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New Orleans gold $10 began slowly

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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If you are looking for some true hidden values, the place to look might well be the Coronet Head $10 gold pieces from New Orleans. Gold eagles from anywhere tend to be overlooked, but somehow those from New Orleans seem to have a special place in obscurity. It’s probably a result of gold eagles not getting quite the same attention as some other gold denominations, such as double eagles, but it almost certainly has to do at least in part with New Orleans itself as the facility despite some awfully tough coins like the 1854-O and 1856-O double eagles just does not seem to get mentioned a great deal when gold coins are discussed.

Perhaps it is a case where not being in the West or near any major gold deposits. The assumption of many is that New Orleans just had little to do with gold coins. That’s just not the case. In fact as is seen by the New Orleans gold eagles, the southern facility made a lot of very interesting and sometimes very tough gold coins over the years.

The history of New Orleans was at least mildly related to gold from the start. In the 1830s the first three branch mints in the history of the United States were approved. The reason was primarily gold as the new facilities in Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., were in the heart of what was the first major gold discovery in the United States.

It was logical to set mints up in these places as shipping the gold out of the region was a long and a potentially dangerous trip. As it turned out, Dahlonega and Charlotte would only ever produce gold coins.

The third of the three new facilities was New Orleans and it was different. There was no gold in the immediate New Orleans area other than real estate. The attraction of New Orleans was its unique role as a transportation center, which was already apparent even in the 1830s. The city had a population of 100,000 and was the fourth largest in the United States of the period.

Much of American commerce west of the Appalachian went through New Orleans as the great rivers of the Middle West worked like a highway network to move goods. New Orleans was the destination, which in turn sent the output of the heartland out into the world.

Commerce meant money and consequently a need for coins. What better place for a mint than New Orleans?

It would be easy to get gold or silver to New Orleans and equally easy to send coins out to almost any location. Plus, New Orleans clearly wanted a mint as they were willing to make the government an offer that was very hard to resist as the mint could be placed on a prime piece of real estate.

Under the circumstances, it was an offer that could not be turned down as a more full-service facility was going to be needed other than the small operations in Dahlonega and Charlotte. New Orleans was willing to do whatever it took to become that facility.

Things got off to a bit of a slow start as the new mint in New Orleans ran late and over budget, but the prospect of a facility taking some of the burden off Philadelphia for coin production made the problems ones that could be dealt with as it would make a significant difference in turning the corner for once and for all in finally enabling the United States to retire the coins of assorted other nations that were still in circulation.

The new facility was opened for coin production in 1838. Things were a little slow at the start, but eventually New Orleans would be able to produce every denomination of the time except copper large cents and half cents. That would include the gold $10, also known as the eagle, which was just returning to production with a new Christian Gobrecht Coronet Head design.

It must be remembered that at the time the gold eagle was the largest gold coin of the United States. The double eagle was still over a decade in the future.

The return of the gold eagle to production in 1838 after 34 years was not likely to be noticed by many at the time as the gold eagle was still a great deal of money. Most Americans would not have used gold eagles in commerce and if they had one, it was likely to be spent quickly.

Perhaps this lack of utility for the average American was seen in the fact that while producing only gold coins, the mints in Dahlonega and Charlotte would never produce a single gold eagle.

Realistically, it even took New Orleans some time to produce its first gold eagle. The first New Orleans Coronet Head gold eagle made its debut in 1841, but even with the delay it would be the first gold eagle ever produced outside of Philadelphia.

It actually looks today suspiciously like there was even uncertainty in 1841 as the mintage of the 1841-O was just 2,500 pieces. That could have been because of other factors, but it seems very possible that they were producing only a small number being truly uncertain as to where the gold eagle would receive a positive reception locally.

Whatever the reason behind the low mintage, the 1841-O is tough as is seen in it’s price of $3,450 in VF-20 and $19,500 in AU-50. There are reasonable doubts that even a single example of the 1841-O exists in Mint State. At the Professional Coin Grading Service they have graded just 44 examples of the 1841-O and the highest grade any of the 44 received was AU-55, making it legitimate to suggest that none was even borderline Mint State.

Until the 571,500 piece total in 1847, mintages of $10 gold pieces in New Orleans remained modest, but all the dates are possible to acquire at fairly reasonable prices in circulated grades. Most are priced at right around bullion value in F-12. This is not to suggest that they are all equally available, but rather that with limited demand, especially in lower circulated grades, there is an adequate supply to keep at roughly the same price level.

If only a few more collectors would go after this series, prices could change radically.

The situation is different in Mint State where the 1842-O is the most expensive from the decade prior to 1849 at $22,500 in MS-60. The 1847-O is the least expensive at $6,500 with the others ranging from $12,000 for the 1843-O to $16,500 for the 1845-O.

The PCGS totals basically explain the prices as the 1842-O has a Mint State population of a single example in MS-63, while the 1843-O has had four coins called Mint State, with the 1844-O at two while the 1845-O  and 1846-O are tied at one example in Mint State with an MS-61 and MS-62 ,respectively. In the case of the 1847-O, its lower price is supported by the fact that 7 examples have been called Mint State.

The 1848-O with a mintage of 38,850 is slightly more expensive in circulated grades at $643 in F-12. We cannot explain the slight premium, but in Mint State the 1848-O is $17,750, although like the 1847-O there have been 7 examples called Mint State and one managed a very high MS-66 grade. Perhaps the 1847-O is due for an increase in price.

The final date of the 1840s was the 1849-O. It had a mintage of 23,900 pieces and that makes it easy to understand its higher $643 price in F-12 and $27,500 price in MS-60 as only one Mint State example is reported by PCGS.

By the time the 1849-O was produced there were some new factors at work in American history. The most important was that gold had been discovered in California the prior year. Because California had no official mint, a large amount of that gold was already on ships headed for New Orleans and Philadelphia to be struck into coins.

Over the next few years while the mint mark might be an “O,” the fact is that a lot of the New Orleans gold eagles were made from gold shipped in from California.

In fact, all the gold being shipped primarily to Philadelphia and New Orleans might have resulted in much high gold eagle mintages were it not for another factor and that was the approval of the double eagle making it the highest denomination gold coin of the United States when it debuted in circulation in 1850.

There would be a natural trend toward the use of the double eagle in large transactions or when significant reserves were needed, so while there was plenty of gold, the gold eagle was experiencing a significant change in its role.

Still, there would be higher mintages as in 1851 probably reflecting the amount of gold available, but it was not a consistent pattern as in 1852 despite gold shipments from California, the 1852-O eagle mintage was just 18,000 making it a better date at $643 in F-12 and $27,500 in MS-60 and once again the PCGS total so far indicates just a single Mint State example.

The San Francisco Mint would begin production in 1854 and that would see a reduction in the California gold bullion shipments. It would also produce lower mintages such as the 1855-O, which like the 1852-O had an 18,000 mintage. Its MS-60 price is $28,000 which is $500 more than the 1852-O. That is hard to explain as PCGS reports two examples of the 1855-O in Mint State as opposed to the single example of the 1852-O.

The low mintages would continue in the later half of the 1850s. The 1856-O had a mintage of just 14,500, making it tough, although still available at least in circulated grades. The 1857-O with a mintage of 5,500 is not surprisingly even tougher  with a  $743 listing in F-12  and a price of well over $20,000 MS-60 if you could find one. PCGS does not even report a single Mint State example.

The last three years prior to the Civil War would see two tough but available dates in the 1858-O and 1860-O and one nearly impossible one in the form of the 1859-O, which had a mintage of just 2,300.
In fact, when you consider that low mintage and the usual lack of saving when it came to New Orleans issues, the current F-12 price of the 1859-O of just $2,000 actually looks very reasonable. In AU-50 the 1859-O is at $20,000 and this is another case where PCGS has yet to see a single coin Mint State coin.

The start of the Civil War saw coin production at New Orleans come to an abrupt halt as State of Louisiana forces arrived to take control of the facility. There would be a few issues produced by the state forces and later under the control of the Confederate States of America, but the gold eagle was not among those issues.

Union forces captured New Orleans in 1862, but that did nothing to help the mint revive coin production. Once the war was over, the facility was basically allowed to decay as there were plans for a new mint in Carson City and there was no particular urge to bring back a facility that many saw as illegally seized.

Ironically, silver output from the Comstock Lode not only spurred the authorization by Congress for a new facility in Carson City, it can perhaps be credited at least to a degree in the return of the New Orleans facility to production.

By the 1870s there were complaints coming out of New Orleans that the federal government was not keeping to the original deal. The requirement was that to keep the land, the facility had to be producing coins, which had not been done for over a decade. That might have been ignored, but there was another factor in that it was becoming increasingly clear that the government was going to become a major buyer of much of the Comstock Lode silver, which was being produced in such vast quantities that it was pushing the price of silver lower. Plans began to be made to bring New Orleans back on line.

Those plans were pushed ahead when the Bland-Allison Act was proposed and then passed in 1878 as the act would require enormous purchases of silver to be made into silver dollars. New Orleans could potentially be of help. It was a time when added capacity was welcomed.

The New Orleans Mint was to enjoy a revival, a fate far happier than what was experience by the Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints. When they stopped producing coins as the Civil War commenced, that was it forever.

It was probably only natural that since they were spending the money to get the old New Orleans facility up and running again, the federal government decided that it might as well use it for more than just silver dollars, so in addition to being a period of large silver dollar mintages, gold coins also were produced in significant numbers.

Certainly the first 1879-O production of the $10 denomination was not large. It was just 1,500 pieces. That would make it a better date under any circumstances and it is at $2,150 in VF-20 while an AU-50 is listed at $10,250. In fact, little had changed by 1879 as PCGS has yet to see a single example of the 1879-O in Mint State. That is really not surprising as at the time there is doubt that there was even a single gold eagle collector in the United States. If there was, he was definitely not collecting by date and mint but rather only by date. Consequently, few if any gold eagles of the period would have significant supplies of Mint State coins available today because of collector saving at the time.

New Orleans would continue with gold eagle production, but the mintages would remain fairly low and the amount of saving stayed even lower.

With mintages usually below 10,000, the 1880-O, 1881-O and 1882-O would all be better dates  but in Mint State the 1880-O and 1881-O are nearly impossible, although in the case of the 1882-O PCGS does report seven Mint State examples seen, making it a somewhat more available date in Mint State by the standards of New Orleans gold eagles.

In 1883 the bottom simply fell out of New Orleans eagle production with a mintage of just 800 pieces. That would be a scarce date no matter where it was produced. In this case a VF-20 lists for $3,000 while an AU-50 is $10,500, although it should not be surprising that PCGS reports no examples in Mint State graded to date.

After 1883 New Orleans would have no gold eagle production until 1888, which was then followed by another gap until 1892, when the facility would resume regular production again. The 1888-O as well as the dates beginning with the 1892-O are a different situation. They are available and sometimes even in MS-60 prices are sometimes below $700. Compared to the earlier dates, it’s a remarkable change and one that resulted not primarily from increased collector and dealer saving as there were still few if any serious gold eagle collectors by date and mint at the time.

The reason for the far greater availability and lower prices is simply that like other gold issues of the period New Orleans gold eagles were frequently shipped out of the country. They did not circulate in places like France or Switzerland, but rather, they simply sat in vaults. They were protected from the melting resulting from the gold recall in 1933 and when discovered beginning around the 1950s by American coin dealers they were basically the same as they day they were made with the possible exception of some grime and a few bag marks.

Many of those coins qualified as lower Mint State grades and that accounts for the supplies today. The 1894-O is a good example. It is priced at $1,000 in MS-60, which is higher than many yet the PCGS total for the 1894-O in Mint State is over 125 – far higher than any earlier date. There was no way there were 125 gold eagle collectors in the United States in 1894, so those numbers had to come from foreign bank vaults and we see that repeatedly in dates starting around 1880.

Finally, with a mintage of 86,895 in 1906 New Orleans produced it’ last Coronet Head gold eagle. The facility when it came to gold eagle production had seemingly had more lives than a cat but with the 1906 some 60 years of gold eagle mintages frequently involving gaps in production had come to an end.

The new Denver Mint began operations in 1906.  The New Orleans Mint was shut once and for all in 1909.

Gold eagles from New Orleans make for a fascinating story as well as a collection that at least in circulated grades most can attempt and possibly even complete. With so many interesting coins, it makes for a great collection.

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