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Type set scratches the itch for gold

The normal 8 or 12-piece gold type collection is a collection that contains no impossible coins. It does, however, contain some difficult coins if your goal is a set in MS-65 or better. What I learned years ago is that, whatever your approach to a basic gold type collection, while a small set it is an enormous amount of fun and you can learn a great deal in the process.

For most hobbyists, the only things standing in the way of a gold type set are the cost and the impression that seemingly you are acquiring common coins. In fact, a gold type set is what you make it and when it comes to cost few were less able to afford a gold type set than I was when I purchased my first gold coin back in late 1969.

My financial situation back in 1969 could have been described as aspiring to poverty. Living in a dorm in my junior year in college about the only spare funds I had were whatever I managed to earn by working on the school paper. At the time, that probably paid just a little more than the dollar I would get as a kid for cutting the lawn almost 10 years before. That said, when I wanted something, I would always be good about saving and I had decided in 1969 that I wanted a Saint-Gaudens double eagle.

It is hard to imagine anyone who can barely pay for a cup of coffee at a student lounge considering the purchase of a double eagle, but it has to be remembered that back at the time gold coin prices were basically fixed as was the price of gold. A Saint-Gaudens double eagle in circulated grades was roughly $60 and with postage and handling perhaps $65 or $70.

The United States maintained the official price of gold at $35 a troy ounce in 1969. It had been fixed at that price in 1934 and it did not move. It basically was also illegal for Americans during that period to own gold except in their teeth as crowns and on their fingers as rings (and in other forms of jewelry).

Then of course there was the exception made for collectors to own collectible U.S. gold coins dated before 1934.

Of course, I had rarely purchased coins when I was growing up. My object then was to find them in circulation and not purchase them. A $70 coin was probably $65 more than I had ever spent on a coin in my life.

That said, I had been reading about gold and the history of gold in the United States and also the possibilities for a change in gold policy and possibly in the price of gold at some point in the future and that had convinced me that I wanted at least one gold coin.

It could probably be suggested that my initial gold coin purchase was a somewhat checkered experience. The coin was an AU, but it did not stay that way long as I could not resist showing it off. Thanks to my grandfather, I frequently as a youngster had a silver dollar in my pocket and that was a great feeling, but the double eagle was even better.

Unfortunately, showing the coin to people dropped its grade although not as much as the fact that one friend who had apparently seen far too many Westerns in an obviously unfortunate childhood hopped off his motorcycle only long enough to stare at the double eagle, stick it in his mouth and before I could stop him take a bite. That left the coin with a permanent tooth mark and I had hoped it would leave my ex-friend with a lifetime of dental problems for his assault on my coin.

Today the common issues of the Saint-Gaudens double eagles of the 1907-1933 series are readily available, although prices are no longer $70 each. In fact, the price will move with changes in gold prices, but the market is full of circulated coins and even lower Mint State grades. Generally, the strikes are pretty good, although you might want to check the features of Liberty and details of the Capitol building, but overall when you purchase a Saint-Gaudens double eagle as I found out, it is hard to be disappointed.

It would have been very easy to stick with Saint-Gaudens double eagles as like a number of other gold issues there are assorted types including ones with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST and others from 1907 and 1908 without the motto. There are also the costly but popular high relief examples.

At the time, however, I was in way over my head financially simply trying to assemble and 8-coin type set. I followed the advice of a friendly dealer from my youth and decided to get the most expensive coins out of the way first. In the case of a basic gold type set, the cost is determined by the amount of gold in the coin so my next challenge was the other double eagle, the Coronet Head, which had been struck for circulation. It, too, was impressive, although like almost everyone else I liked the Saint-Gaudens design more. It was another case where I was content with simply any Coronet Head double eagle, although if you try to buy one today you will find there are a lot of choices as the supply is again very good up to higher Mint State grades, especially in the type produced from 1877-1907, which are even available in higher grades thanks to larger mintages and better striking as well as the fact that large numbers were discovered in European bank vaults and returned home.

After the double eagles, I decided that it was not required that I turn next to gold eagles, the $10 denomination. In fact, the childhood urge to get as many coins in a set as I could as fast as I could took over. With about $30 in my pocket one early November Saturday in 1970, I decided to go on a coin buying adventure in the coins shops along the Illinois-Wisconsin border.

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It turned out to be more of an adventure than I expected. As the time had just changed, it was getting dark early as I burst into the first shop.

Perhaps it was my approach or my appearance as this was 1970 and I had not seen the inside of a barber shop for a couple years, but whatever the problem, my request to look at gold coins was greeted with a not-so-friendly stare and, “They aren’t legal.”

I wanted coins, not drugs, and I knew the coins while restricted were legal, but something in the owner’s voice told me this was a debate not worth having. Even if he had had any gold coins and scanning over the other coins on display I figured he very well might not, it was clear he was not going to sell them to me anyway, so I thanked him and went on.

The situation while frustrating illustrates the point that the Gold Recall Order of 1933 was still having an impact in 1970 as there were still some who seemed to feel that gold coins were not legal. Even if someone understood the law at the time, the fixed price of gold did not really encourage many to acquire gold coins as their prices were not likely to change substantially until the price of gold could move freely. That afternoon it became very clear I was going to have to complete my collection by mail.

In the months that followed I learned a good deal about the gold coins of the United States, or at least the ones in a basic type set. The Indian Head quarter and half eagles, which were suggested by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow and designed by Bela Lyon Pratt with their incuse motifs, were especially interesting. There are a few reasons as these coins were also a result of the interest of President Theodore Roosevelt in changing the coins of the United States.

The problems between Roosevelt and his designated artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the Chief Engraver Charles Barber are well documented, but the story of the Indian Head quarter and half eagles is not as well known. You can almost hear a frustrated Roosevelt after the wars with Barber over Saint-Gaudens high relief saying, “Now tell me this relief is too high” as Barber was given the Pratt designs with the field as the highest part of the design.

Of course, the idea of having the fields as the highest part of the design brought critics out of the woodwork, but the basic problem it created is that even just stacking the coins could cause friction and this left marks in the field. That makes the $2.50 and $5 Indians extremely tough in grades like MS-65 simply because there are always marks. Of course, in my “any grade will do” gold collection that did not matter as I was not paying extra for Mint State, but for a collector today, the heavier half eagle is a very serious challenge if you want to assemble a set in MS-65.

The other thing I liked about the Indian Head quarter and half eagles is that this was the first time that U.S. coins used a real Native American as the model. These were first issued in 1908. All other so-called Indian designs up until that point had not used Native Americans as the model, making them sometimes look like my next door neighbor in a headdress, but the Indian Head quarter and half eagles were different. That seemed to cause problems with the critics at the time. Ironically, a few years later James Earle Fraser used Native Americans as models as well and everyone loved the 1913 Buffalo nickel. In fairness, the Fraser design was better, but it always seemed to me that Bela Lyon Pratt had broken new ground and has never been given much credit for it.

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The Coronet Head quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle feature the same basic Liberty Head designs although IN GOD WE TRUST was never added to the quarter eagle as it was to others in 1866 simply because there was no room on the small coin.

In all cases, I found there was no problem finding a coin and was somewhat surprised by how many examples there were in Mint State at least from later dates. I knew the later mintages were larger, but what I did not know at the time was that thousands of examples of all denominations were arriving on the market having been found in European bank vaults, making them much more available in Mint State than had been the case a couple decades earlier. Those supplies make Coronet Head coins of all denominations dated after about 1880 much easier to find and probably less costly than might otherwise have been the case.

The Indian Head eagle design that was created in the same process that produced the Saint-Gaudens double eagle was the final coin for my basic set. It was about the time I was graduating and it became something of a graduation present to myself. The Indian Head eagle brought a slight premium as they were heavily melted, but to have my second coin designed by the famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the small premium seemed only fair. Today, most would opt for at least a lower Mint State grade as Indian Head eagles are available although perhaps not in the same numbers as the Coronet Head, which was produced for a much longer period of time.

Suddenly out of school and with a complete 8-piece collection I was definitely at a loss as to what to do. A job offer from the Neenah-Menasha, Wis., Chamber of Commerce solved both problems as it gave me something to do and money and located a few blocks from our office was the Anderson coin shop run by Dick Anderson and his wife. It got better as Dick Anderson was also our mailman as that was his day job while his wife watched the store.

Dick knew precisely what I should want once he learned I collected coins. “You’re set isn’t complete. You need the ones and three,” he announced. As it turned out, he just happened to have the coins I might need.
Dick gave me something of a hard time about the grades and especially the tooth indentation on my Saint-Gaudens double eagle, but he did understand that even with a job I was still on a limited budget and had somehow assembled an 8-piece set on basically no budget.

I quickly added a Type 1 (Liberty Head) and Type 3 (large Indian Head) gold dollar to my set. Both while certainly not priced at their gold value are available at least in circulated grades. Mint State examples are available, but quality can vary especially in the case of the Type 1, which were not always well struck. Checking the fields is also a good idea as they can be grainy or wavy.

The Type 2 (small Indian Head) was going to be a problem as the design was produced for just a couple years primarily 1854 and 1855, although there was a San Francisco 1856. The design has never been explained as while called an Indian Head, it is basically Liberty turned into an Indian because of a headdress of ostrich feathers. Just where that idea came from is unknown and perhaps should remain that way, but with only the Philadelphia 1854 and 1855 that have decent mintages the type is tough.

As it turned out, Anderson made it tougher as one day while dropping off the mail he said that I should come to the shop after work. I did and when I walked into the store he boomed, “Why don’t you buy a really rare coin for your set?”

The condition of the coin in the holder did not bother me as I was already taking enough kidding for assembling the world’s worst gold type set. It was at best a VF-20, although the $500 price bothered me a good deal (Remember, this was still the early 1970s). To justify that price, there had to be something special, which was the small “C” mintmark for Charlotte, N.C., as the 1855-C had a mintage of just 9,803 pieces. It was also right up my alley as the 1855-C is notorious for being poorly made and available only in lower grades. Dick could see I was uncertain and observed, “Imagine the price with that mintage if this was a Mercury dime.” He had a point as only low demand was keeping this date from being much more expensive.

I still had to think about it, but Dick and I arrived at convenient payment terms as I did not have $500, but I definitely wanted the coin as I never even imagined I would ever own a coin of any type with a mintage under 10,000.

As bad as it was, it was my favorite and I spent many hours just looking at that coin trying to imagine where it had been during the more than a century since it had been produced. As I learned about the date its poor quality actually became endearing as it was a typical 1855-C.

A type collector today would probably opt for a Mint State 1854 or 1855, but whatever the choice, the Type 2 gold dollar is tough as quality is at best irregular even in the case of the Philadelphia dates as striking is indifferent and clash marks are typical as are planchet problems and other defects.

That left only the $3 for me to find. That was certain to be a problem as there is no such thing as a readily available gold $3. That said, the highest mintage is 138,619 for the 1854. This is perhaps the most available $3 in circulated grades and it did not take Dick long to find me a well worn example at a reasonable price.
Today, if you want a nicer coin the reputation of the $3 as being tough should not frighten you. They are certainly not cheap, but Mint State examples thanks to a couple of hoards from the 1880s can be found and the $3 tends to be well struck although there are exceptions.

With my $3 I had finally reached the end of the line for my basic 12-coin gold type set. A couple times I was tempted to add more coins, such as an 1801 gold eagle in very low grade. The William Kneass Classic Head quarter and half eagle were also of interest as their prices especially in circulated grades are not high.
The temptation was there, but I realized that if I went beyond my basic 12-coin set I was probably asking for frustration as I was not going to finish a complete gold type set in the near future. I was better off working on other sets.

That said, I probably have never enjoyed another set more. As it turned out at the prices I was paying, my gold type set even if it was the world’s worst set was a great investment in later years when the gold restrictions were lifted and the price of gold was allowed to move freely. That, however, was never the reason I had put it together. My original idea had been fun and education. A basic gold type set can be an amazing success in providing both.

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