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Time to cherry-pick San Francisco $10s?

When you can find good values on historic coins you have really gotten the best of all worlds and that is what you can find with the Coronet Liberty $10 gold coins produced at San Francisco. Their story is a fascinating one that helps to make each coin an interesting story. With limited collector demand in many grades, the price is right especially when you realize that a significant percentage of the price is simply the gold from which the coin was made.

The story of the San Francisco Coronet Head eagles starts with the discovery of gold in the region in the late 1840s. Had it not been for the discovery of that gold there would have never been a San Francisco Mint. The discovery of all that gold made a mint a requirement and changed the face of U.S. gold coins forever. It would be the driving force behind the approval by Congress of new gold dollar coins, as well as new $3 and $20 gold coins.

It would be a slow process from the discovery of gold to the establishment of a mint in California. There were already mints producing only gold coins in Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., as well as a facility in New Orleans, which also produced gold coins in addition to silver coinage. In fact, for a few years before there was a mint in San Francisco it would be Philadelphia and New Orleans that would receive large shipments of gold from California where that gold would be used to make new double eagles and other issues.

The fact that San Francisco was so far away at a time when a long journey could be dangerous as well as time consuming probably did little to encourage the immediate establishment of a mint. First there would be an assay office, but realistically the gold in California created so much interest and such an influx of people there was no way to avoid the idea of a mint and that would happen in 1854.

There is no doubt that like other branch mints San Francisco was not originally seen as a first-class facility. The facility basically was located in the former home of a private mint and that structure came with its share of disadvantages. While three stories, it was tall but very small. The place was crowded and with the constant noise from the machines it was a very difficult place for doing business.

The acid fumes were a constant cause of discomfort for those trying to do business and created regular problems with the health of the employees. Under the circumstances, it was no surprise that officials were almost immediately attempting to convince Washington to approve a larger facility. That approval, however, would take time with the cornerstone being laid in 1870, which meant that for over 15 years the officials and employees of the San Francisco Mint would have to make do with less than ideal conditions.

The initial 1854 mintages were a good example of the situation at the time. They require a little reading between the lines but they do suggest that the facility had no capability to produce large mintages of assorted denominations at least in 1854.

The mintages in that year would reflect the priorities of that year. The priority was large gold coins. This was seen in the fact that the gold double eagle and eagle had mintages over 100,000 each. The gold dollar had a total just under 20,000 pieces, perhaps reflecting an immediate need, while the gold quarter and half eagle coins had totals of less than 300 pieces each, making them extremely rare and desirable.

Silver was no priority at all as silver coin production would wait until the following year.

With a mintage of 123,826, the 1854-S gold eagle might be expected to be available. In circulated grades that is basically the case. It is, however, tougher than the mintage might suggest resulting in a $568 price in F-12. In MS-60, however, the 1854-S lists for $10,500 and if anything that is inexpensive as the Professional Coin Grading Service reports only four examples graded of what is a very historical coin.

The small number known in Mint State is actually not too surprising. The gold eagle was more coin in terms of face value than most at the time could afford to collect. What coin collectors there were in the United States almost certainly would have been collecting lower denominations and even then this activity would have been conducted primarily by date and not by date and mint. In fact, there is no record of a gold double eagle collector working on a set by date and mint until close to the end of the century and the gold eagle would not have been significantly more popular.

Even had there been a couple of dedicated collectors with the means to assemble a gold eagle collection it probably would have been just a date set. Those collectors would have in all probability been located somewhere in the East with the Philadelphia area being something of a collecting center. For them to acquire new coins from San Francisco would have been a difficult proposition at least at the time.

As a result, the 1854-S and most gold eagle dates from San Francisco during the 1850s and 1860s are likely to be tough in any grade but especially so in Mint State.

Of course the supply of the 1855-S Coronet Head eagle was not helped out at all with a mintage of just 9,000 pieces. The reason for this low mintage might well be the fact that in 1855 the small facility was trying to produce silver issues for the first time and it is quite possible that the gold eagle’s mintage suffered as a result. Whatever the reason, the 1855-S is naturally a better date with a price of $900 in F-12  while an AU-50 is listed at $7,750. PCGS has yet to see a Mint State example and realistically the total in all grades combined is fairly small at just 50 pieces.

The 1855-S was not, however, a permanent trend for low mintages as in 1856 San Francisco produced 68,000 gold eagles. That makes the 1856-S a $375 coin in F-12 while an available date of the period would be around $568 in F-12. In MS-60 the 1856-S is at $9,000 and that price is supported by the fact that PCGS has only seen six in the 144 examples of the 1856-S it has graded.

The 1857-S is a classic San Francisco Coronet Head eagle which potentially could have been part of a larger story. It has a mintage of 26,000, making the $588 price in F-12 seem low. In MS-60, however, the rarity factor kicks the price up to $11,500, with PCGS showing a total of six called Mint State.

Ironically, the 1857-S double eagle is quite available as it had been loaded in large numbers on ships to be sent to the East and many that had found their way to the S.S. Central America ended up going down with the ship. They have been recovered, creating an available supply for collectors, but the 1857-S gold eagle was not a part of the treasure, and because of that fact the 1857-S $10 is tough.

The 1858-S gold $10 is another case of a date not associated with shipwrecks or other treasures and with a mintage of just 11,800 it is not a date likely to be readily available. In fact, it is not really readily available with an F-12 price of $900 while an AU-50 is listed at $6,950. PCGS has never seen a Mint State 1858-S and no coin graded even tops AU-55. It appears from the numbers seen that the only way we will see any numbers of the 1858-S is to hope some future shipwreck or treasure provides a few.

The 1859-S is even tougher with a mintage of 7,000, resulting in a price of $1,450 in F-12 while an AU-50 is listed at $13,500. This is another case of no Mint State examples being reported by PCGS and in reality a mere 27 have been seen in all grades combined. That is a very low total as even better gold issues frequently top 100 even if all are circulated.

In this case it appears that it was not simply a case of the 1859-S not being saved back in 1859, but apparently not being saved at all ever. It’s a good reminder that although San Francisco is not frequently associated with Dahlonega or Charlotte as a facility that routinely produced tough dates it indeed has some low mintage dates with poor rates of survival.

The Civil War with the suspension of specie payments would dominate the story of all coins in the 1860s. The impact was seen on Philadelphia mintages while the other facilities were closed. In San Francisco, however, 3,000 miles from the conflict, things did not change significantly as only in the California area were gold coins still in use.

The low mintage of San Francisco gold eagles during the first half of the 1860s were simply a reflection of regular priorities as San Francisco would always concentrate first on the large double eagles and then on immediate needs.

With a mixture in circulation of regular gold eagles and privately produced issues as well as large numbers of other gold coins there were naturally times when gold eagles were not a priority. The early 1860s were one of those times as the 1860-S had a mintage of just 5,000 pieces, resulting in an F-12 price of $1,400 while the 1864-S had a mintage of just 2,500,  producing a $2,600 F-12 price today. Perhaps even more significant is that the 1864-S has been seen by PCGS just 17 times in all grades combined making the 1864-S one of the tougher San Francisco gold eagles.

The 1861-S, 1862-S and 1863-S mintages were two and three times the 1860-S mintage, but event these mintage numbers make the upper grades fairly pricey.

In all cases the dates from the 1860s continue the trend of perhaps being available in circulated grades while virtually never being seen in Mint State. One of the most interesting is the 1865-S, which had a mintage of 16,700, and which had a number of examples with an inverted “186”. The error, ironically is less expensive at $1,300 in F-12 than the normal date which is $1,700. That seems hard to believe but in fact it is backed up by the numbers seen as PCGS reports grading the error 35 times while the regular date has been seen just 14 times.

The Coronet Head gold eagle had a design change in 1866 with the addition of IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse. As it turned out, San Francisco would produce eagles both with and without the motto.  The story there is probably a simple matter of thrift. If there were dies that could still be used it was likely that San Francisco would use them until they were completely worn out. In addition, there was the matter of receiving new dies and as they had to be shipped from Philadelphia that process could take time, making the use of dies that were ready for use all the more likely. That made San Francisco the one facility to produce 1866 eagle both with and without the motto.

The string of better dates would continue through the 1860s and into the early 1870s as every date of the period is found solidly over $1,000 in VF-20 today. The 1867-S is the most expensive at $2,350 in VF-20 and that is backed up by the fact that PCGS has seen just 31 in all grades combined. The fact that there was literally no saving at the time in San Francisco is supported by the fact that the dates are virtually impossible in Mint State with the 1869-S being the most available based on PCGS reports, but even the couple examples they have seen of the 1869-S were lower Mint State grades.

Things went from very few available to sporadic starting in 1872, with the 1872-S having a mintage of 17,300, but it is priced at $675 in VF-20, which seems slightly low considering the mintage. That said, the 1872-S continues the trend of being basically unavailable in Mint State.

In the years that followed there would be tougher dates like the 1874-S and 1876-S, but also more available ones such as the 1877-S and 1878-S. There would continue to be virtually no Mint State examples reported from these dates, but suddenly in 1879 everything seemed to change.

There are a couple reasons for the change in availability of the dates of the period. The first is that the 1879-S had a larger mintage of 224,000, which was basically many times higher than the mintages of the prior years. It reflected the fact that the United States was entering a period where after years of having basically no gold coins in circulation gold coins were returning to regular use and that meant larger mintages. Part of the story of the return of gold coins was the Resumption Act of Jan. 1, 1879, as that made it possible for the first time since the start of the Civil War some 18 years earlier to buy a $20 gold coin for a $20 bank note.
There were, however, other factors. By 1879 the new San Francisco facility known as the “Granite Lady” had been up and running for a number of years. That meant that now the capacity was there to produce larger numbers of gold coins if needed and certainly as 1879 dawned finally San Francisco was ready for substantial gold coin production.

We see the impact of the larger mintages in the prices as the 1879-S is just $552 in VF-20, but it is also only $1,150 in MS-60. We see a big change in the numbers graded as the Mint State total for the 1878-S at PCGS was just one coin but in the case of the 1879-S the total jumps to 38 and the 1880-S total is over 250 pieces.

Clearly it was more than just larger mintages as there is no possibility that the collectors in 1880 saved 250 examples of the 1880-S. Even if someone had a small hoard it would not have happened with any regularity, but we see a new pattern of sometimes large numbers of Mint State coins of certain dates being available.

What happened may not have actually taken place at the time. New gold coins were simply placed in vaults waiting for use. Over the course of a number of decades those supplies of new gold coins came in very handy when they were needed for international trade, which oftentimes required transfers of physical gold. Normally speaking, double eagles would be the denomination of choice, but certainly other denominations were used.

Those gold coins were shipped to various parts of the world but a large number of them ended up in bank vaults in Europe. That served a double purpose in that the coins never circulated and they were also out of the country years later when the Gold Recall Act of 1933 was issued and over 30 percent of all the gold eagles ever minted were consigned to the melting pot.

With very little numismatic interest in gold coins for a period of time, the gold eagles sent to other countries were quite literally out of sight, out of mind and out of reach. Then after World War II a number of American coin dealers began to travel especially to Europe to examine U.S. gold coin holdings in the banks there. What they found was a bonanza and one which is having a major influence today.

There were large numbers of gold coins and in the case of dates from prior to 1880 the dates might be good but the condition usually was not. Starting with dates in the 1880s, however, the coins were sometimes Mint State. There might not have been many MS-65 coins, but there were sometimes large numbers of MS-63 and lower Mint State grades and the return of those coins to the market is why there are sometimes unusually large numbers of dates starting around 1880.

It is not uniform. A date like the 1894-S with a mintage of 25,000 in VF-20 is $562, but still basically unavailable in Mint State at $3,950 and it is never seen in grades of MS-63 or better as is seen by the PCGS total of just nine coins called Mint State and all of them are lower Mint State grades.

On the other extreme, there are a number of dates like the 1901-S which had a mintage of 2,812,750. The mintage certainly makes a difference but the 1901-S surfaced in very large numbers in foreign bank vaults as did other dates. The proof is found in 12,000 examples graded so far as Mint State by PCGS and that number is constantly rising.

The supply situation makes for extremes with some dates like the 1894-S being rarely seen in Mint State while others like the 1901-S have such high numbers available that without investor demand there would be no way for numismatic demand to support current prices.

Clearly the San Francisco Coronet Head eagles make for an interesting collection. Bullion investors could do worse than cherry pick some rare circulated dates for barely more than bullion value.

The S-mint $10s are also a fascinating group to study as every date is different. Moreover, every date has potentially its own unique story to tell.                 

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