USA Coin Album: Little Known Gold Coin Varieties

Posted on 2/8/2022

Formerly ignored, they’re becoming popular.

When I began to study varieties of United States coins in the late 1970s, it was an axiom that no one cared about varieties on gold coins. Yes, there were well-heeled collectors who sought early US gold coins of 1795-1834 by the basic varieties found in the Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins), but almost no one was examining the gold coins made subsequent to that time.

There were rare exceptions, such as the remarkable Harry Bass, but even he ultimately lost interest in the post-1834 varieties and stopped acquiring new pieces. John McCloskey was a pioneer in the study of Classic Head gold coins (1834-39) varieties, and his work finally was published in a 2020 book authored by Daryl Haynor, who expanded on John’s work by adding his own contributions.

For most collectors, however, gold coin varieties remained a mystery. There were many such varieties hiding in plain sight, but few thought to report them. The high base values of gold coins were seen as a deterrent to collecting them in any depth. Walter Breen’s 1988 encyclopedia revealed numerous varieties he’d encountered in his years of cataloging for auctions, but subsequent studies punched holes in many of his interpretations. I won’t elaborate on what’s wrong with that book, but at least it shook up complacent collectors who imagined that US gold coins of the 1840s and later were just a boring run of dates and mints.

Since that time the overall popularity of collecting gold coins has increased, with many new adherents discovering American’s vintage issues only after being drawn to the hobby through bullion coin purchases. With the premiums on pre-1933 gold coins having fallen in recent years, many pieces grading less than MS 64 are far closer to their bullion value than was the case 10 or 20 years ago. This has made them increasingly attractive alternatives to modern bullion coins. As a result there appear to be more persons seeking them by date and mint, and this has inevitably led to the discovery of new varieties as collectors examine their coins more closely than ever before.

Recent editions of The Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins have featured an ever-growing catalog of gold entries. I’m among the persons whose input is solicited in the preparation of new editions, and I’ve sent the editors numerous photos of varieties that were discovered or first published by NGC. These have included quite a number of gold coin varieties, though not all have made the cut.

This column is the first in a series that will describe and illustrate some interesting varieties of US gold coins. Included will be some of the ones already familiar to users of the books cited above, but others will be ones not yet widely reported. I’ll start out with the smallest of our gold coins, the dollar.

The year 1854 saw two types of gold dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The second type, commonly called the Indian Head, may be found with its date entirely double punched, and this has been cataloged as variety FS-301 (the letters FS stand for the initials of the co-authors, Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton). The final punching appears west of and slightly clockwise to the first, and this is most noticeable on numerals 1 and 8.

1854 T-2; FS-301
Click images to enlarge

Another good variety is seen on some 1856-S gold dollars (San Francisco was the only mint to employ the obsolete Indian Head portrait that year). One reverse die displays dramatic repunching of the mintmark, the first impression being partially visible far to the northeast of the final one. While the 1856-S gold dollar is a slightly scarce issue overall, this variety is not rare in relation to the other dies used that year and may be found without too much effort. It has been known for several years and carries the designation FS-501.

1856-S $1; FS-501
Click images to enlarge

A variety that hasn’t yet been assigned an FS number is one I discovered by chance at NGC (it was not flagged for variety attribution, but others in the same box were). Though the website notes that it was reported by Basil Lepeniotis, at the time I could find no one who knew of this variety. It appears on the 1889 gold dollar as bold doubling of the lower wreath and bow. That final date in the gold dollar series has a low enough mintage (28,950) that the entire press run may have utilized a single reverse die with doubling. I’ve yet to find an example that doesn’t have the doubling, but more study is needed. With no FS number yet assigned, NGC has labeled this variety VP-001 (VP standing for VarietyPlus, NGC’s variety attribution service).

1889 $1; VP-001
Click images to enlarge

There are similar situations of gold coins being minted entirely from a single die pair that includes some sort of oddity. One example is found with the quarter eagles dated 1891, all of which have the same doubled-die reverse (DDR). I’ll take a look at this denomination in next month’s installment.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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