The Unwanted Gold Three Dollar
By Mark Benvenuto
$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
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
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
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
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
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.