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One of the Rarest American Coins Could Cash in at $2-$4 Million in Auction

by WorthPoint Staff (05/30/12).

Obverse (front) side of the rare 1870-S $3 gold coin that could bring $2 million-$4 million. It will go up for auction on June 2 at Four Seasons Auction Gallery.

The reverse side of the rare 1870-S $3 gold coin shows a wreath of corn, cotton and tobacco.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. – One of the rarest coins in American history—the legendary 1870-S $3 gold piece, only two of which are known to exist—is expected to bring a dizzying $2 to $4 million when it comes up for bid on Saturday, June 2, at Four Seasons Auction Gallery.

The 1870-S $3 gold coin is so steeped in legend and lore that the only other known example—a valued in 2007 at $4 million and part of the Harry W. Bass Collection, on display at the American Numismatic Association museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado—was believed by many to be the only one in existence, despite reports and documents that suggested otherwise.

Now, it appears a second one has come on the scene, and its own story only adds to the cache and mystique of the coin itself. It was purchased in 1997 by a European tourist who found it in a San Francisco book store, glued to one of the inside pages of a souvenir book specific to the era and on the same page as a story about the San Francisco Mint, where the coin was struck.

The tourist sat on his find for 15 years, aware of what he had but waiting for just the right moment to consign it to an auction house that would properly represent it. That turned out to be Four Seasons Auction Gallery. “I am truly honored to have been chosen to sell this coin,” said Steve White of Four Seasons Auction Gallery. “This could be our single largest selling lot ever.”

In 1870, the superintendent of the San Francisco Mint ordered that a single 1870-S $3 gold coin be produced, to be put into the cornerstone of a new building addition. But the coin’s exact location was never specified and to this day it has never been positively identified. One story maintains the coin was removed by force from the cornerstone, but that’s not been proven.

In any event, the original coin suffered some damage along the way, and the decision was made to produce a second specimen. The “S” character, indicating a San Francisco strike, was added to the cast by hand, by the coinier J.B. Harmstead, resulting in the shape of the “S” being different from all other S’s in the series (1854-1889). That is believed to be the Colorado coin.

That coin appeared in the William H. Wooden Sale in 1911, where it was advertised as a duplicate of the coin in the cornerstone. It was later purchased by the Baltimore collector Louis Eliasberg in 1946 for $11,500, a princely sum for its time. The same month, Eliasberg acquired an 1854-S half eagle coin for $5,500, and the year earlier he paid $8,000 for an 1822 half eagle.

The 1870-S $3 gold coin was later purchased in 1982 for the Harry Booth Collection for $657,500, and placed in the Colorado museum. For decades it was presumed to be unique. Until now. The coin in the souvenir book—which is insured by Lloyd’s of London and will be brought by armed guards from a bank vault to Four Seasons Auction Gallery on June 2—is its twin.

Both coins—the Colorado coin and the souvenir book coin to be sold—have similar, oddly struck “S” mintmarks. This lends credence to the story that the mintmark was cut into the die by hand by Harmstead. But is the coin being sold the one placed into the cornerstone? Was it a third strike, previously unknown, that Harmstead produced on his own? No one knows.

The $3 gold coin was originally intended as a tie-in with the U.S. Postal Service. In the late 1800s, the price of a first-class stamp was 3 cents, and stamps were commonly bought in sheets of 100 (for $3). Still, the coin was minted in small quantities—only 535,000 for the entire series, the smallest amount for any series of circulated U.S. coins. The 1870-S is by far the rarest.

The 1870-S $3 gold coin was found glued to an inside page of this Victorian-era San Francisco souvenir book on the page that mentions the San Francisco Mint.

The design of the coin—by James B. Longacre—is simple and unassuming. The obverse (or front) depicts a representation of Liberty wearing a headdress of an Indian princess. The reverse side shows a wreath of corn, cotton and tobacco. Unlike the Colorado coin, which has damage indicating it was probably worn on a key chain or watch fob, the coin to be sold is clean.

Also offered will be early, rare Mississippi slave documents, vintage firearms (to include pistols and rifles), antique men’s wristwatches, sports memorabilia, collectibles and more—around 400 lots in all. A preview will be held on Friday, June 1, from 1-6 p.m., but the 1870-S $3 gold coin will only be previewed on sale day, June 2, from 9:30-11 a.m., under armed guard.The gold piece will be the undisputed headliner of the auction, but it won’t be the only lot in the sale, and not even the only gold coin. Many other U.S. gold pieces will cross the block, to include $1, $3, $5, $10 and $20 coins from the 1870s to the 1920s, as well as silver dollars from the same period. Silver certificate bills will also be sold (some with consecutive serial numbers).

Internet bidding will be facilitated by LiveAuctioneers. Phone and absentee bids will also be accepted. The Four Seasons Auction Gallery is located at 4010 Nine McFarland Road in Alpharetta, Ga. A portion of the 50,000-square-foot facility is dedicated as an antique mall and design center, with space for more than 100 antique designers and sellers, offering thousands of items.

For more information about this auction, call 770.781.2065, e-mail to info@fsagallery.com or visit the Four Seasons Auction Gallery website.

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