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The $3 Gold Pieces: When an Entire Series is Rare

Often overlooked by collectors, the set of U.S. $3 gold coins may reign supreme when it comes to a combination of low mintages and unexpectedly low prices.
1854 $3. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

1854 $3. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Everyone in our hobby likes rare coins. We also always like to find some undervalued rarity, a sleeper, as it were. Yet the two seldom both fit the description of a single coin. The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, for example. It’s both a rarity and a key to the long, Lincoln cent series. With 484,000 of them as the official total, and with their track record as a key coin, they will never be particularly cheap, though. Or the 1916-D Mercury dime, to single out another favorite. Sporting a Mint tally of 264,000 of this special ten-cent piece, this key dime will always be available, but will never be all that affordable. But what about a series in which the entire run of every coin minted for over thirty-year totals only 537,913? Wouldn’t these be insanely expensive? We might think so, and yet we may be pleasantly surprised. Let’s focus our gaze on an oft-overlooked set of United States coins. Let’s stare for a moment at the $3 gold pieces.

The $3 gold piece was certainly not one of the original denominations for United States gold coins. Rather, it was authorized by Congress in 1853, and the design – the artistry of Mr. James Longacre – was first unveiled in 1854. Several of the standard references call the design an “Indian Princess” because of the headdress; but the design does not seem to be that of a Native American woman. Overall, though, collectors and enthusiasts tend to consider this a very attractive example of Mr. Longacre’s work.

As with several other United States coins series, the $3 gold pieces came roaring out of the gate its first year, in 1854, with a total of 138,618 pieces coming from the main Mint in Philadelphia. That roar certainly might not seem like much today, but it would prove to be the single biggest production run for the series. By way of comparisons for first years, only five years later, in 1859, the Indian Head cent saw a first annual issue of 36.4 million pieces; and in 1864 the brand new two-cent piece came out in a rush of 19.8 million coins. So it certainly appears that the folks at the Mint had the capability of hammering out far more coins than they chose to when it comes to the $3 gold pieces. Whether this much smaller mintage was a matter of not having the gold on hand, or a perception that folks would not like the new design, or some other reason, is now a forgotten piece of history. What is not forgotten is that in 1850 Philadelphia had a population of 340,045 according to the official Census. That means these new gold pieces could not have been all that common even circulating in the Mint’s backyard.

1854-D $3 gold piece. This type has the low mintage of only 1,120 (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

1854-D $3 gold piece. This type has the low mintage of only 1,120 (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Believe it or not, there were a few branch Mint additions for the first year of the $3 gold pieces. The 1,120 pieces added by the small branch Mint at Dahlonega, Georgia that first year – the only ones bearing the ‘D’ in the entire series – represent one of the insanely hard to find rarities within the series. The 24,000 that were anted up by the branch Mint in New Orleans that year are also rare, but by the standard of this series, they are one of the top ten in terms of production.

The very next year, 1855, saw the mintage from Philadelphia drop to just a bit more than 50K pieces. But that was also the same year that the very young branch Mint on the West Coast got into the game, even if only a bit. There are 6,600 of the $3 gold pieces bearing the ‘S’ mint mark for that year.

We can be forgiven for thinking that the 1855-S is a $3 gold piece that is almost as rare and valuable as the 1854-D, since their mintages are not all that far apart. But for anyone who wants to dive deeply into this set of gold pieces, we’ll find quickly that there are plenty of years in the span from 1854 to 1889 when 6,600 coins represents an almost healthy output. Plenty of years had tallies of less than 5K coins, and a handful have totals that are less than a thousand. There are also two years during which only proofs were produced – the 1875’s and the 1876’s. And there is one year for which the number one actually applies. Yes, in 1870 the folks in San Fran pounded out exactly one of these little $3 pieces. Strangely, some of the well-established references list a price for it, with one claiming it to be worth $3.5 million, and another claiming it to be worth $5 million. It’s a fair bet that most of us don’t have a wad of money like that stuffed in a very large sock somewhere, and so couldn’t bid on it, even in the rare event that it was for sale.

With this astonishing line-up of rare $3 gold pieces, we can only wonder what sort of collection a person of average means might be able to assemble, and how much it would cost. A logical way to approach this is probably to look at the five most common dates and see just what we’d have to pony up for each of them. From the most common downward we have the already-mentioned 1854, then the 1878 with 82,304 to its tally, followed by the 1855 with 50,555, then followed by the 1874 with 41,800 as its total, with the 1856-S coming in fifth with 34,500 pieces. All of these are far less common than the better-known rarities in plenty of U.S. coin series. In a lower mint state condition, each of these “common” $3 pieces will run a few thousand dollars. But in an interesting twist, four of the five cost just less than $1,000 in a grade such as EF-40. The 1856-S costs a bit more, most likely because of the apparently eternal love affair we collectors have for just about any coin minted in San Francisco.

These prices are definitely not pocket change, but they do stop and give a person pause. That just mentioned 1874 is three times less common than the 1854, and has a total that would be considered screechingly rare in just about any other series. Yet it costs the same as its more common sibling. Looking through the price guides again, we can find some others that are even less common, but that still are about the same price. The 1856 from Philly is a good example. Only 26,010 were coined, yet one of these doesn’t cost any more than the other five we have just listed.

To take this type of comparison to a perhaps absurd extreme, the 1866 and the 1868 are two dates within the $3 gold piece series that saw tiny mintages – of 4,000 and 4,850 respectively. Yes, they do cost more in a grade like EF-40 than the dates we have just looked at. But each rings in at only about $1,500 in this grade. Assuming we can find one at that price, what a piece to add to any collection.

When a set of coins this rare still commands prices that are far below the proverbial king’s ransom, it doesn’t take too much to conclude that what we have on our hands is an entirely under-collected series. Mr. Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins makes the comment that early on, “many three-dollar gold pieces were saved by speculators,” which is as good a reason as any as to why we can still find them in good states of preservation today. But even this doesn’t really explain why downright rare coins within the series are not connected with sky-high prices.

All things considered, yes, virtually every collector enjoys hunting for and owning rare coins. We all tend to know where the rare dates and mint marks are within our favorite series. But when an entire series of coins is overlooked by the majority of the collecting community, it seems the possibility exists of some good buys, even for some rare dates. The $3 gold pieces may reign supreme when it comes to this combination of low mintages and unexpectedly low prices.