What Do Original United States Gold Coins Look Like?

Around a year ago, I wrote a blog that discussed original 19th century United States gold coins and used photos of specific coins to illustrate the points I was attempting to make. This was one of the most popular blogs to ever appear on www.raregoldcoins.com and I was pleased to get the positive feedback it generated. At the recent FUN show, I was shown two collections of coins. One consisted of around two dozen Charlotte and Dahlonega coins while the other had around 30 early gold coins. All were graded by PCGS or NGC and in both instances the owner prefaced his show-and-tell by informing me that all the coins were sold to him by dealers who stressed their "originality."

Out of the 50 or so coins I looked at, around five were what I would describe as being "original." This made me realize that most collectors do not understand the concept of originality and that it would be a good time to dust off the old "how to tell originality" blog.

1. 1807 Bust Left $5.00 Graded AU55+ by PCGS

1807 $5.00 PCGS AU55+

To me, this coin is just about the most perfect piece of lightly circulated early gold that you are likely to find. I think its an AU58 instead of an AU55+ but that's just splitting hairs; what can not be denied is this coin's exceptional color and overall originality.

There are a numbers of factors that make me believe that this piece is original. First is the depth and evenness of its color. Note the "age" of the color and how well it blends. Artificial color looks "newer" and never blends as well as old, mellow natural color. Secondly, note how the underlying luster is still undisturbed and in a perfect cartwheel pattern. This is most clear at the obverse border where there is considerable mint luster at the stars. Thirdly, note the absence of hairlines or other imperfections that might have been caused by a prior cleaning.

2. 1852-C $5.00 Graded AU53 by PCGS

1852-C $5.00 PCGS AU53

I almost decided not to use this coin as an example. Its sort of like going to the gym, choosing the biggest lunkhead you can find and then holding him up as an example of a fit guy to a bunch of scrawny non-lifters. Just not fair, right?

The first sign that this coin is very original is the depth of its coloration. Note the very deep and very even hues that can be seen on the obverse and reverse. Coin doctors are never able to reproduce this deep green-gold hue and most artificial toning on gold tends to be more of a bright orange or slightly off-kilter red hue. Another sign of this coin's originality is the fact that the few marks on the surfaces are not shiny or bright. On artificially toned or processed coins, the chemical agents used to color the coins tend to break down over time and there is often discoloration or brightness within the recesses of the marks on the surfaces.

3. 1856-O $10 Graded AU53 by NGC

1856-O $10.00 NGC AU53

This attractive coin has a few things that lead me to believe that it is original. The first is its deep, even green-gold color. Note that the hues are consistent on the obverse and reverse. The second is that there is no "filminess" atop the surfaces that might be caused by it having been puttied. The third is the presence of dirt deposits in the protected areas of the obverse and reverse. Note around a number of the stars and within the reverse lettering: there are raised black dirt "chunks" which would quickly dissolve if this coin were dipped in a chemical solution or even put into a soap and water bath to lighten it.

4. 1833 Large Date $5.00 Graded MS63 by PCGS

1833 Large Date $5.00 PCGS MS63

The common theme so far in with these coins have been their deep, dark original coloration. But what about coins that are lighter in hue and higher in grade? Can a coin that is not dark still be original? In the case of this 1833 half eagle, a coin that I bought and sold at the 2011 FUN show, it certainly can. One of the first things of note about this coin is the fact that it is an old green label PCGS holder. This, of course, doesn't mean it is a guaranteed original coin. But what it does mean is that it was graded at least 15 or so years ago and nothing was placed on the surfaces by a coin doctor as a chemical or substance would have broken-down by now and become visible.

This coin is bright and vibrant but it isn't too bright or too vibrant. I'm not sure this makes sense to a new collector but long-term collectors will immediately realize the difference between a coin that is naturally bright and one that has been brightened. The luster on this coin is completely undisturbed and, as is typical for half eagles from this era, it has a sort of "pillowy" texture. Also, note that the color is a rich light yellow and green-gold. This is characteristic of original Fat Head eagles and this is something that is not seen much, anymore, on the surviving coins from this era.

5. 1814/3 $5.00 Graded MS62 by NGC

1814/3 $5.00 NGC MS62

This is a tricky coin and one that would probably cause the greatest amount of dissent if I showed it to a number of experts. As you can see from the photos, it is very richly toned, in fiery reddish-gold hues. Red is often a color on early gold that has been applied. But in the case of this coin, the hue and intensity of the red is "right" and it has, to the best of my knowledge, never been duplicated by coin doctors. You can also see that the color lies nicely on the surfaces and is variegated with a number of different hues. Artificial color is more monochromatic and does not have the subtle gradations that a natural piece like this displays.

A few other facts about this coin are compelling. First, it is interesting to note that I have handled at least three 1814/3 half eagles in Uncirculated that have had reasonably similar intense reddish-based color. Having seen similar colors on other examples makes me even more certain that the color is genuine. And, the coin is housed in a very old NGC "fatty" holder which means that it was graded nearly two decades ago. If this color wasn't real, it wouldn't look so good after two decades in an NGC holder.

6. 1880 $20.00 Graded PR63 by NGC

1880 $20.00 NGC PR63

Brilliant Proof Liberty Head gold coinage is almost never seen anymore. Most examples have been dipped and/or conserved in an attempt to generate higher grades from the third-party services and in order to receive Ultra Cameo designations.

In the 2011 FUN auction, Heritage sold a number of superb quality Proof gold coins from the Miller collection that were notable for having natural coloration. These coins were purchased in the 1970's and 1980's; back when collectors knew what original proof gold looked like and it was appreciated for what it was. This 1880 double eagle was from that sale and collection.

There are a few things that immediately show this coin is original. As simplistic as this sounds, the first is that it isn't blindingly brilliant. Note, instead, how there is rich copper-orange toning which deepens towards the borders. Also, there is a copper spot on the reverse between the two L's in DOLLARS. Proof gold that has been conserved doesn't have these spots. Finally, there is an even natural "haziness" atop the surfaces that exists on original Proof gold. Note that I did not say "filminess" as in "this coin has been puttied and is now filmy."

Hopefully, this blog has been helpful. There is, of course, no substitute for seeing original coins live and in person but in the absence of doing this, these images and descriptions should be a step in the right direction.