Trophy Coins for the Rest of Us
The last article I wrote was about Trophy Coins. It generated a lot of buzz among my readers, not all of it positive. The negative comments I heard, not all underserved, typically went something like this: “You are an elitist, writing about coins which are $50,000, $100,000 and more.” I can understand these comments, although I would counter with the argument that a true Trophy Coin is by its very nature meant to be exclusive.
Is it possible to own a true Trophy Coin at a more realistic price point? I would resoundingly say that yes it is, although I would still place the minimum amount required to attain Trophyness, at least in the arena of United States gold coinage, to be in the $5,000-10,000+ range.
Here is a list of ten Trophy Coins for the 99%, plus “pitches” which quickly explain what makes each coin so clearly identifiable as being “special.” I’ve also listed some “runners-up” which can be considered Trophy Coins in their own right.
1. 1875 Gold Dollar
The Pitch: Only 400 business strikes were made, giving this the lowest reported mintage of any gold dollar.
The 1875 gold dollar is a coin which was famous soon after it was made but whose popularity has diminished over the years. Most non-specialists are aware that it has an absurdly low original mintage, but they have little knowledge of this coin’s special attributes above and beyond its mintage. Interestingly, for some collectors the 1863 has replaced the 1875 as the “go to” Philadelphia issue of this denomination as a result of its status as “rarest Civil War gold dollar.”
The appearance of this issue is unusual for a gold dollar of this era. Many of the 100-150 which exist show fully reflective mirror surfaces which carefully resemble those seen on Proofs of this year. The typical example grades AU50 to low end Uncirculated and a very presentable 1875 gold dollar can be obtained, with patience, for around $7,500. In the higher grade range, there are at least five or six gems known including a PCGS MS66+ owned by collector Bob Simpson and Steve Duckor’s PCGS MS66; these are the two finest I have seen and am aware of.
While not as rare as its low mintage would suggest (clearly, examples were saved at the time of issue by dealers and collectors), the 1875 gold dollar is a significant scarcity whose value would quickly increase were it better known.
Runners Up: 1855-D gold dollar (rarest collectible branch mint issue), 1863 (rarest Civil War issue).
2. 1864 Quarter Eagle
The Pitch: The rarest collectible business strike Liberty Head quarter eagle and a key Civil War issue.
For many years, the 1864 quarter eagle was a “sleeper” within a series (Liberty Head quarter eagles) replete with undervalued issues. But with the increased interest in Civil War issues, the true rarity of the 1864 quarter eagle became better known and, quickly, values escalated.
It is likely that no more than two dozen examples exist from an original mintage of 2,824 with most in the EF45 to AU55 range. The finest known is a superb Gem, graded MS67 by NGC and ex Byron Reed. The last few examples which have appeared at auction have brought in the $40,000-60,000 range; a level which is out of keeping with the spirit of these Trophy Coins but which, in my opinion, still represents fair value for an elite rarity.
With the exception of the extremely rare 1854-S, this is the rarest Liberty Head quarter eagle produced in an unquestioned business strike format, and it is clearly the rarest of the ten Trophy Coins on this list.
Runners Up: 1838-C and 1839-D (popular first year of issues), 1856-D (rarest Dahlonega quarter eagle), 1875 (lowest business strike mintage of the series except for the 1854-S).
3. 1854-O Three Dollar Gold
The Pitch: Popular first year of issue and one year type.
My natural inclination was to include the 1854-D as an obvious Trophy Coin, but at $50,000 this didn’t fit in with the spirit of this list; especially after I just listed a $50,000 item as coin #2. So, I chose the “poor man’s 1854-D,” namely the 1854-O.
As with its expensive cousin, the 1854-O is a one-year type and a first-year-of-issue. It is a surprisingly plentiful issue given its relatively low mintage of 24,000; over 1,000 exist, mostly in the EF40 to AU50 range. Accurately graded AU53 to AU55 examples with natural color and choice surfaces are still affordable and, in my opinion, they are very scarce due to the fact that 90+% of the surviving 1854-O threes have been cleaned and/or processed.
I handle dozens of 1854-O Three Dollar gold pieces every year, in grades ranging from EF40 to MS61, and this issue continues to fascinate me.
Runners Up: 1855-S (first SF issue), 1865 (rarest Civil War date).
4. Draped Bust Half Eagle
The Pitch: Old gold.
I’ve specialized in rare United States gold for close to three decades and I don’t think I’ve ever met a collector who didn’t like early gold. What’s not to like? These coins are historic, hefty, attractive and rare. Of the three denominations struck from 1795 to 1834, the half eagle is the most affordable and the most obtainable.
Narrowing down our choices for a Trophy Coin, I would select a Draped Bust half eagle, struck from 1798 through 1807. Nearly all collectors confronted with a choice of dates for this denomination would select an 18th century issue, but the 1798 and 1799 are not cheap; thus, I suggest focusing on an 1800-1807. Nice AU coins are available, with some patience, in the $10,000-12,000 range. These coins have been excellent performers over the years (they have essentially doubled in price over the last decade) and they remain at the top of the list for many collectors’ dream coin.
Runners Up: Capped Bust type (1807-1812; cool but not as cool as the earlier Draped Bust type), 1813 (the most affordable Fat Head half eagle).
5. 1838-C or 1838-D Half Eagle
The Pitch: Very popular first year of issues and one year types. Mintmark on the obverse. Popular!
It was too hard for me to choose one or the other so I picked both…and for good reason. Both the 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles have become extremely popular in recent years and together they form a wonderful two coin collection.
The 1838-C is the more common of the two but it is much rarer in high grades than its counterpart. I have only seen one truly Uncirculated 1838-C half eagle (the Elrod/Bass coin graded MS63 by PCGS) and no more than five or six really nice high end AU examples.
The 1838-D is scarcer but it seems to have been saved in higher grades and as many as 10 are known in Uncirculated.
More than nearly any other southern gold coins (except for the 1861-D dollar and half eagle) these two issues have near-universal collector appeal.
Runners Up: 1840-O (first year of issue), 1842-D Large Date (rarest half eagle from Dahlonega), 1863-1865 (rare Civil War issues).
6. 1909-O Half Eagle
The Pitch: Popular one-year type coin and the last gold piece ever struck at this mint.
After discontinuing the manufacture of half eagles in 1894, the New Orleans mint struck 34,000 half eagles—seemingly out of the blue—in 1909-O. This has been a popular issue for many years and it has a grade distribution not unlike the 1854-O Three Dollar. The 1909-O is common in EF and lower AU grades, scarce in properly graded AU55 to AU58 and rare in Uncirculated.
I have handled dozens of 1909-O half eagles in the last few years ranging from affordable EF45 examples to the finest known, the incomparable Eliasberg MS66 which I purchased for a client in the January 2014 FUN auction. This issue appeals to a wide range of collectors and for good reasons: it is a unique issue with a great back story.
For most collectors a nice AU50 to AU53 example will fit well in their collection. A Trophy Coin aficionado could easily spend $50,000 or far more for a nice Uncirculated 1909-O.
Runners Up: CAC approved common date Indian Head half eagle in MS64 or MS65.
7. 1838 Eagle
The Pitch: First year of issue with a neat short-lived design.
The eagle denomination was discontinued after 1804 and upon its resurrection in 1838 it became, again, the largest denomination of American coinage. Only 7,200 eagles were made in 1838 but this date is a little more available than one might think. But most 1838 eagles show considerable circulation, and properly graded AU50 and higher examples are quite scarce.
I have been a big fan of this date for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever had a nice quality 1838 eagle that hasn’t a) sold quickly and b) received multiple orders off my website when available. The 1838 is a coin with strong demand from non-specialists, and while prices have risen accordingly over the years, $7,500-10,000 will still buy you a decent example. If you are willing to spend $15,000-20,000+ you can buy a smoking 1838 eagle, although many of the coins offered in recent years (in both NGC and PCGS holders) have had originality “issues.”
RUNNERS UP: 1841-O (first New Orleans eagle), 1865-S Inverted Date (very cool blundered date), 1873/1876/1877 (very low mintage issues).
8. 1854-S Eagle
The Pitch: Affordable first-year-of-issue San Francisco gold coin and a great Gold Rush memento
There were many other Liberty Head eagles I thought about, including the first-year 1870-CC, the low mintage 1879-O, and 1883-O, not to mention some of the rare, interesting Indian Head eagles. But I chose the 1854-S for a variety of reasons.
1854 is a magical year for San Francisco gold coinage. The mint opened its doors this year and produced five denominations. Two, the quarter eagle and half eagle, are formidable rarities. The eagle is actually the most common denomination from this year with hundreds known in EF40 to AU55 grades.
I wouldn’t call a marginally decent AU55 example of the 1854-S eagle a Trophy Coin. But a properly graded AU58, especially with a CAC sticker, is a great value at current levels ($5,000-7,000) and it is the best available quality for this date as the 1854-S is exceedingly rare in full Mint State.
Runners Up: See above.
9. 1857-S SS Central America $20.00 in MS64
The Pitch: A borderline Gem 150+ year old big gold coin for around 10 grand.
Before the discovery of the SS Central America, I could have counted the number of Gem Type One double eagles that I had seen on one hand. This discovery brought thousands of superb pieces into the market. It not only made owning a superb quality Type One double eagle a reality for most collectors; it also jump-started the still-hot Liberty Head double eagle market.
Some readers of this article will bristle at my inclusion of this as a Trophy Coin. But consider this: there are hundreds of new collectors who began buying rare gold coins as a result of dipping their toes in the water with an SSCA. And an MS64 still seems like the sweet spot of this issue: the coins tend to be lovely and the price is reasonable when compared to an MS65 or an MS66.
My ideal SSCA coin has been carefully selected by a knowledgeable dealer to not have discoloration or signs of chemical reaction to the conservation performed after the coins were salvaged. I like the coins with all the “bells and whistles” you can add on: they should be approved by CAC, in the original packaging and accompanied by the presentation box and COA as issued.
Runners Up: 1850 (first year of issue), 1862 and 1863 (rare Civil War issues), 1865-S Bro Jo.
10. Common Date Saint in MS66 with CAC Approval
The Pitch: A beautiful coin in a beautiful grade at a beautiful price point.
Remember: this is a group of Trophy Coins for collectors who can’t afford, say a High Relief in Gem Uncirculated. Everyone loves Saints and the Next Best Thing for the more casual gold collector is a Gem MS66 common date.
But we are talking Trophy Coins here so this common date Saint must somehow be uncommon. And for this I suggest buying a pretty, CAC approved MS66. To buy one you have to pay a strong premium over an average quality coin. You can find quantities of MS66 saints without CAC stickers for less than $3,000. CAC approved coins bring a 50+% premium but they are worth it. The quality of many of the MS66/CAC Saints I have seen has been superb with great color and luster and just a few small marks in the fields.
If you could add or delete coins from this list, what would they be? Feel free to leave comments or contact me directly at email@example.com.
About Doug Winter
Doug has spent much of his life in the field of numismatics; beginning collecting coins at the age of seven, and by the time he was ten years old, buying and selling coins at conventions in the New York City area.
Recognized as one of the leading specialized numismatic firms, Doug is an award winning author of over a dozen numismatic books and the recognized expert on US Gold. His knowledge and exceptional eye for properly graded and original coins has made him one of the most respected figures in the numismatic community and a sought after dealer by collectors and investors looking for professional personalized service, a select inventory of impeccable quality and fair and honest pricing. Doug is also a major buyer of all US coins and is always looking to purchase collections both large and small. He can be reached at 214-675-9897.
Doug has been a contributor to the Guidebook of United States Coins (also known as the “Redbook”) since 1983, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues
In addition he has authored 13 books on US Gold coins including:
- Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909
- Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint: 1870 – 1893
- Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861
- Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint 1838-1861
- The United States $3 Gold Pieces 1854-1889
- Carson City Gold Coinage 1870-1893: A Rarity and Condition Census Update
- An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles
- The Connoisseur’s Guide to United States Gold Coins
- A Collector’s Guide To Indian Head Quarter Eagles
- The Acadiana Collection of New Orleans Coinage
- Type Three Double Eagles, 1877-1907: A Numismatic History and Analysis
- Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861: A Numismatic History and Analysis
- Type Two Double Eagles, 1866-1876: A Numismatic History and Analysis
Finally Doug is a member of virtually every major numismatic organization, professional trade group and major coin association in the US.
If you are interested in buying or selling classic US coins or if you would like to have the world’s leading expert work with you assembling a set of coins? Contact Doug Winter at (214) 675-9897 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.