Beauty and art are all well and good, but some people want a coin simply because it contains nearly half a troy ounce of gold. Conversely, others avoid it precisely because it contains nearly a half troy ounce of gold because that makes it too expensive.
These conflicting thoughts have gone through the minds of many potential collectors of Saint-Gaudens Indian Head $10 gold pieces over the years.
Most gold coin collectors usually stop with the Indian Head quarter eagle and maybe the Indian Head half eagle. Few ever consider the Indian head gold eagle, but it is a collection that is possible to do. That is especially true if you concentrate on the Indian Head gold eagles produced only at at the branch mints in San Francisco and Denver. This makes a set of just 17 coins.
Such a collection is actually extremely interesting as it allows you to study what were the final years of circulating gold coin production in the United States. In doing so you also see the changing role of gold coins in the United States at the time.
The Indian Head gold eagle is also a fascinating collection as it was part of perhaps the most famous process in history when it came to creating new coin designs for the United States. Historically, most of the attention seems to be centered on the Saint-Gaudens double eagle, which was the other coin that resulted from the partnership of the nation’s most famous artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and President Theodore Roosevelt. It is probably natural that the double eagle being the larger denomination with the more famous design receives the bulk of the attention, but the fact remains the Indian Head gold eagle was very much a part of the same design change process. Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens were basically mixing and matching designs in an attempt to find precisely the ones they wanted for the gold coins of the United States. Roosevelt wanted coins to rival those of ancient Greece in beauty. Saint-Gaudens wanted to give his friend, the President, what he wanted.
The process became famous or perhaps infamous as Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens were to clash with the Chief Engraver Charles Barber over the new designs. It would result in a host of patterns, experiments and fights between the two sides usually centered around the relief of the proposed coins.
It is not wise to pick sides in the sort of fights that went on as both groups had their points. Certainly Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt were on the side of art, but Barber had his points as well as coins have to stack and be able to be produced in large numbers without problems. The high relief desired by Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens ran into problems on both those fronts as high relief coins do not stack the way it is required and they can sometimes cause major production problems.
In some respects, the problems were natural as Saint-Gaudens worked on medals where high relief was possible and Roosevelt was not exactly an expert in coin production requirements. Th e result was the original relief on the new double eagle was so high that the Mint was able to strike less than two dozen coins without problems.
While the Indian Head gold eagle seems to have had fewer production problems, the fact remains as originally designed it was far from ready for use as a coin. Coins that break dies just a few have been produced or that don’t stack correctly for use in banks and other businesses had basically no future in circulation.
Until the problems were straightened out, there was no point in sending dies to Denver and San Francisco for use. That meant during 1907 the gold eagle activity took place solely in Philadelphia.
Once things were straightened out, the dies could be shipped to the branch mints and the first Indian Head gold eagle production outside Philadelphia could take place and that is what happened with a 210,000-piece mintage at Denver in 1908. This would be the only branch mint production of the Indian Head gold eagle without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the coin.
The lack of the motto was no mistake, but rather a reflection of Teddy Roosevelt’s reading of Scripture, which had caused him to reach the conclusion that a mention of God was inappropriate on coins.
Saint-Gaudens and Barber were not going to fight him over the matter, but the Congress fortified by an outraged public insisted that the motto be restored. This was done, but not before those 210,000 examples had been produced at Denver and released.
This 1908-D $10 despite a fairly low mintage is an available date in most grades. That is especially true of circulated examples and in MS-60 where the 1908-D with no motto is $990. In MS-65, however, it is $37,500 and that is definitely not an available date price. The high price is supported by the fact that the Professional Coin Grading Service has so far seen just seven examples in MS-65 or better while the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation reports 15 examples in MS-65 or better.
The rest of the 1908 Denver production, which was 836,500 pieces, would have the motto. That mintage makes it an available date in most grades as well with an MS-60 at $940. When you reach MS-65, however, there are problems as is seen in a current MS-65 listing of $29,000, which is backed up with PCGS reporting 15 examples in MS-65 or better while NGC has seen 10 more examples.
The high MS-65 or better prices are commonplace with Indian Head gold eagles and there is a reason. The design, while attractive, had a flaw when it came to wear in that the cheek on the obverse is extremely high and that makes it very prone to picking up contact marks and friction while the fields and other areas have no problems. Just a small amount of jostling would produce marks and since large numbers of our available supply of Indian Head gold eagles traveled to Europe and back, a small amount of friction was not only possible but virtually certain. As a result, supplies are sometimes solid in grades up to about MS-63 but when you seek a nicer example you are oftentimes looking for a coin that is rarely seen.
The first San Francisco Indian Head gold eagle would appear in 1908, but it would be with the motto. The 1908-S has a mintage of 59,850, a small mintage due to its being produced late in the year, perhaps being delayed waiting for dies to arrive from Philadelphia. Whatever the case the 1908-S has a premium once y ou get beyond the circulated grades. While the VF-20 is $850, an MS-60 is $2,950 and an MS-65 is $24,000.
In the case of the 1908-S, we can suggest that its premium uncirculated prices are a natural result of a low mintage. That is not always the case with Indian Head gold eagles as some merit premium prices simply because their ample mintages were basically destroyed in the melting that followed the Gold Recall Order of 1933. That melting would ultimately claim over 30 percent of all the gold eagles ever made in the history of the United States and as the current design at the time the Indian Head gold eagle would suffer particularly heavy losses.
There was a factor that balanced out some of the losses and that factor applies in the case of the 1908-S. Over the years millions of gold coins of the United States were exported in international transactions. Large numbers of those coins ended up in bank vaults in nations such as Switzerland and France. Being in those bank vaults meant they were safe from the post-1933 melting. Years later American dealers traveled the world searching for and buying U.S. gold coins to bring back to the country.
In the case of the 1908-S, in his book American Coin treasures and Hoards, Q. David Bowers suggests that there were small hoards of the 1908-S, including one from the 1940s, with, “at least 20 pieces.” Another traced to Europe in the 1970s was thought to be smaller but in the case of a lower mintage date every coin helps. Interestingly, the 1908-S seems to have slightly better MS-65 supply than might be expected with PCGS reporting about 30 examples in MS-65 or better while NGC reports 22 more examples in top grades.
The 1909 mintages would see Denver produce 121,540 coins and the 1909-D is interesting as it is available in circulated grades with an MS-60 being only slightly better at $965. In MS-65, however, the 1909-D is a real problem with a price of $34,500 and totals of just 7 examples seen at NGC and 11 more at PCGS.
The 1909-S with a mintage of 292,350 is even more available in circulated grades and similar to the 1909-D in MS-60 where it lists for $965. In MS-65, however, it is much more available than the 1909-D as is seen with a price of $17,500. That does not, however, mean it is readily available as PCGS reports just 18 examples in MS-65 or better while NGC reports another 9 coins in top grades. There have been reports of the 1909-S in South American hoards, but so far there is little real proof of such hoards.
In 1910 the 1910-D mintage would be unusually high at 2,356,640 pieces, which produces a more than ample supply today, at least in circulated grades. The only grade where the 1910-D shows any significant premium is in MS-65 where it is $8,400 – although even in MS-65 it is much more available with PCGS showing 75 examples while NGC reports 43.
The 1910-S would have a lower mintage of 811,000, although that is still high for a branch mint Indian Head gold eagle. Up to MS-60 where the 1910-S is $950 the 1910-S is available, but it is a real problem in MS-65 where the current listing is $51,000 and it might well be a sleeper even at that price as PCGS reports just two examples in MS-65 or better while the NGC total is only 3 coins.
Denver gold coin mintages in 1911 were low in the case of many denominations, producing the key 1911-D quarter eagle and low-mintage half eagle as well. The Indian Head gold eagle was no exception to that trend as the 1911-D had a mintage of just 30,100, making it a better date in circulated grades with a VF-20 at $900 and much better in uncirculated grades. An MS-60 is at $5,850. In MS-65 it lists for $122,500 although ironically it has similar numbers graded to the much less expensive 1910-S as PCGS has seen three examples of the 1911-D in MS-65 or better while the NGC has never seen an example it graded higher than MS-64. That makes it slightly tougher than the 1910-S, but not by much especially when you consider a $71,500 price difference.
The 1911-S is another tough date as it had a mintage of just 51,000. It is not as expensive as the 1911-D, but it is not readily available either, commanding small premium prices even in circulated grades. At $1,050 in MS-60 it is higher than most dates but its MS-65 price is just $17,000 and that price raises some questions as do the totals, which show PCGS having graded 27 examples in MS-65 or better while the NGC total is 14. Clearly despite a low mintage, the 1911-S survived in better numbers than expected in top grades.
Hoards would be a likely reason as there was certainly nothing that happened in 1911 to suddenly cause greater numbers of Indian Head gold eagles from San Francisco to be saved by collectors. In fact there are reports of a small number of the 1911-S being found in Europe, including one example with no marks but the usual die imperfection in the lower left field. Bowers suggests that coin was part of 100 pieces to emerge from Europe in the late 1970s and in his book he mentions another report of a group of 60 allegedly found in the Philippine Islands around 1976 although the details are sparse. Whatever the numbers, if in fact the hoards did exist they have now been absorbed into the market, meaning the 1911-S is still a tough date.
After 1911 the regular mintages of gold eagles simply ceased. The nation was turning away from gold coin use and in fact in some regions had been doing so for some time. That was especially true in the East, although west of the Mississippi the regular use of silver dollars and gold coins did continue.
If there was a center for gold coin use at the time it would have probably been San Francisco and that fact would see San Francisco continue to produce Indian Head gold eagles at times when other facilities were busy with other issues. In 1912 San Francisco would have a mintage of 300,000 Indian Head gold eagles. While not a high mintage, the 1912-S is available in circulated grades. An MS-60 is better but still fairly cheap at $965. The problem with the 1912-S is in MS-65 where it lists for $38,500 with PCGS reporting just 8 coins and NGC reporting an additional 5 examples.
Even in San Francisco the demand for gold coins was not enough to require large mintages every year. That saw the 1913-S have a mintage of just 66,000, making it a better date with a VF-20 price of $885 while an MS-60 is $4,000. An MS-65 is $100,000, making the 1913-S one of the key Indian Head gold eagles in top grade and that is seen by a total of just 3 examples in MS-65, or better at PCGS and 3 more at NGC.
Denver would get back into gold eagle production in 1914 with a mintage of 343,500 Indian Head eagles. The 1914-D with that mintage is available in circulated grades and MS-60 where it is $890. In MS-65 it is more available than many branch mint dates at $15,500. It would, however, be the final Indian Head gold eagle produced at Denver, which was slightly surprising as there were still nearly two decades of gold coin production left before the Gold Recall Order of 1933.
San Francisco, however, continued with gold coin production with the 1914-S having a 208,000 mintage, which makes it an available date in circulated grades but tougher in Mint State as is seen in an MS-60 price of $1,035 and a $32,500 price in MS-65 where PCGS reports only 10 examples while NGC has graded 14 MS-65 or better.
San Francisco would continue production in 1915 although with a lower 59,000 mintage, creating another better date with the 1915-S currently at $885 in VF-20 while an MS-60 is at 3,150, suggesting a definite lack of Mint State supplies, which is backed up by a $58,500 price in MS-65 where PCGS has seen only 5 examples one fewer than NGC.
The mintage would increase for the 1916-S to 138,500, although that was still a relatively low total, but one that produces only a small premium in circulated grades. The 1916-S is better in Mint State with an MS-60 at $955 while an MS-65 is at $20,000 reflecting the fact that the grading services report higher numbers in MS-65 than might be expected.
The use of gold coins would continue to change and that would see even San Francisco begin to get away from regular Indian Head gold eagle production after 1916. Much of the world had suspended the gold standard when World War I broke out in 1914. The war lasted until 1918, but the financial damage it caused went on for decades.
The next San Francisco Indian Head gold eagle would not be produced until 1920 and even after the production gap the mintage of the 1920-S was not all that high at 126,500 pieces.
The low mintage does not, however, account for today’s $9,800 price in VF-20 as that price is because of the fact that the 1920-S was almost totally destroyed in the melting following the Gold Recall Order of 1933. In MS-60 the 1920-S lists for $36,500 while an MS-65 is at $245,000. It is somewhat surprising to think that the date would be so heavily destroyed almost 15 years after being produced, but the fact is that American coin dealers have traveled the globe seeking examples with apparently no success as PCGS reports only 53 examples graded in all grades combined and just two of them were MS-65 or better while NGC reports 70 graded and just 4 reaching at least MS-65.
It is less surprising that the next San Francisco Indian Head gold eagle, the 1930-S, was heavily melted as it might well have still been sitting in vaults in some numbers when the Gold Recall Order was issued. The 1930-S had a mintage of 96,000 and might well have been a security mintage as the economy was having trouble and under the circumstances a possible increase in demand for gold coins was possible.
The price of the 1930-S today is $10,000 in VF-20 while an MS-60 it is $24,000 with an MS-65 at $72,000. The grading service totals help explain the prices and what happened to the 1930-S as PCGS has seen 100 examples but only 3 were not Mint State suggesting the 1930-S saw very little circulation and that is confirmed by NGC where only one coin of the 70 graded was not Mint State.
We are not really certain as to he source of the known examples of the 1930-S although European banks remain a possibility as do numerous small hoards of gold coins that were assembled at the time with people opting to turn their bank notes into gold coins as they economy worsened after the stock market crash. Whatever the source, the 1930-S appears to have received better than average care as a reasonably high percentage of the known coins are in MS-65 or better although the high grades make it seem unlikely that the 1930-S coins known today ever left the country.
The branch mint Indian Head gold eagles are a fascinating group and one that really does reflect the times they were made in and their use by the public.
If you don’t care about uncirculated examples, you can put 15 of the 17 coins in the set together for hardly more than the price of gold bullion. That makes them an interesting collection.
With the exception of two heavily melted dates, it is a set for those seeking something different in a gold coin collection. The branch mint Indian Head gold eagles make for a challenge that many could enjoy.