In this column, I’ll discuss grading $3 gold pieces; but first, a few words of warning are in order.
Three dollar gold pieces have been extensively counterfeited. You should be especially wary of the following dates: 1854, 1855, 1857, 1874, 1878 and 1882. The quality of fakes seen for these dates varies with some 1882s being perhaps the most deceptive even today. Now let’s talk about grading.
As with any coin, first take an overall view of both sides looking for luster and marks. You may find that many coins in this series have been improperly cleaned at one time. Luster and eye appeal are the most important attributes as $3 are not usually seen with many bag marks. When they occur, the marks are usually small ticks. This is because the coins are small and relatively light. Because of their small mintages, it’s hard to conceive of these coins being shipped around and damaged in mint bags.
An MS-61 example dated 1857 is illustrated here. The first places to look for wear are on the high points of the design. On the obverse, examine the top of the headdress, eyebrow, and hair touching the ear, lower neck, and below “LIB” in the headband. The bow knot, strawberries and center of the wreath stalk at 3 and 9 o’clock are among the high points on the reverse. Any high point that is shiny is probably due to stacking while a dull surface indicates an actual loss of luster.
If these coins are weakly struck, some of the places I have noted to look for the first traces of circulation wear may not be sharp. Nevertheless, uncirculated coins will have luster over the weak area and may exhibit original planchet surface marks where the design was not struck up fully due to the weakness. These areas of weakness may fool a novice grader into thinking the coin is circulated.
Three dollars are mostly found in grades above VF/XF although lower grade coins in original, uncleaned condition do turn up. If there is any original luster around the raised areas of the coin such as its legend or wreath, the coin will probably be graded at least XF.
From what I have seen, because of value, scarcity, and popularity, the standards for grading these coins has evolved. You’ll need to study coins graded from MS-60 to MS-62 to get a feel for the amount of cabinet friction that is allowed before the grade of a $3 coin is reduced to About Uncirculated. In grades above -63, there is less wiggle room. True gem examples will have full blazing luster in the higher grades.
One of the most common problems affecting the grade of $3 coins is hair lines from cleaning. Remember to always tip any coin you examine back and forth in the light as you rotate it in your fingers. Hairlines will appear as flashy, minute scratches into the coin’s surface.
Look at the obverse of the coin I have illustrated. This coin is original and not cleaned. There are some random hairlines in the field between “United” and Liberty’s face. A few random hairlines in different directions on any coin (except in the very highest grades) are no big deal. The parallel lines you see behind the letters of the legend from 7 o’clock to 12 o’clock are raised and result from polish marks on the die.
Finally, don’t forget to check the edge. Possibly because of their size, $3 coins were often used in jewelry though not as much as other less valuable denominations from $5 on down.
Some repairs can be deceptive. Although, most mounts are found at 6 or 12 o’ clock, the best way to check any coin for evidence of mounting is to hold it upright at any random position and slowly rotate it while examining the edge as you go. If you pay particular attention to the shape of the edge reeding and the drag lines in the depressed area between the raised reeds, you should immediately notice any change to the reeding from damage or repair. If something looks suspect, I usually recommend two complete revolutions to see if you notice the same spot again.