This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
>> Subscribe today!
Most cannot afford even one of the possible collections of $10 gold pieces as there is simply too much gold and too many better if not actually rare dates in the various sets. Even a type collection is out of the reach of many hobbyists.
While most of us cannot attempt full collections of gold eagles, a type collection is possible even if it is expensive. Should you decide to undertake it, know that it is a worthwhile exercise as the gold eagle perhaps more than any other gold coin of the United States really shows the changing situation at the Mint as well as the evolving role of gold in commercial activity quite literally from 1795 when the first gold eagle was produced right up to the final one in 1933.
We cannot really be certain precisely what lawmakers were thinking back on April 2, 1792, when they authorized the first denominations for United States coins. Certainly in the system they were setting up, $10 was logical although at the time it was a great deal of money.
Less than 20 years earlier George Washington, in a desperate attempt to keep the Continental Army from falling apart after soldiers’ required time in service was finished, offered a pay raise from $6 to $10 a month to his soldiers. The extra $4 made a difference. By 1792 wages were probably higher, but for the average American in 1792 $10 was still a great deal of money.
The situation had an influence not only on supplies of early gold eagles today but also on how they were viewed and used at the time. The simple fact is the average American would have had very little contact with a gold eagle. If they did, the contact was likely to have been brief. Few could afford to have $10 sitting in their pockets for very long.
With such a high denomination we cannot expect that large numbers would have been saved and would be available today. While that is true, the early examples there are tend to be in higher grades than might be the case of a dime or half dollar. The reason is in that what gold eagles there were basically sat in safes or other places as reserves. There was simply not much regular commercial need for such a high denomination and that is reflected in the coins as while they might be lightly circulated relatively few show signs of much active use.
The production of the first gold eagles was delayed. When they were authorized, there was not even a mint where they could be made. What limited activities relating to coins there were at the time were primarily done in the workshop of a man named John Harper who by day was a sawmaker and who at night or whenever he had time functioned basically as the mint. It was unofficial, but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who was responsible for mint at the time referred to Harper’s operation as “the Mint.”
Official or not, Harper’s workshop was certainly not adequate to meet the needs of the country and Jefferson quickly supervised the establishment of the first official Mint of the United States once it had been authorized by Congress.
The new facility was ready to begin coin production in early 1793, which was really rather quick considering they had started with nothing. There was, however, still a roadblock when it came to gold and silver coins and that was the fact that officials of the new Mint needed to post a bond before making any silver or gold coins.
The officials had difficulty raising the money. While the matter was debated and a compromise reached, the coin production of 1793 was limited to only copper large cents and half cents.
By sometime in 1794 the whole matter was settled, but it is still unlikely that the Mint was ready to attempt gold eagles. The decision was made to try silver coins first and a somewhat surprising decision was made to attempt to make silver dollars. The decision was surprising because the equipment they had on hand was not good for a coin above a half dollar in size. The needed equipment for larger coins would come the following year but the fact is they were trying to make a denomination that was beyond their capabilities at the time and they knew it.
The results in the form of 1,758 silver dollars delivered in October of 1794 show the experiment had not worked well as the coins were lightly struck. Moreover, the expectation is that they did not set out to produce 1,758, but rather some higher number and that the 1,758 examples were the only ones that could meet what were almost certainly rather minimal quality standards. Had any attempt been made in 1794 to produce gold eagles, the result would have probably been very similar.
Half eagles were produced first in 1795. Gold eagles followed in the same year. The design was the Capped Bust of Liberty design. She face right and wore a conical cap. On the reverse there is an eagle perched holding a wreath in its beak. This type would be produced in 1796 and 1797 as well.
An interesting feature, which is the case for all gold coins of the time, is that the coin carried no denomination. Users determined value by size and weight. Apparently it was decided a denomination was not needed probably largely because there were other gold coins from other nations in use at the time and the merchants or brokers of the day cared little about an actual denomination, but rather only about the amount of gold in the coin.
It is difficult to really determine how many examples of what date were issued because the Mint reports of the time showed the production of a given denomination during the calendar year but that did not always reflect accurately the dates on the coins. The 1797 production for example included not only the first type, but also the new design for the reverse using a large or Heraldic eagle copied from the Great Seal of the United States.
The first gold eagles with the small eagle reverse can be found today for prices starting at $28,500 for the 1795 with 13 leaves in F-12 and in Mint State-60 an even higher price of $122,500. Certainly the prices are high, but it must be remembered that the highest mintage of the dates involved was under 6,000 pieces, with the three dates combined having a total mintage put at around 13,344, so they are historic, low-mintage and were not likely to be saved in any numbers at the time. All of these factors make the high prices very reasonable.
There are certain characteristics of these first gold eagles that need to be recognized. Again, because they were not really circulating actively in most cases the grades tend to be upper circulated grades. There are a few Mint State examples, which tend to be in lower Mint State grades. Those from 1795 can sometimes be prooflike.
All dates, however, are frequently found with Mint caused adjustment marks seen at the center of the coin as well as the borders where the planchet was filed down to get it to the right weight. The strikes as was typical of all denominations at the time can be weak especially at the high points of Liberty, star centers, details of the eagle and dentils. Getting a coin that has no adjustment marks and a strong strike is a long shot in any grade.
The second type of gold eagle with the large eagle reverse is much more available thanks to higher mintages such as the 1801 total of 44,344 pieces. That is still extremely low, but for early gold eagles it was multiples of the three years of small eagle reverse pieces combined. The prices today reflect the greater availability with an F-12 of an available date like the 1801 at $9,250 while an MS-60 would be likely to start at around $37,500. What we find today is that most examples are in the XF to AU grade range reflecting the limited use in regular commercial activities. There are Mint State examples but whether circulated or Mint State the problems of adjustment marks and sometimes weak strikes seen on the earlier type continue.
In 1804 the production of gold eagles along with the silver dollar was suspended. The reason was that there was a national coin shortage and the practice of the Mint at the time of letting those bringing in the gold or silver select the denominations to be made from their metal was not helping. The people would almost always select the upper denominations, which in both cases were not circulating in the numbers being produced.
The gold eagle was not likely to circulate much anyway because of its high face value, but a large proportion of gold eagles was being exported. The gold value was higher in Europe than the face value. The Mint had tried to encourage people to select lower denominations, but when that failed the two highest denominations had their production suspended and in the case of the gold eagle the next production would not take place until 1838.
The return to gold eagle production in 1838 was made possible by a number of factors. The national coin shortage was much less of a problem and that certainly played a part in the return of the gold eagle as well as the silver dollar a couple years later. The weight of gold eagle had been reduced under the Act of June 28, 1834, and that had helped in the case of all gold coins as they could circulate rather than be exported. A final factor was the discovery of gold in North Carolina and Georgia, which was followed by the opening of branch mints at Dahlonega, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La. The Dahlonega and Charlotte facilities located in the heart of the gold producing region would only produce gold while New Orleans would produce both gold and silver issues, but the secure supply of gold coming from the region and the added production capacity made it possible to have a more ambitious program of coin production, allowing for a return of the gold eagle in the form of the Christian Gobrecht Coronet Head design.
The gold eagles of 1838 and 1839/8 have the head of Liberty in a slightly different orientation but for type collecting purposes most simply view the Coronet Head eagles of 1838-1866 as a single type. Certainly it is a much more available type thanks to not only a long period of production, but also some higher mintages, such as the 1847 total of 862,258. That total was primarily because of a large shipment of gold from England while in the years after 1849 there were sometimes larger totals because of the arrival of the first California gold as San Francisco did not have an official mint until 1854, which resulted in the shipment of much of the early California gold output to other facilities, primarily Philadelphia and New Orleans.
It would be natural to assume the type would be readily available with years of production and sometimes large mintages. In fact, they are available starting at about $675 in F-12, but an MS-60 at $4,500 suggests that there is a problem in Mint State and that is true. A $10 gold coin was still beyond the financial means of most at the time so they were never saved. In fact, there is little doubt that there were very few if any collectors at the time and certainly there were none collecting by date and mint. As a result, what relatively few Mint State examples there are tend to be coins found in hoards or shipwrecks such as the recently discovered S.S. Republic whose cargo included many examples of the type.
In 1866 the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse, creating a new type of Coronet Head $10. At the time the motto was added there were virtually no gold eagles in circulation with the possible exception of the West. Paper money had paid for the Civil War in both North and South and actual gold coins traded for more than their face value in the greenback currency of the triumphant North. It would not be until 1879 when a $10 gold piece and $10 in paper money was considered an equivalent.
Realistically, the gold eagle had continued to be a denomination that was not used that much in regular commerce except in the West. Good evidence of that is seen in the fact that before closing because of the Civil War the mints at Dahlonega and Charlotte despite only producing gold coins had never made a denomination higher than $5 in all probability because the $10 was simply a denomination that would see very limited use in local commercial activity. That had not changed significantly by the time of the addition of IN GOD WE TRUST in 1866.
Gold coins would return to circulation in the late 1870s, but in many parts of the country they did not see widespread use as people had become comfortable with bank notes. The final type of Coronet Head gold eagle is readily available not because it was saved by collectors during those years, but rather because vast quantities were exported to Europe as well as other locations to pay for imports.
The coins in many cases were never released and now they have been returned home with some dates being hardly more costly in MS-60 than in VF-20. For an MS-60 today some dates are less than $700, which is just about gold value. Many others are just over that mark and supplies are large with an MS-65 in some cases being just over gold value as well.
The first of the Indian Head eagles which were designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and which made their debut in 1907 are a very different matter. In fact, the first Indian Head gold eagles never really reached circulation in any numbers. They were made with pellets or periods separating the words in the legend on the reverse. This was the way the original models had the design, but the periods would ultimately be eliminated.
The type with periods is found with either a wire or a regular rim with the wire rim variety being the more available. The wire rim mintage is thought to have been 542 of which 70 were damaged and melted in 1914-1915. That leaves roughly 470 examples many of which are available and in Mint State today but they are very popular and that means a price of $26,500 in MS-60.
In the case of the regular rim variety the mintage of 32,500 reflects the fact that it was thought at the time that these would be the regular design for the Indian Head eagle. The decision was made, however, to eliminate the periods and all but about 50 of the mintage were melted. Of those 50 coins perhaps 20 are known today and with the low number and high popularity even an MS-60 would be $66,500 but most are nicer with an MS-65 currently priced at $250,000.
Type collectors really can make their own decisions on the 1907 with periods as technically it was never really released into circulation. With the high prices, many will opt to simply go on to the first type, which was released and they are the 1907, 1908 and 1908-D without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
These three dates were made without the motto because President Theodore Roosevelt felt that it was not appropriate based on his reading of the Scriptures to associate God with money. The Congress, however, disagreed after a public outcry, but before they could have an influence on the 1907 mintage as well as some of the 1908 and 1908-D mintages.
The 1907 and 1908-D “without motto” eagle mintages were both over 200,000 so the type is available with examples starting at $770 in VF-20 while an MS-60 is $900 for the most available 1908 and an MS-65 starts at $10,000 also in the case of the 1907.
The rest of the 1908 mintages and all those that would follow would have IN GOD WE TRUST on them, making them the final type of Indian Head gold eagle. The mintages in some cases were high, but these were the dates lost most heavily in the melting resulting from the Gold Recall Order of 1933, which saw over 30 percent of all the gold eagles produced in the history of the United States destroyed.
One reason we have decent supplies today as there were still very few collectors is that many examples made their way to European banks out of the reach of the gold recall melting. That makes a type example relatively easy to find today, with the most available dates being $860 in MS-60 while an MS-65 would be much tougher at $7,450 and up. The reason for the seemingly high price in MS-65 is the design. The cheek on the obverse in particular easily can be subject to marks of various types and in an obvious place those marks keep many otherwise fairly nice coins from reaching the MS-65 grade. That can be especially true because traveling to Europe and back, which was the case with many examples, it was just natural to have some friction from rubbing against each other in the travel.
However you choose to assemble a gold eagle type set today, it is in fact a great trip back in time and through the coins you can monitor not only the early Mint, but also the role of gold coins in circulation. That makes gold eagle type coins a fascinating collection and a learning experience for young and old.