Ten Great Dream Coins
By Mike Thorne
In my personal experience, money has always been
an object. I've been known, for example, to
bypass a type of fish at the grocery story
because I thought the price was a dollar a pound
too high. My wife thinks I'm foolish to act this
way, but I can't help it: It's just become part
of my nature.
Having said that, for this article I'm going to
fight my normal tendencies and go for broke. I'm
going to choose coins that have always appealed
to me at least in part because they really are
so far out of my league.
In fact, some of the coins I've chosen are out
of almost everyone's league. I will start by
telling you that my 10 Dream Coins are not the
usual suspects. I haven't chosen, for example,
coins such as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the
1804 dollar, or the 1894-S dime. For some
reason, those coins have never particularly
appealed to me. Don't get me wrong: If you want
to offer me one, I'll be more than willing to
take it off your hands.
For my first Dream Coin, I'm going to start with
one of America's early coin issues. As you would
expect, for each of the coins I'm choosing, I
want one in the best condition possible.
Dream Coin No. 1:
1793 Liberty Cap cent.
I can already hear your question: Why not the
1793 cent with the chain design? Well, to put it
bluntly, I agree with the many detractors of
that coin's obverse design. As Walter Breen so
colorfully put it in his Encyclopedia of U.S.
and Colonial Coins, "The hair looks disheveled,
then connoting failure of respectability and
either madness or savagery, explaining Carlile
Pollock's oft-quoted comment&, 'A plough and a
sheaf of wheat would be better than an idiot's
head with flowing hair which was meant to denote
Liberty, but which the world will suppose was
intended to designate the head of an Indian
squaw.'" Of course, the term "Indian squaw" is
politically incorrect to the extreme, but you
get the picture: The obverse is not particularly
There were also complaints aplenty about the
reverse chain design, which some contemporary
citizens characterized as an "attempt to
associate liberty with the chains of slavery."
Of course, as slaves would not be emancipated in
America for many decades, the chain cent could
be perceived as a case of "telling it like it
So, bypassing the 1793 Flowing Hair chain cent
and the Flowing Hair 1793 Wreath cent, my first
Dream Coin is the large cent designed by Joseph
Wright, the 1793 Liberty Cap cent. According to
Breen, Wright's design for this cent came in the
"last few weeks of life, before he succumbed to
yellow fever.& Wright died five or six days
before the single delivery, 11,056 pieces (Sept.
18, 1793), so that he most likely never saw any
of the coins made from his dies.&" This is
reminiscent of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the
gold $20 that bears his name. Like Wright,
Saint-Gaudens died before seeing his coin in
If money indeed were no object and I could
actually afford a 1793 Liberty Cap cent, what
would it cost me? Breen estimates survival of
the coin at a little over 2 percent of the
original issue or somewhat under 250 pieces,
most of which are in low grades. He suggests
that "possibly as many as six grade AU to Unc.,
eight EF." According to Numismatic News "Coin
Market," the coin is worth $67,500 in Extremely
Fine and $40,000 in About Uncirculated, which
has to be a typo. Surely it should be $140,000.
Small wonder that Breen calls the 1793 Liberty
Cap "the most famous of the 1793 cents and
possibly the most prized of all large cents."
Dream Coin No. 2:
1916-D Mercury dime.
Now this may seem like an odd choice, as the
1916-D Mercury dime is not particularly rare, at
least in most grades, and I even own a low-grade
example. However, it's the key date to an
extremely popular series and, as such, is always
in great demand. I particularly like it because
it's a coin that was actually still circulating
when I did my roll searches in the late 1950s
and early 1960s. Of course, the few still "out
there" were almost surely in the Fair to Good
range of grades.
Adolph A. Weinman, whose initials "AW" are on
the obverse opposite the back of Liberty's neck,
designed the dime to replace the unlamented
Barber version. He also designed the half
dollar, of course, but none of them are on my
Dream Coin list.
Weinman dressed his head of Liberty in a winged
cap, and somehow the notion stuck that this
represented the fleet Mercury, whose wings were
on his feet! Thus, the coin came to be known
popularly as the Mercury Head (or just Mercury)
With a mintage of 264,000 pieces and
differential retention because of its being the
first year of issue, you wouldn't expect the
coin to be worth $1,000 in G-4, but that's what
demand will do for you. In Jeff Garrett and Ron
Guth's book, 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, the 1916-D
is coin No. 65. Under the heading "Rarity," the
authors label the 1916-D "scarce," with the
following caution: "The true scarcity of the
1916-D Dime has been masked by the presence of
numerous fakes, most of which were created by
the addition of a small mint mark on the back of
a Philadelphia Dime. Certification remains a
must.&" To which I say, "Amen."
Because price is no object, naturally I want the
best one I can find. "Coin Market" prices it at
$44,500 in Mint State-65 FSB (full split bands).
On June 2, 2008, a Professional Coin Grading
Service-graded specimen in MS-65 FB sold for
$57,500. Searching Heritage Rare Coin's massive
auction archives, I found that a PCGS MS-66 FB
1916-D sold for $63,250 in November 2005.
However, the ultimate specimen, graded MS-67 FB
by PCGS, realized $128,800 in 2001. That's the
one I want.
Dream Coin #3:
1916 Standing Liberty quarter.
Like the 1916-D dime, this is really just a
"normal" collector coin. In fact, it's the key
to completing a set of Standing Liberty
quarters, which are believed by many collectors
to have one of the all-time best designs on U.S.
The date is expensive for several reasons.
First, just 52,000 were minted at the tail-end
of 1916. Second, attrition because of the
elevated placement of the date (which soon wore
away) made an already scarce coin even scarcer.
Third, there's the demand factor, which in many
cases trumps availability. Even though there are
quite a few uncirculated specimens available
because of differential retention (first year of
a new design), the coin is quite valuable in any
Designed by Hermon MacNeil, the 1916 Standing
Liberty quarter is coin No. 59 in Garrett and
Guth's list. They write, "Above MS-65, the 1916
Standing Liberty Quarter becomes extremely rare;
superb pieces are virtually non-existent." "Coin
Market" assigns it a value of $37,500 in MS-65
FH (full head). Searching Heritage's auction
archives, I found that an NGC-graded MS-67 FH
sold for $97,750 in June 2005. Surely, a
comparable piece would bring more than $100,000
in today's market.
Dream Coin #4:
1895 Morgan dollar.
Now this is a coin that's actually worth a lot
more than it ought to be. Supposedly, 12,000 of
this date were made for circulation, with
another 880 proofs. However, no one has ever
found a specimen made for circulation, so all
the coins of the date available to Morgan dollar
collectors are actually proofs, although many
made it into circulation.
So, if we're talking about a coin with a mintage
of just 880 pieces, of which many are
undoubtedly no longer with us, how can I say the
1895 Morgan is worth more than it ought to be
worth? Well, it turns out that there are several
proof Morgan dates with considerably lower
mintages that are worth considerably less than
the 1895. For example, a PCGS-graded PR-67 Cameo
specimen of the 1890 proof, which had a mintage
of just 590 pieces, sold in a Heritage auction
in August 2006 for $20,700. A comparable 1895 is
worth at least five times as much.
The difference is that the 1895 proof is often
collected as part of the complete date-mintmark
set of Morgan dollars, whereas the 1890 proof is
collected as part of the set of Morgan proofs.
The former series enjoys wide collector interest
and demand, whereas there are relatively few
collectors of the proof series.
Although not the priciest, the best 1895 I found
in the Heritage auction archives was one graded
PR-68 Deep Cameo by PCGS. In July 2003, this
spectacular coin sold for $120,750. In April
2007, a PCGS-graded 1895 PR-66 DC went for
$126,500, which leads me to believe that if the
PR-68 again comes on the market, it'll fetch
more than it did in 2003.
Garrett and Guth concur with this prediction, as
they write: "A couple of incredibly beautiful
Proof-68 examples are known; these always turn
heads and fetch record prices whenever they
appear on the market." The 1895 Morgan dollar is
coin No. 66 on the list of the top 100 U.S.
coins. Naturally, I want one of the PR-68 DCs
for my dream collection.
Dream Coin No. 5 and No. 6: Stella $4 Flowing
Hair and Coiled Hair gold pieces.
The Stella or gold $4 pieces are actually
pattern coins that are collected almost like
regularly issued coins. One variety, the 1879
Flowing Hair Stella, is more like the 1856
Flying Eagle cent in terms of its mintage and
availability than it is like other patterns.
Mintage of this piece was at least 425 and
possibly as many as 725, as it was struck for
review by Congress.
The Stella, which is named for the large
five-pointed star on the reverse ("stellar"
means of or pertaining to stars), was proposed
as an international trade token. Although this
odd-denomination coin never made it into
production as a trade piece, four different
versions were minted: Flowing Hair and Coiled
Hair varieties in both 1879 and 1880.
The Flowing Hair Liberty design was the work of
Charles E. Barber, whereas the Coiled Hair
version was the handiwork of George T. Morgan.
Although quite a few of the 1879 with Flowing
Hair are known, as stated above, the other
varieties are exceedingly scarce. According to
the A Guide Book of United States Coins, the
number of 1879 Coiled Hair, 1880 Flowing Hair,
and 1880 Coiled Hair pieces known are 12, 17,
and 18, respectively. These two designs share
No. 28 on Garrett and Guth's list.
Values are steep, as you would expect for
beautiful coins with significant demand and
limited (sometimes extremely limited)
availability. According to the Red Book, in
PR-67 the 1879 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair and
1880 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stellas are
worth $400,000, $950,000, $575,000, and
$1,500,000, respectively. I'll take one of each.
Dream Coin #7:
1822 $5 gold piece.
The reason I chose this particular coin is that
I remember its having the highest value of any
coin listed in my first Red Book. The value back
in 1958 was $15,000, which was a hefty sum 50
years ago. In the current Red Book, there's a
figure of $5,000,000 for the date. "Coin Market"
gives a $1,000,000 value, with a note that a
Very Fin-30 specimen sold in a private sale in
1993 for that amount.
This is a coin with a total of three known from
an original mintage of 17,796. What happened to
the rest? According to Garrett and Guth, who
place the 1822 half eagle at No. 9 in their top
100 U.S. coins, melting because of the changing
value of gold was the culprit. Of the three
remaining pieces, two are in the Smithsonian and
are thus unavailable to collectors. There's no
telling what I'll have to pay the next time one
comes up for auction, but price is no object!
Dream Coin #8:
1907 Saint-Gaudens ultra high
relief gold $20.
The Saint-Gaudens gold $20 is widely held to be
the pinnacle of U.S. coinage art, and the ultra
high relief specimens are the penultimate
expressions of that design. According to Garrett
and Guth, who rank this particular coin No. 5 on
the list of the top 100 U.S. coins, "The MCMVII
(1907) Ultra-High Relief&double eagle is a
magnificent example of the minting craft. It
takes America's most beautiful coin to a new
level.& Perhaps no other U.S. coin, or world
coin for that matter, has the visual appeal of
the ultra high relief. It is truly sad that this
gorgeous coin is so expensive and can only be
possessed by a very few lucky collectors." They
might have added "and rich" before "lucky
The ultra high relief coins were minted during
February and March of 1907, each coin requiring
nine strikes with 172 tons of hydraulic
pressure. According to Breen, "Some 24 proof
specimens were made of this incredible design,
each nearly double the thickness at edge of the
regular double eagle.& Only these faithfully
represent St. Gaudens's conception, cherished as
the stunning climax of American coin design. The
art expert Cornelius Vermeule has justly
compared it to the Nike of Samothrace!"
Garrett and Guth give an estimate of 16 to 18
known specimens of the lettered-edge variety,
with a single plain-edge version. The Red Book
assigns the coin a value of $2,250,000 in PR-67
and note that a PR-69 version brought $2,990,000
in a November 2005 Heritage auction. For my
Dream Coin collection, I'll take the PR-69
specimen the next time it's for sale.
Dream Coin #9:
1927-D Saint-Gaudens gold $20.
Compared to the last coin, this Saint-Gaudens
gold $20 is relatively ordinary, at least in
appearance. Several years ago, I decided to see
how many different Saints I could accumulate
before I was stopped by either rarity or price
or both. When I mentioned this quest to one of
my brothers, who happens to be interested in
coins, he asked me if I had a 1927-D.
I was pretty sure this was a better date, but I
had to consult a current Red Book to see just
how much better it actually was. After all, in
my 1958 edition, the 1927-D appeared to be a
better date but not a great rarity, with a Fine
value of $275 (common dates listed for well
below $100) and an uncirculated price of $850,
which is the highest of any date and even higher
than the high relief varieties in proof ($750).
In hindsight, knowing what I now know, I should
have saved my money and bought one of the few
1927-Ds that actually existed.
The 1927-D wasn't always considered so
prohibitively rare. Other dates, such as the
1924-D and the 1926-D, were considered rarer
until small groups of them were found in Europe.
This has not happened with the 1927-D, and today
the number available is on the order of a dozen
Garrett and Guth place the 1927-D at No. 50 in
their list of the top 100 U.S. coins and write
that survivors are mostly in higher mint-state
grades. The value of this date depends on the
latest one sold at auction, as each new sale
seems to set a record for the date in the
particular grade. The value listed in the Red
Book is for one sold by Heritage in November
2005. With a PCGS grade of MS-67, it sold for
$1,897,500. Naturally, this is the 1927-D I
Dream Coin No. 10: 1915-S Panama-Pacific
Exposition Octagonal $50 gold piece.
Yes, I realize that I'm choosing the version of
this coin with the largest distribution (645 vs.
483), but you've got to admit that an octagonal
coin is somehow more interesting than its round
counterpart. Like how many octagonal coins do
you have in your collection? How many round? I
rest my case.
This spectacular coin was minted as part of the
commemorative set for the 1915 Panama-Pacific
Exposition, held in San Francisco to celebrate
the opening of the Panama Canal. In addition to
the two $50 pieces, there was also a silver half
dollar and gold $1 and $2.50 pieces.
Robert Aitken designed the coin, putting the
helmeted head of Minerva, the Roman goddess of
wisdom (among other things), on the obverse, and
a large owl, symbol of wisdom, on the reverse.
Obviously, these were wise choices. One feature
the octagonal variety has that the round one
doesn't have is a series of dolphins swimming in
Each $50 coin, or "slug" as they are sometimes
called, contains nearly 2.5 ounces of gold. In
Garrett and Guth's 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, this
is coin No. 26. According to the authors, the
"survival of the original net mintage is high,
perhaps 80-90%." Still, 80 percent of 645 is a
little more than 500 pieces, and with tremendous
demand, you know the coin is going to be
expensive. "Coin Market" values the octagonal
piece at $148,000 in MS-65.
Well, there they are, 10 coins that I would want
if money were no object. Of course, in addition
to money, one huge problem with my list is
availability. Some of these coins will probably
not come on the market during the rest of my
In addition, these are the coins I just happened
to think of at this time. Ask me tomorrow, and
my list might be entirely different.
But that would necessitate another article, and
my deadline is fast approaching. I guess these
will have to do.