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Gold $3 coins: cheap or expensive?

Do not be afraid of $3 gold pieces as a collection. Simply getting over the fear many have of impossibly high prices can well be the first step to starting a very interesting and surprisingly affordable collection at least in circulated grades. That might seem like an absurd thing to write when most know that in a type set of gold coins it is the $3 that is the most costly, but the fact is that when you consider the mintages, the prices of $3 gold coins are surprisingly low.

In fact, the popular belief that the collection is far too expensive for most limits demand and has helped to keep prices relatively low in a grade like F-12, or even VF-20. It is surprising how few $3 gold coins have a price of $1,000 or more.

Of course, surprisingly low prices still don’t mean cheap prices.

The $3 gold piece is really a fascinating and admittedly unusual coin of the United States. Certainly right after the passage of the Mint Act of 1792, which authorized the initial denominations of the country, the idea of a $3 coin would have seemed unusual. With a $2.50 authorized as well as a $5, to have a $3 would have hardly seemed all that necessary. That was the way many saw the situation for years.

While we think of the gold dollar and the double eagle as denomination resulting directly from the discovery of gold in California, it would probably be safe to include the $3 on that list as well. Certainly had there not been adequate supplies of gold there would have been no reason to authorize a $3.

Sometimes we see some historical foundation for a new denomination. The idea of a two-cent piece appeared a couple times as a suggestion before the denomination was finally approved, but there is really no record of anyone suggesting that the United States needed a $3 gold coin.

Certainly the roots of the $3 gold coin could be found in the gold discovery in California, because this assured the nation of an adequate supply of the  precious metal, but even then the idea of a new $3 coin did not pop into anyone’s mind. The gold dollar adopted in 1849 was a denomination already in use in Georgia and North Carolina through the Bechtler family private mint, so it was natural as was a larger $20, but no one seemed to think what the country needed was a $3 gold.

The idea of a gold $3 was almost certainly tied to a three-cent piece. The three-cent piece had been approved in 1851 in 75 percent silver. It was basically a way of stalling while the Congress continued to not deal promptly with the fact that the silver coins were too heavy  and needed to be reduced slightly to keep their silver value below face value.

A 75 percent silver three-cent piece was able to circulate while other silver coins were hoarded. Otherwise there had been no real strong case for a three-cent coin made except for the notion that it would make the purchase of three-cent stamps easier and that became an issue at least in the minds of lawmakers because they had lowered the postage rate.

Simply put, fearing reaction to reducing silver content in regular coinage they authorized a new debased coin, but probably also fearing a reaction to a 75 percent silver coin they packaged it as part of a popular postage rate reduction.

Finally in 1853 the Congress took the act of reducing the amount of silver slightly in regular silver coinage while also authorizing a $3 gold coin in part of the subsidiary coin bill passed on Feb. 21, 1853. There apparently was no major discussion of the new denomination, although certainly the idea of making it easier to buy 100 stamps could have been suggested based on the old three-cent coin logic.

If anything, it was probably a case where gold was plentiful and a new mint in San Francisco was coming on line so what is the harm in a new gold coin? Whatever the reason it was good enough and the $3 was born.

Actually, however, suspect that logic might be, there is a small inkling that it is correct because at the same time the first $3 was being released in 1854 there was actually a move among San Francisco bankers to get authorization for gold coins of $25, $50 and $100. Legislation passed the U.S.  Senate only to die in the House of Representatives.

Using coins as a vehicle to use up excess metal supplies late became a rationale for the nickel three-cent piece in 1865 and the Morgan silver dollar in 1878.

The process of designing the new $3 was easy. With a $2.50 already in use, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre was presented with the problem of making the new coin, which by definition would be very close in weight to the existing $2.50. Longacre understood the problem writing of the $3, “it should bear a distinctive character, in device and inscription, which should be peculiarly striking, and obvious in order to prevent, or guard against the danger in circulation of passing or receiving one piece for the other.”

Longacre did his job well coming up with what is sometimes called his “Indian Princess” design for the obverse while the reverse showed a composite wreath of corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco enclosing the denomination.

There might have been critics, but at least the design was very different from the existing Coronet Head quarter eagle – preventing confusion with the quarter eagle was helped by making the $3 proportionately wider and thinner than other gold coins.

While the technical problems could be solved or at least lessened, the fact that the $3 really had no logical niche in circulation was never really solved. In 1854 Philadelphia produced 138,616 pieces, but that was by far the largest mintage as most totals from the 1850s dropped to between 15,000 and 50,000 pieces. It was further downhill after 1859 when no mintage topped 10,000 until the 41,820 piece mintage of 1874. The last solid mintage was the 82,324 total of 1878.

Despite the low mintages and reputation for scarcity, the $3 gold piece is a collection where you can find a surprising number of dates in F-12 at prices between $600 and $700. The few that reach $1,000 are significant rarities.

In the case of Mint State, an available date like the 1854 or 1878 is likely to be around $3,000 in MS-60 while an MS-65 is likely to cost $16,000 for the cheapest one. There is also a small number of proofs, which in the case of the more available dates, start around $21,000, but in the case of the better proof dates like the 1854 and 1855 are $125,000 and $120,000, respectively.

With only one date having a mintage above 100,000, the $3 gold piece is naturally going to be a tough collection, but the few dates that really stand out as being tough are well worth study. Any 1873 is tough, but it came with both open and closed “3” varieties. The open “3” is a proof-only coin with a mintage generally placed at 25 pieces.

In the case of the closed “3” the situation is even more complex as there are no mintages figures or even estimates that seem reliable. At $4,000 in VF-20 we know the closed “3” is very tough with a Proof-65 listing at $42,000. The Professional Coin Grading Service reports 61 examples of which eight were Mint State, while Numismatic Guaranty Corp. reports 35 of which seven were Mint State. It is clear that the 1873 did in fact circulate although the question remains as to just what the mintage was as the suggestion of some of 100 pieces seems off the mark especially with nearly 100 reported by the two grading services and 15 of them being Mint State.

There are no real questions surrounding the 1875 and 1876. They are simply proof-only dates that are very tough. The mintages are not certain but the generally accepted totals are 20 and 45 pieces, respectively, and that means high prices especially in the case of the 1875 which lists at $175,000 in Proof-65 while the 1876 is $60,000.

If you go by price, the key business strike would be the 1854-D  with good reason. Its mintage was just 1,120 pieces. Apparently the $3 was not a hit in the gold fields of Georgia and North Carolina as Charlotte never produced any $3 and the 1854-D with that very low mintage was the only $3 to emerge from Dahlonega.

Like any coins from Dahlonega or Charlotte, the 1854-D is tough and usually not well made. The dentils on most examples are light and there is usually some smoothness at the reeding at the top but such things are typical of Dahlonega coins. The estimates are there may be perhaps 100 examples of the 1854-D known to exist today although the number is suspect as NGC has seen 95 with eight of them having received a grade of MS-60 or better. The PCGS total stands at 120 of which only three have reached MS-60 and none is higher than MS-62. Those are the sort of numbers you expect from Dahlonega issues.

As suggested, the historic estimates of perhaps 100 known may be subject to question with the two major grading services combined having seen twice that number. Of course a number may have been graded and counted more than once, but the fact remains the 100 estimate may be too low. Even so, the 1854-D is very tough and we see that in prices of $5,000 in F-12 and $65,000 in MS-60.

The 1854-O with a mintage of 24,000 pieces could be a sleeper. It was the only year New Orleans produced the denomination, but the 1854-O lists for only $700 in F-12 and $20,000 in MS-60. In fact, the F-12 price may be about right as it is thought there might be close to 500 examples known, but when you check for examples in Mint State you find another story as NGC for example has seen just 12 of 401 examples graded while the PCGS total is zero out of over 300 graded.

Another interesting date is the 1855-S, which was the first $3 to emerge from the new facility in San Francisco. The 1855-S had a mintage placed at 6,600 pieces. That fact alone would make it a good date, but despite that low mintage, the 1855-S is priced at just $680 in F-12, but it is put at $25,000 in MS-60 and that price also raises questions as of 88 examples seen by NGC only two reached MS-60 or better. At PCGS, of 99 seen only two reached MS-60 or better, suggesting that the 1855-S is an extremely tough coin in Mint State.

San Francisco produced another rare date like the 1855-S in the form of the 1860-S, which had a reported mintage of 7,000, leading to a price today of $640 in F-12. Once again the 1860-S is available in circulated grades but try finding one in MS-60 where it is priced at $17,000.

Of 101 seen by PCGS, only two were called Mint State while NGC also reported two in Mint State out of the 91 examples seen. What makes the 1860-S all the more interesting is that of its reported 7,000 pieces 2,592 of them were reported melted in December of 1869 as being underweight.

That raises all sorts of questions including why it took until 1869 to realize they had made underweight coins in 1860 as well as why they were underweight in the first place. There is, however, no question that the 1860-S is a very good coin at today’s prices.

The 1884 is a classic example of the uncertainty surrounding some $3 gold pieces. We know it had a mintage reported to be 1,106 with 106 of the total being proofs. At $800 in F-12 and $3,600 in MS-60, the 1884 is not that expensive and there the story takes an interesting twist.

The famous dealer S. Hudson Chapman at the time suggested that a number of dates like the 1884 may have been melted in some numbers as there was apparently little demand. Chapman was in a position to know or at least hear rumors from inside the Mint and that would suggest that the 1884 might actually be tougher than its already low mintage would suggest.

We do know it is not common as its totals at the grading services are in some cases well below the total of the 1854-D and the 1884 being produced in Philadelphia should have been more heavily saved than the similar mintage 1854-D, which is at least some suggestion that Chapman may well have been right.

If you like coins with a little mystery in their background than you will love the key $3 gold, the 1870-S. Officially there were no 1870-S pieces created, although an exception was made as 1870 was the year for the laying of the cornerstone of what would be the new San Francisco Mint which became known as the “Granite Lady.” This was to replace the mint that opened in 1854. That first facility had been too small and too crowded. Officials also complained of the heat, noise and the smell of acid that went through the building. Suffice to say they were thrilled to be getting a new building and as a result it was decided to have all the denominations placed in its cornerstone.

There was only one problem with the grand plan and that was that San Francisco was not making all the denominations in 1870. It was apparently decided that did not matter as an example of  the denominations not in regular production that year could still be made and placed in the cornerstone. The problem with that idea is that apparently no one could make just one.

We know for example that there were no 1870-S Seated Liberty silver dollars produced yet somehow perhaps 10 or a dozen exist. The figuring is they were passed out as souvenirs of the big event based on the fact that most have light wear probably from mishandling. Then there is the 1870-S half dime, which should not exist but does, suggests that one was placed in the cornerstone and another created and kept.

What applies to the 1870-S half dime also applies to the 1870-S $3 gold piece as it either never ended up in the cornerstone as was supposed to happen or there was an extra that somehow magically ended up in the holdings of William Woodin, a famous collectors who ended up as Secretary of the Treasury in 1933.

What makes the whole matter all the more interesting is that the 1870-S $3 that is known is graded as AU-50 cleaned with traces of use as jewelry, which is certainly an interesting twist for a unique coin of the United States. Just how that 1870-S $3 ended up being used as jewelry is one of the more interesting questions.

In the 1982 Eliasberg sale it managed a price of $687,500. It resides in the Harry W. Bass collection at the headquarters of the American Numismatic Association. Coin Market lists a value of $1,250,000
While no one can buy the 1870-S, the rest of a $3 gold piece collection is possible. Certainly there are a few extremely tough dates, but realistically in circulated grades like F-12, only a few dates top $1,000, so many collectors could potentially attempt a set.

Of course, if many did attempt a set the prices would go up significantly as it is a set of very tough dates that are only at modest price levels because of a lack of demand. If there was suddenly more interest you could expect prices to increase significantly, but until then the $3 gold piece is an interesting coin and also a great value.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition

 

 

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