The Morgan dollar is 1.5 inches in diameter, or 38.1mm. The $1 gold piece is either 13mm or 15mm, depending on type.
Don’t let their small size fool you, though. The $1 gold coins of the United States had a big impact. Their fascinating story makes them a great collection although with assorted scarce dates they are a difficult collection and one that is virtually impossible in top grades. Even with the difficulty, you can have years of fun assembling a set and learning about what were truly historic issues.
The gold dollar was a direct outgrowth of the discovery of gold in California. There had been no provision in the Mint Act of 1792 for gold dollars and for all practical purposes it was the assumption of everyone at the time that the $1 coin of the United States would be silver.
It did not work out quite the way many had expected. The silver dollar ran into problems as they were being exported at a time when all the Mint’s resources were needed to fight a national coin shortage. There was no time to be making silver dollars that were not circulating.
The idea of a gold dollar, however, was out of the question as supplies of gold were uncertain and the gold coins of the United States by the 1820s were not circulating anyway as they were being sold to brokers who could export them for a slight profit.
Until the amount of gold was reduced in 1834, there was no point in even considering other denominations as the gold eagle had its production suspended along with the silver dollar and the gold half and quarter eagles were not circulating.
The first gold dollar of the United States actually emerged not from the U.S. Mint, but rather the gold fields of the South. The discovery of gold in the hills of Georgia and North Carolina had produced an interesting new business in the form of private mints.
The most successful by far was that of the Bechtler family and they, probably understanding a need in local commerce, produced gold dollars. That did not produce a rush to make the denomination on the part of the United States as until the gold eagle was back in production and things were stable in terms of coinage needs, there was no reason to be considering other denominations.
Everything changed with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Suddenly there was all the gold anyone could ever image using and in a spirit of using some of that gold, the gold dollar and gold double eagle were quickly authorized by the U.S. Congress.
The first gold dollar of the United States was produced in 1849 and it would come with a couple varieties as there were open wreaths on some and closed wreaths on others if the coin was produced in Philadelphia or Charlotte. If, however, the coin was produced in Dahlonega or New Orleans they had only open wreaths.
The obverse of the new dollars would be similar to that of the double eagle, but the design lasted only until 1854. The first Liberty Head gold dollars are a relatively easy type, currently priced at $120 in F-12 while the most available MS-60 is $260.
There are some better dates of the type with the 1849-C with an open wreath being part of a mintage of 11,634. The open wreath is $135,000 in F-12. The rest of the mintage was the closed wreath variety and as the larger portion of the small mintage, that variety is merely tough at $800 in F-12.
Just how scarce the open wreath variety is can be seen in the fact that PCGS has graded 94 examples of the closed wreath 1849-C but only two of the open wreath.
There are so many good gold dollars that some do not receive the attention they deserve. The 1850-O is a good example of that as it is the lowest mintage gold dollar to emerge from New Orleans. The dollars of New Orleans do not receive much attention as they tend to be more available and usually better made than those from Charlotte and Dahlonega, but that does not mean they are readily available especially in Mint State.
The 1850-O despite a low mintage is still priced at just $200 in F-12, which is not much of a premium although an MS-60 is $3,300, which does reflect the fact that they are tough in Mint State and basically unknown in any grade above MS-63, which is priced at $7,000.
Part of the reason the 1850-O is overlooked can be found in the fact that the 1850-C with a mintage of 6,966 and the 1850-D with a mintage of 8,382 were both lower mintage than the 1850-O and that is the pattern in gold dollars as while New Orleans might have a low mintage that would normally produce high prices Charlotte and Dahlonega would almost always have an even lower mintage.
Another very interesting date of the type is the 1854-S, which had a mintage of 14,632. The mintage was interesting as this was the first year of coin production at the newly opened San Francisco facility. The coin production that first year reflected the fact that the facility was simply not the most modern in the world and had limited capabilities.
The priority in the middle of a Gold Rush was gold and there were large mintages of gold eagles and double eagles. The gold quarter and half eagles, however, had mintages of fewer than 300 pieces. Ironically, the one lower gold denomination that had any sort of mintage at all was the gold dollar perhaps suggesting a local need.
The 1854-S was also the only gold dollar of the type produced at San Francisco, making it a very historic coin and its current $260 price in F-12 a very reasonable one.
The design was changed starting in 1854 to the short-lived Type 2 small Indian Head design. The design is a bit difficult to explain as suddenly Liberty was depicted with a headdress of ostrich plumes. The design would last for 1855 and in the case of San Francisco 1856. With a short time in use, the type is difficult and that was compounded by low mintages . There are only six Type 2 coins and only the Philadelphia 1854 and 1855 are viewed as generally available at F-12 prices of $225 and MS-60 of $2,350.
The other Type 2 dates are definitely tougher with the 1855-O that had a mintage of 55,000 being the most available other than the dates produced at Philadelphia. The 1855-O currently lists for $345 in F-12 and $7,800 in MS-60 with some estimating that there might be as many as 1,500 known. In fact, that estimate seems high with others suggesting it might be one-half that total and the grading services seem to also lean in that direction with the numbers they have seen.
Certainly the 1855-C and 1855-D with mintages of 9,803 and 1,811, respectively, are much tougher. The 1855-C has a current price of $975 in F-12 with an MS-60 at $33,000. Complicating the already low mintage is the fact that the 1855-C has a well-deserved reputation as an especially poorly made issue usually on low quality planchets and weakly struck especially in the date and DOLLAR. Even if you find an above average example, it will not look like a comparable grade coin from Philadelphia and the grading services bear out the fact that Mint State examples are not often encountered with NGC calling just 8 out of 108 examples graded Mint State with none higher than MS-61 while PCGS reports only two Mint State coins out of 110 graded.
The 1855-D on the other hand not only lacks quality but also quantity thanks to that very low mintage. The current prices of the 1855-D are $3,250 in F-12 while an MS-60 lists for $48,000. The estimated number known has been put as low as 50, although the grading service totals seem to dispute that estimate as PCGS alone has graded 48 examples. Some of those could certainly be repeat submissions but the 50 estimate is still in some doubt.
The 1855-D is also interesting as it seems to appear more often in Mint State than the 1855-C – at least at the grading services. PCGS reports 4 as opposed to 2 Mint State 1855-C dollars and NGC also reports more Mint State examples of the 1855-C. That said, the 1855-D remains a very tough coin in every grade and a popular gold dollar rarity.
Apparently the dies for the Type 2 gold did not reach San Francisco in time for an 1855 mintage of the type so the San Francisco Type 2 gold dollar is dated 1856. Thanks to a mintage of 24,600, the 1856-S is at least available with F-12 prices starting at $525 with an MS-60 at $8,650.
In fact, for some unknown reason, the 1856-S is somewhat available in Mint State when you consider its mintage and the fact that it was produced in San Francisco. At PCGS, for example, some 25 out of 125 examples were called Mint State.
We think of the Type 2 gold dollar as tough and it is a more expensive type coin, but it should be remembered that while tough as a type, the gold dollar mintages at the time were far in excess of the silver dollar totals and it was that way throughout the period as there were a number of gold dollars with mintages over 1 million while the first silver dollar with a 1 million total would not take place until the 1870s.
Moreover, gold dollars were produced at more facilities each year than silver dollars, making the combined totals even higher.
The third and final type, Type 3 large Indian Head gold dollars, were produced from 1856 through the final gold dollar in 1889. With such a long period of production, the type is generally available with prices of $125 in F-12 and $310 in MS-60.
While available as a type, there are some fascinating and elusive Type 3 gold dollars starting with the 1856-D, which had a mintage of just 1,460, making it the lowest mintage Dahlonega gold dollar. The numbers known reflect that low mintage with NGC and PCGS combining to show just 86 examples and some of them could very well be repeat submissions.
The probability is that the 1856-D has more than 50 known examples but far fewer than 100 and that makes the current $2,350 F-12 price reasonable while an MS-60 is at $32,000. The two grading services have combined to call 11 coins Mint State but none of them was better than MS-62, so quality as usual is also an issue with the 1856-D.
The 1860-D with a mintage of 1,566 pieces is another interesting date. The 1860-D was the last official gold dollar from Dahlonega and with that mintage the general belief is that it too has fewer than 100 examples known today. The price of the 1860-D is $2,150 in F-12, which is close to the 1856-D, but the 1860-D is much less costly than the 1856-D in Mint State where it currently lists for $13,500.
The 1860-D most often ends up being compared not to the 1856-D, but rather the 1861-D. The 1861-D gold dollar is a fascinating coin as it was not produced by the United States. The 1861-D was produced by representatives from the state of Georgia after they had seized the facility at the start of the Civil War. At that time it is thought that there was roughly $13,000 in gold in the facility as well as dies for making coins.
There are no records so there is no way to know precisely how many 1861-D gold dollars were produced at the time but historically most have put the mintage total at between 1,000 and 1,500 pieces. If it was closer to the high end, that would make it very close in mintage to the 1860-D produced in the same facility the prior year.
The price of the 1861-D is currently $4,950 in F-12 and $41,500 in MS-60, which in both cases is about twice the price of the 1860-D. The numbers from the grading services are interesting as NGC reports 48 examples of the 1860-D of which 6 were Mint State, but just 23 of the 1861-D, although 8 of them were Mint State. At PCGS they report 67 examples of the 1860-D, with 10 being called Mint State, but 53 examples of the 1861-D, although 17 of them were called Mint State.
That leaves us with a very interesting and confused picture. The 1861-D does appear to be less available than the 1860-D and that would suggest a mintage closer to 1,000 and not 1,500. That said, for some reason the 1861-D is apparently more available in Mint State suggesting that perhaps in the excitement of the moment some souvenirs were saved or perhaps even that there were a couple coin collectors in the ranks of those who seized the facility and began producing coins under the flag of the state of Georgia.
There are other elusive Type 3 gold dollars including the 1875, which is thought to have had a mintage of 400 along with 20 proofs. It certainly helped that the 1875 was produced in Philadelphia where there were more collectors to potentially save examples, but with such a low mintage the 1875 is tough at $1,650 in F-12 and $10,000 in MS-60. The grading services suggest that the 1875 was apparently saved quickly by collectors as of the 24 seen by NGC 20 were called Mint State and that was true of 40 of the 54 graded by PCGS, while each service reports 3 proofs. Such high Mint State totals are definitely unusual for a gold coin of the period.
The 1870-S meanwhile is an interesting date with a reported mintage of just 3,000, but prices of $300 in F-12 and $2,650 in MS-60. The prices are made all the more interesting by a report that 2,000 examples were reportedly made without a mintmark.
The 1870 situation in San Francisco was a bit confused as that was the year of the laying of the cornerstone for the new building, which saw some great rarities emerge but some unreliable reports as to totals produced.
In the case of the 1870-S gold dollar, we cannot be certain whether the 2,000 allegedly produced were part of that 3,000 or the 3,000 actually all contained a mintmark. In this case, the grading services do not really point in one direction or another as they have combined for roughly 100 examples, which would be on the low side for a 3,000 mintage, but on the high side for a mintage of just 1,000.
Interestingly enough, the 1870-S does appear an unusually high number of times for a date from San Francisco with a low mintage, but that does not explain its relatively low Mint State price.
There are some other dates that are surprisingly available as well. Apparently in the 1880s there was a certain amount speculation on a number of issues including gold dollars.
As Q. David Bowers reports in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, there were hoards of the 1879, 1880, 1881 and also the 1889. There may have been others but the hoards dispersed long ago have provided us today with surprisingly good supplies of what were low-mintage dates, with the 1880 being the best example as despite a mintage of just 1,636, the 1880 is priced at only $150 in F-12 and $425 in MS-60 today.
Whether a specific gold dollar date is surprisingly tough or surprisingly available the fact is that virtually every date is interesting. It makes the gold dollar a truly fascinating collection with a wide range of good values on historic and tough coins.
More importantly, for ordinary collectors without a checkbook to back up upper end prices, the lower circulated grades offer a surprising number of affordable coins with extraordinarily low mintages.
We cannot know if there will be many more collectors of $1 gold coins in the future, but if there are, they will have to focus their spending on the circulated grades because there just isn’t much in the way of numbers available for them to buy in Mint States. Those coins are pretty much spoken for as they get passed from one name collection to the next. New collectors for these will simply bid already high prices still higher, but of course, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that for the money they are also buying the placement of their names on pedigrees and thereby becoming part of history.