During the last year or so, I have been working on a series of articles that discusses the ten rarest individual issues in each of the Liberty Head denominations. I haven’t done one of these articles since October 2008 when I wrote about the ten rarest Liberty Head quarter eagles. Gold dollars are a series that is on my mind right now, especially considering I am selling a wonderful group of Type Three Proofs known as the Tri-Star Collection. This seems like a good segue into this article.
The gold dollar coinage was produced from 1849 through 1889. These are the smallest gold coins struck by the United States mints, both in terms of value and size. Coins were produced at the following mints: *Philadelphia: 1849-1889 *Charlotte: 1849-1853, 1855, 1857, 1859 *Dahlonega: 1849-1861 *New Orleans: 1849-1853, 1855 *San Francisco: 1856-1860, 1870
There are three varieties of gold dollar. The first, known as the Type One, was struck from 1849 to 1854. It is easily recognizable by the use of Longacre’s Liberty Head obverse. The Type One dollars have a diameter of 12.7 millimeters and weigh 1.67 grams. The second variety, known as the Type Two, was made in 1854, 1855 and 1856. It features an Indian Head obverse design with a small head. It has a diameter of 15 millimeters. The final variety, known as the Type Three, was produced from 1856 until this denomination was abolished in 1889. It has another variation of the Indian Head design, this time with the portrait larger in size. It is the same size and weight as the Type Two design.
As a series, gold dollars are more popular than many non-specialists realize. The natural inclination that most people have is that since these coins are so small, they are not readily collectible. I have found this to be untrue and I am aware of a number of people who either collect all the gold dollars by date or they specialize in one or two of the mints (usually Charlotte or Dahlonega).
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the ten rarest gold dollars.
1. 1849-C Open Wreath: This is not only the rarest gold dollar, it is the third rarest regular issue Liberty Head gold coin of any denomination, trailing the 1861 Paquet Reverse $20.00 and the 1854-S $5.00. There are either four or five 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollars known. The finest is an NGC MS63PL that sold at auction in July 2004 for $690,000 which is, by far, a world record for a gold dollar of any date. This same coin is said to have later traded in excess of $1 million. The lowest graded is an NGC F15 which has signs of having been mounted at one time but which is slabbed by NGC nonetheless. I have handled two of the 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollars and I believe that if this issue were better known (and larger in size) it would easily be a million dollar plus coin.
2. 1861-D: This is not only the rarest Dahlonega gold dollar, it is the single most popular issue of this denomination from any date or mint. Much of the 1861-D gold dollar’s popularity has to do with the fact that it is known with certainty to have been produced by the Confederacy. It is believed that around 1,000-1,500+ were originally struck of which an estimated 60-80 exist today. The survivors tend to be divided between low-quality damaged pieces and examples that are relatively high grade and nicer than one might expect. There are two known in PCGS MS64 (the Ullmer/Miles/Pierce coin and the Duke’s Creek coin) and a grand total of ten to fifteen in Uncirculated grades. The 1861-D is one of the few gold dollars that has strong demand from non-specialists and as a result, it is one of the most expensive issues in the entire series.
3. 1855-D: The 1855-D is a one-year type coin with a tiny original mintage figure of 1,811. It is the only Type Two dollar from the Dahlonega mint and its status as a one-year issue makes it extremely popular among date and type collectors. There are between 75 and 100 known and it is the rarest Dahlonega gold dollar in terms of availability in higher grades. At one time I felt that as few as three Uncirculated pieces were known. Today, I believe that this number is a bit higher but this is due to gradeflation and not the discovery of new examples. When available, the typical 1855-D grades VF to EF and is characterized by weakly struck digits in the date. Examples do exist with full dates but these are quite scarce. This is one of my very favorite gold dollars and it is an issue that I believe will always remain in high demand in virtually all grades.
4. 1875: Due to its tiny mintage of just 400 business strikes, the 1875 is among the best known gold dollars outside of the specialist community. As one might expect, this is a very scarce coin but examples appear to have been saved by contemporary collectors and dealers with an estimated 75-100 known today. All business strike 1875 dollars are prooflike but can be easily distinguished from their Proof counterparts by the presence of a thorn that protrudes from the lower portion of Liberty’s jaw into the field. The 1875 dollar is not often found in grades below AU55, indicating that this issue did not see much circulation. There are some extremely nice Uncirculated pieces known and I have personally handled three or four Gems that had great eye appeal. PCGS has graded two in MS66 with none better while NGC has graded one in MS66 with none better. One of these is almost certainly Brand I: 51 that was sold by Bowers and Merena in November 1983 and which I still remember being the best example that I have seen. The auction record for a business strike 1875 dollar is $33,350, set by Heritage 2007 ANA: 1814, graded MS66 by NGC.
5. 1856-D: Assuming that the mintage figure for the 1861-D was in the 1,000-1,500+ range, there is a chance that the 1856-D has the smallest number struck of any gold dollar from this mint. Even if this is not the case, the 1856-D is a rare issue with just 1,460 produced. My best estimate is that around 80-100 are known today. The 1856-D is usually found in the EF40 to AU50 range and it is quite rare in properly graded AU55 to AU58. (Both the PCGS and NGC population figures for AU55 and AU58 examples are greatly inflated by resubmissions. The 1856-D is extremely rare in properly graded Uncirculated with an estimated four to six known. NGC has graded a single coin in MS63 but the best I have personally seen is the PCGS MS62 Green Pond: 1009 coin sold by Heritage in January 2004 that brought $47,150. All known 1856-D gold dollars show a weak U in UNITED.
6. 1863: Many people reading this article will be surprised to see the 1863 listed as the sixth rarest gold dollar, ahead of dates like the 1854-D and the 1860-D. It is an issue that has long been a favorite of mine and even though prices have risen significantly for the 1863 dollar over the years it is still a “sleeper.” There were 6,200 business strikes produced but unlike the dates from the later Civil War years, not many were saved. My best guess is that there are around 100-150 known including three dozen or so in Uncirculated. There are a few really superb pieces including a remarkable PCGS MS68 and a single NGC MS67. The 1863 is usually seen in the middle AU grades. Uncirculated coins tend to come in the MS62 to MS63 range and are characterized by heavy die striations on the surfaces. This is an issue that is only now coming into its own and a strong case can be made for it being the rarest Philadelphia gold dollar in Uncirculated.
7. 1854-D: The 1854-D is the fourth rarest Dahlonega gold dollar with an estimated 100-150 known from the original mintage figure of 2,935. It has a very distinctive quality of strike with the obverse typically much better detailed than the reverse. The 1854-D is not often seen in grades lower than EF and many of the examples that have been slabbed are in AU holders. Properly graded AU55 and better pieces are very rare and this is an issue that is extremely rare in Uncirculated with around nine or ten known. The best I am aware of is the Reed Hawn coin that was graded many years by NGC as MS63. PCGS shows a population of five in MS61 and six in MS62 but this seems inflated by resubmissions. There have been a number of auction records in the $13,000-15,000 range but the single highest price that I know of is $17,250 for a PCGS MS62 set by Heritage 4/06: 2209 in April 2006. The low mintage of this issue and its status as the final Type One gold dollar from Dahlonega make it an intriguing date.
8. 1860-D: The 1860-D is another rare gold dollar from Dahlonega with a very low mintage figure. There were just 1,566 produced and around 100-150 are known today. This date is similar in overall and high grade rarity to the 1854-D despite the fact that the 1860-D is generally valued quite a bit higher. The quality of strike seen on this date is the worst of any Dahlonega gold dollar; even more so than the 1861-D. All 1860-D gold dollars show a very weak U in UNITED and some pieces have the N weak as well. The obverse has a flat overall appearance while the reverse shows weakness on the lettering and the date. There are around a dozen known in Uncirculated. The highest graded by either service is an NGC MS64 (formerly in a PCGS MS63) that was last in the Duke’s Creek collection. It holds the all-time auction record for the date at $57,500 when it was sold as Heritage 4/06: 1492; the same coin brought $48,875 a year later when sold as Heritage 8/07: 1811.
9. 1850-D, 1852-D (tie). Both issues have total populations in the area of 150-200 coins and it is hard to determine which is rarer in terms of the total number extent. In higher grades, the 1850-D is the rarer of the two. It is unlikely that more than a dozen accurately graded Uncirculated pieces are known and the best is the Duke’s Creek coin that has been graded MS64 by NGC and MS63 by PCGS. All 1850-D dollars have a flat appearance but this is a much better made issue than the 1852-D. Speaking of which, the 1852-D is probably a bit more available in lower grades than its counterpart the 1850-D but it is a very rare coin in full Mint State. There are two NGC MS63 coins and one graded as such by PCGS. The best of these is the Duke’s Creek coin, graded MS63 by NGC (ex Heritage 4/06: 1484) that sold for $27,600. The 1852-D has an extremely distinctive appearance with most coins showing heavy roughness in the obverse fields as the result of multiple clashmarks.
10. 1865: The 1865 gold dollar is not as scarce as the 1863, despite the fact that it has a much lower mintage. There were 3,720 business strikes made of which around 150-200 (or perhaps a few more) exist. In spite of this date scarcity, it is easily the most affordable date in the Top Ten list and I have seen nice AU’s trade for less than $1,500 which seems like great value to me. While very scarce in Uncirculated, there are a few amazing 1865 gold dollars known including two graded MS67 by PCGS and the finest known, a PCGS MS68, that sold for $34,500 in the Heritage March 2008 auction. This date is usually seen with clashmarks and all have mint-made die striae in the fields. Examples are usually frosty and original pieces tend to show excellent multi-hued coloration.
The gold dollar series contains a number of rare issues but, excluding the virtually uncollectible 1849-C Open Wreath, it is a set that can be completed. What I like about these coins is that many of the issues have a very distinctive “character” due to the way that they were produced. For more information about gold dollars, please feel free to contact me via email at email@example.com
The response to the article that I wrote last month on the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles was so overwhelmingly positive that I’ve decided to extend this format to other denominations of Liberty Head gold. This month’s topic: quarter eagles. The Liberty Head quarter eagle series was produced from 1840 through 1907. Unlike the larger denomination issues of this type, quarter eagles were never produced at the Carson City or Denver mints. Thus, these coins were produced at five facilities: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Charlotte and Dahlonega.
There are numerous ways in which to collect Liberty Head quarter eagles. Most specialists focus on the issues from a specific mint. The most popular individual mint is Dahlonega, followed by Charlotte and New Orleans.
A small but dedicated cadre of collectors attempts to put together a complete set of Liberty Head quarter eagles. Such a set can be completed although at least two or three issues are very rare and quite expensive. This set is impossible to complete in Uncirculated due to the unavailability of at least one issue (the 1854-S) in Mint State. Every other issue, however, is known in Uncirculated although a number of these are extremely rare.
Some of the collectors who are attempting to assemble a complete set of Liberty Head quarter eagles also include significant varieties. These are generally limited to the ones that are recognized by PCGS and/or NGC.
One interesting way to collect this series would be to focus on the major rarities or key issues. But in the case of the Liberty Head quarter eagles, the most famous coins are not necessarily the rarest. Most readers of this article will be surprised that I have not included the famous 1848 CAL in the list of the ten rarest issues of this type. Even though this is clearly one of the ten most popular (and most desirable) issues, it is less scarce than generally acknowledged and it does not make the Top Ten list.
Without further ado, here are the ten rarest Liberty Head quarter eagles along with pertinent information about each issue:
1. 1854-S: The 1854-S is the rarest Liberty Head quarter eagle by a fairly large margin. There are around a dozen examples known from the original mintage of just 246 coins. Something that I have always found interesting about this date is the fact that most of the survivors are extremely well worn. At least five or six of the dozen known either grade VF20 or less or show damage. In fact, I am aware of just two examples that grade EF (by my standards) and a single coin that grades AU. For many years, the 1854-S was overlooked and, in comparison to other great U.S. gold rarities, it was greatly undervalued. The first example of this date to sell for a six-figure price was Bass II: 472 (now graded AU53 by NGC) that brought $135,700 in October 1999. In September 2005, I purchased an NGC EF45 example that was previously unknown to the collecting community out of an ANR auction for $253,000. This record was broken in February 2007 when a PCGS EF45 brought $345,000 in a Heritage sale. My best guess is that prices will continue to rise for this issue and the next comparatively choice example that is made available to collectors will set another price record.
2. 1841: This is probably the most famous date in this series and, for many years, it was the issue that traditionally sold for the highest price when it appeared at auction. Known as “The Little Princess,” it has been stated that “20 pieces” were struck. For many years, numismatic tradition has stated that these were produced only as Proofs. It is my opinion that some (if not most) were also struck in a business strike format. It is also my opinion that the reported mintage is too low and that as many as 50 or so were made. To the best of my knowledge, the current auction record for this issue is $253,000 which was set in June 2004 when Heritage sold an NGC PR65; this broke the previous record set by Bass III: 105 (graded PR64 by PCGS) back in 2000. I believe that a Gem 1841 quarter eagle, if available today, would sell for considerably more than this.
Note: For more information on this issue, please click here.
3. 1864: Placing this date as #3 on my Top Ten list may be a surprise to many collectors who probably expected the 1863 to make the #3 spot. But I feel the 1864 is clearly rarer than the 1863 and that it is one of the most overlooked and undervalued 19th century American issues. Only 2,824 were struck but, as with most gold coins from this era, the survival rate was very low due to significant meltings. I believe that around 15-20 examples are known. This includes an amazing NGC MS67 (ex: Byron Reed collection) that sold for $132,000 back in 1996 as well as two other Uncirculated coins, an NGC MS61 and a PCGS MS61, that are owned by two different collectors in Kansas. There are another six or seven that grade AU and the rest are in the VF-XF range. Despite this coin’s rarity, it is still affordable (especially in comparison to #1, #2 and #4 on this list).
Note: For more information on this issue please click here.
4. 1863: The 1863 is the single Proof-only quarter eagle of this type (although the 1841 has traditionally assumed to be as well; see above for my refutation of this belief). There were a total of 50 pieces struck of which I would estimate that around 20 or so exist. I place this coin as #4 on my Top Ten list based on the fact that I have seen far more 1863 quarter eagles available for sale in the last ten years than 1864 quarter eagles. Nonetheless, this is a very rare coin and it has always been a stopper for date collectors of this denomination. As recently as the middle of this decade, prices for this issue were relatively modest, considering this date’s rarity and significance. Nice PR63 to PR64 examples were selling for $35,000-50,000+ until a few years ago when prices began to jump; as they did for all Classic Rarities. The all-time auction record for this issue was set in January 2007 when Heritage sold an NGC PR66 Deep Cameo for $149,500. I have handled three examples of this date in the last four years. The 1863 quarter eagle is generally found with light hairlines but excellent contrast and very deep mirrors. It is a date whose importance is only now being fully realized and I believe that it is an issue whose price levels will continue to soar as this series becomes more popular.
5. 1865: Due to the fact that it has a mintage of just 1,520, some people have assumed that the 1865 is a rarer date than the 1864. This is not the case as the 1865 appears to have a slightly higher survival rate. My best estimate is that there are 25-35 examples known. According to the PCGS Population Report, there is an example graded MS63. I am not aware of this piece but assuming that it exists, it is by far the finest known and it is the only Uncirculated 1865 quarter eagle that exists. Both PCGS and NGC show an abnormally high number of coins graded AU58 and this is as a result of multiple resubmissions. I believe that there are around six or seven properly graded AU’s known as well as another ten or so in EF. When available, this date tends to have below average eye appeal due to very scuffy surfaces. I haven’t seen more than a handful of 1865 quarter eagles that were totally original and choice. At current price levels, I think this coin is excellent value as it is a major rarity that can be purchased in a Condition Census-level grade for less than $20,000.
6. 1856-D: There may actually be one or two quarter eagles that I placed lower on this list that are scarcer than the 1856-D. But these don’t have the little “D” mintmark placed on the reverse; a feature that makes this coin so endearing to specialists. Oh—and they don’t have an original mintage of just 874 coins either. The 1856-D is the rarest Dahlonega gold coin of any denomination with an estimated 45-55 pieces known. It is generally seen in EF grades with many advanced collectors holding out for a nice AU coin for their collection. As I have mentioned in past writings, this is probably the single hardest United States gold coin to properly grade due to the fact that it was poorly struck from improperly prepared dies and many examples have the luster and surfaces of one grade but the detail of another, far lower grade. The current auction record for an 1856-D was set by yours truly when I purchased the Heritage 4/06: 1513 coin for $71,875. This piece graded MS61 by NGC and it is certainly among the finest known.
Note: For more information on this issue please click here.
7. 1855-D: The 1855-D is the second rarest Dahlonega quarter eagle. For a number of years, I believed that it was the rarest but this is mistaken as the 1856-D (see above) is clearly rarer. Only 1,123 1855-D quarter eagles were struck and an estimated 50-60 are believed to exist. This issue tends to be a bit better struck than the 1856-D but it is another issue that the eye appeal tends to be negative. Any 1855-D that is well struck and which shows original color is very rare and worth a significant premium over the typical example. Most are seen in the VF to EF range and properly graded AU’s are very rare. I have only seen one or two that I regard as Uncirculated. The finest known is the example in the Smithsonian that is said to grade MS62 or thereabouts. The all-time auction record is Heritage 4/06: 1512 (graded MS61 by NGC) that realized $54,625.
Note: For more information on this issue please click here.
8. 1875:If this article had been written a few decades ago, it is likely that the 1875 would have ranked much higher up the list. With an original mintage of just 400 business strikes, it is easy to see why this date was once believed to be an extreme rarity. It appears that the 1875 is actually a bit more available than one would assume (this is also the case with the ultra-low mintage gold dollar of this year) with as many as 50-60+ pieces known. That said, the 1875 quarter eagle is still extremely popular and I love the fact that the collector of average means can still purchase a decent EF example, given the fact that these still trade in the $4,000-5,000 range. The 1875 becomes rare in properly graded AU55 and it is very rare in Uncirculated with four to six known. The finest I have seen is Goldberg 5/99: 666 (graded MS64 by PCGS; it sold for $25,300) while the second best is probably the Bass II: 587 coin (graded MS62 by PCGS; it brought $17,250 back in 1999). The 1875 quarter eagle is nearly always found with fully prooflike surfaces but it is easy to distinguish from a Proof due to an entirely different date position.
9. 1866: As you can tell from this list, the Philadelphia quarter eagles from 1863 to 1866 include many of the rarest individual issues in this entire series. The 1866 is not quite in the same league as the 1864 or 1865 but it is another rarity with an original mintage of just 3,080. There are around 55-65 known with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. The 1866 is extremely scarce in the middle AU grades and rare in properly graded AU58. There are around five or six known in Uncirculated. Interestingly, this date was unknown in Uncirculated at the time Akers wrote his seminal guide to quarter eagles. I am aware of at least two Gems and another coin that grades MS64. The all-time auction record is held by Heritage 5/07: 2239 (graded MS65 by PCGS; it sold for $40,250). All 1866 quarter eagles have satiny luster and surfaces that show pronounced horizontal die striations.
10. 1842: This is probably the least well-known date in my Top Ten list and, honestly, I think I am slighting it by ranking it as “only” #10. The 1842 quarter eagle is very scarce in all grades and around 50-60 are known from the original mintage of just 2,823. Unlike the 1866 and 1875, this issue is generally seen in very low grades and it becomes extremely rare in AU. I doubt if more than five to seven properly graded AU’s exist and in Mint State the 1842 is unique. I sold a PCGS MS62 a number of years ago to a Kansas collector who owns the finest set of Liberty Head quarter eagles ever assembled. I had earlier bought the coin from the Superior 9/99 auction where, as Lot 1863, it sold for $31,050. Despite this issue’s unassailable rarity, it is still very reasonably priced. I have seen examples in EF grades bring between $3,000 and $5,000 at auction which seems downright cheap for a coin that is many times rarer than its better-known (and more expensive) branch mint counterparts from this era.
There are a number of other Liberty Head quarter eagles that I think are worthy of Honorable Mention status. These include the 1844, 1845-O (if the Top Ten list featured bonus points for popularity, I would have certainly included this date instead of the far less popular 1866 or the more obscure 1842), 1862/1, 1863-S, 1867 (possibly the most underrated date in the entire series) and the 1872.
This article is about the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles. Notice that I didn’t say “the ten most popular” or “the ten most expensive.” Readers may be surprised that this top ten list does not include any Carson City issues (although I was tempted to include the 1870-CC) and just one from New Orleans. In looking over the list you will note that six of the ten coins are from Philadelphia and at least one or two are probably not all that familiar to even the most advanced collector of Liberty Head gold. Most of these dates have very low original mintage figures (one, the 1875, has a mintage of just 100 business strikes!) and nearly all have remarkably low survival rates. To qualify for this list, an issue requires a total population of under 50-60 coins.
In order of their rarity, here is my list of the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles. After this list, I am going to devote a paragraph or two to each issue, covering topics such as the total number known, rarity in high grades, the finest known, Condition Census information, etc.
3. 1873 Closed 3
5. 1865-S Normal Date
9. 1839 Head of 1840
10. The Coveted Last Spot on the List
1. 1875: The Philadelphia gold coinage of 1875 includes a number of issues with exceedingly low mintages. Only 400 examples of both the gold dollar and quarter eagle were produced but the survival rate is higher than expected. The three dollar is a Proof-only issue that has sold for over $100,000 since the 1970’s while the half eagle is a major rarity with probably no more than 10-12 known from the original mintage of 200. I believe that the 1875 eagle, however, is the rarest of all these impressive Philadelphia issues. I have seen it stated that as many as 12-15 are known but I believe that this figure is on the high side and that the actual number is more likely seven to nine. I have personally seen two or three that I would grade AU including Superior 6/97: 1541 and B&M 3/98: 2207 that were graded AU53 and AU50, respectively, by PCGS. The all-time auction record is $74,750 for an NGC AU55 sold as Lot 2102 in DLRC’s Richmond I auction in 2004.
Every business strike 1875 eagle (and I haven’t seen once since Heritage offered a PCGS VF35 in January 2006) is characterized by excessively abraded surfaces and inferior eye appeal. Some of the coins that have been certified as business strikes by both services are actually Impaired Proofs. Proof 1875 eagles have a different date position than business strikes and use a different reverse with the top of the second vertical stripe in the shield incomplete.
I believe that this is an extremely undervalued issue and if it were part of a more popular series it would be a $100,000++ coin.
2. 1864-S: The 1864-S is the rarest eagle from the San Francisco mint. Only 2,500 were produced and my best estimate is that around 25-30 are known. Unlike its cousin, the very rare 1864-S half eagle, the 1864-S eagle is unknown in Uncirculated and I have personally seen only two that I regard as AU - The Bass III: 658 (graded AU55 by PCGS; it sold for a remarkably cheap $36,800 back in May 2000) and a coin owned by a West Coast specialist. The all-time auction record is $50,600 set in the July 2006 B&M sale by a PCGS EF45.
This is a generally well-produced issue although most have weakness on the radial lines in the stars. I have only viewed a small handful of 1864-S eagles that had any mint luster and most are heavily bagmarked. This was an issue that saw considerable circulation and the majority of survivors are very well worn.
It is my suspicion that someone is hoarding lower grade 1864-S eagles. There has only been one example sold at auction in the last five years or so, despite a combined population of twenty-three coins at PCGS/NGC. Even assuming that this number is inflated by resubmissions, my instinct tells me that some savvy collector is sitting on a group of five to ten 1864-S eagles and torturing those of us who would love to buy an example.
3. 1873 Closed 3: All 1873 eagles (business strikes and Proofs) are found with a Closed 3 in the date. All other Philadelphia gold coins from this year are found with both an Open 3 and a Closed 3 variety. A total of 800 business strikes were produced along with 25 Proofs. There are an estimated 25-35 examples known. Unlike the 1875 and the 1864-S, most of the surviving 1873 eagles are not extremely well worn. In fact, the majority of the survivors grade in the AU range, suggesting that this issue saw little actual circulation. Most of the pieces I have seen are well struck and display satiny, slightly reflective luster. I have never viewed one that didn’t have heavy to very heavy abrasions and my guess is that most 1873 eagles were thrown into a bag and transported somewhere before being released into their brief period(s) of circulation.
The finest known is the ex: Warren Miller coin, graded MS60 by PCGS, which sold for $34,100 all the way back in October 1995. Prior to this, the coin had been sold as Stack’s 3/90: 1222. Bass III: 705 ($21,850; as PCGS AU58) is probably the second best. In all, I would estimate that there around a dozen or so in AU with most in tightly-held collections.
I recently sold a nice PCGS AU50 example to a prominent collector and this was the first 1873 eagle that I had owned in close to a decade.
4. 1863: All of the Civil War era Liberty Head eagles are scarce (with the exception of the 1861) but the 1863 is the key rarity in this subset. In fact, I regard it as among the very rarest 19th century Philadelphia gold coins. Only 1,248 business strikes were issued of which an estimated 30-40 are known. The finest is the superb Bass IV: 683 ex: MARCA 8/91: 755 that brought $52,900 in its last appearance (an amazing bargain) after Harry Bass had paid $104,500 for it back in 1991. The second finest known is an NGC MS62 from the S.S. Republic that is owned by a prominent Western collector. NGC has also graded an example in MS60.
Almost every example that I have seen grades EF45 or below and is characterized by excessively abraded surfaces. The luster is either soft and frosty or, less often, semi-prooflike and the strike tends to be bold with the exception of the curl directly above Liberty’s ear.
It has been a number of years since I have handled an 1863 eagle and the last example that I can recall having seen was an NGC AU58 that was sold at auction by Heritage back in 2005.
5. 1865-S Normal Date: Two varieties are known for this year. The better known is the spectacular 1865-S Over Inverted 186. The less visually impressive Normal Date is, ironically, the rarer of the two. I regard this as the second rarest eagle from San Francisco. I estimate that around 30-40 are known and nearly all grade EF40 or below. In fact, this is one of the rarest Liberty Head eagles from the standpoint of condition. I have never seen or heard of an Uncirculated example (although NGC has graded a coin in MS60) and I know of just three that I would call real AU’s (none better than AU50 to AU53).
The quality of strike is very distinctive with soft radial lines in the stars and a slightly concave appearance on the obverse. The reverse is better struck although many examples show weakness on the neck feathers. I have never seen an 1865-S Normal Date eagle that did not have heavily abraded surfaces and most have enough wear to lack any significant luster.
The record price at auction for this issue is $21,850 set by Heritage in January 2007 for a coin graded AU58 by NGC. I believe that a nice, original AU55 to AU58 could sell for considerably more in today’s market if it became available (or even exists).
6. 1860-S: Unless you know this series, you are probably not aware of the true rarity of the 1860-S. This is a very rare coin in all grades and one that is even harder to locate than its small original mintage of 5,000 would suggest. I believe that 35-45 are known including five or six properly graded AU’s and two in Mint State. This date was unknown in Uncirculated until two were found in the S.S. Republic treasure. The finer of the two, graded MS62 by NGC, is owned by a West Coast collector. The other, graded MS61 by NGC, sold for $37,375 in the Superior May 2008; an all-time auction record for this date.
The typical 1860-S is very well worn with VF to EF detail and shows signs of having been mishandled. The strike is typically soft with weakness on the stars and incomplete definition in the centers.
7. 1883-O: The 1883-O is the rarest eagle produced at the New Orleans mint. In my book “Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909” I suggested that 35-45 examples are known from the original mintage of just 800 coins. I still agree with this estimate. Since my book was published in 2006, very few 1883-O eagles have become available and the demand for this issue seems to have greatly increased.
Virtually every example that I have seen grades in the EF40 to AU50 range and is characterized by heavily abraded surfaces. Most are Prooflike and have had their luster disturbed by rough handling and/or numismatic abuse.
The finest known example, an NGC MS61PL (earlier graded MS60 by NGC), surfaced in a bid sale conducted by a dealer at the 2008 FUN show. It was purchased by a consortium of dealers and then sold to a private collector for a record price. With the exception of this coin, very few 1883-O eagles have been seen by me in the last three or so years.
8. 1844: I mentioned in the beginning of this article that there were a few coins on this list that were not well-known outside of the core collecting community of Liberty Head eagles. I would have to rank the 1844 as the number one sleeper in this group and it is a coin whose true rarity even surprised me as I was researching this group.
There were only 6,361 eagles struck in 1844 and my estimate is that 40-50+ are known. When you do find an 1844 eagle, it tends to be very well worn with VF and EF examples most often seen. I believe that there are fewer than ten properly graded AU examples known with most in the AU50-53 range. NGC has graded one in MS63 (I have not seen it) which may possibly be the Bell coin from 1944; they have also graded an MS61 example that Heritage sold in their January 2002 auction for a reasonable $10,063. The best example I have personally seen is an AU55 and I cannot recall having seen a nice 1844 eagle in over five years.
Every 1844 has two prominent die characteristics on the obverse. There is a horizontal die line below the first star and a series of vertical die scratches from the denticles out into the field near star three.
9. 1839 Type of 1840: I’m not totally certain that this variety belongs at the #9 spot on the list but I have always loved the 1839 Type of 1840 and it’s my list, so I’m going to put it into this slot, deserving or not.
This issue was created after the Eagle design was remodeled in 1839 and it is appreciably different from the Type of 1838 that was produced earlier in the year. It is rare in all grades with an estimated 50-60 known from the original mintage of 12,447. This issue is usually seen in very low grades with VF20 to EF40 examples being typical. It becomes rare in AU with around ten or so properly graded pieces known. In Uncirculated it is slightly more available than some of the other issues on this list. I would estimate that there are three or four known. The finest (and one of my single favorite American coins) is Pittman: 1912, ex: Farouk, Woodin. This coin sold for $143,000 back in May 1998 and it is now graded MS64 by NGC.
10. The Coveted Last Spot on the List: There were a number of other dates that offered strong claims for the #10 spot but there was so little separation between them in terms of overall rarity that I did not think it was fair to include one and exclude the others. These dates include the 1858, 1859-S, 1864, 1866-S With Motto, 1876 and 1877. If I had to choose one that was most deserving, I would probably pick the 1859-S, based on the fact that I have handled fewer examples of this than of the others in the last few years. But I could easily see collectors coming to the support of the 1876 or 1877 and the 1858 is certainly the best known date in this small group.
I personally find the Liberty Head eagle series to be among the most interesting in all of American numismatics. It is extremely challenging but, unlike many other hard series, it is not impossible to complete.