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Gold Bargains: Five Great Possibilities
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
April 30, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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If you are still feeling the pinch of a tight economy, adding gold coins to your collection might seem the lowest of all your priorities. After all, even the tenth-ounce gold American Eagles are going to cost about $200 per coin. But believe it or not, there are still U.S. gold coins you can collect that will not bankrupt you and will add value to your collection. 

I will avoid the high ticket, high interest items in favor of finding a select group that is hiding far from the limelight. Here are a fistful of examples of U.S. gold that is worth having.

Gold one dollar pieces. The design work of this smallest of circulating gold coins of the United States is that of James Longacre. Arguably, this is one of his lesser remembered pieces, but the image is still an attractive version of Liberty. And since the denomination only ran from 1849-1854 before there was a design change, one might think that all of these early gold $1 pieces are impossible to find. Not so. The 1851, 1852, and 1853, all from the Philadelphia Mint, each came out to the tune of millions of coins. Today they aren’t too hard to find, and each costs a bit over $300 in Mint State-60.

Now, the price of these three most common gold $1 pieces brings up two points. First, even with only 0.0484 ounces of gold per coin, these prices are not many times that of the gold metal. Second, as with many series of U.S. coins, it gives us a baseline from which to gauge how affordable any and all of the less common dates and mintmarks are.

For example, the 1854-D (that’s Dahlonega, Ga., not Denver, Col.) had a mintage of only 2,935 and a single one will cost close to $13,000 in Mint State-60. That’s not a bargain. But the 1850, with a mintage of only 481,953 coins, costs virtually the same as the three most common dates I just mentioned. That’s a bargain any way you look at it.

The gold $1 piece saw two design changes before it went the way of the dodo bird, in 1889. But in that span of years and designs there are plenty of other dates worth looking at when it comes to lower mintages and lower prices. Look at the price listings in an issue of Coins magazine, and make a short list of your own. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what this series holds.

Gold $3s. If $1 gold pieces just seem too small for your thirst for the yellow metal, move up to another odd denomination, the gold $3. The design was again by Longacre. The gold weight is a heftier 0.1451 ounces, and the series ran from 1854-1889 with no design changes.

But this series gets the oddball designation not because of its denomination, but rather because of its output. I just mentioned that the most common gold $1 pieces had mintages in the low millions. The highest date in the entire gold $3 series is the 1854—and it is the sole date for which there were more than 100,000 pieces minted.

Yes, this entire series, spread out over more than 40 years, never had another date that even made it into the six-figure zone when it came to production. That fact, and the fact that any coin in this series is not priced through the roof, makes the series one of interest.

But let’s use the same technique to compare that 1854 gold $3 piece, with its 138,618 output, to any other date or mintmark in the bunch. An MS-60 specimen will cost more than $2,500. But if you step down just a bit, to Extremely-40, the price plummets to about $1,150. Now, as before, if we look at some extremely rare date, like the 1883 with only 989 pieces to its total, we find that the EF-40 price is about $1,600.

Most of us know that one of the extreme rarities of United States coinage is right in the middle of this series. The 1870-S is unique. But beyond that, few of us dig into the details of this set of U.S. gold coins. This one example indicates that it might be worth educating ourselves about the prices of these gold pieces.

The 1883 is not an isolated case. There are quite a few dates within the series that are available, even though their mintages would make them key dates in other series.

Coronet gold $5s. Moving from the quite rare to the quite common, the Coronet Head gold $5s are the first coin I’m listing that wasn’t a Longacre design, it was Christian Gobrecht’s work. Issued from 1839-1908, there are enough common dates within this long series that a person could have fun assembling a short set of these gold $5 pieces.

It took until 1880 for a single mintage to break the 1 million mark, but when it did so, it did so with style—coming in at 3.1 million. Any way you stack them, that’s a lot of gold $5s.

There is almost a quarter ounce of gold in each of the Coronet $5 pieces (0.2419 ounces), and that means the metal factors into the cost, even of the most common dates. If gold sells at $1,600 per ounce, these gold $5s each have $387 of the metal in them. So, when you hear that the common dates cost about $500 in MS-60, that’s a very good price for a gold piece that has at least a century of history behind it.

As with the gold $3 pieces, this series is long enough that a person could make lists of which dates and mintmarks are scarce enough, or rare enough, that the prices should be much higher than the common dates. But as before, there are plenty of dates that buck the trend and have lower price tags than one might imagine.

To give three examples of what I’m discussing, look at the 1901-S Coronet gold $5 piece, with its mintage of 3.6 million coins, and the 1902, 1903, and 1906-D (this time for Denver).

The 1906-D has the highest mintage of the latter three, with 320,000 to its tally. The 1902 is the lowest, with only 172,562 coins on the ledger. Yet in MS-60 the very common 1901-S costs about $500. So do all the other three. That’s eye opening, and that may not be the only three examples. Check for more.

1915 Panama Pacific Exposition gold dollar. There have been plenty of other gold coins made by the U.S. Mint besides those that grease the wheels of everyday commerce. I’m talking about commemorative coins.

While the series started in 1892, in 1915 the Panama-Pacific Exposition was honored with a range of gold and silver coins. There are probably enough articles about the enormous gold $50 pieces to make a book, but the humble gold $1 piece has had much less ink spilled concerning its value, look, and its being collected.

The quick facts on the Pan-Pac gold $1 are that only 15,000 were made, it’s not the most common of the classic $1 commemorative gold pieces, and it costs just over $600 in MS-60. Compared to the other gold $1 pieces that were issued from 1903-1922, for a variety of different themes, this coin remains a very good buy.

1988 Olympics gold $5. With all this discussion of some classic coins, it may seem odd to sneak one of the modern commemoratives onto this list. Well, there’s a reason, and it’s the exact same one I’ve had for the other four we have just looked at: price. But there’s a secondary reason that is just as good: beauty.

The 1988 Olympics gold $5 was by Mint chief engraver Elizabeth Jones, and it really does deserve a place among the world’s most beautiful coins. By 1988, the U.S. Mint had been back into the commemoratives business for six years.

There had already been a dramatic gold $5, meaning the 1986 Statute of Liberty piece. But there was also already dissatisfaction with the program in that the 1988 Olympic Games weren’t held in the United States. Plenty of collectors groused that commemorating games in another country was the sort of thing that Third World nations did, because they would never be able to host the games. The feeling was that numismatists were being asked to be the cash cows for this set of Olympics. And so the mintage figures dropped.

That Statue of Liberty gold $5 had mintages of 95,248 for the uncirculated pieces and 404,013 for the proofs. The 1988 Olympics gold $5 saw corresponding numbers of 62,913 and 281,456.

Clearly, enthusiasm for the program had started to wane. But this less common gold $5 sports the same price tag—$442 in either uncirculated or proof—as the more common one. And it is truly beautiful.

It has become an oft-told collector story that President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign U.S. coinage so that it would look as beautiful as that of the ancient Greek coins of the various city states. One can easily claim that Jones accomplished part of the mission that Saint-Gaudens began, as this coin has a truly classic beauty to it. Coupled with a wonderful price tag, this coin is definitely worth adding to any collection of gold, old or new.

Whenever I make a list like this, there are some coins that invariably are left off. That’s not an intentional snub of a design, a denomination, or a commemorative theme. It’s simply a matter of making the educated guess as to which coins are the most undervalued right now and which ones are farthest off the collective radar screens of most collectors. In short, this fistful of coins is a compendium of items worth buying, that you can add to or delete from, as you wish. Enjoy hunting for them, but also enjoy making your own golden list of gold coins.

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