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Reason for $3 gold piece not easy to find

Usually there are some pretty good reasons why certain coins were issued by the U.S. Mint, but when it comes to the $3 gold piece, there is good reason to question what on earth officials were thinking when they approved it.

That is only part of the story as the $3 gold piece despite reasonable questions as to whether it was needed lasted for a long time. When you consider that the highest mintage of any $3 was 138,618,  the fact that they continued to be produced until 1889 after an introduction in 1854 makes the story of the $3 all the more unusual as never in U.S. history have so few coins been made for so long.

The story of the $3 really centers on Philadelphia. It was in the main Mint facility in Philadelphia where the $3 was produced most of the time. Other facilities would produce one or two dates, but only Philadelphia would consistently produce the denomination and that makes the Philadelphia $3 gold pieces a collection that reflects a denomination that is vey difficult to explain.

There is no good way to explain why the Coinage Act of Feb. 21, 1853, included the idea of a $3 gold piece. Certainly there was no outcry from the public to demand such a denomination. Since 1796 there had been $2.50 gold coins and many times over the years they had seen very little use.

There was probably a case, although certainly a weak one, to be made that since there was a three-cent piece there should also be a $3 gold coin, or 100 three-cent pieces.

The three-cent piece was a suspect creation as well. It arrived in 1851 and was designed primarily to tide the nation over during a coin shortage. As other silver coins were not circulating at the time and Congress was stalling when it came to slightly reducing the amount of silver that was needed, a 75 percent silver three-cent piece had been something of a stopgap measure.

No one said that Congress was stalling, but rather the three-cent piece was trumpeted as a convenient coin for buying first class stamps which cost three cents at the time. Perhaps expecting an outbreak of pen pals, the $3 gold piece would allow people to buy 100 stamps without having to cart around three burdensome gold dollars or a quarter eagle and some combination adding up to 50 cents, but realistically the precise need for the $3 was not readily apparent.

If there was a real purpose for the $3 gold, that purpose was probably to be found in the streams of California, where people were still cheerfully striking it rich. Using gold one way or another was a real issue and to lawmakers a $3 coin probably seemed harmless, especially having recently approved a gold dollar and double eagle that seemed to be popular. Lawmakers would stop at a $3, not approving a $25, $50 or $100, but it shows that there was pressure from the West to create more gold coins.

With passage of the law authorizing the $3 gold piece, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre made what is called his “Indian Princess” design for the coin. It required some thought to avoid it being confused with a quarter eagle, which would be very similar in weight.

The $3 was made thinner and consequently had a larger diameter to avoid confusion and the “Indian Princess” design probably helped as it was very different from the Coronet Head seen on the quarter eagle.

As it turned out, the first $3 in 1854 would actually be slightly different from others as DOLLARS is in slightly smaller letters than for the later issues. That said, the difference is not so large as to be considered another type. With the largest mintage, the 1854 would be expected to be the most available and it certainly is.

We have a fairly good supply of the 1854 even in Mint State and many examples are quite nice with somewhat satiny surfaces. The grading services report surprisingly strong supplies of the 1854 when you consider it was a high denomination with the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation already recording just under 750 graded in various Mint State grades. That supply is strong but the 1854 as well as the 1878, which is also available see heavy use as type coins for gold type sets. With type set demand, the large supply does not go as far as might be expected.

A logical question might well be why the $3 lasted as long as it did with such low mintages? One answer might be that no one ever got around to discontinuing a denomination that clearly had very little use. It even survived the Coinage Act of 1873 that buried the two-cent piece, silver three-cent piece half dime and silver dollar.

The fact that branch mints such as New Orleans and Dahlonega tried the denomination once, but never produced it again, might have been a sign the denomination was not popular, but it wasn’t heeded.

While gold coins were circulating from 1854 to about 1861, once the first shots of the Civil War were fired they vanished from circulation. They did not return with peace as it was roughly 15 years or more before gold coins would appear again in any numbers in circulation at least in the East and even then things were not the same as the public in some parts of the country had begun to make a transition to using bank notes for their convenience and not carting around large numbers of gold coins, so what gold coins there were in many cases sat in vaults serving as backing for Gold Certificates and indirectly National Bank Notes.

Under the circumstances, no gold coin was going to be produced in large numbers at least in the East with the possible exception of larger denominations used for international trade and as reserves. The San Francisco issues were different as San Francisco continued to use gold coins, but even there we find little evidence that the $3 was being used with any regularity. As a result, the $3 gold piece would literally go for nearly 15 years before there would be anything close to something more than a token mintage.

In some respects the 1854 which is currently priced at $850 in VF-20, $3,400 in MS-60 and $18,000 in MS-65 is somewhat overlooked as the assumption by many continues to be that the 1854 and only the 1854 is available in large numbers, but checking the grading services you will find that the 1854 is seen significantly fewer times than the 1878, so it may well be that the 1854 is not as common as historically has been the belief.

There is no question about the Philadelphia 1855. Its mintage while still high for a $3 gold piece was down to 50,555. While prices at about the same levels as the 1854 reflect minimal demand, the 1855 is significantly less available with the Professional Coin Grading Service reports about 120 Mint State examples and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen roughly 200 examples.

 The 1856 and 1857 would be similar stories with mintages of 26,010 and 20,891, respectively. Certainly those mintages still put the two dates in the available group of $3 gold pieces, although the numbers continue to drop with PCGS reporting fewer than 50 examples of the 1857 and NGC less than 100 examples of the 1857 in Mint State.

The lack of use of the $3 can be seen in the 1858, which had a mintage of just 2,133. It was a Philadelphia date so that might mean more than usual saving at the time, but that mintage is still extremely low yet the 1858 is just $950 in VF-20 and $9,000 in MS-60. It is unpriced in MS-65 as there are only a couple examples that would receive an MS-65 grade but even the circulated and MS-60 prices look to be great deals as PCGS reports just nine examples in Mint State with one being MS-65, while NGC reports just 4 examples in Mint State out of 93 seen and none was better than MS-63. In fairness, there were proofs, but a Proof-65 lists at $62,5000 and PCGS has only seen one Proof-65 while NGC reports two.

The 1859 mintage moved back up if you can call 15,558 a higher total. The 1859 is interesting as it seems slightly more available than the mintage suggests, which probably explains why its prices are basically at available date levels even though there is a significant difference in mintages. With limited demand to expose differences in numbers available today a number of dates are simply basically lumped together in price as there is not enough demand to make the ones with smaller numbers in the market more costly.
The dates that followed the 1859 in the period from 1860 to 1863 had mintages in the 5,000 to 10,000 range reflecting the fact that there was really very little reason to produce the $3 or other gold coins as well. The situation became even more obvious when the 1864 had a mintage of just 2,630 yet the market situation today is also obvious as the 1864 is still fairly close to available date prices despite it’ low mintage.

The 1865 with a mintage of just 1,165 has really emerged as the best date of what is a period of very good dates. At $1,350 in VF-20 you still have to consider the 1865 a very inexpensive date when you consider the mintage.

Moreover, the reasonable price is not because of large numbers surviving as PCGS has only seen 54 of which 9 were called Mint State, while PCGS has seen 53 with 18 being called Mint State, although most were below MS-63. Other dates from the 1860s like the 2,650 mintage 1867 are also tough, but generally speaking the 1865 stands out as the best of a very tough group of coins of the decade.

The 1870s would also produce some very interesting $3 gold pieces with the 1870 continuing the pattern of low mintages. It has a mintage of 3,535, but the 1871 was even lower at just 1,330, which put it very close to the 1865 and that is reflected in prices, with a VF-20 at $1,000  although the 1871 is less expensive in Mint State at $4,000 in MS-60 and $27,000 in MS-65. Those prices are correct as for some reason the 1871 is more available than the similar mintage 1865 in Mint State and that is also true of the 2,030 mintage 1872. We cannot be certain why those dates are slightly more available than expected.

Things are a little mysterious when it comes to the 1873, which like the other denominations of the year comes with either an open or closed “3.” Officials did not like the original closed “3” so a change was ordered, but it appears in the case of the $3 the business strike mintage was completely of the closed “3” variety and only proofs have the open “3.” Neither variety is readily available with the closed “3” currently at $4,000 in VF-20 with the estimate being that perhaps 100 were made. That seems low as PCGS has graded 63 while NGC is at 48. Some could be repeat submissions but it also is expecting way too much to think that almost every example of a 100-coin mintage would be around today to be sent in for grading.

In the case of the open “3,” the estimates have the mintage at just 25 pieces and here too there is uncertainty as PCGS has seen 20 examples while NGC adds 7 again taking the number graded over the estimated mintage. It is possible with coins being submitted more than once, but it also would seem to suggest that 25 may be a low estimate. Whatever the case the open “3” is a scarce coin rarely seen at auction. No one seems willing to make a price estimate but it might be observed that the open “3” 1873 is seen about twice as often as the proof-only 1875,  which currently lists for about $175,000 in Proof-65.

Sandwiched between the scarce 1873 and proof-only 1875 was a higher mintage date in the form of the 41,800 mintage 1874 and it is as available or even more so than it’ higher mintage would suggest. It might not be found in quite the same numbers as the 1854, but if you check the grading services there are hundreds of 1874 coins reported with the majority being in MS-61 or MS-62.

The 1874 was apparently enough of a supply for a while as the 1875 was a proof-only date with a mintage estimated at just 20 pieces while the 1876 was also proof only with an estimated mintage of 45 pieces. The numbers seen at the grading services again raise some question as to the mintage estimates. We know at the time that record keeping was suspect and that seems even more so when you realize that the 1875 has been seen by PCGS 20 times with six reaching Proof-65 where it is priced at $175,000. Add to that total 8 more graded by NGC, with 3 reaching Proof-65. In the case of the 1876 where a Proof-65 lists for $60,000 you have a PCGS total of 44, with 10 reaching Proof-65 while NGC adds 24, with another 8 reaching Proof-65. Once again we are at totals well above mintage estimates but whatever the actual mintage we know that the 1875 and 1876 are very special coins and very tough ones as well.

The two proof-only dates were followed by another very tough business strike as the 1877 had a mintage of just 1,488 and that produces another one of the VF-20 prices of more than $1,000, with the 1877 listing for $1,200 in VF-20, $12,000 in MS-60 and $60,000 in MS-65. The MS-65 listing is very high for the period but justified as neither PCGS or NGC has ever graded an example of the 1877 as high as MS-65.

The 1878 is a very interesting date as it had the second highest mintage of any $3 from any facility at 82,304. Something very unusual went on with the 1878 as PCGS has seen 4,143 examples, far ahead of the 1854, which was at 1,845. It is the same at NGC, which reports 3,888 examples of the 1878, but just 2,430 of the 1854. As significant is that a large percentage of the 1878 examples graded were called Mint State. They were usually MS-63 or lower, which is not all that surprising as the 1878 has a reputation for being heavily bagmarked.

The high numbers, however, do raise questions. There have been some reports of small hoards, but the emphasis is on “small,” with a roll here or 50 coins there being the usual reports. Even if you added all the hoards together, they would not be more than a few hundred pieces yet NGC and PCGS combined are reporting just over 8,000. Moreover, with the second highest $3 mintage the 1878 seems like an odd coin to hoard.

Another possible explanation would be European bank hoards, but there are a couple problems. The 1878 is a little early although not out of the question to have popped up in Europe in Mint State as most of the Mint State gold coins found in Europe were 1880 or later. There were, however, a few from before 1880 so the 1878 is not out of the question. A little more troubling, however, is that while not unknown the European hoards had relatively few lower denominations and few denominations like the $3 and gold dollar. Once again, it cannot be ruled out that a few hundred 1878 $3 gold pieces were found in a foreign bank vault, but if that did happen it was definitely a departure from the normal pattern. That said, there is no other good reason as we know the collectors of the day did not save thousands of examples of the 1878 at the time especially when the bulk of the very few collecting $3 gold pieces would have acquired a proof and not a business strike.

After 1878 officials seem to have basically given up on the $3 gold piece, although the denomination would be produced until 1889, but there would be no mintage higher than 6,160 pieces in 1887 and other years would have totals like 554 in 1881, 989 in 1883 and 910 in 1885 while others were under 2,000. The decision to not issue more than token numbers of the $3 may have been partially influenced by the fact that the mints were all very busy with the required large Morgan dollar mintages. With the $3 not really circulating anyway and the time and resources of the mints stressed producing any $3 gold piece was probably seen as a burden.

The mintages are extremely low and while the 1881, 1884, 1885 and 1886 are all above $1,000 in VF-20, none is above $1,500, making them awfully good values. In MS-60 most of the dates of the period are below $4,000, with the $8,000 1881 being the exception and no MS-65 is higher than $24,000.

It is interesting as we find that the supplies of many dates of the 1880 are better than expected. Once again the possibility of small numbers being found in Europe cannot be ruled out although in this case with the smaller numbers and some known hoarding of gold dollars and $3 gold at the time, the supplies today are probably more likely to be a result of some modest U.S. hoarding at the time. That said, there are a couple which stand out, like the 5,000 mintage 1888 where PCGS has seen 450 examples in Mint State while NGC is over 300.

Even the extremely low mintage 1881 has appeared 22 times in Mint State at PCGS and 30 times at NGC. With most collectors at the time opting for proofs,  those totals suggest that at least someone was still setting aside some extra business strikes as realistically there would have only been a small number of collectors for a $3 gold coins at the time.
Whatever the reason for the slightly larger than expected Mint State supplies today, they add an interesting bit of mystery to the story of what was a fairly mysterious denomination. In assembling a collection of the Philadelphia $3 gold pieces you have an opportunity to acquire some great value while exploring the history of a denomination that even today still raises many questions.       

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