Almost everyone would love to assemble a complete $10 piece gold piece collection, but sadly very few can even consider such an effort. As the gold eagle was the highest gold denomination initially authorized, that means a complete collection would stretch all the way back to the 1790s. In addition, there are a lot of tough dates from a lot of different mints. Even if a date that you want is available there is the problem that there are so many of others in a full set and with rising gold prices even if every date in the full set was just priced at its gold value, it would be a substantial investment.
Faced with so many potential costly considerations, the one way most of us can enjoy gold eagles of all types is to assemble a type collection and then potentially add other dates that might be of special interest. Even as a type set, it is a challenge, but along the way you learn the history of what was at least for a time the highest face value gold coin of the United States.
We cannot be certain precisely what lawmakers were thinking back on April 2, 1792, when they included gold eagles as one of the first denominations for coins of the United States. The gold eagle as $10 was the highest denomination to be authorized and $10 at the end of the 18th century was really a significant sum of money. In some cases, it would have been at least a couple weeks’ pay and possibly more. Of course, that situation would influence our supplies today as at the time there were very few who really had the financial strength to be able to save even one, much less every date of the gold eagle as they were produced.
The situation would be seen not only at the time but for years later. The average American was not likely to see a gold eagle in circulation with any regularity as many of them ended up in vaults as reserves and others were exported. Even years later in the 1830s the newly opened branch mints in Charlotte, N.C., and Dahlonega, Ga., while producing only gold coins would never produce a denomination higher than $5 – probably because there was little use for higher denominations in the area so for decades we can safely assume that the gold eagle was far too high just in face value for most Americans to consider collecting seriously.
Even once authorized it would be a number of years before the first gold eagle was produced. There was no Mint at the time of the Mint Act of 1792 where gold eagles or any other denominations could be produced. What few activities there were took place in the workshop of a man named John Harper, who was a saw maker by day and in his spare time seemed to function as an official mint. Actually, he was closer to official than might be expected as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who was responsible for the Mint at the time, at one point called him “The Mint” in his notes. Moreover, it is reasonably certain that the 1792 mintage of half dismes took place in his workshop. Although Harper was up to small tasks, the idea of running a minting operation for an entire country from his workshop was not possible, so Jefferson quickly got a new facility up and running.
With the speed involved, it was natural that there were a few small problems. The denominations had been authorized in April of 1792 and within a year the Mint was open and working on large cents. For that first year of operations in 1793, large cents and half cents would be all that the new government facility could work on as the law required that officials post a financial bond before producing any gold and silver and they were balking at that requirement. That meant Jefferson had to reach a compromise on that issue which he did, but it took until well into 1794.
With the door finally open to producing gold and silver coins, it was not that surprising that officials opted to start with silver. The surprise there was that they picked dollars as the press was not large enough to produce dollars. There was a new press on order that would arrive the following year, but even knowing their machinery was not up to the task, officials went ahead anyway and tried to produce silver dollars.
The decision resulted in the delivery of 1,758 silver dollars, which basically proved it was a hasty decision. No one believes the Mint attempted to produce just 1,758 silver dollars. Rather, the belief is that they were the only coins from a much larger mintage that were judged acceptable and that was probably based on very low standards as when we look at the surviving examples today it is clear that the strikes were light and there were other problems as well. Under the circumstances, even if they had been interested in producing gold coins, the larger gold eagle might well have not worked.
By 1795 after additional efforts with silver half dollars and half dimes, the Mint was ready to attempt the first gold coin production. The denomination selected was the half eagle followed by gold eagles.
The design was the Capped Bust facing right with Liberty wearing a conical cap. On the reverse, the eagle is perched holding a wreath in its beak. Interestingly enough, there was no denomination designation on the coin itself. This would be the case with other gold coins of the period as with coins of all nations in circulation in the United States a denomination was of little use as the merchants and brokers of the day simply valued gold issues according to the amount of gold they contained, which was logical, as most of the gold coins in circulation were Spanish issues.
This first type of gold eagle was only produced in 1796 and 1797.
Exact mintages of the gold eagles during the period are difficult to determine as the Mint reports of the time showed only the number of coins struck and not the dates on those coins. That is important. To save money, the Mint at the time would regularly use dies from different years even if that meant a design not currently in use. The 1797 production for example included not only the original type but also coins with a new Heraldic or large eagle copied from the Great Seal of the United States. The problem is the reports do not tell us accurately how many coins of each type were produced.
The first gold eagles with the small eagle reverse have prices starting at $28,500 for the 1795 in F-12 while an example in MS-60 is around $122,500. The prices are high but the historic importance of the first gold eagle must be remembered also with the fact that the highest mintage of any of the dates involved was under 6,000 and few individuals had the money to save an example. The three dates combined had an estimated mintage of just 13,344 and demand is always far greater than the supply.
There are some characteristics of these first gold eagles that should be understood. They tend to be in upper circulated grades as they frankly did not see a lot of circulation. There are a few Mint State examples, but even they reflect the situation at the time. Those of 1795 can sometimes be prooflike, but all of them tend to have adjustment marks where the planchet was filed down to make it the right size. The strikes typical of all denominations can be weak especially at the high points of Liberty, star centers as well as details of the eagle and dentils.
The second type of gold $10 with the large eagle reverse is much more available thanks primarily to larger mintages such as the 44,344 total of the 1801. Of course that is large by comparison with other dates, but hardly a large total under normal circumstances, especially when you consider the fact that some would have been exported.
Even so, the prices show the large eagle reverse is much more available with an F-12 for a date like the 1801 being $9,250 while an MS-60 would be likely to start at $37,500. Most examples tend to be XF-40 or better as again the denomination was too large to receive much regular circulation. There are, however, the problems of adjustment marks and weak strikes making finding a truly well struck example with no problems a challenge.
The production of gold eagles was suspended in 1804 along with the silver dollar. The reason was that there was a national coin shortage that was not being helped by the production of silver dollars and eagles.
The problem was the practice of allowing those bringing in the gold and silver to select the denominations to be made with their metal. They almost always chose the large denominations and then the silver dollars and gold eagles were frequently exported or simply sat in safe places not circulating because their face value was too high. The only way to change things was to suspend production of the upper denominations so that people would have to select lower denominations.
Also, prior to 1834, U.S. gold coins had too much gold in them. This made their export for melting profitable.
Apparently the suspending of the gold eagle caused no great outcry as they were basically not being used anyway. The denomination would return in 1838 by which time there had been a number of changes. The most important was probably that the Mint had better machinery so far higher mintages were possible. In addition, three new facilities were producing coins with Dahlonega and Charlotte both producing only gold coins and New Orleans, which would produce its first issues in 1838, all being able to help out in the production of gold. Moreover, the discovery of gold in North Carolina and Georgia which resulted in the creation of the Dahlonega and Charlotte facilities meant that there were also no problems with a gold supply.
There had also been a slight reduction in the amount of gold in issues starting in 1834 and that coupled with the other factors meant that gold coins were circulating and popular. In that atmosphere a return of the gold eagle was possible with a new Christian Gobrecht Coronet Head design.
The first of the Coronet Head eagles in 1838 and some of the 1839 mintages have the head of Liberty in a slightly different orientation than those that followed but for type collecting purposes most simply include them with the dates that followed. The design would last until 1866 and have far higher mintages so it is much more available than the earlier types. The 1847 with a mintage of 862,258 by itself had a far greater mintage than all the previous years combined.
The mintages would vary as that 1847 total was a result of a large shipment of gold from England. The early 1850s saw sometimes larger mintages as the first impact of the California gold discovery was rippling through the country, especially in Philadelphia and New Orleans where the California gold was shipped as the San Francisco Mint would not begin production until 1854.
With years of production and sometimes large mintages, the Coronet Liberty Head type is available at around $568 in F-12 depending on gold prices while an MS-60 is $3,250. That price suggests a lack of supplies in Mint State and that is correct as a $10 gold piece was still well beyond the financial means of most so there was virtually no collecting at the time of issue. What collecting there was would have been only by date, meaning the few Mint State examples there are tend to pop up in unexpected places like shipwrecks, such as the S.S. Central America, which had a number of Mint State examples of the type.
In 1866 the design was changed with the addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse. At the time, there were virtually no gold eagles in circulation as the suspension of specie payments and the hoarding during the Civil War had basically seen all gold coins disappear from regular circulation.
Prices at the time were quoted in paper money, gold, or silver, depending on what you had. It took the government until Jan. 1, 1879, to restore parity to all forms of money.
In consequence, gold coins would return to circulation in the late 1870s, but the historic problem in terms of numbers being saved remained as they were still far too much money for most collectors to keep one. In fact, there is little if any evidence of anyone even working on a collection by date and literally no evidence of any collecting by date and mint. Moreover, the gold eagle like other gold coins was becoming more regional when it did return to circulation as in many parts of the country people had become comfortable using bank notes, allowing gold eagles to sit in vaults to serve as backing for Gold Certificates and ultimately, National Bank Notes.
Despite the fact that there were basically no collectors or dealers saving the Coronet Head eagles of the period, we find that they are available as might be expected with sometimes large mintages, but also available in Mint State which seemingly does not make sense with none being saved. The fact is that there was an enormous supply of Mint State coins because once produced many simply sat in vaults and then were exported to primarily European but other banks around the world. There they would not circulate but simply sit. That proved to be beneficial as when the Gold Recall Order of 1933 was issued they were all out of the reach of U.S. officials and melting.
Some dates simply sat for decades until starting in the late 1940s American dealers began to do some hunting for U.S. gold overseas. What they turned up surprised even the most optimistic as there were literally millions of U.S. gold coins waiting to be purchased. Many were circulated, but in the case of dates starting around 1880 large numbers were also in Mint State having been in bags since the day they were produced. That explains today’s prices, which show an MS-60 in some cases is less than $100 more than a VF-20 and even in MS-65 you get a great deal at perhaps as little as $1,015. It’s all because of those European and other hoards that we see evidence of with many dates today. The 1901 for example has been graded over 15,000 times by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and over 5,500 were MS-62 with another 4,464 being MS-63 and that is just one example of why prices are reasonable.
In 1907 the long-running Coronet Head design was replaced on the gold eagle by th
Realistically the process was one of trial and error. The first Indian Head gold eagles never really reaching circulation as they had pellets or periods separating the words in the legend on the reverse. They were the original models but eventually the periods would be eliminated before they were released. The “with periods” 1907 came with either a wire or regular rim. The wire rim was more available. It is believed that the wire rim had a mintage of 542 of which 70 were melted in 1914-1915 because they were damaged. That leaves about 470 of which many are known today, but being very popular their prices start at around $26,500 in MS-60.
The regular rim variety appears to have gotten close to being released with a mintage of 32,500. For some reason the decision was made not to release them and that saw all but about 50 melted with perhaps 20 of those 50 being known today. That makes it very scarce as is seen by a current MS-60 price of $66,500. Most are nicer, however, so an MS-63 is at just $98,500.
Given the high prices and the fact that the with periods 1907 Indian Head eagles were not really released in circulation most collectors will start with the first examples of the Indian Head gold eagle that we know circulated. They are the 1907, 1908 and 1908-D Indian Head gold eagles without IN GOD WE TRUST. The lack of the motto can be traced directly to President Roosevelt who had a different reading of the Scriptures as he felt it was inappropriate to mix God and coins. Saint-Gaudens went along and the 1907 along with some of the 1908 mintages had no motto before it was restored for some of the 1908 mintages after the Congress objected. The 1907 and 1908-D mintages were both over 200,000 so the type is available starting at around $700 in VF-20 with an MS-60 of the more available 1907 at about $600 while an MS-65 of the 1907 is at $7,200.
The rest of the 1908 mintages and all those that would follow would have IN GOD WE TRUST making them the final type of Indian Head gold eagle. The mintages in some cases were high and even with the melting in the period after the gold recall, which saw over 30 percent, of all gold eagles ever produced melted there are still decent supplies today again thanks largely to the vaults of overseas banks where many examples were kept safe from melting.
A type example today is easy to find at around $830 for the most available dates in MS-60 although an MS-65 is much tougher starting at about $7,450. The MS-65 price is high because the design was very prone to picking up marks especially in obvious places like the cheek and those marks can keep otherwise nice coins from commanding the prices they might otherwise bring.
However you choose to assemble a gold eagle type set, it is certainly a set that can bring a great deal of enjoyment. It also allows you to trace the history of one of the largest gold coins in the United States and the highest denomination stretching all the way back to the beginning of U.S. gold coinage. In addition, the type set is a satisfying way to own a little bit of gold. This is a great combination of factors making for a great collection.