When the subject of collecting gold coins is discussed, most often the subject centers around later U.S. issues such as Saint-Gaudens double eagles, the incused Indian half and quarter eagles, or the long-lived Liberty issues. People frequently communicate stories about how their grandmother saved one of these coins after receiving it for a birthday or Christmas gift years ago. These coins are widely collected for type sets and are generally available in the current numismatic marketplace.
This article will focus on an entirely different area of American numismatics - early gold issues prior to 1835. These coins form the nucleus of gold coin collecting for the advanced collector or investor. None are more interesting and, at the same time, elusive than the early years of gold coinage, 1795 to 1834.
Now for some history regarding these important early issues. On April 2, 1792 legislation was passed called the United States Coinage Act of 1792. Section 9 of this Act states:
And it shall be further enacted, That there shall be from time to time struck and coined at the said mint, coins of gold, silver, and copper, of the following denomination, values and descriptions, viz. Eagles - each to be of the value of ten dollars or units, and to contain two hundred and forty-seven grains and four eights of a grain of pure, or hundred and seventy grains of standard gold. Half Eagles - each to be the value of five dollars, and to contain one hundred and twenty-three grains and six eights of a grain of pure, or one hundred and thirty-five grains of standard gold. Quarter Eagles - each to be the value of two dollars and a half dollar, and to contain sixty-one grains and seven eights of a grain of pure, or sixty-seven grains and four eights of a grain of standard gold.
Although passed in 1792, it was more than three years before America's first gold coin was struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Simply put, the infrastructure was not there - land was purchased and cleared for the new Mint. Coining machinery and refining equipment was purchased and installed. In 1793, the Mint was ready to begin production, but only copper coins could be authorized as three key officials had not obtained surety bonds, these being necessary to produce silver or gold coins. This became a time-consuming process and was not overcome until 1795.
Finally, on July 31, 1795, the first half eagles ($5.00 coins) were delivered. By the end of September, 1796, the Mint had produced 1,297 eagles, 8,707 half eagles, and 66 quarter eagles per the December 20, 1796 Report of the Director of the Mint. Our early American forefathers were very proud of this humble beginning with the relatively small output of glittering golden coinage.
The Mint's first chief engraver was Robert Scot who had the task of creating the dies for our first gold coin production. Each die was unique as they were literally handmade. After a punch for the major device was impressed into a working die, the stars, letters, and numerals were later punched into the die by hand. These handmade dies were an expensive commodity and were often recycled for use on a later issue. In those early days, it was a fairly common practice to simply punch a new digit of a date over an earlier one, thus an overdate variety.
In the 19th century, numismatists of the time collected date sets of gold coins, few ever collected by mint, and virtually none by die variety. Famous collectors of the 1800s and 1900s such as Randall, Adams, Clapp, Woodin, Brand, and Green amassed great holdings, but paid little attention to the subtleties of varieties (except the most major ones), much less die states. In 2006, an important reference book titled Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties, A Study of Die States 1795-1834 by John Dannreuther and Harry Bass, Jr. was published that has become the generally accepted reference of early U.S. gold coins. Die varieties are listed by number which is most often referred to as the "BD" number when cataloging early gold coins.
Early quarter eagles are divided into five general groups:
- No Stars - 1796
- Stars on Obverse - 1796-1807
- Capped Bust (Left) - 1808
- Capped Bust Left (Large Diameter) - 1821-1827
- Capped Bust Left (Reduced Diameter) - 1829-1834
From the rare 1796 No Stars issue to the final date of the early quarter eagle series, the 1834 Motto, all of these small gold coins are either very scarce or rare. Less than 65,000 total quarter eagles were struck during this entire time period, few of these still remain today. Expect to spend well over $5,000 for a well worn (Fine) specimen of the later Reduced Diameter type, earlier types are considerably more expensive.
The first gold coins struck for the United States were delivered per Warrant 1 on July 31, 1795. The fledgling American democracy needed to impress the rest of the world and promote general acceptance of its new coinage for trade and compete with the then dominant currencies of the world - Great Britain, France, and Spain. This group of half eagles consisted of 744 coins, and once delivered, became the first gold coins of the realm. Careful scrutiny was exercised to ensure these coins possessed the correct gold content and maintained a high quality standard.
Early half eagles are generally divided into five groups:
- Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle - 1795-1798
- Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle - 1795-1807
- Capped Bust Left - 1807-1812
- Capped Head Left, Large Diameter - 1813-1829
- Capped Head Left, Reduced Diameter - 1829-1834
The 1795 - 1807 Heraldic Eagle issues are generally available in VF grades for under $5,000, the earlier Small Eagle types are much more expensive. Expect to pay upwards of $23,000 for a nice VF example. The most widely collected are the Capped Bust Left 1807-1812 coins, these generally costing under $4,000 in VF and being readily available in grade ranges from Fine to Mint State. All of the Capped Head Left (1813 - 1834) are either very scarce or rare. Generally expect to pay over $5,000 for any example in VF with the Reduced Diameter coins of 1829 - 1834 costing over $25,000 in that grade.
Early eagles, (ten dollar gold coins) do not bear any reference to denomination on either side, as did half eagles and quarter eagles prior to 1808. Our forefathers traded gold by the tale, meaning count or tally, a number of things taken together; for example, the weight and purity of a gold coin. This was all that was important to a trader or banker of the time - actual weight and measure, regardless of what it said on the coin. In most cases, financial transactions had to be settled in gold, especially when governments were involved. There was no need for a stated denomination on gold (or silver) coins, as it was known that America's coins would be under close scrutiny and would likely be assayed by foreign mints and others as to their weight and purity. The gold eagle was equal to 10 silver dollars although they exhibited no denomination until the resumption of production in 1838.
Early eagles are divided into just two groups:
- Small Eagle - 1795-1797
- Heraldic Eagle - 1797-1804
All Small Eagle varieties are rare with prices starting in the mid-five figure range for a nice VF example. The Heraldic Eagle coins are much more available, but still expect to pay over $10,000 for a VF piece.
As stated earlier, Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties by Dannreuther and Bass is an outstanding reference book containing the most in-depth information about these coins available today. Another good reference book on gold coins is the Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795 - 1933 by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. I encourage anyone interested in collecting or investing early U.S. gold coinage to acquire these two books.