A Special $3 Gold Type Coin
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
An 1888 $3 gold coin is ‘in the news,’ as Heritage just sold a beautiful one for $34,500. It is graded 66 on a scale from 01 to 70. It was in the official auction of the Summer Florida United Numismatists (FUN) Convention, on July 13. This event should not be confused with the primary FUN convention that is always in January, usually in Orlando, though in Fort Lauderdale in 2005. The inaugural Summer event was held at the West Palm Beach Convention center.
This ‘Rarity of the Week’ is a ‘type coin’ that is best recognized for its quality and aesthetic characteristics. Because it is a ‘type coin,’ however, it should not be assumed that it is not rare. Plus, it is meaningful in other ways. While I have viewed other $3 gold coins of higher quality, there are very few that are as terrific looking as this 1888.
Although 1888 is one of the least rare dates in the Three Dollar Gold series (1854-89), it is not a common coin. Many collectors would be surprised to learn that the whole series is not common. There are probably fewer than twenty-two thousand Three Dollar Gold pieces in existence, and more than sixty percent of those are of just three dates, 1874, 1878 and 1854. My estimate of the total extant includes several thousand pieces that have problems that are too serious for them to qualify for certification by the two leading services, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and the Numismatic Guaranty Corp (NGC).
Consider that there are certainly more than a quarter-million 1904 Double Eagles ($20 gold coins) around today. There could exist more than one million 1924 Saint Gaudens Double Eagles, and two hundred thousand dated 1928. As a series, Three Dollar Gold pieces are particularly scarce.
There could be more than 100,000 1901-S Eagles in existence, most of which are worth just a modest premium over their bullion (gold) content. It would not be worthwhile to send such 1901-S Eagles to PCGS or NGC for certification. For a circulated or problematic, very common date, 20th century gold coin, the fee for PCGS or NGC certification would amount to a substantial percentage of the numismatic value of the coin. For these dates, therefore, PCGS and NGC data will not reflect a large number of coins that will never be submitted.
So, even the most common Three Dollar Gold piece is not all that common, especially when compared to 1901-S Eagles and to Double Eagles dated 1904, 1924 and 1928. Moreover, while type collectors only need one coin of each type for a type set, type collectors often prefer a date that is not the most common of the respective type.
Scarcer dates are more fun to acquire than relatively common ones. Generally, rare coin collecting involves the pursuit of rare coins not the passive ordering of common coins. As there are hundreds, or even thousands, more 1874 and 1878 Three Dollar gold coins than other dates in the series, it is unsurprising that most type coin collectors may find obtaining an 1874 or an 1878 to be just too easy.
What is a rare date? My definition of a Great Rarity and my definitions of other concepts of rarity, while personally formulated, are strongly consistent with the traditions of coin collecting in the United States. The concept of a Great Rarity is discussed in other CoinLink articles, including those on 1856-O Double Eagles and 1841 Quarter Eagles. There must be twenty-five or fewer coins of a particular date, including Proofs and business strikes, and including all die varieties, for that date to be a Great Rarity.
For silver coins dated before 1892 and gold coins dated before 1934, a date is extremely rare if there are fifty to one hundred in existence. For some series, the number fifty is applicable, and, for others, a maximum of one hundred is logical. A date is Very Rare if 150 to 250 exist. With some exceptions, the rule for a rare date is that there must be fewer than five hundred coins of the respective date in existence in the present. The concept of rarity is applied differently to Morgan silver dollars, nickels in general, silver coins of the 20th century, and most coins minted after 1934.
My rules of 25, 100, 250, and 500 as maxima for a Great Rarity, an Extremely Rare Date, a Very Rare date, and a rarity, respectively, relate to most 19th century business strike, U.S. coins. Logically, a different scale must be employed to gauge the rarity of die varieties, patterns, and Proofs considered separately from corresponding regular issues. A standard scale for this purpose is found in standard books on patterns and large cents.
While the 1888 Three Dollar Gold piece is one of the least rare dates in the series, there are much fewer 1888s than there are 1874s and 1878s. For a Three Dollar gold piece to be ‘rare,’ there must be fewer than five hundred extant of the respective date. It is very like that there are fewer than five hundred 1888 Threes. In contrast, there are probably more than five thousand 1878 Three Dollar gold pieces, a ratio of more than ten 1878s to every one 1888.
As for PCGS or NGC data regarding the numbers of Threes that have been graded, there is no easy way to explain how to interpret such data. In the case of the 1888, it is certain that disproportionate numbers of those submissions that have been graded AU-58 and MS-64 are indicative of numerous repeat submissions of a very much smaller group of coins. For $3 gold coins, especially dates that tend to survive with brilliant, lustrous fields, the difference between MS-64 and MS-65 is not as pronounced as it is for other coins from the mid to late 19th century, and, over the last seven years, quite a few Threes have been promoted from MS-64 to MS-65 grade. Many certified MS-64 Threes have been ‘cracked out’ and resubmitted by those who are hoping that such pieces will eventually grade MS-65.
Even though 1888 Threes are rare coins, they tend to sell for about the same, or modestly higher, prices as 1878 Threes, which are not rare. Are most dates in the series rarer than the 1888? Yes, of course they are, but 1888 is a good choice for a type set as it is much more elusive overall than the 1854, 1874 and 1878. The 1874, however, is certainly rarer than the 1888, condition-wise, in MS-64 and higher grades.
The MS-66 grade 1888 that was in the Summer FUN auction is PCGS certified. There are probably more than a dozen different 1888 Threes so certified. Only one or two different 1888 Threes are PCGS graded MS-67, and there are probably only twenty to twenty-two that are PCGS graded MS-67 for the whole series!
Some of the 1888 Threes that the NGC has graded MS-66 are the same as some of those that have been graded MS-66 by PCGS. I doubt that there are more than twenty-five different, PCGS or NGC graded MS-66 1888s in total, and maybe nowhere near that many. The NGC does not currently list any 1888s as grading MS-67. It is unlikely that most of those that have been graded MS-66 have the eye appeal of the one in the Summer FUN auction.
This 1888 Three definitely has the ‘look’ of a MS-67 grade coin. It has a few more imperfections, however, than would be expected of a MS-67 grade $3 coin. There are some light, medium-length lines on the face that are apparent, under magnification, at certain angles. There are a few other very light lines and shallow marks in several areas of the coin.
This 1888 Three is well struck, though I do not think that the coin has the “penetrating” strike that the cataloguer attributes to it. Certainly, I have seen many Threes that have considerably more detail.
A true MS-67 Three Dollar gold piece, of any date, would have a retail value between $80,000 and $110,000. So, this coin has marks, lines and weak areas that are commensurate with a MS-66 grade. It may have more eye appeal than several Threes that have been certified as MS-67.
This PCGS graded MS-66 1888, sold in the Summer FUN auction, has neat natural toning, especially light blue about the face and obverse (front) periphery. The orange-red color that predominates the coin, in more than one shade, is, I believe, this coin’s natural color as struck, rather than a color that came about by way of toning. Moreover, it has terrific, dynamic original luster. Indeed, the luster is both deep and rich plus sparkling and bright.
On many Three Dollar gold coins, and also on some coins of other denominations, there is a particular kind of lines on the fields of the Mint dies (which are used to strike the designs into blanks as they become coins). These ‘lines,’ which remind me of gentle folds in soft fabrics, result in the fields (open spaces) of the coins looking like they contain parts on multiple planes, neatly bordering each other. Of course, this result is just accidental. U.S. Mint personnel were not aiming to create any special effects on business strike $3 gold coins. Even so, this amazing result almost resembles some kind of ‘geometric style’ 20th century modern art.
I have noticed this visual effect on more than twenty-five Three Dollar gold coins. It is not always terrific. This 1888 Three, though, is so bright and alive, anyway, that the additional effect of light being reflected at different angles by adjacent shapes in the fields is mesmerizing.
As type collectors are not seeking the rarest dates, coins that are somewhat or moderately rare with natural surfaces and terrific looks are well suited for quality-oriented type sets. For those who cannot afford to spend $34,500, it may not be too difficult to locate an MS-64, or even an AU-55 to -58 grade Three that has lively, original luster.
It would be most accurate to say that this 1888 has gorgeous color and is dazzling overall. While a dipped “MS-66 grade” Three, or one with fewer imperfections, may be available for substantially less money, the lucky buyer should be glad that he only had to pay $34,500 for this coin. It is truly special.
© 2007 Greg Reynolds
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About the Author
Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.