The 1894-S gold eagle is a classic. It basically involves all the elements that could play a role in the scarcity of a U.S. gold coin. In the end we come out with a mixed result of a coin that is better because of a low mintage but available until you get to the highest grades, where it is virtually impossible.
In 1894, the Philadelphia Mint produced almost 2.5 million gold eagles, while the San Francisco mintage was just 25,000. San Francisco mintages at the time tended to be lower, but not that low.
A low mintage attracts the attention of collectors and dealers; that is, if there are collectors and dealers. Back in 1894 there were virtually no collectors of gold eagles by date and mint because it was too much money for almost anyone to collect. As a result, average gold eagles were released, used as reserves for bank notes, or sat in vaults until they were exported. At the time millions of gold coins were being shipped overseas.
In the case of the 1894-S, we have a low-mintage date, but it was not saved. It might have seen some of its low mintage released and circulated for a period. If an example circulated for long enough, it might well have ended up melted as a result of the Gold Recall Order of 1933. That action claimed well over 30 percent of all the gold eagles ever made, so some numbers of the 1894-S had to be among the losses.
Other examples were not released but simply continued to sit in vaults with no particular place to go while still others circulated briefly, then ended up in vaults.
From those vaults, Europe was a likely destination for the coins. The profile for a coin ending up in Europe was if it was dated before 1880, it would be circulated. There were good dates and average dates, but we have no record of what dates were involved in what grades.
The question is whether there is any evidence of some examples of the 1894-S in Europe. Its $3,950 price in MS-60 is high, and there is not even a listing in MS-65.
Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has graded a total of 117 examples of the 1894-S and 13 were called Mint State, but none of the 13 topped MS-61. Professional Coin Grading Service reports 129 examples of the 1894-S with a total of nine in Mint State. Two made MS-62 but none better.
Frankly, it’s not conclusive. You can make a good case that any more than a couple Mint State coins might suggest some numbers in Europe, but realistically the numbers are so low it’s not out of the question that such a small number would survive under normal circumstances.
There might be doubt about the combined total from the grading services since 200 or more coins in assorted grades seems like a lot of luck, but it’s not out of the question. So we have to say it’s inconclusive as to how the 1894-S managed to survive. That said, what examples did survive leave the 1894-S a real challenge in top grades.