An Ideal Time to Build a Gold Type Set, Part 2

I continue this feature started last week. With the price of bullion gold being at a record recent low, high denomination gold coins are less expensive now than they have been in several years. Double eagles, the most popular denomination collected, have decreased in price by hundreds of dollars — referring to common dates and mintmarks.


Although a complete gold type set would contain all designs from 1795 to 1933, the fact is that the coins from 1795 through the first part of 1834 range from scarce to rare to virtually unobtainable. Certain early types such as the 1808 quarter eagle run into the tens of thousands of dollars.


Accordingly, a nice compromise is to start with coins minted after the Act of June 28, 1834, which reduced the authorized gold content slightly. This launched a new series of designs, including the Classic Head quarter eagle and half eagle by Chief Engraver William Kneass and, in 1838, the $10 eagle by Christian Gobrecht. A type set of gold coins from 1834 to 1933 is quite feasible to assemble with no impossible rarities. The key issue is the MCMVII (1907) High Relief $20 (which I shall discuss in my concluding article next week).


Now, I continue my discussion of the design types:


Half Eagle ($5 gold)

Classic Head 1834-1838. Designed by Chief Engraver William Kneass, who also designed the quarter eagle of this motif. No $10 coins of the Classic Head style were made. These half eagles were produced in fairly large quantities and were the highest denomination coin of the realm for several years. Going back in history, beginning in 1820 the international price of gold bullion rose to the point at which it cost more than face value to produce a half eagle or other coin. Accordingly, when such pieces were made —  and they were struck in quantity — they were strictly bullion coins not for domestic circulation, cost a premium to make and were primarily used for export. When they arrived in a distant country, say England or France, they were melted down and converted to bullion. Accordingly if you look at the Guide Book of United States Coins and check the mintages for half eagles of the 1820s, you will see that they are quite extensive, but such pieces survived at such a low rate that most of them sell for tens of thousands of dollars today. In late 1834 when freshly minted Classic Head half eagles and quarter eagles appeared in circulation, there were many citizens who had never seen a gold coin in their entire life. As it turned out, the Classic Head was used for a relatively short time. Examples today are mostly found in circulated grades such as EF and AU, Mint State pieces are available and are naturally more expensive. Grading is somewhat loose compared to years ago, and cherrypicking is advised.

Liberty Head, Without Motto. 1839-1866. Designed by Christian Gobrecht, assistant engraver at the Mint. Chief Engraver Kneass was incapacitated by a stroke, but he maintained his position and collected his salary until his death in 1840. In the meantime, Gobrecht did most of the work. This type continued in production through early 1866.

Liberty Head, With Motto. 1866-1908. In 1866 the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse and a new type was created. This design was produced continually through and including 1908. By 1908 all other Liberty Head denominations currently being made ($2.50, $10, and $20) had been changed to other designs.

Indian Head, 1908-1929. This type was designed by Bela Lyon Pratt, a Boston area sculptor who was selected to do the work that had been assigned some years earlier to Augustus Saint-Gaudens (who passed away on August 3, 1907). Similar to the quarter eagle launched the same year, the Indian Head design had the features recessed on both sides, with the field or flat area being the highest point on each side, a departure from anything done earlier in American coinage. The design was continued through and including 1929, however the last half eagle was made in 1916 at the San Francisco Mint, followed by a long span without production until 1929, when the Philadelphia Mint struck quite a few but not many were released, creating a rarity. For type set purposes the first year of issue, 1908, is quite affordable.


Eagle ($10 gold)

Liberty Head, Without Motto. 1838-1866. Designed by Christian Gobrecht, the Liberty Head eagle made its debut in 1838. None were made until then, although the reduced weight standard had been in effect since June 28, 1834. The numismatic fact of the delay was not known to later historians, and recently in reading a biography of Andrew Jackson (who was president in 1834) by a leading scholar specialist I came across a comment that he had freshly minted eagles in his possession that year! Actually, numismatic fact and conventional histories often diverge widely. If the subject interests you, the best text is Fractional Money, by Neil Carothers, published in 1930, but available in reprint form. The new Liberty Head eagle was the highest denomination issued until 1850 when the double eagle was first made. Most of the $10 pieces of this type were used extensively in commerce. Even common dates are rarities today in grades such as MS-62 and MS-63, never mind higher. For type set purposes obtaining an 1838 for the first year of issue is desirable, but that year is also a rarity, so you may have to select an alternate.

Liberty Head, With Motto. 1866-1907. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the $10 piece part way through 1866, constituting a new type that was produced continuously until autumn 1907. The later years are available in Mint State easily enough today, so you have many choices when building a type set.

Indian Head, Without Motto. 1907-1908. This design was by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and was released in the autumn of 1907. The depiction is fictitious or stylistic, similar to the Indian Head cent then in use. A bonnet from a male Indian is superimposed on Miss Liberty, a female. The artistic effect is quite pleasing, and from the outset the motif was appreciated by numismatists. I should mention that there are varieties of 1907 without periods on the reverse, wire rim and rolled rim, which are rarities and were not released into general circulation. If you have a well-fortified bank account you can investigate adding these, but the vast majority of collectors do not consider these when forming type sets.

Indian Head, With Motto. 1908-1933. The original design lacked the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, as President Theodore Roosevelt though that it was debasing the Deity by mentioning Him on a coin. Congress felt differently, and partway through 1907 passed an act restoring the motto, which was then added to the $10 and $20. For type set purposes there are many dates and mintmarks from which to choose in the early years, then a jump to 1926 and 1932.


See you next week in this space, double eagles being the topic.


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