It is pretty easy to explain tough gold coins from before 1933.You simply suggest they were melted, a one-size-fits-all way of explaining an unusually high price for a gold coin. In reality, that one answer is true 98% of the time and it’s probably true in the case of the 1920-S Indian Head gold eagle. But the fact remains that the 1920-S does raise a few questions which don’t seem to be fully and comfortably answered by simply saying it was melted.
There had been regular Indian Head gold eagle production through 1916. It was not a case where every mint produced Indian Head gold eagles every year but every year they were being produced somewhere.
The situation changed after 1916. At this time, World War I was taking a terrible toll in a number of ways. The lives lost and the money spent would see the Gold Standard crippled to the point of a collapse while a lost generation would lick its wounds and try to make some sense of what had happened. It should have been no surprise that suddenly the United States was not issuing gold coins like it had in the past.
There was a significant change in gold eagle production after 1916. Where there had been regular mintages there would be just five from 1917-1933. Of the five, three were 1930 or later and they have to be seen as, at least in part, a response to an increasing demand for gold as the Great Depression took hold.
If you look at the mintages and prices today, the 1926 and 1930 from Philadelphia are both routinely available.That is certainly helped by the fact that the mintage of the 1926 was over one million and the 1930 was over four million.
The 1930-S and 1933 are both very scarce and even scarcer if you want an example in circulated grades. There is good reason as the two appear to have never been released and even if they were, the 1933, in particular, had no time to circulate. That leaves only the 1920-S .
The mintage of the 1920-S was 126,500, which is on the low side for an Indian Head gold eagle. Such a total might produce a $500 VF-20 price but the 1920-S is at a VF-20 price of $16,500. The old but usually true response is that the 1920-S was melted.
In fact, the 1920-S had to be melted but it is certainly strange that it would have been sitting in vaults for well over a decade.Moreover, there was a 1930-S suggesting at least some need for new Indian Head eagles in 1930, which would naturally mean that the supply of the 1920-S was depleting after a decade.
If we look at the prices of the 1920-S in other grades it gets even more interesting as the 1920-S is $55,000 in MS-60 which is higher than any regular date except the 1933.In MS-65 the 1920-S is $275,000 – again higher than any regular date except for the 1933.
The immediate question has to be, is the 1920-S that rare in Mint State? NGC reports a total of just 51 examples of the 1920-S although of that total 29 were called Mint State and one was an MS-66.At PCGS the total was 67 coins graded of which 35 were called Mint State and once again there was a singular MS-66.
Realistically we can draw some conclusions from the totals that it does not appear that the 1920-S did reach circulation in some numbers, unlike the dates from the 1930s. That said, it also appears that the saving of the 1920-S was higher in Mint State than would be expected back in 1920, which would point to some last minute acquisitions as was common at the time and those coins tended to be ones which were simply sitting in the vaults for a period of more than a decade.
The 1920-S seems to be a date which was partially in circulation and partially in the vaults when the Gold Recall Order of 1933 resulted in the melting of many gold coins. The bulk of the 1920-S was lost, making it scarce and valuable, but those few which were not lost reflect the fact that the 1920-S was both circulating and sitting in the vaults giving us a mixture of grades of a very scarce coin.