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The Unwanted Gold Three Dollar
By Mark Benvenuto
Coins Magazine

The Gold $3 piece was not a denomination called for by the Mint Act of 1792. It wasn't authorized when the branch mints in Charlotte and Dahlonega were authorized, specifically to coin newly found gold as Americans pushed west. It was never a particularly popular coin, and didn't circulate too much. Yet the U.S. Mint pounded out gold $3s from 1854-1889, and did so, at one time or another, from four different mint facilities.

With all that going for and against it, one wonders if there are any gold $3 coins that qualify as key coins within this quirky series. A close look at the mintages indicate that fully three quarters of the years might qualify as keys.

That last statement begs a bit of explanation. How does a collector define a key coin? Is it by population, or is it by demand, or is it both? Or, perhaps, there is some other way to define a key coin? For fun, let's compare a couple of well-known key coins in different series against some of the gold $3s.

How about the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent for starters? That's as key as a coin can get. Just about every collector has heard of this coveted Lincoln variety, with the prominent initials of its designer, Victor D. Brenner. There were 484,000 of them minted. That's actually a tiny number when you compare it to the 72.7 million 1909 Lincoln cents made that year in Philadelphia without the initials, or the 27.9 million 1909 V.D.B. cents. But it's still 484,000 coins.

One of these key cents will cost a collector around $1,010 in Fine-12, or $1,650 in Mint State-60. It's not a king's ransom in either case, but it's not pocket change when one considers this is a small copper coin containing no precious metal.

How about the 1916-D Mercury dime? There were 264,000 of them minted. These then are rarer coins than the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincolns, and their prices seem to reflect it. In F-12, this is a $2,750 coin, and in MS-60 it is a $13,200 coin. By any count, that's a lot of money for one thin dime. But still, that's a pretty fair number of coins from which to choose.

How about the 1849 gold $20? Does that coin, with its mintage of one, qualify as a key? It is housed in the Smithsonian collection, is the rarest a coin can possibly be, and is never going to be auctioned, at least as far as any of us know. It's certainly an unobtainable coin, but it may be so rare it can't be considered a key, precisely because it can't be collected.

Now, when it comes to gold $3s, the 1873 has a mintage of 20 and so does the 1875. The 1876 has a mintage of 45. Without a doubt, these have got to be key coins. They generally don't have prices listed in the mint state grades, at least not in most standard price sheets.

Now, even though those key coins prices are higher than most of us will ever spend on a single coin, how come they aren't higher still? They are certainly many times rarer than the 1909-S V.D.B. cent or the 1916-D dime. Why aren't these key gold pieces through the roof?

The answer to that is that there is only a certain price level the market can stand for any given coin. It's more than just a number minted. In addition, there is no direct comparison between the mintages for key coins in one series and key coins in another.

To prove that last point, note that there were never more than 138,618 gold $3s in any one year, at any one mint. That first year of issue, 1854, saw this figure come out of the Philadelphia Mint, followed by a trickle of 24,000 of the 1854-O coins from New Orleans, followed by the tiny 1,120 pieces listed as 1854-D from Dahlonega. The only other year ever to come close to this first year total was 1878, when the Philadelphia Mint alone made them, to the tune of 82,324 coins.

As a matter of fact, there were only eight years in the entire span from 1854-1889 that even went into the five-figure production range, beyond the two years I have just mentioned. We just have to face the facts here, gold $3s are scarce coins at best, and rare coins at worst. Even at their most common, there are less of any of the gold $3s than there are of the key Lincoln cent or Mercury dime.

But this still brings us back to the original question I posed: What makes a key coin? Yes, the mintage is involved, but there has to be much more. The collector desire has to be there.

Condition of surviving coins needs to be taken into account, as does the number of collectors who go after a particular series. If the collectors aren't looking at the entire series (perhaps because it is perceived as too expensive or because it is perceived as a series from which most people simply get a type coin), even a rare coin might not be considered really a key date or mintmark.

The gold $3s actually help prove that last point, as several years within the series saw mintages of less than 5,000 coins. That's low, no doubt about it. But how many collectors try to assemble a complete set of gold $3s?

Answering this last question with the word "few" brings a realization with it. The realization is that when a series has key coins, or even semi-key coins, within it, but the series isn't heavily collected, there is the possibility of a lot of sleepers. Sleepers are generally considered undervalued coins. And in a series like the gold $3s, there are quite a few dates that qualify, based at least on the key coins I have mentioned.

For example, the 1881 has a total of 554 coins to its name. That's actually a large number when you compare it to the three keys I have mentioned, but it is much less than the 50,555 gold $3s minted at Philadelphia in 1855, the third highest year of mintage for the series. But the 1855 has a price tag of $900 in Very Fine-20, whereas the 1881 sports a $1,400 tag in the same grade. Neither is a junk box coin by any means. Yet this coin, which probably qualifies as a semi-key, is 10 times as rare as the 1855. Yet it is less than double the price.

Interestingly, the 1885 is the next rarest of the gold $3s. There were only 910 of these coins made. Yet, in VF-20, it currently costs $1,300. The coin is still a semi-key, hasn't even twice the mintage of the 1881, yet it costs less than the 1881. This could be a sleeper.

With this talk of key and semi-key coins drifting into a discussion of sleepers, let's throw one more important factor into the mix, one that will bring us sharply back to reality. That is availability.

When it comes to gold $3s, it seems that a person will have to be patient whether they are collecting keys, semi-keys, or even some of the more common coins. The 1854, with its 138,618 mintage, is probably not an impossible piece to find at a major show, and thus start your collection. The 1878 might not be too difficult either.

The 1855, and even the 1874 (a 41,820 total here), might be found if you look about at enough well-stocked dealerships or shows. But for all those dates that drop below 20,000 coins, the gold $3s are going to be tough to find.

They may qualify as sleepers, since they remain few in number but are reasonably priced. But all this gets considered before you get to what have to be considered the semi-key and key-date coins within the series.


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