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Collectible Indian Head Gold
By Mike Thorne

The BUST of an Indian or Native American is a relatively common device on U.S. coins, although usually the final result is a version of Liberty with an Indian headdress. Examples of series with this type of "Indian" are the Indian Head cent, the Indian Head gold $1 and $3 pieces, and the Saint-Gaudens Indian Head gold $10s.

Don't get me wrong: All of these coins have great designs and are highly collectible. They just don't depict "real" Indians.

Fortunately for collectors of U.S. coins, there are a few coins minted for circulation with obverse devices modeled after genuine Native Americans. I refer, of course, to Buffalo (or Indian Head) nickels, and Indian Head gold $2.50s and $5s.

In addition to featuring portraits of a real Native American, the two gold pieces are unusual because their designs are sunken below the surface of the coin rather than being elevated as on other coins. This device was the brainchild of Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, who just happened to have "friends in high places," in particular one by the name of Theodore Roosevelt.

That's right: President Theodore Roosevelt. Now, Roosevelt had just succeeded in getting his late friend, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to produce two of arguably the most beautiful of all U.S. coin designs: the Indian Head gold $10 and $20.

After these two winners, almost anything else on the smaller gold denominations would have been a disappointment, particularly if Mint engraver Charles E. Barber had a hand in its design. But along comes Bigelow with his interesting idea, as Walter Breen expresses it in Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, "of making coins with devices sunk beneath the fields not true intaglio, but rather with relief designs depressed so that the highest points would not be at once worn away - "

Roosevelt liked the idea, and Bigelow contacted Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917) to work on models. Pratt was originally from Norwich, Conn., the son of a Yale-educated lawyer. Pratt himself graduated from Yale and then enrolled at the Art Students League of New York. There, he studied under a number of well-known artists of the period and in particular under Saint-Gaudens. From work in Saint-Gaudens private studio, Pratt traveled to Paris, where he trained under several sculptors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Returning to America in 1892, Pratt created sculptures for the Chicago World's Fair and began a career as a teacher of modeling at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. From this background, it is obvious that Pratt was well positioned to accept Bigelow's challenge.

According to Breen, "Pratt's Native American chieftain model remains unnamed, his tribe unknown - [On the reverse,] Pratt's eagle was a deliberate bow to St. Gaudens, and an equally elaborate tweak at Barber (who had in 1892 revived the heraldically encumbered Great Seal eagle for the overcrowded revs. of the then current quarter dollar and half dollar) - Pres. Roosevelt enthusiastically approved the designs."

Although Roosevelt specifically ordered the Mint to work on putting the coins into production at once, Barber managed to delay implementation of the design by insisting on reworking it. Thus, when the coins finally reached the public, they represented a watered-down version of Pratt's design.

As much as collectors of today appreciate the Indian Head gold $2.50s and gold $5s, the public a century ago apparently found much to criticize. As Breen puts it, "Pratt's designs at once came under attack, probably because of their unfamiliar conception. One of their severest critics was the Philadelphia coin dealer Samuel Hudson Chapman, who falsely alleged that the designs were antinaturalistic, unhygienic, incapable of stacking, and too easily counterfeited."

Breen concedes that Chapman's complaints about the unnatural appearance of the eagle was justified but places the blame for this problem on Barber, not on Pratt. Despite the criticisms, the design continued through 1929 without modification.

The reason for the unhygienic criticism is that it was believed that the sunken design would be a receptacle for disease-causing dirt. In Guth and Garrett's United States Coinage: A Study By Type, the authors write, "In reality, the incuse coins gathered no more dirt than coins with raised relief, nor has any study shown incuse coins to be more infectious than 'normal' coins."

As far as gold coins are concerned, the Indian Head gold $2.50 series is wonderful to collect. For one thing, a complete date-mint run consists of just 15 coins, with only one key, the 1911-D.

Also, with a mintage of 55,680, the 1911-D is far from rare, although the popularity of the series and the subsequent demand for the key keeps its price higher than it might otherwise be. The remaining 14 dates are relatively common except in higher mint-state grades.

Breen writes, "The only real rarities of this design are the matte proofs, which were issued in very limited quantities." The Philadelphia issues from 1908 through 1915 were all coined as proofs, with mintages ranging from 100 (1915) to 682 (1910). Actually, the 1910 is an extreme outlier, as all but one of the remaining six dates had mintages under 200. The mintage of the exception, 1908, was 236.

According to Breen, the proof issues "were unpopular because they are darker and duller than business strikes. Many were melted in 1916 as unsold." Breen, who is often highly critical of coin designs, concludes his description of Pratt's Indian Head gold $2.50s with the comment, "This design is overall one of the more aesthetically satisfying among 20th-century American coinages...&"

If you want to put together a set of Indian Head gold $2.50s, I would strongly urge you to buy the 1911-D first, if at all possible. According to Numismatic News "Coin Market," retail values for the date range from $2,500 in Very Fine-20 to $90,000 in Mint State-65. The value in MS-65 is almost certainly too low, however, as Jeff Ambio, revising David Akers' A Handbook of 20th Century United States Gold Coins 1907-1933, lists auction prices for the date in 1998, 2004, and 2006 of $139,725, $166,250, and $241,500, respectively.

Assuming that you won't be able to stretch for a 1911-D in MS-65, you might want to consider the prices of the other dates in the series in your thinking about what grades to buy. That is, in terms of their prices there's little reason to purchase any of the common dates in grades below About Uncirculated. Although the coins are appreciably less expensive in VF-20, you would probably find it difficult to find Pratt's gold $2.50s with that much wear.

Looking beyond the grade of VF-20, you'll find that the retail values of coins in Extremely Fine-40 and AU-50 are quite similar, with typically a difference of just $10-$25. For this small a differential, you would surely want to buy the coins in AU. Of course, if you choose this grade, then the retail value of the 1911-D will be $5,000, whereas it was "just" $3,650 in EF-40.

I just looked on eBay and found 15 1911-Ds for sale, along with a few replicas. Fifteen actually strikes me as a large number of the date for sale, but it corroborates the idea that the 1911-D is not particularly rare.

In case you're wondering, I do have a 1911-D. It's certified by the Professional Coin Grading Service as EF-45, and I bought it at a good time, right before a big jump in price. I offered the owner the wholesale price at the time, which was $950. "That sounds like too much," he told me. "How about $900?" What a way to bargain!

Actually, the values of the different dates don't advance all that much in MS-60, although the 1914, 1914-D, and 1929 begin to pull away slightly. The first two dates are condition rarities, relatively common in lower grades but uncommon in high mint-state grades.

With a mintage of 240,000, the 1914 has the second lowest mintage in the series, behind the 1911-D. Akers' Handbook notes, "Both the 1911-D and 1914 are equally rare in high grades." They're not equally expensive, however. Ambio lists an auction sale of the 1914 in 2005 in the grade of MS-66. The price realized was $40,250, which is a long way from $241,500 for an MS-65 1911-D.

Amazingly, Handbook comments, "The 1914-D is the premier rarity in the Indian Quarter Eagle series in grades at or above MS-65." Again, prices aren't commensurate with this rarity, as Ambio cites an auction sale in 2000 of the date in MS-67. It brought $27,025.

In my efforts to put together a set of the gold $2.50s in the best grades I could afford, I found that the biggest break in price came between MS-62 and MS-63, with the coins in MS-62 being close in price to those in MS-60 (around $300), whereas those in MS-63 are all at least $1,450. Faced with this kind of differential, I opted to buy the few dates I have in MS-62.

It should go without saying that with this kind of a difference in value between quite similar grades, it would behoove you to purchase only coins certified by the major certification services. Another reason to buy only certified coins is that counterfeits are known for this series.

Assembling a collection of Pratt's gold $5s is a bit more problematic than putting together a set of gold $2.50s. For one thing, there are 24 different date-mint combinations rather than just 15 different.

In addition, two of the dates, 1909-O and 1929, are expensive in all grades, and another date, 1911-D, tops the $1,000 mark in AU-50. The 21 remaining dates, however, shouldn't cost more than $500 apiece in AU-50, and quite a few are valued at $315 each in "Coin Market."

If you want to get the keys and semi-keys out of the way first, which is a good idea because these are the coins that always seem to be rising in value, then the 1909-O is the one to begin with. With a mintage of just 34,200 pieces, Breen calls it very scarce and writes that it's usually found in VF to EF. In these grades, it lists for $2,150 and $3,350, respectively. Of course, it goes up from there and is worth $475,000 in MS-65, according to "Coin Market."

I looked on eBay to see if the date was listed and found three examples (and many replicas). Two of the coins are certified, one in NGC AU-55 for $13,998 and the other in PCI MS-62 for $19,995. With a list value of $27,500 in MS-60, the PCI-graded coin seems underpriced, which makes me wonder about the accuracy of its grade.

The third 1909-O is uncertified, but the seller grades it EF/AU (he probably means EF-AU) and prices it at $3,750. This is a little on the high side, but probably not unreasonable for a coin this scarce.

One thing that would concern me about an uncertified 1909-O is the mintmark. According to the Handbook, "The 1909-O is usually fairly well struck, but the mintmark is normally weak." From the picture of the coin on eBay, the mintmark could possibly be a "D" that wishful-thinking and imagination have morphed into an "O." The lesson here is that you should only consider purchasing coins this scarce if they've been certified by one of the major services.

The second major rarity in the series is the 1929. The mintage of 662,000 is misleading, as few of the date were actually released into circulation. Instead, "they were retained in federal vaults until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the Gold Recall Act in early 1933, and most of the original mintage was destroyed in the Mint."

In "Coin Market," values for the 1929 begin at $7,500 in VF-20 and end at $50,000 in MS-65. This latter value appears reasonable, as an MS-65 specimen realized $51,750 at a Heritage auction in 2005. According to Breen, the date is typically seen in AU to Uncirculated, so I suspect that the values in VF and EF are mostly for coins that don't exist. My search of eBay revealed only replicas of the date.

As I indicated above, 1911-D is another good date in this series. With a mintage of just 72,500 pieces, the Handbook gives it a rarity ranking of 2nd of 24. Although Ambio writes that the 1911-D "is not as conditionally challenging as the 1912-S, 1913-S, 1914-S or 1915-S," this is not borne out by the "Coin Market" values. There, the four San Francisco pieces are worth between $105,000 and $125,000 in MS-65, whereas the 1911-D lists for $255,000 in the same grade. In keeping with this value, a PCGS-graded MS-65 realized $241,500 in a Bowers and Merena auction in 2006. I found several examples of the date listed on eBay, along with reproductions, of course.

In terms of mintage, the 1908-S gold $5 is another better date in the series, with a mintage of just 82,000 pieces. Values in circulated grades are slightly higher than those of the most common dates, but not high enough to deter most collectors. In AU-50, "Coin Market" assigns it a value of $410, which is about $100 above the least expensive dates in this grade.

According to Akers' Handbook, "The 1908-S is one of the prettiest issues in this series, and the overall eye appeal is well above average." If you're interested in buying one of the Pratt gold $5s for type, this would be a good choice, as its value in MS-65 ($22,250) is one of the lowest in the series, despite the low original mintage. I found three listed on eBay, with no replicas, which is probably an indication of how common the date is considered to be.

As noted above, the 1912-1915 gold $5s from San Francisco are all worth large amounts in MS-65, but are not particularly expensive through AU. In fact, in AU-50, the prices range from $410 for the 1914-S to $500 for the 1913-S. Thus, with three exceptions (1909-O, 1911-D, 1929), you should be able to assemble a complete run of Pratt's gold $5s in AU-50 for $500 apiece or less.

Care to guess what I'll work on after? I finish my set of Indian Head gold $2.50s?


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