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From the August 2002 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:

 

Are You Looking For A $3 Gold Piece? Avoid These Three!

By Mike Nourse  

    Do you collect gold coins? If you do, and your last name is not Rockefeller or Gates, your gold coin collection is probably in the form of a type set. For the new collectors out there, a type set is a set of coins that contains only one coin of each major design used for each denomination. A type set is typically built without regard for the dates that are on the coins; it is only the design that matters.

     Because the date on a coin for a type set is irrelevant, and only the design matters, collectors often get the least expensive, most common date available within each design as a way of keeping the cost reasonable. This is particularly important when building a gold type set where even the most common issue of each design is still going to run you some big bucks.

     A reasonably comprehensive and very popular gold type set contains twelve coins: Three one dollar gold pieces; two each of the $2 1/2, $5, $10, and $20 gold pieces, and the one lonely $3 gold coin. There are two keys to this set, the $3 piece and the type two gold dollar, which was produced in very limited quantities in late 1854, 1855, and early 1856. The design of the type two dollar used too high relief for such a small coin, so it had to be redesigned to the type three design which is identical on the obverse to the $3 gold piece.

     There were some striking issues with the $3 gold pieces, but nothing major enough to warrant a complete redesign. In fact, there were no major modifications to the $3 design throughout its entire 36 years of production from 1854 through 1889. The obverse of these coins shows the country of origin around the perimeter with a Liberty head in the center wearing an impressive hat with feathers sticking up out of it. This design gives the coin it's name of either 'Indian Head $3 Gold' or '$3 Princess', but most collectors seem to simply call them $3 gold pieces due to the uniformity of the design over the years.

     So, you need one of these things for your gold type set. Which one should you get? Well, there are quite a few choices. This denomination was produced continuously in one form or another every year from 1854 through 1889 with no gaps, at a total of four mints, though the vast majority of the production took place at Philadelphia. A complete set of business strike $3 gold pieces consists of forty coins, which does not include the Proof only dates of 1875 and 1876 or the unique 1870-S coin. Out of those forty date and mint mark combinations, three of them are reasonably common and easily available. The other 37 are quite scarce. If you are looking for a specific date other than the common ones, then good luck! You may need it, since a lot of those coins only become available once in a while even though they are not much more valuable than the common dates.

    Which are the three dates a collector should avoid? It is the three most common dates that should be avoided: the 1854, the 1874, and the 1878. These three dates can easily be found by simply flipping through a few numismatic periodicals. There is plenty of supply out there of these three dates to easily supply the few date collectors, so the excess supply is used to provide coins for type collectors. Therefore, by buying one of these three dates, you are getting a coin that has minimal demand from date collectors.

     Of course, avoiding these three most common dates means that you will have to shell out some extra $$$ for a scarcer coin. Lets take a look at what those extra dollars can do for you when buying a $3 gold piece in Extra Fine condition. In that grade the three common issues have trends values of $625 to $650. That's already a lot o money, but if you can afford to wait a bit longer to save up another $100, that opens the door to coins that are at least ten times rarer than the three common issues. Some possibilities include the early civil war years of 1861, 1862, and 1863 (mintages between 5000 and 6000), or the later dates of 1887, 1888, or 1889 (mintages 6100, 5200, and 2400 respectively). If you can handle going a bit further, say to $900, that brings even more selections into the realm of possibility, such as the 1871 which has an original mintage of a mere 1300 pieces. That would sure give you something to brag about!

     If those prices are too rich for you, as they are for many of us, look to the Very Fine grade for your type coin. The three common dates run from $550 to $580. In this grade, increasing your budget by 20% opens the possibility of acquiring such scarce items as the above mentioned 1871, or even the 1880 with a mintage of only 1000 pieces or the 1883 with only 900 pieces produced. These coins are easily 25 to 50 times scarcer than the three commons. These are absolute bargains at 20% above common date prices!

     As you can see, there are lots of good options available when it come to choosing a three dollar gold piece. You can even add some interest by picking out one of the six mint marked issues. Other than the very rare 1854-D, the mint marked coins range from a Trends value of $650 for the 1856-S up to $1075 for the 1857-S in Very Fine condition. In Extra Fine grade they make quite a leap in price, to a low of $1050 for the 1856-S and a high of $1850 for the 1857-S. These mint marked pieces are expensive, but they are also historic, particularly the four coins from the San Francisco mint, which were produced almost exclusively from the gold mined during the great California gold rush, which began in 1848 and was still going strong when these coins were minted.

     When you do go shopping for your better date $3 Princess, you should give serious consideration to buying a slabbed coin. Remember that slabbed coins can always be broken out of the slab if so desired. Three dollar gold pieces have a history of very heavy counterfeiting, as they are worth substantially more than their gold bullion value. Those of you who have been ANA members for a long time will remember back in the 1970's when ANACS was the only grading and authentication service around, and they would analyze one series of gold coins each month in their publication The Numismatist, with details of how many coins of each date were submitted, and how many of those submitted coins were real and how many were counterfeit. The statistics were rather scary as many dates had more counterfeits than real coins! Now, after twenty-five years of certification, the number of counterfeits on the market has been greatly reduced, but the fact remains that most of the three dollar pieces available that are not slabbed are that way for a reason. They are either counterfeit, cleaned, altered, repaired, re-engraved, tooled, or otherwise modified. Even if your numismatic budget is such that a cleaned piece is the only one that can be afforded, still have it slabbed by one of the certification services such as ANACS, PCI, or SEGS who will confirm it's authenticity and assign it a net grade. Good advice: it is always better to buy a cleaned real gold coin than a cleaned fake gold coin!

     So remember, there are three dates of three dollar gold pieces (1854, 1874, and 1878) that are readily available, while all the others rank as either scarce or rare. Spend a few extra dollars, or set your sights one grade lower to get one of these scarce or rare pieces. They probably will not increase in value any faster than the three common dates unless a few more people start collecting the $3 princess series by date, but you will have a coin that has a story behind it along with a level of scarcity that you can easily brag about!

 

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