Proof U.S. Gold Coins

Proof Gold Coins - Mintage Figure Variance - While it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about the survival rate of Proof United States gold coinage, some factors exist that help to determine the rarity of many issues. It is interesting to analyze these factors and apply them to the various denominations. For the most part, Proof gold coins have small mintage figures. With the exception of some of the later date Type Three gold dollars, most issues had fewer than 100 struck and nearly all of the pre-1880 issues have mintages of 50 or less.

As a good rule of thumb, it is a safe assumption that around half of the original mintage figure for a specific issue of Proof gold is known. In other words, if the original mintage of an 1876 gold dollar is 45 coins, it is likely that 20-25 are known today.

What are the factors that exist that make a Proof gold coin more or less common than its mintage figure would suggest? These include the following:

1. External Economic Factors: During hard economic times, Proof gold coins may have been melted or spent. As an example, in the Depression of the 1930’s, Proof eagles and double eagles were spent as they were not worth a significant amount above face value. Other periods of economic hardship that saw a reduction of Proof gold populations include the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, the Depression of 1873-1878 and the Panic(s) of 1893 and 1907. I believe that this had a very large impact on Proof gold survival rates.

2. Coin Size: This actually works both ways. As mentioned above, during tough economic times, small coins are more apt to survive than large coins. But, a coin as small as a gold dollar is more likely to be “lost” than one as large as a double eagle. Both factors certainly contribute to survival rates of Proof gold.

3. Popularity of the Denomination: Although this is more speculation than fact, I would presume that denominations that have traditionally not been popular with collectors (gold dollars and three dollars) have been more susceptible to loss than more popular denominations such as eagles and double eagles.

4. Hoarding: Certain Proof gold issues were hoarded by contemporary dealers and collectors. This tends to inflate their survival rate. The Proof gold issues most affected by contemporary hoarding include gold dollars and three dollar gold pieces from the 1880’s. It is interesting to note that mintage figures for these two denominations reached record highs during this era; this was a direct result of contemporary speculator demand. 5. Restrikes: Not all Proof gold coins are as rare as their mintage figures would indicate. As an example, PCGS and NGC have combined to grade far more 1875 and 1876 Three Dollar gold pieces than the reported original mintage figures. While the slabbed population is clearly inflated by resubmissions, many collectors are not aware of the fact that the reported original mintage figures of 20 and 45, respectively, does not take into consideration a number of Restrikes that were produced by the U.S. Mint in order to placate collector demand for these two rare issues. Other years with potential Restrikes include 1865 and 1873.

6. Mint Melting/Mint Record Errors: Certain mintage figures for Proof gold coins just seem to make no sense. As an example, the reported mintage for Proof gold dollar and three dollar gold pieces in 1861 is reported to be 349 coins; the highest figure for these two denominations until the 1880’s. It has traditionally been assumed that the Mint was way too optimistic in producing Proofs this year and most were melted at the end of 1861 when they went unsold. I personally would not be surprised if these figures actually represented an error. Another year that has a skewed mintage figure is 1859, the first year of “modernity” for United States Proof gold. The Mint struck 80 examples of all gold denominations, in anticipation of strong demand in the booming new hobby of coin collecting. This proved to be way too optimistic and the vast majority was melted. Another “problem year” is 1910 which has much higher mintages than any other Indian Head design. I believe that the published figures are in error.

Given these six factors, how do they impact the specific denominations of Proof gold coins? My experience with each denomination is as follows:

Gold Dollars: The dates from the 1850’s and 1860’s tend to be very rare in all grades. However, the survival rate of these coins is much higher than expected with the exception of the 1859-1861 dates (whose inflated mintages figures were discussed above under Factor #6). The issues from the 1870’s typically have survival rates of around 50% of the original mintage. The 1880’s Proofs are a real anomaly. From 1884 to 1889, the mintages exceeded 1,000; a huge number of coins by Proof gold standards. But the survival rate is likely between 10 and 20% for each of these. I would ascribe this to numerous coins getting melted in the lean economic years of the early to mid-1890’s.

Quarter Eagles: With the exception of the famous 1841 and 1863 issues, virtually all pre-1870 Proof quarter eagles are extremely rare and most have fewer than ten survivors. The issues from the 1870’s tend to have survival rates of around 50% while the 1880’s and 1890’s seem to be a bit more available in terms of their original mintage. The 1900’s Liberty Head issues have survival rates as high as 75%. Indian Head quarter eagles have an average survival rate of 50% (+/- 10%).

Three Dollars: The issues from the 1850’s are extremely rare in Proof and all have low mintages. The 1860’s and 1870’s issues have average survival rates of around 50% (the exceptions to this are the 1860 and 1861 which had significant meltings) and the 1875 and 1876 (see Factor #5 above). The 1880’s dates mostly have survival rates in the 50-60% range.

Four Dollars: Stellas are really a separate story in and of themselves. Many of the 1879 Flowing Hairs were saved as souvenirs (see Factor #4) and Restrikes exist. The other three issues appear to have survival rates of around 50%.

Half Eagles: With the exception of the 1864 (which had a “whopping” mintage of 50), all No Motto half eagles in Proof are exceedingly rare. The With Motto issues from the 1860’s and 1870’s typically have survival rates of well under 50%; some issues (such as the 1870, 1871, 1874 and 1878) have survival rates that are probably less than 25%. With one or two exceptions, the dates from the 1880’s have also survived with less frequency than one might assume. Most of the 1890’s and 1900’s dates have survival rates of around 50% (+/- 10%). Indian Head half eagles are scarcer on a relative basis than their quarter eagle counterparts and I’d estimate that 30-40% of the original mintage exists.

Eagles: Virtually all No Motto eagles are exceedingly rare in Proof. The With Motto Proofs from the 1860’s and the 1870’s are all very rare and most have fewer than ten survivors. I have always found the Proofs from the 1880’s to be far rarer than most people realize and many of the specific issues (1881, 1883, 1885 and 1889 to name a few) have survival rates of fewer than 25% of the original mintage. The 1890’s are slightly more available (around a third have survived) while the 1900’s dates have survival rates of around 50%. Proof Indian Head eagles, with the exception of the 1908, range from very rare to extremely rare and have typical survival rates of around 25%.

Double Eagles: Only 265 Type One Liberty Head double eagles were made in the Proof format and I would be surprised if more than three to four dozen exist. The Type Two issues are also very rare with a total mintage of only 335 Proofs. They are more available on a relative basis than their Type One counterparts and I think somewhere between a quarter and a third of the original mintage has survived. The Type Three Proofs are the most available Liberty Head double eagles but this is misleading as only a small handful of dates (primarily those dated 1900 to 1907) have survival rates that exceed 30-40%. Proof St. Gaudens double eagles are extremely rare but they have a slightly higher survival rate that one might expect. My best guess is that around one-third of the original mintage exists.

Rarity and Mintage Figures

Many collectors believe that a coin is automatically rare because it has a low mintage figure or that it is common because it has a comparatively high original mintage. This is most definitely not the case, especially in the field of American gold coinage. There are a number of factors that make a coin potentially rarer (or less rare) than its original mintage figure. Some of these are as follows:

1. Acts of Legislation:

The 1933 eagle is a very rare coin as a direct result of the passage of the Act of April 1933 which ended the production of gold coinage in the United States. Banks and individuals were required to turn in their gold coinage and many of these pieces were melted. Just a small number of 1933 eagles were rescued from the melting pot. The same holds true for certain late date St. Gaudens double eagles such as the 1929, 1930, 1930-S, 1931, 1931-D and 1932. All of these coins are much rarer than their original mintage figures would suggest due to heavy meltings that were a direct result of an act of legislation.

2. Contemporary Economics:

In times when the economy was strong, people collected and saved coins. For instance, high grade gold dollars from the 1880’s are more common than their low mintage figures suggest because dealers, collectors and hoarders, during a prosperous era, saved large quantities of these coins. The same is also true, although not to as great an extent, for Three Dollar gold pieces from this era.

3. Exportation:

Once the United States began to actively trade with Europe, Latin America and South America, large numbers of American gold coins were sent overseas in order to pay off foreign trade debts. This seems to have begun in earnest around 1878. Today, quantities of United States gold coins are still being found in foreign banks and other sources. This means that some United States gold coins from the 1880’s and 1890’s are more available in the lower Uncirculated grades than their mintage figures might suggest. It also makes for an unusual grade distribution for certain issues. As an example, the New Orleans eagles from the 1890’s are rarely seen in grades below AU55 but almost never above MS62. This is indicative of issues that were probably sent overseas soon after they were struck but which were very roughly handled and are now heavily abraded.

4. Incorrect Mint Records:

In the 18th and early 19th century, the Mint often kept somewhat sketchy records. There are certain early gold issues which are more common than their mintage figures suggest while others are far rarer. In some cases this has to do with the fact that the original mintage figures are incorrect.

Sometimes, even more modern records appear to be incorrect. In 1910 the mintage figure for Proof Indian Head quarter eagles was recorded as 682. This is nearly triple the highest recorded figure for any other date of this design and from the number of pieces known to exist, it seems likely that this figure is incorrect. The same holds true with the other Proofs of this year and makes us wonder, are the records simply wrong or were far too many Proofs ordered to be struck and were most of these later melted?

5. Hoards:

The rarity of certain United States gold coins has been greatly influenced in recent years by the discovery of hoards. A classic example of this is the S.S. Central America shipwreck which made the 1856-S and 1857-S double eagles very common in the higher Uncirculated grades. More recently, the S.S. Republic shipwreck contained a number of New Orleans eagles from the 1840’s and 1850’s as well as large numbers of Philadelphia double eagles from the early to mid-1860’s. Other smaller hoards have been found as well. As an example, a little-known group of 1840 quarter eagles was found in the mid-1990’s. It contained less than ten pieces but included at least four or five coins that graded in the MS63 to MS65 range. This was a very important group for collectors of Liberty Head quarter eagles as this date had been essentially unknown in Uncirculated before this.

6. Mint Meltings:

This category is especially applicable to Proofs. These coins have always been made specifically for collectors. In the 19th and early 20th century, the Mint would simply melt those Proofs that were not purchased. As an example, in 1859, the Mint struck 80 gold Proof sets. This was far more than needed and it is likely that the vast majority were melted. Today, all 1859 Proof gold coinage is very rare and the larger denomination issues, specifically the eagle and the double eagle, have as few as four or five survivors.

7. Restrikes:

There are certain instances where it is clear that a coin is rarer than its original mintage figure. Two excellent examples of this are the Proof-only 1875 and 1876 Three Dollar gold pieces. These have original mintage figures of 20 and 45, respectively. The PCGS and NGC populations for each of these issues are actually greater than the original mintage figures. Some of these have to be discounted as multiple submissions but clearly the original mintage figures for these two issues have to be called into question. It is my feeling that both of these were restruck (probably in the same year in which they were issued) by the Mint to fill a demand by contemporary collectors and dealers. Before you determine how rare a coin is, there are many factors to consider. The seven mentioned above are important and I would suggest that there are even more that await the curious collector.