Grading Liberty Head $10 (1838-1907)
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The Coronet Liberty eagle, or ten-dollar piece, is perhaps the most overlooked United States coin series of its era. With the exception of gold dollars, quarter eagles and three-dollar pieces, 19th Century gold coins are rarely collected by date and mint, but this seems to be especially true of the eagle. The high bullion value of such coins, combined with the general lack of mint state pieces for dates before 1880, have discouraged collectors from attempting to complete this series, which ran from 1838 to 1907.
A few individuals have sought only the Carson City eagles of 1870-93, while others have put together short sets from 1900 to 1907. For the majority of collectors, however, one or two type coins will suffice to represent this long-running issue. Since type collectors typically seek only mint state examples, I will overlook the grading of circulated pieces altogether.
A basic type collection of Coronet eagles include two coins: The subtype lacking the motto IN GOD WE TRUST covers the years 1838-66, while coins with the motto were minted 1866-1907. A more complete type set will include the subtype coined only in 1838 and part of 1839. This features a slightly different rendering of the Liberty bust. As coins of this subtype are rare and expensive in mint state, most collectors will opt for just the two basic issues with and without motto.
There are no Coronet eagles of the subtype without motto that are common in mint state. All such coins are scarce to rare, though a few collectable dates are known. Perhaps the dates most often encountered in mint state are 1847, 1849 and 1861, though other dates having larger than typical populations include 1853 and 1855.
Coronet eagles having the motto are vastly more common in all grades of mint state, though nearly all such pieces are confined to the years after 1880. Dates that are especially common uncirculated include 1899, 1901, 1901-S and 1907.
The 1901-S eagle is perhaps the ideal type coin, since it is so readily available in mint state, and quite a number of gems have also been certified. Among the features common to most coins of this date which have earned for them so many high grades are excellent luster, sharp strike and relatively clean surfaces. Of course, these are the attributes sought in any type coin, but they seem to be more typical of some dates than others. For whatever reason, a large number of 1901-S eagles have survived, and these provide an excellent pool of subject coins for the type collector.
Of all the flaws that can cause a Coronet eagle to be downgraded, perhaps the most distressing are contact marks. Because gold coins were often stored as bullion reserves and were frequently moved from one vault to another, they suffered repeated contact with one another. This history, combined with the natural softness of gold, even when alloyed with other metals, resulted in numerous and often very deep cuts and abrasions. Many gold coins, while still technically uncirculated, have received so many hits from other coins that they've nearly lost their luster. In fact, these comprise the majority of mint state pieces and account for the many coins certified as MS-60 to MS-62.
Another factor that can reduce the grade of a Coronet eagle is the presence of hairline scratches. These fine lines, also known as “wipe marks,” typically are the result of careless cleaning with a cloth or some other mild abrasive. While a natural part of the minting process, dark red “copper spots” are visually distracting and are seen as undesirable by most collectors. Only advanced numismatists seem to value them as a sign of originality.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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