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Which Gold Coins Are Popular and Why: Part One

BY Doug Winter – RareGoldCoins.com

A question that I am often asked by new collectors is “which gold coins are popular?” I think this is a great question and one certainly deserving of a blog. I’m going to not only answer this question for each denomination, I’m going to give a few reasons why I think certain coins/types are or are not popular.

I. Gold Dollars

People tend to be in one of two camps when it comes to gold dollars: they either love them or they hate them. This is mainly due to these coins small size. I am clearly in the “love ‘em” camp and have, over the years, handled many finest known and Condition Census pieces.

In my experience, the most popular gold dollars are the Dahlonega issues. Produced from 1849 through 1861, they are very collectible and a number of the issues are quite affordable. The most popular is the 1861-D which, at this point in time, is the single most popular gold dollar of any date. This is clearly due to this coins historic significance.

At one time, the Type Two issues were extremely popular with date collectors. But the values of the 1854 and 1855 Philadelphia issues have dropped considerably in recent years. At the same time, the branch mint issues of this design (1855-O, 1855-C, 1855-D and 1856-S) have become exceedingly popular.

Type Three gold dollars tend to be overlooked but offer the collector a number of very good values. The best known–and most popular–issue is the ultra-low mintage 1875.

II. Quarter Eagles

As a denomination, quarter eagles are fairly popular and they are clearly increasing in popularity each year.

The pre-1834 issues are all rare. They are not as popular as the half eagles and eagles of this era but there are a number of people who specialize in them and they are seldom overlooked when offered for sale. The most popular early dates are the 1796 No Stars and the 1808. Both are one-year types that have low original mintage figures.

The dates in the 1790’s are always popular due to their historic significance and their overall rarity. I am personally a big fan of the Capped Head Left type produced from 1821 to 1827. There are only five dates, and these are hard to locate in all grades.

The Classic Head quarter eagles have become quite popular in the last few years and I expect that they will continue to grow in stature as more becomes known about them. The branch mint issues are the most popular. None of these is really rare (except in the upper Mint State grades) and collectors appreciate the unique positioning of the mintmark on the obverse. There are a total of ten Classic Head issues.

The Liberty Head quarter eagle series is popular as it is one of the few 19th century gold series that can actually be completed. There are a few rarities: the 1841, 1854-S and 1863 are all six-figure coins and many of the branch mint issues are very rare in Uncirculated.

In my experience, the most popular Liberty Head quarter eagles are the Dahlonega issues. The rarest is the 1856-D. None are common in higher grades but this series can be completed with time and patience and this makes it popular with specialists.

The San Francisco quarter eagles seem to be the least popular issues of this type; discounting, of course, the very rare 1854-S. I attribute this lack of popularity to the fact that there is no published reference work on San Francisco gold. These coins tend to be relatively available in lower grades but nearly all of the issues from the 1850’s, 1860’s and the early 1870’s are very rare in Uncirculated.

The Indian Head quarter eagle series is probably the most familiar type of quarter eagle due to the availability of these coins. Unlike the 18th century issues, the Indian Head coins are readily available in higher grades.

For a number of years, this series was extremely popular due to an excellent promotional effort by one firm. This firm is no longer focusing as much attention on these coins and prices have dropped.

I personally like the design of the Indian Head quarter eagle and I find fresh, high grade examples to be very cosmetically appealing. But, to be honest, the availability of these coins make them a bit boring to me and I have never really found locating any of the dates to be enough of a challenge to get me interested.

III. Three Dollar Gold

The popularity of this odd denomination tends to ebb and flow. A few years, Threes were very popular with collectors. Today, they are not as popular and appear to be an excellent area for the contrarian.

My guess is that most people would agree with me that the 1854-D is, hands-down, the most popular issue in this series. It is the only Three from this mint and it has a small original mintage of 1,120. It is certainly the only date of this type that seems to have broad appeal outside of the realm of specialists.

The 1875 and 1876 are Proof-only issues that are rare and popular. But many three dollar collectors feel it is OK to exclude these from their set and focus exclusively on circulation strikes.

The ultimate three dollar is the 1870-S which is unique and housed in the ANA money museum in Colorado Springs. When and if this coin becomes available for sale, I would expect it to sell for a strong seven-figure price.

Some of the demand that was created for this denomination a few years ago was artificial as it was generated by telemarketers. I would expect that if a really nice specialized collection of three were to become available, new collectors would come back to this series and you’d see a more “pure” level of demand.

IV. Half Eagles

This denomination has incredible variety and breadth. Some collectors find it overwhelming while others appreciate the challenges afforded by the half eagle.

The early dates (pre-1834) are generally divided into two categories: the semi-affordable and the not-very-affordable. The Small Eagle coins from 1795 to 1798 include few of both. The most popular issue is the 1795 Small Eagle due to its status as the very first half eagle produced. It is can be found without a great effort.

The Heraldic Eagle type of 1795-1807 includes a number of great rarities but many of the issues (especially those struck after 1799) are available and surprisingly affordable. The Capped Bust Left type of 1807-1812 is very collectible and there are no “stopper” issues.

Almost nothing but “stoppers” can be found in the 1813-1829 Capped Head Left issues. The best known issue is the 1822 of which just three are known. Many of the other issues (like the 1815, 1819, 1821, 1825/4 and 1829 Large Date) are extremely rare and almost never offered for sale.

The reduced size Capped Head Left issues of 1829-1834 are also extremely rare, despite relatively high original mintage figures.

For many collectors, the earliest half eagles that they focus on are the Classic Heads of 1834-1838. I really like this series as it is short-lived, nicely designed and a nice bridge between the expensive “old gold” issues and the more ubiquitous Liberty Head coins. The two branch mint Classic Head half eagles (1838-C and 1838-D) are extremely popular but affordable and available in circulated grades.

Liberty Head half eagles are found with two types: the No Motto issues from 1839 through 1866 and the With Motto issues from 1866 to 1907.

No Motto half eagles range from not very popular to very popular. As one might expect, the most popular issues are those from the southern branch mints. The order of popularity seems to be Dahlonega solidly in the lead followed by New Orleans and lagged by Charlotte.

Branch mint No Motto half eagles tend to be seen usually in the Very Fine to Extremely Fine grades. Even the common dates tend to be hard to locate in properly graded About Uncirculated and all are scarce to rare in Uncirculated. I personally believe that there is some excellent value to be had with both the branch mint and Philadelphia No Motto issues, especially in higher grades.

The With Motto half eagles are less popular with collectors with one big exception: the Carson City issues that were produced from 1870 through 1893. The 1870-CC is far and away the most popular Carson City half eagle due to its status as the first year of issue from this mint.

There are a few very rare issues in the No Motto series including the 1875 and the 1887 but these tend to be somewhat overlooked due to the extreme availability of many of the post 1880 Philadelphia and San Francisco dates.

The final half eagle design is the attractive Indian Head made from 1908 to 1929. Despite this coin’s beauty, it is probably the least popular of the four “modern” 20th century gold series. I’d say part of this lack of popularity has to do with the rarity of many Indian Head half eagles in high grades. Even the most common Philadelphia dates are scarce in MS64 and above and nearly all of the San Francisco issues are very rare to extremely rare in MS64 and above.

The most popular Indian Head half eagle is the 1909-O. It is well-regarded due to its status as the only Indian Head half eagle from New Orleans.

In part two of this article, we’ll look at eagles and double eagles.

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