The 1870-S $3 gold piece is one of the great American rarities and one of the great American stories. You could also say it is one of the great American numismatic mysteries as well, for we have never fully been able to explain the 1870-S and why it exists today.
On inspection of the official records, you will find that there is no record of an 1870-S $3 gold coin being produced. In fact, there is information suggesting that the 1870-S $3 gold was one of a group of denominations produced in 1870 in San Francisco for inclusion in the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint, which was being dedicated that year.
The theory was that a single example of the denominations not being regularly produced that year should be added to the group in the cornerstone. The new facility in San Francisco had been a long time coming and the workers and officials were naturally excited as the building on Commercial Street where they had been working since 1854 was outdated the day the door opened for coin production as it had been too small and unpleasant. A little celebration to mark the beginning of construction on what was going to be a great facility for its time was logical.
Typically, the 1870 regular production at San Francisco was not going to include a number of denominations. The silver half dime and quarter were not being produced as in the heart of the gold country, and with limited capabilities, San Francisco had never been a big producer of lower silver denominations. In fact, San Francisco had never been a particularly big producer of silver dollars either so it was no surprise that there was also no plan for an 1870-S silver dollar. The gold $3 was also not a surprise as (except for Philadelphia) the $3 gold was not produced often at other facilities.
Things appeared to have gone more or less according to plan although there were extra 1870-S dollars produced as they appear to have been given out as souvenirs to special guests. We base this on the fact that there are perhaps 10-12 known examples of the 1870-S and all except for one, which brought over $1 million, appear to have had light wear.
The newspaper accounts of the day describe the ceremony and that one example of the other denominations had been made and placed in the cornerstone. Everyone assumed that was it and that, while produced, no 1870-S half dime, quarter, or $3 gold would ever be possible for a collector to own. They were right for a while.
Some years later a funny thing happened. Edgar H. Adams surprised everyone by announcing that there was an 1870-S $3 gold piece. That was confirmed when the William Woodin collection was put up for sale in 1911 and included that one 1870-S $3 gold piece. How Woodin got the coin is unclear but he had the right connections as at one time he was Secretary of the Treasury. The Philadelphia dealer S.H. Chapman bought the coin for $1,500 and a couple of owners later the coin was in the hands of Louis Eliasberg Sr. When his collection was sold the $1,500 coin was up to nearly $700,000.
The coin itself raises questions. First, why is it not in the cornerstone? The general belief is that the chief coiner at the time made an extra which must have also been true of the half dime as one 1870-S half dime is also known. The only other option is that the coins were never placed in the cornerstone but most seem to think it was a second example. Of course, it is interesting with both a half dime and $3 gold that an 1870-S quarter has never surfaced as it too was a case where there was only one allegedly placed in the cornerstone.
The one 1870-S $3 is also interesting as it has been graded XF-40 or perhaps as high as AU-50 but with “traces of jewelry use.” We know where the coin has been since appearing in the Woodin collection and Woodin was a collector, so it is unlikely that his wife was wearing the 1870-S. Just how and when it was used as jewelry remains a fascinating question, as does its value. It has not been sold in public auction since 1982, making it unique. A 1913 nickel sold for $4 million and it is not unique nor an 1804 dollar that sold for $4 million. What the 1870-S is worth is truly a guessing game.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. Click here to subscribe.