The early gold eagles of the United States are a fascinating although short-lived group. As a large gold coin containing nearly one-half troy ounce of the precious metal, the early gold eagle was not heavily saved and that coupled with usually modest mintages makes the early gold eagle a tough coin even for a type collector today.
That said, the early gold eagle is still a collection some well-heeled collectors can attempt as with relatively few dates but a number of varieties the early gold eagle is a collection which is possible to complete if you have the funds in your budget. Even if you are limited to one or two examples of the coin, the early gold eagle is an interesting coin to study as it had a significant role in the early coins of the United States.
The first gold eagle was included in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. At the time it was the highest denomination gold coin as the United States was in no position to try making double eagles or other larger denominations.
Had a $20 gold coin been possible in 1792, you can be sure Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton would have called that coin the eagle.
However, the $10 was the top denomination and the name “eagle” was assigned to it. The $5 was called the half eagle and the $2.50 the quarter eagle.
In fact, simply finding a way to produce the gold eagles that were authorized would prove to be an adventure as back in 1792 there was not only no gold to use in making the coins, but there was no U.S. Mint where they could be produced. The matter of the Mint came first with Thomas Jefferson, who as Secretary of State was responsible for it. Kind of odd that it was not given to the Treasury to oversee, wasn’t it?
Jefferson took the lead in finding a building and outfitting a facility. That process actually moved along quickly and by 1793 the facility was ready to begin coin production.
Having a facility and producing gold coins, however, were two very different things, because in 1793 gold and silver coins were not even an option. The law required that a $10,000 bond be posted by the major officers in charge of the Mint before producing gold or silver coins would be allowed to commence. These bonds were a surety against theft.
The officials who were supposed to post the bond were balking at that requirement. For Jefferson, it was probably another headache at a time when the Mint seemed like an endless stream of small problems. While he worked on getting the matter of the bond settled (it was reduced) the Mint did all it could do, which was to produce copper large cents and half cents.
By 1794 the matter of the bond was settled and in the second half of the year the first attempt was made at producing silver coins. That attempt was to produce a silver dollar, which was perhaps jumping the gun a bit as at the time the equipment was only capable of producing coins up to the 32.5 millimeter diameter of a half dollar.
Potentially the gold eagle at 33mm might be a problem, but the early silver dollar at 39-40 mm was definitely a problem, but they started with the silver dollar anyway and that saw a mintage of just 1,758 pieces. It was a very unusual number and the likely reason is that an attempt was made to produce more, but 1,758 were all that could meet rather modest quality standards with the rest being melted. The surviving 125 or so 1794 silver dollars show there were problems as the alignment is sometimes not perfect and the strikes are usually light.
That attempt was followed by a half dollar production, which seemed to go better and a half dime mintage, which while dated 1794, was probably done primarily if not totally in 1795.
At that time they were ready to take a stab at producing gold coins. Perhaps learning from their silver dollar adventures the smaller gold half eagle was attempted first followed by the gold eagle with a Robert Scot Liberty Cap obverse and a small eagle reverse.
From what we can tell examining the 1795 gold eagles it appears that there were four pairs of dies prepared for them, but only three were used at the time with the other pair being used in 1796 or possibly even 1797. We see that the mintages for the type were all small, with the 1795 being listed as 5,583 along with 4,146 for the 1796 and an estimated 3,615 for the 1797, although that 1797 total is really an estimate as that year saw an additional 10,940 pieces with a large or Heraldic eagle on the reverse. At the time, however, a precise division based on the reverse design would have not been a high priority meaning we can only estimate totals.
With the small total numbers and their historic importance, the first small reverse gold eagle is going to naturally be a very desirable coin and a tough one. There are two main varieties, one with 13 leaves and a tougher one with just 9. The more available 13 leaves variety lists for $28,500 in F-12 while the 9-leaves variety is at $30,000 in the same grade.
The differing numbers of leaves on the 1795 reverse is typical for early eagles as the goal of the Mint was simply to produce as many coins as fast as was possible. Having all those coins uniform was definitely a lesser concern and we see that as the dies of the 1795 showed two with 13 leaves while the other used in 1795 had 9 and the one used later had 11. Not only was the 9-leaves variety just on one die, it appears to have had a very poor survival rate. Some estimates place the number known at perhaps 20 pieces, which would make it on a par with the 1798/7 with 7 stars left and 6 stars right as among the toughest of the early eagles.
The estimates are that the 9-leaves variety might have had a mintage as low as 500 pieces, but whatever the cause of its scarcity the fact is that the Professional Coin Grading Service has graded just 12 as opposed to the 13-leaves variety which it has graded 211 times. One interesting but hard to explain fact is that 7 of the 12 graded 9-leaves 1795 eagles were called Mint State.
In fact there are Mint State 1795 eagles available at a price. Of course in a grade like MS-65 the estimate is one might command a price well over one-half million dollars with any grade higher likely to bring in excess of $1 million. The problem is that not only are there relatively few examples in Mint State but that those there are usually in grades of MS-63 or below and they oftentimes come with light strikes or Mint-made adjustment marks, which while this evidence of filing does not change the technical grade, it does have a definite impact on the appeal of the specific coin.
Realistically, those with budget restrictions will find that some circulated examples are quite available in upper circulated grades as these early eagles did not circulate enough to end up with heavy wear in most cases.
The second year of production saw an official mintage of 4,146 and an unusually low number of varieties. To obtain a 1796 today you can expect to spend $27,500 for an F-12 although very few grade that low, meaning you more likely to pay $50,000 for an example in XF-40 where they are available.
The 1797 with a small eagle reverse is a complicated situation. The mintage of 3,615 would make it tough, resulting in an F-12 price of $31,500 while an MS-60 is $200,000. Interestingly enough the 1797 has a characteristic seen on most which is a die crack from about 4:30 to Liberty’s chin and most exhibit that crack. In the case of supplies in top grades with or without the crack the numbers are low with Numismatic Guaranty Corp. reporting just 7 examples in Mint State and none better than MS-62 while PCGS reports only two with the better one also being an MS-62.
Part of the 1797 mintage featured the first large eagle reverse and that if the estimate is correct was the first gold eagle to have a mintage over 10,000. Higher mintages would follow making the type more available with an F-12 type coin at $9,80 while an MS-60 would start around $58,500. In Mint State the more available dates are likely to be from 1799-1803, but like the earlier small eagle variety there can frequently be light strikes or adjustment marks. Finding a coin with a good strike and no adjustment marks will likely mean a premium price but they are worth it.
The 1798/7 is an interesting date as it comes with either 9 stars left and 4 stars right on the obverse or 7 stars left and 6 right. The reported mintages of the two were 900 and 842, respectively, which would make either quite elusive as is seen by the $13,500 F-12 price of the 9 and 4 star variety while the 7 and 6 star variety is $28,500 in the same grade. The best estimate is that the more available 9 and 4 star variety might have a population today of 100 pieces.
In the case of the 7 and 6 star variety the number known is much lower. To date PCGS reports just 7 examples as opposed to 33 for the 9 and 4 star variety. The NGC totals are similar with the 7 and 6 star variety having been graded just 4 times while the 9 and 4 star variety has made 24 appearances. While grading service totals are not to be taken as the final word on scarcity, they are a guide and from these totals it would not be surprising to find that there are fewer than 25 known examples of the 7 and 6 star variety. Even the 9 and 4 star variety looks somewhat tougher than the old estimate as early gold eagles are coins that are likely to be sent in for grading yet the two services combined can only account for potentially 60 coins, suggesting that an estimate of 100 remaining may well be on the optimistic side.
The more available dates of the type start with the 1799, which had a mintage placed at 37,449 pieces. At the time it was easily a record for gold eagles. In availability, the 1799 is similar to the 1801, which had an even higher mintage of 44,344. Just because they have higher mintages does not mean that either the 1799 or 1801 is common. In upper grades no early gold eagle can be taken for granted as available and that is especially true if you want a better strike and no adjustment marks. There are Mint State examples especially of the 1801, but in grades beyond MS-63 the numbers known are extremely low and usually the appearance of any nice coin at auction will produce strong bids from those who know they are unlikely to have many chances at a truly premium quality example of an early gold eagle.
Other dates from the period are tough as might be expected. The 1800 had a reported mintage of 5,999 although the suspicion is that the total might well have slightly higher. Even so, the 1800 is at $9,500 in F-12 and $39,500 in MS-60, making it slightly more expensive than the more available 1799 or 1801 but it at least can be found with some regularity.
The 1803 is another date that based on its reported mintage of 15,017 seems slightly more available than might be expected. The reason for its seeming availability may in part be the limited number of collectors for the complete set. The lack of collectors makes for a very limited demand for some of the slightly better dates as a type collector will normally opt for the more available dates in higher grades, leaving dates like the 1800 and 1803 to those attempting a full set. For the small extra premium, dates like the 1800 and 1803 are probably excellent values.
The 1804 is a special situation as with its mintage of 3,757, which is thought to be correct, it would be a tougher date. Certainly it is tougher, but there is an added featured in that it is linked forever with the famous 1804 silver dollar as both had their production suspended in 1804.
The most important difference went back to the practice of the time of using dies sometimes with dates that where different from the year in which the coins were actually produced. When officials in the 1830s sought to make proof sets to be used on a trade mission for presentation to the Sultan of Muscat and the King of Siam the records suggested that the last silver dollars and gold eagles made had been produced in 1804. What the records did not show is that the gold eagles produced that year were actually dated 1804 while the silver dollars had been produced with 1803 dated dies. The order to make a few proof 1804 gold eagles and silver dollars consequently resulted in the creation of the first silver dollar with an 1804 date.
What is not as well known is that the order to make the special 1804 gold eagles and silver dollars also resulted in the creation of a new variety of the 1804 gold eagle as the original 1804 gold eagles had a crosslet numeral “4.” Those original 1804 gold eagles with their famous date and low mintage are tough today with a price of $16,500 in F-12 while an MS-60 is listed at $92,500 and in any grade an 1804 gold eagle has to be considered special.
The special 1804 gold eagles produced in the 1830s for the special proof sets turned out to be slightly different from the original in that they have a plain “4” in the date and not the crosslet. We cannot really be certain of the number of plain “4” coins, but it stands to reason that the total is unlikely to be higher than the number of original Class I 1804 dollars. That total would be safely below 10 and in fact checking the number seen in recent years suggests that the number known may well be just four pieces. That actually makes the plain “4” 1804 gold eagle tougher than an original 1804 dollar although the price would not indicate that. The popularity of the 1804 dollar in hobby lore gives it an edge when it comes to its pricing as compared to its 1804 gold sibling.
That said, a plain “4” 1804 gold eagle can still make auction headlines with a surprising price.
Certainly the future seems likely to continue to show that early gold eagles are an extremely important group with rising prices especially in Mint State. Not many collectors can seriously attempt an upper grade collection, but with early eagles available in an assortment of grades it would seem safe to suggest that they are an early American numismatic treasure that some can hope to obtain and a group we all can study as they were a true reflection of their era.