Certified Early Gold (1795-1834) and Why They Are Scarce, Part I

Large Date Large 5 $5 Gold Piece in Mint State 62, Certified by NGC and CAC.
$10 Gold Piece in Mint State 63, Certified by NGC.

Certified Early Gold (1795-1834) and Why They Are Scarce, Part I

By Silvano DiGenova

Methodology of This Study
There are those of us who not only consider early gold as rare coins worthy of our investment dollars, but the ultimate embodiment of the first American mint masters and engravers art as well. The best examples of these coins are rare and desirable as both artifacts of our new nation and tangible evidence of the difficulty that the original founders faced when creating our new currency system. The mintages are small and the survival rates in all grades low. Early United States gold coins in any grade worthy of investment are going to be both rare, and thus hard to come by, and much in demand, and thus expensive to buy.

Collectors have known that pre-1834 gold is rare virtually since the coins were originally made, but just how rare, while not a surprise is statistically amazing. All the mintage figures in this article come from John Dannruther’s new unpublished manuscript, which is very helpful, and sometimes, often, differs from the mintage figures in the Yeoman’s Red Book. I recommend you buy a copy when it is published, as it will unquestionably be the “state of the art” on the subject for years to come.

The population report figures come from both Professional Coin Dealers Grading Services and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation population report figures combined, in some, if not all cases there will be some duplication and other statistical errors, perhaps to the extend of 20 percent in either direction. Grades of individual coins go up and down with the fashions in grading, complicating the issue even further. Additionally, the coins held in old collections, museums and at the National Collection in Washington are not certified, so they will further confuse the survival rates. Therefore, survival rates within are a compilation of the opinions of Silvano DiGenova, John Dannruther, David Akers, David Hall and Neil Berman, DiGenova being the original source and later used to verify his estimates.

Early Money before United States Gold Coins
The first attempts at producing currency inside North America were issued by the Continental Congress, the original 13 Colonies individually, and later the brand new United States of America. Because these were for the most part paper or copper money, what little acceptance they received was on the faith our early patriots and did not readily translate into serious use for international commerce. The paper money devalued into fiat currency as paper money almost always does, and the need for hard currency became apparent immediately during the American Revolution. Production was planned as soon as the new government was able, which was no small undertaking. This was authorized by the new U.S. Government by the Mint Act of 1792.

This new coinage appears to have begun on or about March, 1793 with the production of what we now call chain cents, the design of which the public was not pleased with. The first gold coins, the coins that we are particularly interested in, half eagles, were not manufactured until 1795. It is here, at their little sisters, the quarter eagles, that we start our story.

Early gold coins come in three denominations, those being quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles, or 10-dollar pieces, as the gold coins were all divisions or multiplications of the eagle 10-dollar denomination. There were no denominations on the coins because it really did not matter to the merchants and governments of the time who used the coins in commerce, as the coins were only worth their weight and fineness in gold, and no more. They were emitted from the mint in the following order. First, the Half Eagles, 744 of them, were struck on July 31, 1795. Next, the Eagles, 1,097 units of the highest denomination coin, on Sept. 22, 1795. Last the lowest denomination gold coins, quarter eagles, and they were first delivered on Sept. 21, 1796 (Dannruther). A quick note on the mintage figures. All mintage figures at the early U.S. Mint are more or less educated guesses, as there was no law governing the use of dies like there is today. Dies were time consuming and expensive to make, and so the dies were used almost indiscriminately until they were no long serviceable, and sometimes even past then, as coins struck from cracked and rusted dies are not uncommon. The date on the gold coin is not necessarily the date that the coin was made at that first American mint, and in some cases has no relationship at all to the date of manufacture.

All the early gold coin types of all denominations are rare for several reasons. First, the very limited mintages made them hard to come by, even when they had just been freshly minted. Then they were removed from circulation for all of the usual reasons including loss and wear. The grand final, so to speak, was the change in the weight of all gold coins by Act of Congress on June 28, 1834 which restated the ratio of the value of gold to silver. With the increase in the relative gold value, the coins were worth more as metal than coins, and they were melted by the thousands. What is left today was saved as souvenirs by the new Americans, shopped overseas, saved as bank reserves both in the States and abroad, or in the hands of early collectors.

Descriptions to be continued in Part II

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