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The story of American gold coins begins
with gold itself. Gold was one of the first elements discovered
by Man, thanks to its distinctive, yellow color and metallic
luster. Gold is a relatively inert metal, meaning that natural
deposits enjoy a high level of purity. Gold is most commonly
found mixed with quartz as veins and crystals, although other
forms are known. Erosion of the earth creates what are known
as placer deposits, where gold is exposed and concentrated
in the form or dust, flakes, and nuggets. Placer deposits
usually occur along the bed of a river, where the bright,
yellow glint of gold caught the eye of early man.
Man soon discovered the interesting and useful
qualities of gold. Pure gold is soft, malleable (easily hammered
into any shape), and ductile (easily pulled into wires or
hammered thin). Pure gold does not rust or tarnish, thus it
retains its natural beauty, luster, and color throughout the
ages. And, gold is rare, making it perfect as a store of value
and a medium of exchange. Gold is used as money, in jewelry,
as an electrical conductor, as a coating, and in innumerable
other ways and fashions.
The value of gold derives from its desirability,
its utility, and the amount of effort required in obtaining
and processing the natural ore. Although more and more gold
is being mined every day, demand for the metal has kept pace.
As of this writing, uncertainty about the U.S. dollar and
the American economy has driven the price of gold to highs
not seen since the early 1980s. However, it is important to
understand that the volatility of the price of gold is not
due to the supply but to the strength or weakness of the currency
to which it is tied. The real purchasing power of gold
coins has remained virtually identical throughout history
(to illustrate, one can guesstimate that an ounce of gold
purchased the same number of loaves of bread a thousand years
ago as it does today). The same cannot be said of paper money,
because paper money has no intrinsic value and can be reproduced
Because pure gold is so soft, it is impractical
for use as everyday money. Thus, certain other metals are
alloyed with it to give it strength. The earliest American
gold coins contained 91.6% gold and a mixture of copper
and silver to make up the balance. If the silver content exceeded
that of copper, the coin took on a greenish hue. If the copper
content exceeded that of silver, the coin took on a more yellow
appearance and, over time, would take on a reddish hue because
of the oxidation of the copper. In 1834, the content of all
American gold coins was changed to 90% gold, with copper
and silver making up the additional 10%.
Gold has served as money or established
in the monetary value of currencies longer than any other
material. The use of gold coins was widespread in Europe
by the fourth century B.C.
The earliest coins circulated in the United States were foreign
coins, mostly silver and gold, brought from Europe. The Coinage
Act in 1792 established an independent monetary system with
the dollar as the basic United States monetary unit containing
24-3/4 grains of fine gold, based on the world price of $19.39
a troy ounce (480 grains). Congress changed the gold specification
in 1834 and again in 1837, when it set the dollar price of
gold at $20.67 an ounce.
In 1934, U.S. Citizens were prohibited from
holding monetary gold in the United States; this was extended
in 1961 to gold held abroad as well. The dollar price was
ste at $35 per ounce in 1934. Use of gold in international
trade was further restricted as the price rose. The government
revalued it at $38 per ounce in 1972, then $42.22 in 1973.
It has fluctuated widely over the past few years. All restrictions
on holding gold were removed on December 31, 1974.
One Dollar Gold Coins
Coinage of the gold dollar was authorized by
the Act of March 3, 1849. The weight was 25.8 grains, .900
fineness. The first type, struck until 1854, is known as the
Liberty Head or small sized type (Type 1).
In 1854, the dollar coins were made larger
in diameter and thinner. The design was changed to a feather
headdress on a female, generally referred to as the Indian
Princess Head or larger-sized type (Type 2). In 1856, the
type was changed slightly by enlarging the size of the head
Designer James B. Longacre; weight 1.672
grams; composition .900 gold, .100 copper (net weight .04837
oz. pure gold); diameter 13mm; reeded edge; mints: Philadelphia,
Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, San Francisco.
Eagle Gold Coins
Authorized by the Act of April 2, 1792, quarter
eagle weighed 67.5 grains, .9167 fineness until the weight
was changed to 64.5 grains, .8992 fineness, by the act of
June 28, 1834. The Act of January 18, 1837, established fineness
at .900. Most dates before 1834 are rare. The first issue
was struck in 1796; most of these had no stars on the obverse.
Proofs of some dates prior to 1855 are known to exist, and
all are rare.
Capped Bust to Right (1796 - 1807):Designer Robert Scot; weight 4.37 grams; composition
.9167 gold, .0833 silver and copper; approx. diameter 20mm;
Classic Head, No Motto on Reverse (1834
- 1839):Designer William Kneass; weight 4.18 grams;
composition .8992 gold, .1008 silver and copper (changed to
.900 gold in 1837); diameter 18.2mm; reeded edge; mints: Philadelphia,
Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans.
Dollar Gold Coins
Indian Princess Head (1854
The three-dollar gold piece was authorized by the Act of
February 21, 1853. First struck in 1854, the coin was never
popular with the general public and saw very little circulation.
Today, some numismatists theorize that the $3 denomination
would have been useful for purchasing postage stamps of the
day (with their face value of 3c) or for acquiring 100 silver
three-cent pieces ("trimes"), which were also in
circulation at the time.
These gold coins changed hands in the East and Midwest until
1861, after which they disappeared from circulation; through
the 1860s, fewer than 10,000 were struck annually. In 1874
and 1878, mintages were increased significantly in anticipation
of the coins going into broader circulation. On the West Coast,
the three-dollar gold piece did see circulation throughout
the series' minting, though they probably weren't seen in
change very often after the 1860s.
The head on the obverse represents an Indian princess with
hair tightly curling over the neck, her head crowned with
a circle of feathers (the band of which is inscribed LIBERTY).
A wreath of tobacco, wheat, corn, and cotton occupies the
field of the reverse, with the denomination and date within
it. The coin weighs 77.4 grains, and was struck in .900 fine
In the year 1854 only, the word DOLLARS is in much smaller
letters than in later years. The 1856 Proof has DOLLARS in
large letters cut over the same word in small letters. Restrikes
of some years were made, particularly Proofs of 1865 and 1873.
Although these coins did not see extensive day-to-day circulation,
collector interest was high, and many three-dollar gold pieces
were saved by speculators beginning about 1879. As a result,
Mint State examples are fairly numerous today. The 1870-S
coin is unique, currently residing in the Harry W. Bass Jr.
Collection on loan to the American Numismatic Association.
Designer James B. Longacre; weight 5.015 grams; composition
.900 gold, .100 copper (net weight .14512 oz. pure gold);
diameter 20.5 mm; reeded edge; mints; Philadelphia, Dahlonega,
New Orleans, San Francisco.
STELLA (1879 - 1880)
These pattern coins were first suggested by John A. Kasson,
then U.S. envoy ex ordinary and minister plenipotentiary to
Austria-Hungary. It was through the efforts W.W. Hubbell,
who patented the alloy goloid (used in making another pattern
piece, goloid metric dollar), that we have these beautiful
and interesting coins.
The four-dollar Stella-so called because of the five-pointed
star on the revers< was envisioned by Kasson as America's
answer to various foreign gold coins popi in the international
market. The British sovereign, Italy's 20 lire, and the 20
pesetas Spain were three such coins: each smaller than a U.S.
five-dollar gold piece, th were used widely in international
The Stella was one of many proposals made to Congress for
an international tra coin, and one of only several that made
it to pattern-coin form (others include t 1868 five-dollar
piece and 1874 Bickford ten-dollar piece).
Odds were stacked against the Stella from the start. The denomination
of fc U.S. dollars didn't match any of the coin's European
counterparts, and at any rate t U.S. double eagle (twenty-dollar
coin)-already used in international commerce was a more convenient
medium of exchange. The Stella was never minted in quan ties
for circulation. Those dated 1879 were struck for congressmen
to examine. T 1880 coins were secretly made by Mint officials
for sale to private collectors.
There are two distinct types in both years of issue. Charles
E. Barber designed tl Flowing Hair type, and George T. Morgan
the Coiled Hair. They were struck as pe terns in gold, aluminum,
copper, and white metal. (Only those struck in gold are lis
ed here.) It is likely that of the 1879-dated Flowing Hair
Stellas, about 15 were strui in 1879, and the rest in 1880.
Precise mintage numbers are unknown. The estimates given below
are based c surviving pieces, certified population reports,
and auction records.
Some of the finest Stella specimens are housed in the National
Numismat Collection in the Smithsonian Institution. Others
are in private collections, and cro: the auction block from
time to time.
Eagle Gold Coins
The half eagle was the first gold coin actually struck for
the United States. The five-dollar piece was authorized to
be coined by the Act of April 2, 1792, and the first type
weighed 135 grains, .9167 fineness. The Act of June 28, 1834,
changed the weight to 129 grains, .8992 fineness. Fineness
became .900 by the Act of January 18, 1837.
There are many varieties among the early dates, caused by
changes in the number of stars and style of eagle, by overdates,
and by differences in the size of figures in the dates. Those
dated prior to 1807 do not bear any mark of value. The 1822
half eagle is considered one of the most valuable regular-issue
coins of the entire United States series. Proofs of some dates
prior to 1855 are known to exist, and all are rare. Commemorative
and bullion $5 coins have been made at West Point since 1986
and 1994, respectively; thus this is the only U.S. denomination
made at each of the eight mints.
CAPPED BUST TO RIGHT (1795 - 1807)
This type was struck from mid-1795 through early 1798, when
the Small Eagle reverse was changed to the Large or "Heraldic"
Eagle. Note that the 1795 and 1797 dates exist for both types,
but that the Heraldic Eagle reverses of these dates were probably
struck in 1798 using serviceable 1795 and 1797 dies. Designer Robert Scot; weight 8.75 grams; composition
.9167 gold,.0833 silver and copper; appro*, diameter 25 mm;
CAPPED BUST TO LEFT (1807 - 1812) Designer John Reich; standards same as for previous
CAPPED HEAD TO LEFT (1813 - 1834)
Large Diameter (1813-1829) Bold Relief (1813-1815)
Reduced Diameter (1829-1834) The half eagles dated 1829 (small date) through 1834 are
smaller in diameter than the earlier pieces. They also have
smaller letters, dates, and stars. Design modified by William Keass; standards same as before;
CLASSIC HEAD (1834 - 1838)
As on the quarter eagle of 1834, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM
was omitted from the new, reduced-size half eagle in 1834,
to distinguish the old coins that had become worth more than
face value. Designer William Kneass; weight 8.36 grams; composition
(1834-1836) .8992 gold, .1008 silver and copper, (1837-1838)
.900 gold; diameter 22.5 mm; reeded edge; mints: Philadelphia,
LIBERTY HEAD (1839 - 1908) Variety 1 - No Motto Above Eagle (1839 - 1866) Designer Christian Gobrecht; weight 8.359 grams; composition
.900 gold, . 100 copper (net weight .24187 oz. pure gold);
diameter (1839-1840) 22.5 mm, (1840-1866) 21.6 mm; reeded
edge; mints: Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans,
Variety 2 - Motto Above Eagle (1866 - 1908) Designer Christian Gobrecht; weight 8.359 grams; composition
.900 gold,. 100 copper (net weight .24187 oz. pure gold);
diameter 21.6 mm; reeded edge; mints: Philadelphia, Carson
City, Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco.
INDIAN HEAD (1908-1929)
This type conforms to the quarter eagle of the same date.
The sunken (incuse) designs and lettering make these two series
unique in United States coinage. Designer Bela Lyon Pratt; weight 8.359 grams; composition
.900 gold, . 100 copper (net weight .24187 02. pure gold);
diameter 21.6 mm; reeded edge; mints: Philadelphia, Denver,
New Orleans, San Francisco.
Coinage authority including specified weights
and fineness of the eagle conforms to that of the half eagle.
The Small Eagle reverse was used until 1797, when the large
Heraldic Eagle replaced it. The early dates have variations
in the number of stars, the rarest date being 1798. Many of
these early pieces show file scratches from the Mint's practice
of adjusting planchet weight before coining. No eagles were
struck dated 1805 to 1837. Proofs of some dates prior to 1855
are known to exist, and all are rare.
CAPPED BUST TO RIGHT (1795-1804) Small Eagle (1795-1797)
Heraldic Eagle (1797-1804)
Designer Robert Scot; weight 17.50 grams; composition .9167
gold, .0833 silver and copper; approx. diameter 33 mm; reeded
LIBERTY HEAD, NO MOTTO ABOVE EAGLE (1838
In 1838, the weight and diameter of the eagles were reduced
and the obverse and reverse were redesigned. Liberty now faces
left and the word LIBERTY is placed on the coronet. A more
natural-appearing eagle is used on the reverse. The value,
TEN D., is shown for the first time on this denomination. Designer Christian Gobrecht; weight 16.718 grams: composition
.900 gold, .100 copper (net weight: .48375 oz.
pure gold): diameter 27 mm; reeded edge; mints: Philadelphia,
New Orleans. San Francisco.
LIBERTY HEAD, MOTTO ABOVE EAGLE (1866-1907)
Standards as for No Motto variety; mints: Philadelphia, Carson
City, Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco.
INDIAN HEAD (1907-1933)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, considered by many the greatest of
modern sculptors, introduced a new high standard of art in
United States coins evidenced by his eagle and double eagle
types of 1907. The obverse of the eagle shows the head of
Liberty crowned with an Indian war bonnet while an impressively
majestic eagle dominates the reverse side. A departure from
older standards is found on the edge of the piece, where 46
raised stars (48 stars in 1912 and later) are arranged signifying
the states of the Union, instead of there being a lettered
or reeded edge.
The first of these coins struck had no motto IN GOD WE TRUST
as had the later issues, starting in 1908. President Theodore
Roosevelt personally objected to the use of the Deity's name
on coins. The motto was restored to the coins by an act of
Congress in 1908. Designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens: standards same as for
previous issue: edge: (1907-1911) 46 raised stars, (1912-1933)
48 raised stars: mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco.
Variety 1 - No Motto on Reverse (1907-1908)
Gem Uncirculated (MS-65) coins are rare and worth substantial
Variety 2 - Motto on Reverse (1908- 1933)
Eagle Gold Coins
LIBERTY HEAD (1849-1907)
This largest denomination of all regular United States issues
was authorized to be coined by the Act of March 3, 1849. Its
weight was 516 grains, .900 fine. The 1849 double eagle is
a unique pattern and reposes in the Smithsonian. The 1861
design by Anthony C. Paquet was withdrawn soon after being
struck. Very few pieces are known. Designer James B. Longacre; weight 33.436 grams: composition
.900 gold, .100 copper (net weight: .96750 02. pure gold):
diameter 34 mm; reeded edge: mints: Philadelphia, Carson City,
Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco.
Without Motto on Reverse (1849-1866)
Motto Above Eagle (1866-1876)
TWENTY DOLLARS (1877-1907)
Many consider the twenty-dollar gold piece designed by Augustus
Saint-Gaudens to be the most beautiful U.S. coin. The first
coins issued were slightly more than 12,000 high-relief pieces
struck for general circulation. The relief is much higher
than for later issues, and the date 1907 is in Roman numerals
(MCMVII). A few of the Proof coins were made using the lettered-edge
collar from the ultra high relief version. These can be distinguished
by a pronounced bottom left serif on the N in UNUM, and other
minor differences. High-relief Proofs are trial or experimental
pieces. Flat-relief double eagles were issued later in 1907
with Arabic numerals, and continued through 1933.
The field of the rare, ultra high relief experimental pieces
is excessively concave and connects directly with the edge
without any border, giving it a sharp, knifelike appearance;
Liberty's skirt shows two folds on the side of her right leg;
the Capitol building in the background at left is very small;
the sun, on the reverse side, has 14 rays, as opposed to the
13 rays on regular high-relief coins.
The Proof finish of 1908 and 1911 through 1915 coins was originally
referred to as Sand Blast Proof by the Mint. Proof coins minted
in 1909 and 1910 have a different finish described as Satin
Proof. In addition, double eagles from 1907 through 1911 have
46 stars on the obverse; and from 1912 through 1933, 48 stars. Designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens; standards same as for
previous issue; edge: E PLURIBUS UNUM with words divided by
stars (one specimen of the high-relief variety with plain
edge is known}; mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco.
Ultra High Relief Pattern, MCMVII (1907)
1907, Ultra High Relief, Plain Edge (unique)
1907, Ultra High Relief. Lettered Edge
Without Motto IN GOD WE TRUST (1907-1908)
High Relief, MCMV1I (1907)
Arabic Numerals, No Motto (1907-1908)
With Motto IN GOD WE TRUST (1908-1933)
Courtesy Garrett and Guth: Encyclopedia
of U.S. Gold Coins