We all have our favorite coin designs, be they classic or modern, artistic and flamboyant or staid and formal. Some people like the modern portrait on our nickels or of our Sacagawea dollars. Others favor now classic designs like the Mercury dime, Standing Liberty quarters, and Walking Liberty halves. However we like to collect though, it’s a fair bet that most of us do not collect by designer or Mint engraver. And yet there is one single designer for United States coins who had an amazing output in his day, and whose coins many of us do collect today, in some way. We’re talking about Mr. James Barton Longacre, the fourth Chief Engraver of the Mint. Let’s have a look at just what he produced and consider what a Longacre type set might end up looking like.
Flying Eagle cent
Collecting the Flying Eagle cents is not too tough an undertaking, if we choose to ignore the 1856 – which was not honestly made to be a circulating coin. This early design of Mr. Longacre’s proved to be short-lived, but also marks the milestone at which our one-cent coin went from a hefty piece to the much smaller size it is today. Picking up an 1857 or an 1858 would be a great way to start some kind of type collection focused on the artistry of James Longacre.
Indian Head cent
The popular Indian Head cent design is also the artwork of Mr. Longacre. The Flying Eagles may have flown after only a couple of years, but the Indian Head cents served as our circulating one-cent piece for half a century, became a classic, and remain a popular collectible series today. Mr. Longacre was an accomplished artist before unveiling this design; but this image shows beyond a doubt that he was a true master in creating a beautiful image that would be seen by an entire nation. There are undoubtedly a lot of Indian Head cents available today to add to any growing collection of “Longacre coinage.” Worn examples can be dirt cheap, but common dates can be had in the lower mint state grades for $50, sometimes even less.
As it stands, there has never been another Mint engraver who has designed two circulating copper coins apart from Mr. Longacre. His two-cent piece design may not be considered particularly eye-catching or overly artistic; but it is solid and did the job for years. There are quite a few rare dates among this denomination, but some common ones as well. Finding one should not be too tough, and in a grade like EF-40 many of them are not connected to big price tags.
Silver 3-cent piece
Our nation saw not one, but two different 3-cent coin designs in the middle of the nineteenth century – and Mr. Longacre is responsible for both of them. The silver 3-cent piece set a record when it came out: smallest silver coin the United States Mint ever issued, weighing only 0.80 grams at its debut. It was smaller than the much older half-dime, and only 75% silver. Based on the number of them that can be found with some serious wear on them, they may have received more and heavier use than the half-dimes. The good news among these small silver disks though is that plenty of them are available, and pretty affordable.
Nickel 3-cent piece
The nickel 3-cent pieces are another example of Longacre artwork that prove he was excellent at creating what might be considered a classical portrait. Issued from 1865 all the way to 1889, these pieces overlapped their earlier sibling for quite a while, since the silver 3-cent pieces came out of the gate in 1851 and were issued annually in some form until 1873. These little guys can be expensive in the mint state grades but are very affordable if we drop down to something like the MS-60 or AU-50 zone.
Mr. Longacre also had a hand in bringing forth the first of what we now call nickel coins – since five-cent pieces prior to the unveiling of the Shield nickels in 1866 were all known as half-dimes. There are plenty of common dates in the span of years from 1866 to 1878, and a couple of years in which only proofs were produced. Some folks are avid collectors of Shield nickels today. But even if we have always passed them by, the 28 million minted in 1867 and again in 1868 make those two dates very common.
Liberty Head gold dollar
The Seated Liberty design for half-dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars – the work of Mr. Christian Gobrecht – was well established by the time Mr. Longacre took the reins at the Mint, and thus the bigger denomination coins he designed completely are in gold (he modified the Gobrecht design by adding rays and arrows in 1853). The gold dollar was not part of the original Mint mandate, having been authorized only in 1849. In producing the design for this gold piece, Mr. Longacre ends up with another record under his belt: the smallest official gold coin for the growing nation. Each of these has only 0.04837 ounces of gold in them. The 1851, the 1852, and the 1853 are the most common of the lot, and each cost a bit under $300 today, in a grade like MS-60. A fun challenge here might be to see what date with a lower mintage still rings in at the same price, or one close to it.
Indian Princess Head $3 gold
From 1854 all the way to 1889, the United States Mint cranked out $3 gold pieces – although that crank was pretty slow. This is another Longacre design, and has had fans who crow about its beauty for decades now. But there is no such thing as a common issue for this denomination, as the 1854, the most “common,” only saw a production run of 138,618 coins. Even specimens of a $3 gold piece that show a small amount of wear still cost in the low thousands of dollars. That doesn’t mean they should be avoided. But it does mean we should save up, shop around, and be patient if we want one of these examples of Mr. Longacre’s work.
Liberty Head $20 double eagle
We can without a doubt remember James B. Longacre for his designs of several smaller denomination United States coins, but he also gets the credit for the biggest circulating coin the nation has ever seen. The Liberty Head, or Coronet, $20 gold pieces also sport the artistry of Mr. Longacre, and also were produced for nearly fifty years. As far as designs go, they sometimes take a back seat to the quite famous Augustus St. Gaudens image for the double eagle. But the amount of gold in each of them is the same, 0.96750 troy ounces. That amount of the precious metal ensures that Mr. Longacre’s artwork will at least continue to be traded for the value locked up in it. Today prices for common dates tend to be coupled to the price of gold metal on the world’s markets, at least when the coins are at the lower end of mint state, or maybe at the high end of the circulated grades, like AU.
A type set?
Putting together a type set of the designs of Mr. Longacre could be a neat challenge and a lot of fun, based on what we have looked at. Obviously, the double eagle will be the lion’s share of the cost, although the $3 gold pieces won’t be far behind. Yet despite the price tags for the gold, the common date $20 gold pieces are always available, as are some $3 pieces; and a person can save up for one or both of them.
Beyond these circulating United States coins, Mr. Longacre produced several patterns that did not make it to circulation. Perhaps one of the most striking is the Flying Eagle design, the same as that used on the circulating cents of 1857 and 1858 but used on large cent patterns from years just prior to that. Perhaps obviously, such patterns can be expensive. As well, a pattern Washington nickel is the work of Mr. Longacre, as is an attractive half dollar, dated 1859.
In an interesting twist, some sources note that Mr. Longacre also designed several of the silver and gold coins of Chile during the mid-nineteenth century. The United States was not in the business of producing coins for other nations at the time, and yet those in charge at the Mint eventually allowed Longacre to undertake the work. Thus, for someone who really wants the ultimate in a collection of Mr. Longacre’s coinage designs, we will have to look south of the border as well.
As we mentioned at the outset, many of us have favorites in terms of coin designs. It’s a fair bet that in the list we have produced, many a collector’s favorite has been touched upon – or maybe more than one. But even for those whose collecting interests lie elsewhere, we have seen that Mr. James Barton Longacre did a great deal in shaping what United States coinage looked like in the 1800’s. This could indeed make a fascinating type set.