The first gold eagles of the United States are not a collection many can attempt. With small mintages and limited numbers surviving today any gold eagle from 1795-1804 is likely to be both tough and expensive. That said, there are a couple dates that are more available than others and a number of others that can possibly be found so with a little saving many can afford to have at least one and possibly more of these extremely historic issues.
Let’s define the term before we proceed. An eagle is a $10 gold piece. It is a denomination that was created by the Coinage Act of 1792. It shouldn’t be confused with the American Eagle bullion coin program begun in 1986, but sometimes might be.
Certainly the gold eagle was significant as the largest gold coin of the early United States. It was also a significant sum of money as roughly two decades before the first gold eagle was produced George Washington had raised the pay of the army to the lofty sum of $10 a month in the hope of encouraging soldiers to continue to serve even after their enlistment period was completed. Of course, if a gold eagle was close to a month’s wages, it can be safely assumed that there was not much saving of gold eagles by ordinary citizens when they were first produced. It would be the same today if there was a coin being issued with a face value equal to the monthly pay for an average worker as that issue would also have very limited saving.
It was actually fairly bold for the lawmakers to include such a large denomination in the first Mint Act of April 2, 1792. A $10 gold coin was a great deal of money at the time and that would be seen repeatedly over the years.
Perhaps the best example of the fact that a $10 gold coin was not going to be used by everyone is seen by actions taken in the late 1830s when branch mints opened in Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C. The two facilities would produce only gold coins yet neither one in their entire history ever made a denomination higher than $5. Certainly had there been any serious commercial demand in the area for a higher denomination gold coin they would have produced it, but neither did, and that tells us a great deal about the utility of the $10 denomination even going into the 1840s and 1850s.
The gold eagle, while authorized in 1792, would not be produced immediately. There was no place where it could be produced back in 1792 as there was no United States Mint. The closest thing to a mint was the establishment of a fellow named John Harper in Philadelphia.
Harper was actually a sawmaker and not a coin maker, but it seems that his establishment was actually put to use as something of an unofficial mint at the time. It actually seems to have had some official recognition as Thomas Jefferson who as Secretary of State was responsible for the Mint actually did call Harper’s operation “the mint” on at least one occasion.
That said, the only production that can really be traced to Harper’s workshop was a 1792 mintage of a reported 1,500 half dimes, then spelled disme.
By 1793 the official United States Mint was up and running in Philadelphia. It was, however, rather limited in the coins it could produce as a $10,000 bond had to be posted by Mint officials before they could be authorized to produce any gold or silver coins and the officials were balking at that requirement. It was a huge amount of money for them. The bond served as a surety of their honesty.
While Jefferson turned his talents to working out a compromise on the matter of the bond, the Mint was limited to the production of copper large cents and half cents, which required lower bond amounts.
By 1794 the facility could begin with gold and silver coin production as the bond matter had been resolved. The decision was to go with silver coins first and that saw a silver dollar mintage of just 1,758 pieces. Actually there were probably more than 1,758 1794 silver dollars struck, but the belief is that many did not even reach rather modest quality requirements in large part because the equipment was only good up to coins the size of half dollars. That meant that many of the 1794 dollars were so lightly struck that they were never released.
It is possible that had one been tried, a gold eagle might also have been right at the edge in terms of size of what the equipment could do. As it turned out, that was not an issue as half dimes were next and even though dated 1794, the half dimes probably were not produced until 1795. At some point in 1795 better equipment arrived, enabling the facility to produce larger issues and a few months into the year attention began to shift toward gold coins.
The first gold coins of the United States would have the Robert Scot design with a Liberty Cap obverse and small eagle reverse. What they would lack interestingly enough was the denomination on them. Apparently that presented no problem as 1795 would see the production of both gold eagles and half eagles.
In the case of the 1795 eagles it appears that four pairs of dies were prepared with three being used at the time and the fourth being used the following year or even in 1797. Such a pattern was not that unusual at the time as dies were saved for later use to save on expenses. The initial totals for gold eagles was low as we find reported mintages of 5,583 for 1795, 4,146 for 1796 and 3,615 for 1797 although in that case another 10,940 are believed to have been produced with the new large eagle reverse.
Realistically, the way records were kept at the time makes it virtually impossible to tell precisely how many coins of what type or what date were actually produced. The 1795 as the first gold eagle is probably the least likely to have different dates added into the total mintage. The delivery of gold eagles between Sept. 22, 1795 and March 30,1796 was put at 5,583 pieces and the working assumption has always been that all were dated 1795 although it is certainly possible that at least a few might have carried a 1796 date.
We learn a variety of things from the surviving number of 1795 gold eagles. The first is that their survival was not bad especially considering the denomination. It has been suggested that gold coins of the period could be expected to have a 3-10 percent survival rate and the 1795 is on the low end of that estimate with around 150 expected to exist today. Certainly the denomination would work against their survival, so a 3 percent rate cannot be seen as unusual.
There are two major varieties of the 1795, with one having 13 leaves while the other had just 9. The more available 13-leaves variety starts at $28,500 in F-12 while the 9-leaves is at $30,000 in the same grades. Both are very tough in Mint State, with the more available 13-leaves currently at $122,500.
Our efforts to study the 1795 eagle have shown that like the later dates the 1795 did not receive a lot of wear, suggesting it probably was used as reserves spending much of its time in vaults or the equivalent. That means that coins at least grading XF-40 are more common than might be expected although there are relatively few Mint State coins and even they tend to have problems associated with the minting process at the time.
Typically there will be adjustment marks which are parallel lines in the center of the coin made in an attempt to get the planchet to the right weight. Weak strikes are also common with likely areas of weakness being the stars, dentils and high points of Liberty.
Not all coins survived in the numbers that might be expected and that is especially true of the 9-leaves variety, which simply seems to have had a terrible survival rate. Some suggest that there may be as few as 20 examples of the 9-leaves variety known, which would put it on a par with the 1798/97 with 7 stars left and 6 stars right as the toughest of the early eagles.
There has been the suggestion that the 9-leaves variety might have been as few as 500 coins of the total mintage and that would seem to gain support by the fact that the Professional Coin Grading Service has seen only 12 examples as opposed to 211 of the 13-leaves variety. Interestingly enough, seven of the 12 9-leaves variety were graded MS-60 or better, an unusually high percentage although a total well behind that of the 13-leaves variety.
The second year of production, 1796, saw a mintage placed at 4,146. Interestingly enough there were not many 1796 varieties, leaving a basic 1796 at $27,500 for an F-12 today with an XF-40 at $50,000 and it is that grade you are most likely to find.
The 1797 situation was complicated by the fact that it was a transition year in terms of design, with the small eagle mintage placed at 3,615 while the large eagle reverse mintage was put at 10,940. That should result in big differences in availability – and it does – with the small eagle reverse priced at $31,500 in F-12 while an MS-60 is listed at $200,000.
The small eagle reverse is interesting as in most cases it had a die crack from about 4:30 to Liberty’s chin with only a couple not having that crack. The numbers in Mint State are very low, with Numismatic Guaranty Corporation reporting only seven coins it called Mint State. PCGS adds just two in Mint State of the 27 it has graded. Also worthy of note is that neither service has graded any coin higher than MS-62 so they are not only elusive but also not terribly nice even when one can be found.
The large eagle reverse 1797 was the first of the new type and with higher mintages that type is available in greater numbers. An F-12 is $9,800 while the least expensive MS-60 would be at $58,500. Despite the lower prices, finding top quality examples remains a problem as the weak strikes and, adjustment marks and other problems remain commonplace making an example in MS-64 or MS-65 very scarce.
There were also some difficult coins of the type, starting with the 1798/97, which came with either 9 stars left and 4 stars right on the obverse or 7 stars left and 6 stars right. The reported mintages were 900 and 842, respectively, which would make either tough and that is seen in the $13,500 price of an F-12 of the 9 stars left and 4 stars right variety while the 7 stars left and 6 stars right variety lists at $28,500 in the same grade.
How many examples of either variety exist is an interesting question. The grading service totals are not proof but they at least provide some indication with PCGS reporting 33 examples of the 9 stars left and 4 stars right variety, but just 7 of the 7 stars left and 6 stars right. At NGC the they report 24 examples of the 9 stars left and 4 stars right variety, but only 4 examples of the 7 stars left and 6 stars right.
The numbers available today do not seem to follow the reported mintages, which were almost evenly divided. The grading service totals fall short of absolute proof that the mintage totals were not accurate as they have potentially not seen all the coins surviving while seeing others more than once, but they are at least some indication that the 7 stars left and 6 stars right is much better than was initially expected and that is being reflected in prices. Certainly when the two services combined produce such a low total we have to think that the coin is potentially a major rarity.
Even the more available 9 stars left and 4 star right variety appears to be tougher than many thought. At one time the estimate was that there were perhaps 100 examples of the variety, but when the two grading services report just 57 there is reason to doubt the 100 estimate.
Once again, the grading service totals cannot be taken as final, but this is a coin most would have graded and to think that with 57 reported and some of them probably repeats finding another 43 to reach 100 might well be a long shot, making the more likely total 75 or less.
The 1799 was a higher mintage date with its mintage put at 37,449, which at the time was easily a record for a gold eagle. In availability the 1799 is similar to the 1801 and those two are the least expensive dates in any grade. Even though more available they cannot be taken for granted especially in top grades, but if you are seeking a type coin they are easily your best opportunity.
Other dates from the period may not be great rarities, but neither are they routinely available. The 1800 had a reported mintage of 5,999, although there is a suspicion it might have been slightly higher. Even so, the 1800 lists for $9,500 in F-12 and $39,500 in MS-60, making it slightly more expensive than the most available dates. If there was greater collector demand the gap in price between the 1800 and dates like the 1799 and 1801 might be even greater.
The 1803 is another date that seems to be more available than its 15,017 mintage suggests. This is another case where it may not really be more available but where with very limited demand the small supply is not really exposed by too much demand. Currently the 1803 brings a small premium at least in MS-60, but even that small premium is enough to see potential buyers opt for a less expensive and perhaps higher grade more available date.
The final early eagle, the 1804, is a special story. With a low mintage of 3,757, the 1804 was destined to be a better date. As it turned out, it was even better than the mintage suggested, as the 1804 is forever linked with the famous 1804 dollar. Both denominations had their production suspended in 1804.
The fact that both had listed mintages in 1804 would come into play three decades later when the State Department made a request for proof sets to be given out as gifts on a trade mission to people such as the King of Siam and Sultan of Muscat. You could not give such people sets with coins missing and a search of the records showed that the last production of gold eagles and silver dollars had been in 1804. What that research did not show was that the eagles made in 1804 were dated 1804 while the silver dollars were dated 1803.
The order to create examples of the 1804 dollar and eagle would create the 1804 silver dollar, but there is also a lesser known part to the story. The 1804 gold eagles, which were produced in 1804 had a crosslet “4,” but the ones created in the 1830s had a plain “4.” The crosslet “4” is more available but hardly common at a price of $16,500 in F-12 and $92,500 in MS-60.
The 1804 gold eagle created for the State Department with the plain “4” had a mintage assumed to be 10 or less as there are eight examples of the original Class I 1804 silver dollars known. As it turns out, there are actually fewer 1804 gold eagles with a plain “4” than there are Class I 1804 silver dollars.
The price of the plain “4” 1804 gold eagle is not on a par with the 1804 dollars despite its rarity. At present there are believed to be four known examples of the plain “4.”
A plain “4” example sold for $33,000 in the 1982 Eliasberg sale. It lists for $400,000 in MS-60 in “Coin Market” and $1,750,000 in MS-65.
Certainly the continuing problem in the rare plain “4” 1804 reaching higher levels remains the lack of recognition that it is different from the crosslet “4” and very rare.
Any early gold eagle remains a very difficult coin and one that is likely to command a high price. That said, there are dates that are available and for the collector wanting an impressive and historic coin, any early gold eagle would be a great addition to a collection on both counts.
You might not be able to collect the early gold eagles, but if you ever acquire one or two of them you are unlikely to ever want to sell them. They are coins you can easily become attached to and you will simply want to keep and enjoy them.