS61 coins. Properly graded MS62 pieces are very rare as evidenced by the fact that PCGS has graded but four in MS62 with a scant two finer. There have been just two auction records for PCGS MS62 examples in the last seven years: Stack's 3/10: 1585 which brought $4,313 and Heritage 1/04: 7069 that sold for $4,140. This is the first 1894-O half eagle that I've owned in "real" MS62 in close to five years. It is mostly prooflike with splashes of golden-orange color atop vibrant surfaces that are moderately abraded. None of these marks is deep or terribly detracting and most are seen in the left obverse field. This is a true condition rarity and it is a numismatically significant issue, as well, due to its status as the final With Motto half eagle made at the New Orleans mint.

1856-D $1.00 NGC MS62 Duke's Creek

Duke's Creek Collection pedigree. Only 1,460 1856-D gold dollars were struck and this is the third rarest date of this denomination from Dahlonega, trailing only the 1861-D and 1855-D. In high grades, it is the second rarest, trailing only the 1855-D. There are just four or five known in Uncirculated and the present example, pedigreed to the famous Duke's Creek collection, is the first to be available to collectors in close to four years. This very appealing example is well-known within the specialist community on account of its flashy deep orange-gold color which highlights the obverse and the reverse. The underlying surfaces are clean save for a pair of shallow blunt marks in the left field and the strike is better than average for the issue with a nearly full date (the 5 is slightly weak) and a bold mintmark. As on all known examples, the U in UNITED is barely visible. The current high grade population for the 1856-D gold dollar is two in MS62 with none better at PCGS and one in MS62 (this coin) with one better (an MS63) at NGC. There are two auction records for PCGS MS62's at over $40,000 (Green Pond: 1009 brought $47,150 in 2004 and ANR 9/03: 425 was bid to $41,400). With the market for high end Dahlonega rarities seemingly as strong as it has been for at least five years, this coin is fairly priced and it represents the chance for the serious gold dollar collector to acquire a famous example of a famous, legitimately rare date.

From the Duke's Creek collection (Heritage 4/06), Lot 1488, where it sold for $40,250

1804 $5.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

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.

1807 Capped Bust $5.00 NGC AU58 CAC

Capped Bust Left variety. BD-8, Rarity-2. In 1807, the old Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle reverse half eagle design was changed by John Reich. This makes 1807 an interesting transitional year for the half eagle denomination with two distinct design available to collectors. As a set, the 1807 transitional half eagles are highly completable in nearly any desired grade. The present 1807 Bust Left half eagle is as an original an early gold coin of any date or denomination that you are likely to find. It shows superb deep green-gold hues that are accentuated by splashes of coppery-gold in the open fields. There is just a tiny amount of friction seen on the high spots and the quality of the surfaces is outstanding with a virtual absence of marks. Below the toning there is a good amount of luster and if this coin were (gasp!) dipped, it would become apparent that it is a very lustrous coin. Even though this is a reasonably common issue, it has become extremely hard to find examples with this degree of eye appeal and originality. In fact, you could search for along time and not find a nicer AU 1807 half eagle than this!

1842-D SD $5.00 PCGS VF35 CAC

Small Date variety. An attractive, evenly worn example with nearly enough to detail to grade EF40 but with a few old, well-hidden surface marks keeping this at the Choice VF level. On both sides, the color is a uniform deep green-gold. A scarce date in any grade and a very hard coin to locate with original color and surfaces. This is the only 1842-D Small Date half eagle in any grade below EF40 to have been approved by CAC.

1844-O $10.00 PCGS MS61

As is the case with most of the New Orleans eagles produced between 1843 and 1848, the 1844-O is common enough in lower grades but it becomes scarce in properly graded AU55 to AU58 and it is very rare to extremely rare in full Mint State. This is clearly the case with the 1844-O. I am aware of seven or eight in Uncirculated (not including the unique Gem Proof example that sold a few years ago in excess of $1 million) and this includes three that have seawater surfaces as a result of having been uncovered in shipwrecks. The present example is the second best I have seen with original surfaces, trailing only the wonderful Byron Reed: 157 coin, graded MS62 by NGC, that brought $31,900 all the way back in 1996. This coin has wonderful soft, frosty luster with lovely natural light orange-gold color on both sides. A few very faint natural reddish spots can be seen; one above the 18 in the date and the other between the two 4's. The strike is sharp and the obverse is clean and choice with just a few minor marks; the reverse has a few more marks with most of these clustered in the field behind the head of the eagle. After years of neglect, high quality No Motto Liberty Head eagles have finally come into their own and are now appreciated for the rarities they are. That said, I think coins like this are still a great value and this lovely 1844-O is among the more exciting New Orleans eagles that I have offered for sale all year.

Ex Heritage 10/10: 4873, where it sold for $18,400.

1864 $5.00 PCGS AU53

The rarity of the 1862-1865 Philadelphia half eagles has been misunderstood for decades. Despite low mintages and no real reason why any should have survived, these coins have traditionally been overlooked in favor of less rare branch mint issues. But the word is finally out on the 1864 half eagle and I, for one, think this coin's sudden appreciation with collectors is long overdue. Only 4,170 business strikes were made and I doubt if more than 60-80 are known in all grades. This date becomes very rare in properly graded AU50 and above and the last PCGS 53 to sell at auction was in May 2000. A PCGS 55 just sold for $9,200 in the last Heritage auction (9/11, lot 4316). This lightly toned example has splashes of tangerine-gold color on the obverse and reverse and is nicely detailed. There are a few marks on the obverse including a series of three small abrasions ( a reeding mark?) from the chin and a light mark or two on the cheek. A nice example of this Civil War rarity.

1798 Large 8, 13 Star Reverse $5.00 PCGS AU58 CAC

BD-4, High Rarity-4. This variety is easily recognized by the reverse cuds at ES in STATES and O in OF. There have actually been a fairly decent number of 1798 half eagles on the market in the last few months and with the exception of a few, I have been largely unimpressed. Most had been dipped at one time and most were liberally abraded. I like this coin because it is very original and because it is clean. I think it compares favorably to other 1798 half eagles that I've seen in MS61 holders and it would not look out of place in such a slab. The color of this coin is exceptional with splendid rich orange-gold that deepens to red at the left obverse and throughout much of the reverse. There is a slight amount of friction on the high spots and a number of adjustment marks (mint-made, of course) on the reverse that form a criss-cross pattern within the shield and the inner parts of the wings. As is typical of this variety, the centers are not as sharp as the borders and I have seen similar adjustment marks on a number of 1798 BD-4 half eagles. The originality and eye appeal of this coin make it very special and this is a wonderful piece of 18th century American gold.