By Doug Winter – RareGoldCoins.com ………
While it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about the survival rate of Proof United States gold coinage, some factors exist that help to determine the rarity of many issues. It is interesting to analyze these factors and apply them to the various denominations.
For the most part, Proof gold coins have small mintage figures. With the exception of some of the later date Type Three gold dollars, most issues had fewer than 100 struck and nearly all of the pre-1880 issues have mintages of 50 or less.
As a good rule of thumb, it is a safe assumption that around half of the original mintage figure for a specific issue of Proof gold is known. In other words, if the original mintage of an 1876 gold dollar is 45 coins, it is likely that 20-25 are known today.
What are the factors that exist that make a Proof gold coin more or less common than its mintage figure would suggest? These include the following:
1. External Economic Factors: During hard economic times, Proof gold coins may have been melted or spent. As an example, in the Depression of the 1930’s, Proof eagles and double eagles were spent as they were not worth a significant amount above face value. Other periods of economic hardship that saw a reduction of Proof gold populations include the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, the Depression of 1873-1878 and the Panic(s) of 1893 and 1907. I believe that this had a very large impact on Proof gold survival rates.
2. Coin Size: This actually works both ways. As mentioned above, during tough economic times, small coins are more apt to survive than large coins. But, a coin as small as a gold dollar is more likely to be “lost” than one as large as a double eagle. Both factors certainly contribute to survival rates of Proof gold.
3. Popularity of the Denomination: Although this is more speculation than fact, I would presume that denominations that have traditionally not been popular with collectors (gold dollars and three dollars) have been more susceptible to loss than more popular denominations such as eagles and double eagles.
4. Hoarding: Certain Proof gold issues were hoarded by contemporary dealers and collectors. This tends to inflate their survival rate. The Proof gold issues most affected by contemporary hoarding include gold dollars and three dollar gold pieces from the 1880’s. It is interesting to note that mintage figures for these two denominations reached record highs during this era; this was a direct result of contemporary speculator demand.
5. Restrikes: Not all Proof gold coins are as rare as their mintage figures would indicate. As an example, PCGS and NGC have combined to grade far more 1875 and 1876 Three Dollar gold pieces than the reported original mintage figures. While the slabbed population is clearly inflated by resubmissions, many collectors are not aware of the fact that the reported original mintage figures of 20 and 45, respectively, does not take into consideration a number of Restrikes that were produced by the U.S. Mint in order to placate collector demand for these two rare issues. Other years with potential Restrikes include 1865 and 1873.
6. Mint Melting/Mint Record Errors: Certain mintage figures for Proof gold coins just seem to make no sense. As an example, the reported mintage for Proof gold dollar and three dollar gold pieces in 1861 is reported to be 349 coins; the highest figure for these two denominations until the 1880’s. It has traditionally been assumed that the Mint was way too optimistic in producing Proofs this year and most were melted at the end of 1861 when they went unsold. I personally would not be surprised if these figures actually represented an error. Another year that has a skewed mintage figure is 1859, the first year of “modernity” for United States Proof gold. The Mint struck 80 examples of all gold denominations, in anticipation of strong demand in the booming new hobby of coin collecting. This proved to be way too optimistic and the vast majority was melted. Another “problem year” is 1910 which has much higher mintages than any other Indian Head design. I believe that the published figures are in error.
Given these six factors, how do they impact the specific denominations of Proof gold coins? My experience with each denomination is as follows:
The dates from the 1850’s and 1860’s tend to be very rare in all grades. However, the survival rate of these coins is much higher than expected with the exception of the 1859-1861 dates (whose inflated mintages figures were discussed above under Factor #6). The issues from the 1870’s typically have survival rates of around 50% of the original mintage. The 1880’s Proofs are a real anomaly. From 1884 to 1889, the mintages exceeded 1,000; a huge number of coins by Proof gold standards. But the survival rate is likely between 10 and 20% for each of these. I would ascribe this to numerous coins getting melted in the lean economic years of the early to mid-1890’s.
With the exception of the famous 1841 and 1863 issues, virtually all pre-1870 Proof quarter eagles are extremely rare and most have fewer than ten survivors. The issues from the 1870’s tend to have survival rates of around 50% while the 1880’s and 1890’s seem to be a bit more available in terms of their original mintage. The 1900’s Liberty Head issues have survival rates as high as 75%. Indian Head quarter eagles have an average survival rate of 50% (+/- 10%).
The issues from the 1850’s are extremely rare in Proof and all have low mintages. The 1860’s and 1870’s issues have average survival rates of around 50% (the exceptions to this are the 1860 and 1861 which had significant meltings) and the 1875 and 1876 (see Factor #5 above). The 1880’s dates mostly have survival rates in the 50-60% range.
Stellas are really a separate story in and of themselves. Many of the 1879 Flowing Hairs were saved as souvenirs (see Factor #4) and Restrikes exist. The other three issues appear to have survival rates of around 50%.
With the exception of the 1864 (which had a “whopping” mintage of 50), all No Motto half eagles in Proof are exceedingly rare. The With Motto issues from the 1860’s and 1870’s typically have survival rates of well under 50%; some issues (such as the 1870, 1871, 1874 and 1878) have survival rates that are probably less than 25%. With one or two exceptions, the dates from the 1880’s have also survived with less frequency than one might assume. Most of the 1890’s and 1900’s dates have survival rates of around 50% (+/- 10%). Indian Head half eagles are scarcer on a relative basis than their quarter eagle counterparts and I’d estimate that 30-40% of the original mintage exists.
Virtually all No Motto eagles are exceedingly rare in Proof. The With Motto Proofs from the 1860’s and the 1870’s are all very rare and most have fewer than ten survivors. I have always found the Proofs from the 1880’s to be far rarer than most people realize and many of the specific issues (1881, 1883, 1885 and 1889 to name a few) have survival rates of fewer than 25% of the original mintage. The 1890’s are slightly more available (around a third have survived) while the 1900’s dates have survival rates of around 50%. Proof Indian Head eagles, with the exception of the 1908, range from very rare to extremely rare and have typical survival rates of around 25%.
Only 265 Type One Liberty Head double eagles were made in the Proof format and I would be surprised if more than three to four dozen exist. The Type Two issues are also very rare with a total mintage of only 335 Proofs. They are more available on a relative basis than their Type One counterparts and I think somewhere between a quarter and a third of the original mintage has survived. The Type Three Proofs are the most available Liberty Head double eagles but this is misleading as only a small handful of dates (primarily those dated 1900 to 1907) have survival rates that exceed 30-40%. Proof St. Gaudens double eagles are extremely rare but they have a slightly higher survival rate that one might expect. My best guess is that around one-third of the original mintage exists.