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Southern gold dollars have tough reputation

While only produced for a few years, gold dollars produced in the three Southern facilities ? Dahlonega, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La. ? make a fascinating collection.

All all different but they share a very similar history. Part of the common history is that the gold dollars of the three facilities are uniformly tough in any grade. That, along with interesting stories, makes them all the more interesting as a collection.

The U.S. Mint facilities in the South were actually familiar with the idea of gold dollars before they even produced the denomination in gold. The Bechtler family private mint had been producing gold dollars for years by the time the United States released its first gold dollars in 1849. In the course of little more than a decade the facilities in the South would produce a number of interesting and challenging gold dollars that are overlooked today but which make an exceptional collection.

While rules may be made to be broken, as a general rule New Orleans would produce the highest gold dollar mintages of the three Southern facilities, and sometimes by a wide margin. In the case of Type 1 gold dollars, it was not unusual to see New Orleans mintages in the hundreds of thousands while the totals from Charlotte and Dahlonega would frequently be under 10,000. That makes the issues from New Orleans generally more available today. Some, such as the 1849-O as well as the 1851-1853 New Orleans dates, trade at nearly available-date prices in circulated grades.

green2.jpgThe one exception when it comes to being generally available in the case of the Type 1 New Orleans dollars is found in the 14,000-mintage 1850-O. The total was low and the quality tends to be poor. Although New Orleans is not usually singled out like Dahlonega and Charlotte for poor strike quality, the fact is that the 1850-O, when it is found at all, usually is not very nice. The 1850-O was the lowest-mintage New Orleans dollar and like gold dollars from Charlotte and Dahlonega it was not heavily saved. That combination of factors shows with numbers today. Generally speaking, the Harry Bass collection 1850-O, which was graded MS-62, is thought to be one of the nicest 1850-O gold dollars.

The Professional Coin Grading Service reports 13 graded Mint State with one as high as MS-64. At a price listing today in F-12 around $200, the 1850-O is a solid value considering that is over $80 more than a common date. In MS-60 at $3,300 the 1850-O also has to be seen as a bargain, especially with just a small number reported in any Mint State grade.

green3.jpgThe Type 1 gold dollars from Dahlonega and Charlotte are a different matter. Their mintages were low and they are uniformly very tough. They start with the 1849-C, which came with a closed or open wreath, the open wreath being extremely rare and not even priced in many price guides. PCGS reporting only two open wreath examples graded. In fact, were it better known, the open wreath 1849-C would probably included on a list of the great rarities in U.S. coins.

Of the Type 1 gold dollars, the largest mintage from either Charlotte or Dahlonega would be the 41,267 total from Charlotte in 1851. The bulk of the mintage totals would be below 10,000 with the lowest being the 2,935-mintage 1854-D. Listing at $1,050 in F-12, it is slightly more than most of the others by a little bit, a major exception being the open wreath 1849-C that lists at $135,000 in just F-12.

The period shows one tougher date after another with several having MS-60 prices of around $10,000. Probably largely a result of the fact that Charlotte and Dahlonega were frontier mints never given the best equipment, in the case of virtually every date there are likely to be problems. These Mints routinely produced lower quality coins. The 1850-D, for example, lists at $12,500 in MS-60 and in the typical Mint State example you might well see a light strike in the curls, clash marks, filling of the letters and other problems typical of Dahlonega coins. This make them easy to tell from an identical-grade coin of Philadelphia.

green4.jpgThe Charlotte issues were not much better. The 1853-C is a good example. It is a date well known by specialists as not coming nice, having both poor strikes as well as poor planchets. PCGS has graded no example of the 1850-D or 1853-C higher than MS-63 and very few of either have even reached Mint State.

In the case of the lowest mintage, 1854-D, the problems are simply compounded by a lack of coins. The stars on a typical 1854-D are not likely to be distinct and there can be any number of other areas where the strike is light. The problem, however, is finding any 1854-D. The low mintage makes them extremely tough in any grade. The 1854-D reaches $13,000 in MS-60, and you can see why as PCGS has seen only 47 in all grades combined and just eight in Mint State with none better than MS-62.

Part of the way through 1854 the gold dollar was changed, its diameter being increased to 15mm. The design was changed as well. It is a little hard to figure out the inspiration for Liberty with a headdress of ostrich plumes. Precisely which ostrich-hunting Native American served as the inspiration for that idea is unknown, and we probably wouldn?t believe it even if one was found, but the ostrich headdress would stay on the type which lasted for 1854, 1855 and in 1856 at the new facility in San Francisco. It is sometimes called the small Indian Head design. The three mints of the South produced the type only in 1855.

The 1855-O with a mintage of 55,000 is the most available of the three with a listing today of $345 in F-12 and $7,800 in MS-60. While  not usually a thing of beauty, the 1855-O tends to be better struck than either the 1855-D or 1855-C, which are both well known for dreadful quality. The 1855-O is also available in some numbers, although certainly not large numbers. PCGS has reported 267 graded with 13 running all the way up to MS-64 being Mint State.

green5.jpgIn the case of the 9,803-mintage 1855-C we have one of the true disasters in terms of quality in the history of U.S. coin production. David Akers in 1975 said it best, observing, ?Invariably the planchets and the quality of striking are extremely poor and the date and the word DOLLAR are always weak.? There were other problems as well but the fact that PCGS has graded 110 but only two managed a Mint State graded and neither topped MS-61 speaks volumes about the problem of finding an 1855-C. At $975 in F-12 the 1855-C can be found, but at $33,000 in MS-60 you have to be lucky, and even luck won?t help make an 1855-C look attractive.

The 1855-D with a mintage of 1,811 ranks as the key of the group. It lists at $3,250 in F-12 and goes up to $48,000 in MS-60. The quality is again low, but with the 1855-D the trick is finding one no matter how poorly made. Examples of the 1855-D have been sold at auction over the years. Simply reading the descriptions as they try to gloss over the usual defects makes for entertaining reading. About all you can do is try to find the best possible piece from a very small number available and accept the fact that an 1855-D is almost never nice. PCGS confirms the situation, having graded just 48 examples of which only four were called Mint State, the best being an MS-63. The numbers are also low at Numismatic Guar anty Corp., making the 1855-D a legitimately tough coin in any grade.

The design would change again in 1856, creating a third type. This design features a large Indian Head more along the lines of the Indian Princess $3 gold coin. There was another change as well: there would be no gold dollar production in New Orleans. In fact, there would never be another gold dollar produced at New Orleans. It would be tempting to say they wanted no part of the ostrich feather headdress, but in reality that is probably not the reason. In all probability the small gold dollar was not popular there. In addition, in 1859 New Orleans started producing unusually large mintages of silver Seated Liberty dollars. Throughout the 1850s the mintages of gold dollars were far higher than those of silver dollars, suggesting that the public liked the smaller gold dollars. It is, however, possible that New Orleans as a shipping center was the one exception. If you were going to send coins to other countries, you would send large coins like silver dollars, not tiny gold dollars. That makes it possible that in New Orleans, unlike the rest of the country, the silver dollar may have been of more use. Whatever the case, New Orleans was the first of the Southern Mints to discontinue the gold dollar.

green6.jpgIn 1856 Charlotte also produced no gold dollars, though they would return to production there in 1857. That left only Dahlonega, which had a mintage of just 1,460, the lowest mintage Dahlonega gold dollar and the second-lowest total of any gold dollar behind the 1875. The 1875, however, was saved in some numbers, making the  1856-D a tougher coin today, especially in high grades. Most 1856-D specimens known are in the very fine to extremely fine grade range. They typcially exhibit a weak strike in places such as the ?U? in UNITED while the ?O? in DOLLAR is usually filled in. It is another case where the choices are relatively few, so obtaining a top-quality example is difficult as is seen in a $2,350 price in F-12 and a $32,000 listing in MS-60. With a PCGS total of just 55 coins and eight of them called Mint State, the prices are fair. The challenge to find any 1856-D in a higher grade is real.

Sometimes the gold dollars not only of New Orleans, but even of Charlotte can get lost in the shadow of one very tough gold dollar after another from Dahlonega. That is a mistake, and 1857 is a perfect example of why. The 1857-D mintage was 3,533 while the 1857-C was at 13,280. In theory, the 1857-D would be better. It is listed higher in some grades as in F-12 it is $1,000 while the 1857-C is $900. In MS-60, however, the 1857-C is $13,250 and the 1857-D is $11,000.

There is a reason for the switch, and that is in the fact that the 1857-C was not well made. In fact, it is in the generally awful class in terms of production. Douglas Winter in 1998 suggested, ?The 1857-C gold dollar generally shows a very poor strike. The date is almost always found with severe mint made planchet defects. The obverse fields have an irregular, almost ?wavy? look while the reverse is frequently very rough at the center.? That in some minds might be the good news, which is why even though PCGS has graded 129 as opposed to 82 of the 1857-D, in Mint State there were only two examples of the 1857-C but 12 of the 1857-D. The 1857-C top grade was a mere MS-61. At least in top grade, the problem coin of 1857 is not the lower-mintage 1857-D, but rather the 1857-C.

The 1858 and 1859 do not get as much attention as some others. That does not, however, mean the issues from the two years are available. The 1858 totals showed a Dahlonega mintage of 3,477 while Charlotte had no production, possibly reflecting only modest use of the gold dollar in that area. The 1858-D is not easy, but it is more available than the similar-mintage 1857-D. The 1858-D has current listings of $1,025 in F-12 and $10,000 in MS-60.

In 1859 both Charlotte and Dahlonega produced gold dollars with the Dahlonega total at 4,952 while the Charlotte total was 5,235. That total would be the last for Charlotte. The Civil War would end any further production at the facility. Both the 1859-C and 1859-D are available but with the usual problems. The 1859-C lists at $885 in F-12 and $9,850 in MS-60 while the 1859-D is $1,050 in F-12 and $10,500 in MS-60. Again in Mint State the lack of saving and the poor quality regularly seen at the facility make the Charlotte coin tougher despite its higher mintage.

Of the three Southern Mints, only Dahlonega would remain in the gold dollar production business in 1860, though it could be suggested that with a mintage of just 1,566 that Dahlonega was only barely in the gold dollar production business. Naturally, with such a mintage, the 1860-D was going to be a very tough date, and it is with an F-12 listing of  $2,150 and an MS-60 level of $13,500. There have been a lot of adjectives used to describe the average 1860-D, such as ?crude? or ?rustic,? and to that list can be added scarce. PCGS shows just 67 graded while NGC reports only 48. Combined, the number in Mint State stands at 16, some of which could be repeat submissions. Whatever the real number, the 1860-D is one of the most desireable and elusive of all the Southern Mint gold dollars.

It is almost impossible to escape comparing the 1860-D with the 1861-D as they were produced at the same facility in consecutive years. There is also the historic suggestion that the 1861-D might have had a mintage of 1,500, very close to the 1860-D. Mintage estimates for the 1861-D tend to range from between 1,000 and 1,500 pieces, and that is part of the story. We honestly do not know the precise mintage of the 1861-D, for the simple reason that there were no records. The 1861-D was not made when the facility was being operated by the United States.

The Dahlonega facility was taken over quickly in 1861 by the state of Georgia. Once Georgia joined the Confederate States of America, the Mint would technically fall under Confederate control. When the Georgia forces took control of the facility, they found coin dies and an amount of gold estimated at just over $13,000. They decided  to put the gold to good use and make coins. The 1861-D consequently has to be a coin produced under Georgia or Confederate control. In fact, that sets it apart, for while other issues were in some cases produced under state or Confederate control, we cannot generally be sure who would have been in control when a specific coin was produced. That is not a problem with the 1861-D gold dollar as it was definitely not produced by the federal United States.

Trying to determine the mintage of the 1861-D is not an easy task. The 1861-D is similar to the 1860-D in appearance  with the ?U? in UNITED always being weak. The dies for the two dates are believed to have been the same. The numbers graded are perhaps are best indication as to the likely mintage. PCGS has graded 53 examples of the 1861-D as opposed to 67 of the 1860-D while NGC shows 23 examples of the 1861-D graded as opposed to 48 of the 1840-D. With a known mintage of 1,566 for the 1860-D, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the 1861-D was probably lower than the sometimes suggested 1,500, probably closer to a total of 750-1,000 pieces.

The totals justify the current 1861-D price listings of $4,950 in F-12 and $41,500 in MS-60 as the 1861-D probably has something of a price premium because it is such an interesting story. Interestingly, in Mint State PCGS has graded 17 and NGC eight examples of the 1861-D, as opposed to 10 and 6 for the two services in the case of the 1860-D. Simply put, for some strange reason the 1861-D appears more often in Mint State than the 1860-D. Of course, there could be coins submitted more than once, throwing off the comparison, but at least based on the numbers we have to suspect that some saved an 1861-D as a souve nir at the time it was produced ? or perhaps there were even a couple coin collectors in the ranks of the Georgia forces who took over the facility. It is an interesting situation to consider.

With the 1861-D the last Southern Mint gold dollar made its way into circulation. Produced for barely over a decade, the gold dollars of these facilities have gained a reputation as one of the most difficult groups of U.S. coins. None are great rarities, but coin-for-coin the gold dollars of New Orleans, Charlotte and Dahlonega rank as one of the most challenging groups in all U.S. numismatics, and one of the most interesting.

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