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Gold Sets to Complete

A history of the $3 and $4 gold cents and why they are good options for collectors to consider buying.
$4 gold piece. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

$4 gold piece. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Let's imagine that you suddenly come into a lot of money. Perhaps you win a big lottery, or, if you’re not a gambler, a rich relative dies and you were her favorite nephew. After Uncle Sam has taken his cut, you’re still sitting on a nest egg that allows you to spend as much as you want on your favorite hobby, coin collecting. What would you buy?

If you’re partial to gold, I’m going to suggest a couple of sets you might think of collecting. Specifically, I’m talking about $3 and $4 gold pieces.

These are odd denominations, and you might wonder what their purpose was. Did anyone really need a $3 or $4 gold piece at the time they were minted?

Three-dollar gold pieces were minted from 1854 through 1889. With postage pegged at 3 cents for a prepaid letter, the silver 3 cent piece was expected to be used to purchase stamps without resorting to the use of heavy and often filthy large cents. According to Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of United States Coins, “Congressmen believed that [a $3 gold piece] would be convenient for exchange for rolls or small bags of silver 3c pieces, and for buying sheets of 3c stamps. . ..”

U.S. Mint engraver James B. Longacre, of Indian cent fame, used what was supposed to be the profile of an Indian Princess for the obverse. In reality, this was just another version of “Liberty” crowned with something resembling an Indian headdress. In this case, Liberty wears on her head a bundle of feathers held together by a band inscribed LIBERTY. On the reverse, “3 DOLLARS” and the date are encircled by a wreath of tobacco, wheat, corn, and cotton.

Most of the coins were minted in Philadelphia, with only 7 of 43 dates produced at other mints (5 San Francisco, 1 New Orleans, 1 Dahlonega). Like other odd denominations (for example, 2c pieces, nickel 3c pieces, 20c pieces), the first year saw the largest production, with a rather rapid decline after that. According to A Guide Book of United States Coins (Red Book), 

“. . . the coin was never popular with the general public and saw little circulation.” Assuming this is true, it’s amazing how long the denomination continued to be minted.

Further, the Red Book notes, “. . . collector interest was high, and many three-dollar gold pieces were saved by speculators beginning about 1879. As a result, Mint State examples are fairly numerous today.”

But they’re not inexpensive today. If you’re interested in well-circulated examples, the Market Watch (MW) guide in this magazine reveals quite a few dates that list for less than $1,000 in VF20. Examples include the 1854 at $775, 1855 at $840, and the last 3 years (1887-1889) at $900 apiece. When you move up a notch to XF40, however, there are only three dates that don’t exceed $1,000 (1855, 1856, and 1878).

Although mint state examples of the series may be “fairly numerous today,” with one exception (1860, $1,900), they’re all valued at more than $2,000 even in the lowly grade of MS60. Of course, if you have millions to spend on the collection, then you can opt for coins in better shape, assuming you can find them.

Beginning the first year, you’re going to run into a date, 1854-D, with a minuscule mintage of just 1,120 pieces. The D is for Dahlonega, Georgia. Values of the 1854-D $3 gold piece start at $8,000 in F12 on their way to $70,000 in MS60.

In addition to the 1854-D, there are quite a few $3 gold pieces with very low mintages and high values. For example, with a mintage of 1,140, the 1865 is valued at $67,500 in MS65. With a mintage of just 500 pieces, the 1881 is valued at $55,000 in the same grade.

But these dates, pricy as they are, pale in comparison to the 1870-S. This coin is unique and currently is part of the Bass Foundation Collection. It appears to have last sold in a Bowers and Ruddy auction in October 1982, where it went for $687,500. MW indicates a grade of AU50, cleaned, whereas it was graded XF40 in the B&R auction. Its Red Book value is $5 million, but MW says it’s worth a paltry $1.25 million. Either way, any set of $3 gold pieces you put together is going to be missing the 1870-S.

The pickings on eBay were slim when I checked, and if you want to work seriously on a set, I suspect you’ll have to consider the major auction venues. My search for “3 gold princess coin” produced 43 listings, but this included a couple of Type 3 $1 gold coins, several coins with damage and/or cleaning, some raw coins, and one coin that was holed and a grade or two below Good. Even so, the owner wanted $950.69 for it, with $5 shipping!

There were a few decent coins listed, with the most expensive piece being an 1878 that PCGS certified as MS65. This is one of the common dates, but the seller had it priced at $13,250, which is above both MW ($11,250) and the PCGS value guide ($12,500).

Next was a PCGS-certified 1881 in AU55. The seller called it a rare date, which is certainly true in terms of mintage (500). The price for this circulated example was $12,940, which is close to the PCGS value of $12,500. For the same price, and from the same dealer, you could get an 1882, which PCGS certified as MS62 PL. In this grade, the PCGS value is just $7,750. For both coins, the dealer will entertain offers. 

It’s obvious that eBay is not the right venue for building a quality set of $3 gold pieces. Looking at Heritage Auction Special Offerings (an email I get periodically), I found only two pieces listed, both dated 1878. In the Buy Now feature on the Heritage site, there were an additional three $3 gold pieces listed, again all dated 1878. With grades from MS61 to MS64, prices ranged from $2,725 to $5,950. If you’re buying for type, which is the way most collectors would approach $3 gold pieces, this might be a good date to consider, as it seems to be readily available. 

I found several different dates when I consulted the Heritage auction archives. In 2022 alone, which is early in the year as I write this, Heritage has sold 23 $3 gold pieces, of which there were 15 different dates. Grades ranged from VF30 (1857-S, $1,560) to MS66 (1889, $20,400). The most expensive example minted for circulation was an 1854-D in MS61 that sold for $114,000. The most common date was, you guessed it, 1878. Not far behind were the 1854-O and 1889.

Because proof examples were struck throughout the years in Philadelphia, buying proof coins is another way that $3 gold pieces can be collected. PR65 values in MW range from $35,500 for several dates at the end of the series to $235,000 for the proof-only 1875, with a mintage of 20.

The most expensive $3 gold piece sold by Heritage so far this year was an 1876 graded PR65 CAM (cameo), which sold for $144,000. This was also the most expensive of the five proof $3s I found listed. Minted only in proof, just 45 pieces were produced.

As you can see, collecting $3 gold pieces is not for the faint of heart or light of wallet. If you want to collect them on a limited budget, then well-circulated examples is the way to go. On MW, only 12 dates list for more than $950 in F12, with only 3 of these well north of $1,000. These are 1854-D ($8,000), 1873 closed 3 ($3,500), and 1877 ($2,300). As you can see, if you could find them, you could put together a sizable collection of $3s on a $1,000 per month numismatic budget.

Looking at the MW MS65 column, all of the dates have 5-figure values, with a range from $11,250 (1878 again) to a high of $67,500 (1865, mintage 1,140). With a money-is-no-object budget, I suspect you could find all the dates for your collection in or close to MS65 at auction in a few years. Your collection will be missing the 1870-S, of course, but it would still be a sight to behold.

If the $3 gold collection is not challenging enough for you, it’s time to consider another gold set, this one consisting of just four different coins, dated either 1879 or 1880. I’m talking about $4 gold pieces, or Stellas. The set consists of two Flowing Hair coins, dated either 1879 or 1880, and two Coiled Hair Stellas, dated either 1879 or 1880.

These are actually pattern coins, not coins minted for circulation, but they’ve been listed as a separate gold denomination in the Red Book since its first publication in 1947. Assuming you could buy them at that time for Red Book prices, you could have completed the set for just $3,700! Today, Red Book values of the four total $2,725,000.

The $4 gold pieces are called Stellas because of the central design element on their reverses, a large, five-pointed star. Stella is the Latin word for star. In the inner circle surrounding the star are the words Deo Est Gloria (God Is Glorious) and E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). The outer circle reads United States of America and Four Dol. Inside the star are the words “One Stella” above “400 Cents.”

On the obverse is either a version of Liberty with flowing hair, which was created by Charles E. Barber, then Chief Engraver of the Mint, or Liberty with coiled hair. The latter was the work of George T. Morgan, who was the Mint Assistant Engraver at the time. When Barber died, Morgan became the Chief Engraver.

The Stella was the brainchild of a former Iowa congressman, John A. Kasson, who thought that the $4 denomination gold piece would be useful for Americans traveling in Europe. Given its size and gold content, it was quite similar in value to then-extant coins of England, France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries. To facilitate its acceptance, the obverse of each Stella bears a ring of numbers and letters separated by stars that reads: *6*G*.3*S*.7*C*7*G*R*A*M*S*. Seemingly cryptic, it’s really a metric description of the coin’s metallic content. Thus, it has 6 grams of gold, .3 grams of silver, .7 grams of copper, for a total of 7 grams.

As pattern coins, three of the four design types were minted in very small quantities; the fourth, 1879 Flowing Hair, is the “common” one, with a mintage estimated to be at least 425 pieces. According to Andrew Pollock’s United States Patterns and Related Issues, “Only twenty five sets [containing an 1879 Flowing Hair Stella] were originally produced . . . but because of strong demand in Congress, an additional four hundred were issued in early 1880.”

There is evidence that some of these additional Stellas were given to women favored by certain Congressmen. Never one to allow a salacious tale to pass without comment, Breen wrote:

The story broke that while no coin collector could obtain a Stella from the Mint Bureau at any price, looped specimens commonly adorned the bosoms of Washington’s most famous madams, who owned the bordellos favored by those same congressmen. Today there are several dozen 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas with telltale traces of removal of those same loops, whose owners probably sometimes wish the coins could talk.

As you would expect, catalog values for the individual Stellas are quite high because of scarcity and demand. PCGS values for the 1879 FH Stella range from $135,000 for a PR60 to $375,000 for a PR67. Proofs with cameo and deep cameo contrast are more expensive, of course, topping out at $600,000 for a PR67 DCAM.

With 12-15 known of the 1879 Coiled Hair Stella (the Red Book gives a figure of 12), PCGS values range from $325,000 for one in PR62 to $1.35 million in PR67. For an 1879 Coiled Hair with cameo contrast, PCGS says a PR67 is worth $1.85 million.

The Red Book cites a population of 17 for the 1880 Stella with Flowing Hair, PCGS 20-25. PCGS values range from $150,000 for a PR60 to $950,000 for a PR67 CAM.

The 1880 Coiled Hair Stella is the scarcest of the four, with 8 known according to the Red Book, 8-10 according to PCGS. Values range from an even million dollars for a coin in PR64 to $2.75 million for one in PR67 CAM.

Although you are most likely to find Stellas at auction from major numismatic auction firms, I checked on eBay just for fun. Amazingly, I found three listed, all 1879 Flowing Hair, of course. All of the sellers offered free shipping, and all indicated that they would entertain offers. The least expensive was a coin in PR63 priced at $168,999, which is $1,001 below the PCGS value. Next came a PR65 Stella priced at $241,000, with a PCGS value of $255,000. Finally, a PR66 CAM could be yours for just $328,600 (PCGS value of $325,000).

On the Heritage Auction site, I found that five Stellas had been sold at sales in January and February 2022. All sold for less than their PCGS values. Four were 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas, as you would expect, but the fifth was an 1880 Coiled Hair Stella, the scarcest $4 coin of all. Graded PR61 by NGC, it sold at the perhaps bargain price of $504,000, which is well below the $650,000 value given in the Red Book for a coin in PR60. PCGS doesn’t have a price for an 1880 Coiled Hair Stella that grades less than PR64.

As I think you can see from this survey, $3 gold pieces are collectible, but if you want uncirculated examples, you better have a hefty budget. $4 gold pieces, on the other hand, typically command stellar (pun intended) prices at auction and fit into the money-is-no-object category. I couldn’t afford them when I bought my first Red Book, and I’m not much closer to affording them now.

Oh, well, one can always dream of that big lottery check!