By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
Do you remember the first U.S. gold piece you saw? I do, even though it was well over 50 years ago. It was an Indian Head quarter eagle. My father and I were visiting a neighbor who also happened to be a coin collector, and he handed me the small gold piece to admire.
I was struck first by its weight. About the size of a dime, it was discernably heavier than any dime in my collection. In addition, it had a realistic depiction of an American Indian. Although the word “incuse” wasn’t in my vocabulary when I held the quarter eagle, that too was a feature of the coin’s design that appealed to me.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my love affair with U.S. gold coins had begun. Many years later, I decided to concentrate on two things in adding coins to my collection: key coins and gold. Unfortunately, I was unable to maintain my concentration and eventually drifted away from the focus on key coins and gold.
Big mistake. As I look back over my history as a collector/investor/part-time dealer/writer, I see several points at which a concentration on my first love would have paid big dividends.
The earliest example of this occurred in 1970. I had just gotten back into collecting after a decade spent pursuing higher education. While visiting a coin shop in the city where I grew up, I spotted a case filled with double eagles arranged side by side. Prices ranged from $60 to $70, and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to purchase an example or two each month.
Did I do it? Of course not. Instead, I bought large numbers of circulated Walking Liberty half dollars to fill out my set. Note, these were common dates in the ’30s and ’40s. Don’t ask me why I didn’t choose uncirculated coins, as Walking Liberty half dollars were remarkably inexpensive in Mint State grades at the time.
I could go on like this and tell you about all the times I could have/should have chosen gold instead of copper, nickel, and silver, but what’s the point? It won’t help you and will just make me depressed. Instead, I’m going to tell you about ten 20th century pre-1933 gold coins that I think are best buys.
No. 1. 1900 or 1901 Liberty Head $2.50 gold pieces.
I’m basing this recommendation strictly on the mintage, which at 67,000 or 91,100, respectively, suggests that these would be good coins to own. These two coins are priced as common dates, with list prices in Numismatic News’ “Coin Market” (CM) in MS63 of $500 and $460, respectively.
Although I specified coins made in the 20th century, a couple of slightly earlier Liberty Head dates caught my eye. In 1892, the mintage was a minuscule 2,440. This date gets pricey in Mint State grades, but it’s priced like a common date in circulated grades. In AU50, for example, the value is $280, which seems like a bargain to me, as PCGS has certified just five pieces in this grade. I would recommend the 1894, with just 4,000 minted, on the same basis. It also has a CM value of $280 in AU50.
The reason these low-mintage dates are so inexpensive is that there are not that many collectors who pursue the Liberty Head quarter eagle set by date/mintmark combinations. Instead, most collectors tend to be satisfied with one for type, and with a lengthy string of dates, there are many possibilities for type collecting. Type collectors tend to choose the most common date in the best possible condition, bypassing low-mintage alternatives like the dates I’ve listed here.
One potential problem with my recommendations is availability. I looked at the Heritage Auctions archives and found that all the examples of these dates that have sold had problems, usually cleaning. The prices the coins sold for were commendably low, however.
No. 2. 1911-D Indian Head $2.50 gold piece.
This is the big key to the Indian Head series, with just 55,680 minted. As such, it is expensive in all grades, even well circulated ones. According to CM, the range in values is from $2,600 in VF20 to $46,000 in MS65.
Note, this is for the 1911-D with a strong D mintmark. There’s also a weak D variety, which is considerably less expensive, ranging from $1,800 in XF40 to $4,500 in MS60, with no values given beyond that grade. By contrast, the list prices for those two grades for the strong D are $2,950 and $7,200, respectively.
The 1911-D is a worthwhile buy because it is genuinely scarce. In addition, the demand is strong because the Indian Head Quarter Eagle series is one of the few gold series that’s fairly easy to complete. The series has only 15 date/mintmark combinations, with only one rarity key date. If you’re willing to settle for circulated coins, all but two dates list for just $260 in AU50. The two dates are the 1911-D and 1914, which is going to be my next recommendation.
If you’re tempted to save money with the weak D variety, I would advise against it. The mintmark is extremely weak and at times not visible at all. There are some diagnostic characteristics on the reverse, so you can be sure it’s really a 1911 minted in Denver. Personally, I’m partial to coins with visible characteristics.
No. 3. 1914 Indian Head $2.50 gold piece.
The 1914 has the second lowest mintage in the series, with 240,000 pieces coined. As such, it’s somewhat more expensive than the other, more common dates in all grades of AU50 and above. In MS63, it has a CM value of $2,400, which is considerably above all dates other than the 1911-D.
In the 2nd edition of A Handbook of 20th Century Gold Coins (1907-1933), David Akers called the 1914 “... the second-rarest Indian Quarter Eagle after the 1911-D. Both the 1911-D and 1914 are equally rare in high grades.”
A slightly circulated example of the 1914 is not prohibitively expensive and qualifies as a best buy. In AU50, CM says it’s worth $330. In MS60, the date lists for $465. Look for a nice example in AU58. Heritage Auctions has sold several examples in that grade in 2018, with a range of prices between $336 and $384. That strikes me as a modest amount to pay for the date with the second lowest mintage in the series.
No. 4. 1904-S Liberty Head $5 gold piece.
This is another low-mintage gold piece that, if you can find one, should be a great buy. The mintage for this date was a paltry 97,000 pieces, and CM has it priced as a common date ($360) through AU50. I looked at the Heritage archives and found that several examples in either AU55 or AU58 have sold in the last few years within a range from $432 to $480.
A somewhat earlier date to look for is the 1894-S. This is a coin with a mintage of just 55,900 pieces. Like the 1904-S, it’s part of a series with many different date/mintmark combinations. CM values it as a common date through AU50, with a value of just $360.
You could expect that it would be worth a bit more than that in AU55 or AU58. In the Heritage archives, I found four examples in these grades that have sold this year. The two coins in AU55 brought $456 each, whereas the two AU58s went for $630 and $720. These seem like incredibly low prices for a coin with that low a mintage.
No. 5. 1911-D Indian Head $5 gold piece.
This is another low-mintage gold piece that is a best buy in higher circulated grades, such as AU55 and AU58. Its mintage of 72,500 is the second lowest of any Indian Head Half Eagle. Only the 1909-O has a lower mintage.
CM gives it values of $800 in XF40 and $1,500 in AU50. One in AU50 sold recently on eBay for the CM value.
In AU55, the PCGS guide prices it at $2,850. There’s no listed price for the coins in AU58, and the 1911-D takes a big jump in MS60 ($8,500). Consulting the Heritage archives, I found that the 1911-D sells for about $3,600 in AU58, as I counted three that have sold in 2018 for amounts between $3,360 and $4,080.
No. 6. 1908-S Indian Head $5 gold piece.
Staying with the Indian Head Half Eagles, the 1908-S is another low-mintage piece, with just 82,000 coined. Amazingly, CM lists it as a common date in VF20 ($360) and only slightly above that in XF40 ($380). It jumps to $900 in AU50.
In Indian Gold Coins of the 20th Century, Mike Fuljenz noted, “The popular 1908-S has the lowest mintage figure of any San Francisco Half Eagle. It also has the third lowest mintage of any coin of this type.” The biggest difficulty with this date is going to be finding one. According to the Heritage archives, an XF45 sold for $660 in January 2018. In AU58, the most recent sales were in 2016!
If you can find one, I think a 1908-S Half Eagle in XF40 or XF45 would be a best buy for any amount less than $1,000. Don’t even look at coins that aren’t certified by a major service (ANACS, NGC, PCGS). I found one sale on eBay of a 1908-S supposedly in uncirculated condition. It sold for less than $700, which reminds me of the old adage: If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
No 7. 1901-O or 1906-O Liberty Head $10 gold pieces.
Here are two coins from the New Orleans Mint with commendably low mintages. CM prices both as common dates ($660) through the grade of AU50. After that, they jump in value but not as much as you might think. The 1901-O is valued at $1,050 in MS60; the 1906-O, at $1,125.
Another Liberty Head Eagle worth considering is the 1902, with a mintage of 82,400. It’s valued as a common date through MS60 before jumping to $1,300 in MS63. This is also true for the 1900-S (81,000).
There’s at least one more New Orleans Eagle worth considering: the 1904-O. With a mintage of 108,950, it follows the same pricing pattern as the 1902 before jumping to $1,500 in MS63. I actually have one of these in AU58. I paid $270 for it more than two decades ago. It’s valued at $1,000 in the current A Guide Book of United States Coins, Mega Red 4th Edition.
No. 8. 1908 No Motto Indian Head $10 gold piece.
This may be my best pick on this list. With a mintage of 33,500, the 1908 No Motto Eagle has the third lowest mintage of the Indian Head series. Even so, David Akers called it “... only a median rarity in this series.” CM gives it common date values in XF45 and AU50, with a value of $1,300 in MS60.
In the Heritage archives, I found that a surprising number of this date sold in July and August 2018 auctions. In MS62, prices received ranged from $750 to $900. Five in MS63 brought anywhere from $930 to $1,500, with most well under the top value. I sure wish that I had bought one of these coins.
No. 9. 1902 Liberty $20 gold piece.
Although just 31,140 of these were minted, it’s valued as a common date ($1,290) through AU50, with one in MS60 priced at only $1,295. There’s a big jump after that, with the MS63 listed at $9,000.
Most of the 1902s I found in the Heritage archives were MS63 or above, pieces with higher grades than I’ve suggested you should look for. I did see one AU58 1902 that brought $1,680 in 2018 and an MS61 that sold for $1,763. If you keep in mind that these coins contain nearly an ounce of gold, you’ll realize what a bargain their buyers got.
A couple of other Liberty double eagles to look for are 1905 (58,919) and 1906 (69,596). CM values both as essentially common dates through the AU50 grade.
No. 10. 1909-D Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece.
Here’s another low-mintage coin (52,500) priced by CM as a common date in circulated grades. In A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins, Q. David Bowers wrote, “… this low-mintage issue is still a highly important key date.” It lists for $1,290 through AU50 before going to $2,800 in MS60.
In the Heritage archives, I found a couple of listings for 1909-Ds in AU55 that sold in 2018. One went for $1,560; the other for $1,680. I think both of these were best buys for the lucky bidders.
That’s my list of 10, with a few extra, gold coins worth looking for. With low mintages, they’re all scarce, and you may have to look a long time to find them for sale or at auction. In my examination of the Heritage archives, I found that many of the coins I’ve listed don’t sell all that often. When they do sell, however, the prices they bring seem really low to me given their scarcity. If you can buy a few, I think you’ll be well pleased with your best buys.
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