Challenge Yourself With Gold Type Collection
By Paul M. Green
easy to forget that the idea behind coin
collecting is not to get rich quick, but to
enjoy yourself. Of course, having the coins you
buy go up in price is good, too, but sometimes
in the quest to find good deals and to fill
holes it is easy to forget that coin collecting
is a hobby. That means the primary purpose is to
spend time in a pleasant way.
In some respects I had an advantage in growing
up with the hobby at a time that anything seemed
possible and everything was interesting. I
continue to look at things through the prism of
those formative years.
In collecting coins from circulation, the prime
purpose was always to fill holes and to have fun
doing it. I probably had as much fun one day
restoring dates on Buffalo nickels as I had in
almost any other day in my childhood. A Buffalo
nickel with a restored date was not going to be
worth any more than its face value, but simply
filling an entire set in one lazy summer
afternoon while a nervous mother hoped nothing
would explode was a glorious way to spend a day.
It might well have been the best way to start
collecting and perhaps it is a good reason to
try to collect the 50 state quarters from
circulation as there never seemed to be any real
pressure in terms of whether your coins were
going up or down in price.
The fact was, having not spent more than face
value for any coin in my collection for a couple
years, there was no pressure. The only direction
they could go in price was up. That would change
over time, but the simple joy of filling holes
was more than enough for me.
It was much the same way with when I turned to
gold. Today it is hard to imagine the idea of a
gold coin collection being essentially a case of
nothing ventured, nothing gained, but in 1970
the gold coin situation was very different.
Back in 1970 almost no one collected gold coins.
There was a simple reason: the gold price
changed very little if at all. Moreover, many
were still uncertain about the legal status of
gold. It was illegal to own gold bullion. It was
illegal to own many gold coins dated after 1933
and virtually all gold coins dated after 1959,
but it was perfectly legal to own gold coins
struck and issued before 1934.
The gold recall order of 1933 really cast a
shadow over gold ownership. The combination of
factors saw very few if any hobbyists collecting
gold, and that would only change slowly.
From all my previous years of collecting, which
by 1970 numbered more than a decade, I can
barely ever even remember seeing a gold coin in
a coin shop, and I had almost taken up residence
in some coin shops over the years. About the
only time you would even see a gold coin was if
you went to a coin show or major coin dealer or
department store that had a numismatic
department - which some did at the time.
Otherwise, the closest thing I remember to a
gold coin was a gold-plated 1883 "No Cents"
nickel and a couple pieces of California
fractional gold that might well have been tokens
and not coins as they were mixed in with my
favorite coin display, which was in the front
window of a barber shop by the old train
By 1970 I was relatively confident that I had my
college obligations figured out, with the
exception of the foreign language requirement,
and I could take time to do some reading I had
been meaning to do. Some of that reading
involved numismatics and some involved gold.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I began
to consider the idea of owning a gold coin.
The first obvious thing I noticed was that gold
coins were expensive. Fortunately, I was making
money by working on the school paper, so I could
consider the top of the line, which looked to be
a Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Actually, I could
have opted for a Coronet Head double eagle, but
how can anyone resist the Saint-Gaudens double
eagle design at essentially the same price?
By the time I had figured it all out, my Saint-Gaudens
double eagle was going to run me about $75. That
would put a strain on my finances, but I was
still determined I was going to have a double
In my life, I have spent a lot of nervous time
waiting for important packages to arrive. A
mixed roll of Indian Head cents was high on that
list once, but nothing was any worse than
waiting for my Saint-Gaudens double eagle. It
turned out to be worth the wait.
It is really hard to put into words just how
good your first Saint-Gaudens double eagle in
your hand makes you feel. That is one reason I
was happy with my about uncirculated example.
Without fear of it losing value, I could hold it
and enjoy it. I could also show it off and I did
so. My girlfriend being a coin collector, and an
even more accomplished coin spender, immediately
My European History professor, who was also my
advisor, called me in for a serious
heart-to-heart conversation, not about my fiasco
with the French language, but rather about his
interest in obtaining gold coins depicting some
of the past kings and queens of England.
The worst was a friend who clearly spent far too
much time watching movies. At the time, dressed
all in black and riding his motorcycle, he
seemed like some sort of movie character. After
examining my double eagle carefully, he tried to
bite it, leaving an impression on the coin.
"It's real!" he announced triumphantly, as
though he had tested gold coins with his teeth
all his life. I had no response although I did
have a secret hope he would need major surgery
on his tooth.
Even having had my new double eagle violated in
such a manner, nothing could dampen my joy over
the new coin, which I was carting around
everywhere. The grade had already been lowered
from its original less-than-lofty AU, so I
really had nothing to lose. It was a joy simply
pulling it out and looking at it any time I
wanted. As it turned out, my professor got the
bug, too, and promptly I was ordering a set of
gold British sovereigns for him. I did not make
any money on the transaction, although I think
to this day it played a major role in what was
viewed as my miraculous passing of the required
Ordering coins for my professor was satisfying,
but I still wanted more and decided that the
logical approach was a gold type set. I would
have been happy to collect Saint-Gaudens double
eagles. I had to be realistic about my finances,
however, and there was no way I could afford
double eagles on a regular basis.
It was a major sacrifice simply to acquire a
Coronet Head double eagle. While it, too, was a
great coin, there was something about the Saint-Gaudens
design that could not be topped. That is why it
was no surprise about 15 years later in 1986
when that design was selected for the gold
American Eagles as it is perfect for a large
Having taken care of my two double eagles, I
decided to turn my attention on the rest of the
basic eight-piece gold type set. I had no
problem ordering by mail, but one week in early
November I decided to take a tour of local coin
shops to see what they might have in stock.
I did not have a lot of money, and back in 1970
it did not cost a lot of money to buy a Coronet
Head quarter eagle, half eagle or eagle, and the
Indian Head versions of the three denominations
were roughly the same price. The Saint-Gaudens
Indian Head gold eagle was usually just a little
It was getting late in the afternoon when I
started my tour and, being early November in
Wisconsin, it was already getting dark. My first
stop produced a surprising reaction. I asked the
owner if he had any gold coins and was told
bluntly, "They aren't legal." It was too late
and he was too serious to get into that
discussion, but it shows that even 37 years
after the gold recall order of 1933 there was
still misunderstanding and suspicion when it
came to gold coins.
The process of completing my eight-coin gold
type set went slowly, largely because of my
finances. Still, every coin was interesting.
There were always little facts that would
surface as I studied each, such as how the
Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles had
touched off a lively debate over whether the
coins were unhealthy because of their incuse
motifs. I found it as interesting that even a
few years before James Earle Fraser's Buffalo
nickel, Bela Lyon Pratt had opted to use a real
Native American as a model, so for the first
time an Indian Head design actually looked like
a real Native American.
I don't know which meant more, the college
diploma or the eight-piece gold type set I
completed at about the same time. As it turned
out, I guess the two went together. What I
learned in obtaining my history degree has come
in handy in writing about coins.
I did not really see my post-college job at the
Neenah-Menasha Chamber of Commerce as entering
the cold hard world, but rather an opportunity
to boost my income. As it turned out, my new
office was only a few blocks from the major
Menasha coin shop, which was run by Dick
Anderson who also just happened to deliver our
mail every day.
It was perfect. I would get an update on what
was new in inventory every day, and the store
was on my way home every night. It was easy to
get them to stay open a few minutes if I wanted
to look at something.
If Anderson had had his way, I would probably
never have purchased things like rugs or a TV
for my apartment. He always had far more ideas
for coins I needed than my budget would support.
That said, he and his wife loved coins and so
did I, so we hit it off well, periodically going
to dinner. Eventually they even invited me to a
couple shows as their guest.
Among the many ideas Dick had was that I needed
to expand my eight-piece type set to include the
three different gold dollars as well as the
expensive gold $3. That was one of his ideas
that I took up, and the Type 1 and Type 3 gold
dollars were quickly added to the set, if not
quite in the grade Dick would have liked.
I explained to him that I had a long history of
filling holes with whatever coins I could
reasonably afford and that paying much more for
a better grade at age 22 was still not quite
possible. My income had to catch up with his
taste for top grades.
The Type 2 gold dollar was going to be a
problem. Issued for just a few years and with no
date having a mintage of even a million, there
is really no common Type 2 gold dollar. That is
just a fact of life. I was reconciled to adding
an 1854 or 1855 to my set until one day Dick
greeted me with "Why don't you add a really rare
coin to your set?"
With that greeting, I suspected there was
trouble. Sure enough, Dick was explaining the
importance of the gold dollar in the holder in
front of him before I even had a chance to
examine it. The coin at best was a VF-20, but it
was an 1855-C, mintage 9,803. That mintage
certainly got my attention. I had never even
imagined owning a U.S. coin with a mintage of
less than 10,000.
"Think of what the price would be if it was a
Mercury dime with that mintage," Dick cheerfully
observed. He had a point, but it was not a
Mercury dime so the demand was much less, which
meant it would never come close to the sort of
price a Mercury dime would bring had it had such
a low mintage.
I told Dick I would have to sleep on it. While
doing that, Dick was already outlining a
convenient payment plan. If I played my cards
right and ate at Chamber of Commerce functions
almost every night, I could potentially have the
coin paid off quickly, simply by not buying
I had told Dick I would sleep on it, but in fact
I could not sleep thinking about how rare that
1855-C gold dollar was. Its mintage was so low
and its chances for survival so poor that there
could not be many in any grade.
I decided I had to have it although the payment
terms would have to be a little longer than
Dick's "live free off local business meetings"
approach, which had been at least half in jest
anyway. Once I had the coin, I could not put it
down. I examined it repeatedly, wishing it could
talk so that I could learn where it had been
since 1855. If there was any negative other than
its low grade, it was the fact that it probably
took away some from my final purchase of an 1854
$3 gold piece, a legitimately tough coin that
when compared to an 1855-C gold dollar does not
seem as special as it might normally.
Suddenly, however, I had a real void in my life
- my gold type set was now basically complete.
Dick was quick to point out that there were
earlier gold issues not normally considered to
be part of the set. I agreed but said I needed a
while to think about it or other options.
I came close to adding to my set a number of
times. There was an 1801 $10 at a Milwaukee
Numismatists of Wisconsin show, and I came close
to making a deal through Dick on that coin. The
coin was just an F-12 and was at a reasonable
price that almost seemed worth the financial
sacrifice. The fact that I remember it decades
later shows how interested I was.
It might have been another case where the 1855-C
hurt the other coin by comparison as with a
mintage placed at 44,344, the 1801 eagle would
have seemed great in many situations, but
compared to the 1855-C it looked more common.
What it had was age, but in the end I passed on
the eagle and bought a Bust dollar instead.
The other gold coins that had me seriously
tempted were the William Kneass Classic Head
quarter eagles and half eagles that began in
1834. In fairness, the Classic Head quarter
eagles and half eagles are more expensive than a
Coronet Head quarter eagle or half eagle, but
they are almost certainly worth the price. I
have always felt they basically fall between the
cracks of interest, making them great values as
they are not the scarce early gold issues of the
United States and neither are they included in
usual type sets.
The Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles
were really issues of a pivotal time. The amount
of gold they contained was reduced slightly,
enabling them to circulate where the old issues
would not. The Classic Head coins, because of
their higher mintages, are assumed to be
available, but remember they were only produced
for a few years. The Coronet Head design was in
production by the 1840s.
The total number of Classic Head coins produced
was not that high and they had to survive a long
time to be in the market today. As a result, I
always thought they were probably inexpensive.
Even being partial toward acquiring an example,
though, I never really found one at the grade
and price that made it impossible to resist.
To this day I still have mixed emotions about
not adding to my gold type set. I also question
why I did not make a few different choices, such
as adding a potentially better date $3 gold as
opposed to the more available 1854. A better
date would have been only a couple hundred
dollars more. While a lot of money for me at the
time, it would have been money well spent in
terms of increasing my enjoyment of the coin.
Such second-guessing has never taken away from
the enormous fun I had with my gold type
collection. I showed it to countless startled
non-collectors who were suddenly confronted with
my gold collection whether they wanted to see it
or not. The Saint-Gaudens double eagle more than
paid for itself in such experiences, even with
that unfortunate bite mark. The 1855-C gold
dollar was very much the same. It had been a lot
of money for me at the time, but the hours I
spent with that coin made its purchase one of
the best I have ever made.
Certainly my gold type set was not in the
highest grade and it was not evenly matched in
grade - it probably reflected my slightly
scattered personality of the time. It had been
enormously interesting to assemble and to own.
It also rose in price as gold moved to over $800
1980 but that was secondary, even though no
coins I have ever owned have ever gone up so
much in price in such a short period. The
enjoyment was priceless then and remains