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Proof 1863 Three Dollar Coin Deserves Attention

Three dollar gold coins were minted from 1854 to 1889. Three dollar gold coins and one dollar gold coins were the first issues to depict an American Indian, or a portrait that is generally interpreted as being an ‘Indian.’ Indeed, she is often referred to as an ‘Indian Princess’!

A Proof $3 gold coin dated 1863 became ‘news’ when it was auctioned on Feb. 13 by the firm of Ira and Larry Goldberg, at the Crowne Plaza Beverly Hills. The Goldbergs auction was held just prior to the Long Beach (CA) coin, stamp and collectible expo, Feb. 15 to 17. This 1863 proof three is certified Proof-65 Cameo by the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. Coins that grade ‘65′ or higher are gems.

1863 $3.00 US Gold coin
1863 $3 Gold. NGC graded Proof 65 Cameo

While it is rarer than several of the Proof $3 gold issues of the 1880s, it is far from being the rarest proof three. Indeed, it is widely believed that at least half a dozen dates are rarer in proof format. Nonetheless, 1863 dated coins were minted while the Civil War was raging, and coin collecting was just ‘taking off.’ Three or four great collections of U.S. coins had been formed, and several others were in their infancy. A Proof 1863 three has more historical and cultural significance than most other dates in the series.

Proof 1863s may be much rarer than most advanced collectors and dealers realize. The widely reported mintage figure of thirty-nine may not be accurate, or could be misleading as some could have been melted for future gold issues. The totals reported by the NGC and the Professional Coin Grading Service probably include a large number of resubmissions.

I am not convinced that the PCGS and the NGC have certified more than ten different Proof 1863 three dollar gold coins. Auction records are few and far between, and also include repeat appearances of some of the same coins.

John J. Pittman was a specialist in early proof silver and gold coins, and he collected all series by date up to a point that varied among series. If a 19th century date was very rare in proof format, but not nearly as rare in business strike format, then he certainly sought to obtain a proof example.

In 1998, when David Akers auctioned Pittman’s proof $3 gold coins, an 1854, an 1856, an 1867, an 1869, an 1872 and an 1876 were featured. Pittman did not, however, have a proof 1863!

B&M, a division of Spectrum, auctioned a proof 1863, also NGC certified Proof-65 Cameo, in October 2004. It was formerly in the Rod Sweet collection, according to the online catalogue. Although I never saw this coin, the very good images at the firm’s website suggest it might be approximately equal to the one that the Goldbergs just auctioned. It does seem certain that it is a different coin. I wish I had seen it.

As there are so few people who have collected proof threes by date, much pedigree research has not been done regarding several dates. As the 1875, 1876, and 1873 ‘Open 3′, are proof-only issues, these get much more attention than the 1863. Traditionally, a collector who could not find a proof 1863 would then just buy a business strike, which is not that rare. In contrast, collectors of business strikes often enjoy obtaining examples of the proof-only dates, and thus add to the attention that these proof-only dates receive.

Buyers of proof threes tend to be type coin collectors, speculators, or connoisseurs of gold coinage. Further, there is the occasional collector who seeks cool, trophy coins and tends to make acquisitions in a whimsical manner. Someone who collects coins by ‘design type’ rather than by date, or variety, needs only one example of each type for a set.

Often, type coin collectors find that acquiring one of the least rare examples of a particular series is just too easy, and not enough fun. A Gem Proof-65 example of one of the least rare dates in proof could be obtained for less than $35,000, in a very short period of time. At any major show, there is likely to be more than one dealer or an auction that is offering a Proof-65 $3 gold coin. Gem quality examples of dates from the 1880s appear frequently enough such that a collector would not have to wait very long to buy one for a type set, perhaps just hours.

$3 gold 1863 from the Goldberg Auction #39
1863 $3 Goldberg Auction #39 Lot 2221

Type coin collectors probably makeup most of the demand for the proof 1863 that the Goldbergs just auctioned. Also, its Proof-65 Cameo certification is appealing to someone who is buying just one proof three dollar coin.

Proofs with a cameo contrast are usually, though not always, more highly desired than proofs with a more uniform finish. Before 1908, the design elements (devices) on all regular issue U.S. coins, and their proof counterparts, were raised during striking; they were struck in relief. Design elements include the central portraits, such as Miss Liberty, an Indian Princess or an eagle, plus wreaths, stars, numerals, rays, and letters.

The design elements are higher than the fields, which are relatively flat surfaces that surround the design elements. If the design elements on a proof coin are given a milky, frosted finish at the Mint, and the fields are given a substantial mirror finish, then the respective coin has at least some cameo contrast.

Both the Professional Coin Grading Service and the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. will attach a ‘cameo’ designation to proofs with considerable cameo contrast. If the cameo contrast is exceptionally strong, then PCGS will label such a coin “Deep Cameo,” while NGC employs the term, “Ultra Cameo.”

In the PCGS and NGC registries, there are no serious current collections of proof three dollar gold pieces. Of the four extensive collections listed by PCGS, three were assembled by collectors who have been dead for years. They are Louis Eliasberg, Sr., Ed Trompeter, and Harry W. Bass. Eliasberg’s gold coins were auctioned by Bowers & Ruddy in 1982. Some of Trompeter’s coins were auctioned in 1992, probably including his proof 1863, and all the others were sold privately at a later time.

Most of Bass’s coins were auctioned by B&M (New Hampshire) in 1999 and 2000, though the core of his collection remains intact and at least some of it is on display at the ANA museum. A complete set of three dollar gold coins is part of the Bass core collection, including the unique 1870-S. Bass did not have a proof 1855-S three, which will be the topic of a future article.

The fourth “collection” mentioned in the PCGS registry is not really an assembled collection. It is the set of proof threes that is part of the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution.

PCGS officials have “estimated” that the Bass 1863 three dollar gold piece would be certified as Proof-67 Cameo if it were submitted to PCGS. Evidently, one or more PCGS officials or associates viewed it. Likewise, the Eliasberg 1863 is “estimated” to grade Proof-65 Cameo, and the Smithsonian’s example is “estimated” to be Proof-64 Deep Cameo. For estimated grades in the PCGS registry, it would be more educational if the names of those who formulated the ‘estimates’ along with the respective dates of the ‘estimates’ were itemized.

It is said that Trompeter’s 1863 has been PCGS certified Proof-64, in 1992? Could the Trompeter piece have been ‘cracked out’ and resubmitted without any mention of Trompeter’s name by a dealer who was hoping it would upgrade to Proof-65?

Also, could the Eliasberg Proof 1863 have been submitted in recent years by a dealer who did not know that he was submitting the Eliasberg piece, or was unsure? If so, it could be one of the coins that is currently listed in the PCGS population report.
B&M October 2004 – Rod Sweet Collection, Part II Lot 561

Is there really solid evidence of more than ten different proof 1863s existing? A plausible case could be made that there are fifteen or more. But, there are not images and pedigree records to prove it. In any event, it does seem that there are two to four that are of higher quality than the piece that the Goldbergs just auctioned.

The existence of finer examples does not dampen my enthusiasm for this coin. It is a mid-range to high end 65. There is a small cluster of contact marks and short scratches from a light to moderate cleaning of a small portion of the coin. These marks, between the Indian Princess’s chin and the letters ‘UNI’ of United, are the only imperfections that are readily apparent to the naked eye. Such imperfections are normal for a Proof-65, though they certainly could not exist on a properly graded Proof-68 coin.

Under five-times magnification, very light crisscrossing hairlines can be seen in the inner fields on both sides. Such hairlines are typically found on 19th century proof gold, and are usually longer and deeper than those found on this coin. Indeed, most Proof-65 grade gold coins have more noticeable hairlines than can be seen on this coin.

The cluster of very small marks, just mentioned above, probably prevented this coin from grading 66. Otherwise, it may have the technical merit and aesthetic requirements of a 66 grade coin. There is no doubt about it deserving a Proof-65 Cameo certification.

The ‘cameo’ contrast is bold. The design elements (devices) were frosted white at the Philadelphia Mint, and have toned a pleasing tan color over time. The originally ‘black’ mirrored fields have toned a color that I call ‘deep russet.’ This color is very often found on proof gold, and it is hard to describe.

This ‘deep russet’ does not look exactly like the color of any autumn leaves. I understand that others may dispute my choice of words for this color. Nevertheless, among terms that are widely understandable, ‘deep russet’ is the best label for this color that comes to my mind. Suggested alternatives are welcome. In any case, this ‘deep russet’ is a very appealing natural tone. Like most characteristics of high quality coins, it needs to be seen to be appreciated.

When this Proof 1863 three is tilted under a light, it becomes stunningly apparent that its fields have full, very strong and thick mirrors! These mirrors show great signs of life and dynamically flash back at anyone who properly views the coin.

On the whole, this Proof 1863 $3 coin is very attractive plus. Each time I encounter a pre-1870 coin that is well preserved, I am fascinated. Many other coins have endured a lot of painful experiences since 1863! It is lucky, as is its buyer. While $51,750 is a strong price, it is a coin that deserves attention.

© 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.

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