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San Francisco struck $1 and $3 gold

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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In the heart of the great gold area of San Francisco it was natural that once there was a mint in San Francisco that it would be a facility that regularly produced gold coins and usually large ones. That was all totally expected and San Francisco was true to form. That said, San Francisco also produced a very interesting track record when it came to what might be called the odd gold denominations specifically gold dollars and $3 gold pieces.

Most branch mints at least did something with gold dollars and $3 gold pieces, but they were cut short either by the Civil War or a lack of commercial use. San Francisco, however, once it came on line would produce the gold dollar and $3 on and off for years leaving a fascinating legacy of how a facility that concentrated on large gold denominations managed with the small more unusual gold denominations.

The San Francisco facility had taken time to go into operation. That is no surprise. San Francisco was 3,000 miles away from the people making the decision and they were in no rush to test their luck on those 3,000 miles to take a look at the situation in person being basically content to sit in relative safety rather than brave the elements, the Native American tribes and any number of other threats that marked the journey to San Francisco.

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By the time San Francisco actually was ready to start making coins it was already 1854. This was six years after gold had been discovered by James Marshall and five years after the $1 and $20 denominations had been authorized and a year after the $3 had been approved by Congress.

The fairly slow efforts to get a coining facility near the gold fields bothered many in San Francisco, but the lack of gold dollar coins probably did not as the residents were experienced at making change of all sorts for small amounts. There were privately produced gold coins in denominations of one dollar or less and there was always gold dust or other options.

It is actually interesting that in the first year of operation San Francisco made a reasonable number of gold dollars. That might actually suggest that there was some interest in the denomination from the commercial sector at the time as while producing 14,632 gold dollars the first year, the mintage of gold quarter and half eagles would be lower than 300 pieces of each. The focus on larger denominations was clear as both the gold eagle and double eagle had mintages of over 100,000 in 1854, but the fact remains the gold dollar was produced in greater numbers than might have been expected.

Certainly the mintage was not large and as a normal rule of thumb early issues from San Francisco are simply not found in Mint State if they are found at all unless they are recovered from a shipwreck, but the 1854-S gold dollar is actually not as tough as might be expected. In F-12 the 1854-S lists for $260, which is certainly higher than the $120 for an available date, but the available dates frequently had mintages over 1 million and not under 20,000 as is the case with the 1854-S. In MS-60 it lists for $2,450 and that is also reasonable especially for a Mint State 1850s gold coin from San Francisco and the Professional Coin Grading Service supports that price with a total of 37 examples in various grades with the two best being MS-65.

Even though there was gold dollar production in 1854 the new facility was still just getting organized. It was a small building and an unpleasant one. It was never going to be able to produce all the coins that might be desired and the next San Francisco gold dollar would not come along until 1856.

It is hard to know whether the next coinage occurred in 1856 because there was no time or demand for production in 1855, or because the new dies did not arrive. Late 1854 saw the introduction of the new Type 2 gold dollar obverse with a small Indian Head, but that design was actually already being replaced by the time San Francisco produced its first and only Type 2 gold dollar in 1856. It was an interesting situation as Philadelphia, New Orleans, Dahlonega and Charlotte all produced Type 2 dollars in 1855 and Philadelphia had even produced them in 1854, but only San Francisco would produce them in 1856, by which time the other facilities, if they were producing gold dollars that year, were already producing the new Type 3.

Dies for the 1856-S coin had to be shipped from Philadelphia, where they were made, to San Francisco, where they were hardened and used. Shipping takes time.

The 1856-S would have a mintage of 24,600, which was actually one of the higher totals among the few Type 2 gold dollars that were produced. That does not, however, keep the price low as all Type 2 dollars are more expensive and that is seen with the $525 F-12 price of the 1856-S as well as its $8,650 MS-60 listing and that price reflects the fact that PCGS has graded just 25 examples in Mint State along with the normal higher cost of Type 2 gold dollars and the fact that the 1856-S is the only San Francisco gold dollar of the type.

In 1857 San Francisco would join the other facilities in producing Type 3, or large Indian Head gold dollars. It would begin a stretch of four years of consecutive gold dollar mintages for San Francisco and actually those four years would prove to be the longest period of consistent gold dollar production for the facility.

The 1857-S  had a 10,000 piece mintage, which actually makes it similar to the 1854-S in availability in circulated grades. It is, however, more expensive in MS-60 at $6,200 and it could easily be more as PCGS has graded only 7 coins in Mint State.

The 1858-S suggests San Francisco had a quota or some pattern for gold dollars as it too had a 10,000 mintage and you rarely see two dates having identical mintages in two consecutive years. The prices of the 1858-S are not surprisingly about the same as the 1857-S with 9 examples called Mint State by PCGS.

The 1859-S broke the 10,000 mintage pattern with a mintage of 15,000 and that makes it more available at least in circulated grades. In Mint State it is much the same as the other dates as in Mint State it is the number saved and not the number minted that matters and in this case with 9 called Mint State by PCGS it is similar in price to the earlier and lower mintage dates.

The 1860-S falls between the 1859-S and the earlier dates with a mintage of 13,000. There was also an example with an inverted “S,” which is rarely seen. The regular 1860-S is somewhat more available in Mint State and that is seen in a $1,650 MS-60 price as opposed to $5,000 or more for the earlier dates. That lower price reflects the numbers as PCGS reports 21 graded Mint State.

The next and final San Francisco gold dollar would come a decade later in 1870. The reasons for the odd pattern are hard to determine and in all probability it was probably a combination of factors. The 1850s had truly been the decade of the gold dollar with sometimes high mintages. The 1860s, however, with the Civil War and the suspension of specie payments saw far fewer gold coins produced. That was less true in San Francisco but the bulk of the gold coins being produced at the time were used as reserves or for international transactions. In both cases the small gold dollar was just not a natural for production.

Even when the gold dollar returned to production in San Francisco in 1870 it reflected a lack of use as the mintage was just 3,000 pieces. That makes the 1870-S better at $300 in F-12 and $2,650 in MS-60 as surprisingly it did survive in some numbers with PCGS reporting a total of 37 called Mint State. The high total may well reflect a certain amount of saving that year as 1870 was the year San Francisco was celebrating the laying of the cornerstone of a new facility and that could have produced the small amount of extra interest in the coin and is reflected in the totals surviving to the present day. What makes the numbers interesting is that allegedly a total of 2,000 examples of the 1870-S were made missing the mintmark, but the totals today seemingly suggest that the full reported mintage of 3,000 must have been released with a mintmark.

There would be no additional gold dollar production in San Francisco after 1870. Once again, it is hard to point to a specific reason except to suggest that silver dollars were emerging as a production priority at San Francisco. There was probably little reason for the facility to produce both gold and silver dollars and in the period starting in 1870 San Francisco would be the center of silver dollar production. There was certainly little reason to produce both gold and silver dollars and that saw the end of gold dollar production at San Francisco with the 1870-S.

In the case of the other unusual denomination, the $3 San Francisco was not ready for production in the first year as it was 1854 and the facility was just opening for coin production. It was a little ironic as it was probably the gold in California that was most responsible for the idea of a $3 as a way to use some of that gold. Had there been no gold in California, it is likely there never would have been a $3 gold piece as in terms of commercial use there was little need for the denomination.

Even in California based on the San Francisco mintages, there is no strong case to be made that the denomination was seeing heavy use in commerce.

San Francisco would produce a $3 gold quickly with an 1855-S mintage of 6,600 pieces. Clearly the total was just a token production, but realistically San Francisco back in 1855 probably had time for little more than such a total as it would have been busy with large denominations. That small total makes the 1855-S a better date at $1,025 in VF-20 with an MS-60 listed at $25,000. There is good reason for the high Mint State price as PCGS has graded only two examples in Mint State and they were just MS-61 and MS-62.

The other branch mints that produced a $3 only produced them one time apparently finding little use for the denomination. San Francisco, however, would produce $3 gold pieces a number of times. The 1855-S would be followed by an 1856-S mintage of 34,500, which appears like a much more serious test of the denomination and its commercial uses in the area. That said, it apparently failed that test as San Francisco would never have a higher $3 gold mintage than the total in 1856.

The 1856-S is a more available date at $900 in VF-20 while an MS-60 is $10,000 –  a strong suggestion that there were basically no $3 gold coin collectors in the Bay area at the time. The 9 examples of the 1856-S called Mint State by PCGS tend to confirm that fact as realistically that total would prove to be the high Mint State total for any San Francisco $3 gold coin.

 The 1857-S would have a mintage of 14,000, putting it somewhere between the other dates in availability at least in circulated grades where it lists for $950 in VF-20, but in Mint State it is a typical San Francisco date, which means it is rarely seen resulting in a price of $18,000 in MS-60. In fact, that price might well be low as the 1857-S has been seen in Mint State just once by PCGS.

The next San Francisco $3 did not come along until 1860 when there was a mintage of 7,000 pieces. In fact, that mintage was reduced when 2,592 were melted in December of 1869 as being underweight. That naturally raises questions as to why it took until 1869 to do something about the problem and why the coins were not the correct weight in the first place. While we may never answer those questions the 1860-S remains an interesting coin today with a price of $950 in VF-20 and $17,000 in MS-60 and that level is also low as was the case with other dates as PCGS reports only two examples in Mint State.

There would be a final San Francisco $3 although at least in theory it does not exist and it certainly should not be in private hands yet there is one making the 1870-S $3 one of the great rarities in U.S. numismatics. The story was simple enough in that 1870 was the year of the laying of the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint. The idea of cornerstones as everybody knows was to put a San Francisco-produced coins of every denomination in that cornerstone. The problem was that in 1870 San Francisco had no plans to make half dimes, quarters, silver dollars or $3 gold pieces.

It was decided to create an example of each of the denominations not being regularly produced for the cornerstone and while they were at it the decision was apparently made to create a few extra silver dollars probably to be given out at the ceremonies.

For years it was simply assumed that only one example of the 1870-S half dime, quarter and $3 gold was created. Then in the early 1900s a $3 appeared in an important collection. There was no way to explain how it got there except to suggest that an extra must have been made and that seems all the more likely now that a single 1870-S half dime has also surfaced. The 1870-S $3 is not uncirculated. In fact, it is seen by some as having traces of jewelry use. One way or another it does not qualify as Mint State but does qualify as one of the great rarities in United States numismatics. It has not been offered at auction in a  long time so its old auction prices are no longer a good indication of what it might bring at auction although the best guess would be millions of dollars with how many millions being the real question.

The 1870-S would be the final $3 gold coin produced at San Francisco. The denomination appears to have never really established itself as an important part of commerce in the area and consequently there had never been the mintages that might be expected especially in the heart of the gold producing region. While available but awfully difficult in Mint State the San Francisco $3 gold pieces join the San Francisco gold dollars as a lesser known part of the S-mint legacy in the early years of the San Francisco Mint making them an interesting although challenging group.

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