A precious piece of history changed hands recently when Scott Travers Rare Coin Galleries brokered the sale of a superb 1857-S double eagle plucked from the wreckage of the storied SS Central America. The glittering $20 gold piece, graded Mint State-67 by the Professional Coin Grading Service, may well be the finest specimen retrieved from the doomed steamer’s watery grave – and the finest Type I Coronet double eagle in existence.

The coin, an example of the scarce “bold-S” variety, is one of just three such pieces in the Central America cache, and 11 of any kind from the ship’s spectacular cargo, to receive the lofty grade of MS-67 from PCGS. It remains in the original gold-foil-insert holder used by the company to showcase coins from the ship and signify they were subject to no additional restoration after their recovery from the wreck and initial curation – a crucial consideration in assuring their high quality is pristine. The specimen was hand-picked by Scott Travers and John Albanese, a longtime professional numismatist who played a key role in the founding of both PCGS and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC) and who now serves as an independent consultant. According to Albanese, it is possibly the finest-known Type I double eagle – the kind produced from 1849 to 1866 without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse. In all, only 12 have been graded MS-67 by PCGS, and none higher. The value is in excess of $100,000 – and the Certified Coin Dealer Newsletter has a sight-unseen listing of $90,000 for a coin of this date, type and grade.

The cargo of the SS Central America included thousands of gold coins and hundreds of gold bars and ingots when the 280-foot sidewheel steamer left Panama on Sept. 3, 1857, bound for New York. The coins had been struck at the three-year-old San Francisco Mint with ore from the California Gold Rush. The bulk of the 477 passengers and 101 crew members also had come from San Francisco. In that era before the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal, it was common practice to transport passengers and cargo from the U.S. West Coast by ship to Panama’s Pacific coast, then across the isthmus by train to the Atlantic side, where a new ship picked them up for the trip to New York and other Eastern ports. On Sept. 9, the ship encountered an unexpected storm; three days later, it sank off the Carolina coast, carrying 425 souls and its rich cargo to a tomb at the bottom of the sea.

In 1981, Tommy Thompson and other adventurers formed the Columbus-America Discovery Group to seek the ship’s grave and recover its treasure. They located it on Sept. 11, 1987 – almost exactly 130 years after the Central America was swallowed by the sea. After more than a decade of painstaking salvage operations and complicated legal maneuvers, the treasure finally reached the marketplace several years ago. And now, with the recent sale by Scott Travers Rare Coin Galleries, one of the ship’s most breathtaking coins has found a new home where its history, beauty and rarity will be appreciated and preserved by the legacy’s latest custodian.





Gold has always held tremendous fascination for mankind. Its beauty, rarity and durability combine to give it timeless appeal and great value.

Coin collectors appreciate these attributes even more than most people, for they share special insights into the glorious history not only of the metal itself but also of the time-honored coins produced from the glamorous yellow metal.

Gold coins, like all coins, are hand-held pieces of history. They outshine virtually all other coins, however, because their main component is so coveted, so admired and so prized.

Many U.S. gold coins rank high on collectors’ wish lists and want lists, and it would be difficult to single out 10 as the most significant. Rather than address their significance alone, then, I’ve picked out 10 that I believe to be the most collectible–the ones that for various reasons possess the greatest attraction for collectors.

Your list of 10 might be totally different from mine–but after you look mine over, I think you will agree that all of the coins on my list are truly special.

(1) The Saint-Gaudens double eagle.

During the 90 years since its introduction, the “Saint” has assumed a place high in the pantheon of U.S. numismatics. Many–if not most–observers of U.S. coinage consider it the greatest coin this nation has ever issued.

Its designer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was a giant in U.S. sculpture, and his coinage work clearly revealed him to be a master of small-size art as well as massive statues. This $20 gold piece, intended as a reflection of ancient Greek art, measures up to that challenge and, indeed, compares favorably with the ancients’ classic creations. The first-year coins of 1907 include a mere 11,250 struck for circulation in high relief.

A 1908 example that carries a grade of Mint State-64 displays a sharpness of detail on these early dates that make them particularly ideal showcases for Saint-Gaudens’ stunning artwork.

The relief was reduced in 1907 because its original height was impractical for everyday coinage. Even the subsequent regular-relief issues in this series have exceptional beauty, however. This coin’s vibrant luster is apparent and highly appealing.

Saint-Gaudens double eagles contain very nearly a full ounce of gold, making them attractive not only as works of art but also as stores of precious metal. And while the series does include a number of great rarities worth many thousands of dollars, common-date Saints are extremely affordable, even in mint condition.

MS-65 common-date Saints currently are listed at less than $1,000–and these are certified coins, graded and encapsulated by one of the major grading services. At this writing in 1997, the sight-unseen bids are $900 for Saints graded MS-65 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and $850 for MS-65 pieces graded by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC). In MS-64, the corresponding values are $560 and $555, respectively.

(2) Indian Head eagle.

The sheer majesty of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ magnificent double eagle tends to overshadow the almost equal greatness of the second U.S. gold coin he created: the Indian Head eagle, or $10 gold piece.

Some critics consider this smaller companion gold piece to be even more attractive than the lordly double eagle because its design possesses greater simplicity. And whether you agree with them or not, there’s surely no denying that this coin, too, ranks among this nation’s most beautiful examples of numismatic art.

The 1907 Rolled Edge eagle illustrated here is an awe-inspiring coin obviously worthy of its lofty designation as a PCGS MS-66. The price is also correspondingly high.

Collectors with limited budgets needn’t despair. In lower mint-state grades, the 1908-1933 type is available at very affordable levels, and that helps make them extremely collectible. You can get a lovely MS-63 example for $600. And a very attractive MS-62 example, free from major abrasions, would cost you less than $400.

(3) Proof gold coinage.

The Liberty Head double eagle ($20 gold piece) illustrated here is a Proof-64 dated 1862, and it’s not only gorgeous but rare: Just 35 proofs were made of this coin with that date.

Proof gold coins in general are properly regarded as the Rolls-Royces of U.S. numismatics. Many have mintages of 50 or 100–certainly no more than a few hundred–and only a handful survive today in pristine condition.

Proof gold coins with cameo contrast between the fields and devices have irresistible allure, and feverish demand has always existed for these highly sought-after coins. The golden pond-like reflectivity of the fields and lovely frosted nature of the devices combine to make these coins incredibly desirable–and, of course, exceptionally collectible.

In Proof-66, Liberty quarter eagles ($2.50 gold pieces) carry current sight-unseen bids of $13,500 for NGC-graded specimens and $13,250 for those graded by PCGS. In Proof-65, the corresponding values are $9,100 and $9,000. Back in May of 1989, the same coins would have cost $55,000 in Proof-66 and $32,250 in Proof-65.

(4) 1915-S Panama-Pacific commemorative quarter eagle.

Commemorative gold coins add yet another dimension to the collector’s enjoyment: They have a direct link with the person, place or thing that they commemorate, giving them even greater significance from a historical standpoint.

The five coins issued for the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 had such a link to one of the most important events in U.S. history: the completion of the Panama Canal, which helped thrust this nation into the forefront of international affairs and, in the process, gained global recognition for U.S. technical know-how and ingenuity.

Three of those five coins were made of gold, and usually people focus on the largest of these: the round and octagonal $50 gold pieces. They are, after all, the only such coins ever issued by Uncle Sam.

But the “baby” of the family–the quarter eagle (or $2.50 gold piece) deserves recognition as well. And, in fact, collectors have always liked this coin.

One of its attractions is its unusual, metaphorical design: It portrays the goddess Columbia, representing the United States, seated on a hippocampus–a mythological seahorse. In her hand is the caduceus, representing the triumph of medicine over yellow fever during the construction of the canal.

The beautiful Panama-Pacific quarter eagle depicted here grades MS 65 and has a market value of slightly more than $3,000. In May of 1989, this coin would have cost about $11,000.

Relatively few gold coins were issued during the traditional era of U.S. commemorative coinage, from 1892 to 1954. And this coin is among the most fascinating. The sophistication of its design and the significance of its subject combine with its precious-metal content to make it an unusually collectible coin.

(5) Capped Bust eagle.

The classic and highly artistic Capped Bust series of eagles, or $10 gold pieces, lasted barely a decade, but left an enduring legacy for collectors.

This was, after all, the very first gold coinage issued by this nation (along with the Capped Bust half eagle), so it has unusual appeal historically. It’s also extremely rare, with total mintage for the entire series coming to only about 65,000.

And its very appealing design, with a right-facing bust of Liberty on the obverse and either a small eagle or a heraldic eagle on the reverse, perfectly reflects the era of its origin both artistically and symbolically.

The example illustrated here is a Gem 1799 eagle with a heraldic eagle on the reverse. This is one of the most common dates in the series, but in absolute terms its mintage of 37,449 would qualify as scarce–even rare–by just about any yardstick. And as a Gem, this coin is a major rarity.

Market values for these early U.S. gold coins are quite stable–not nearly as volatile as those for generic, fungible coins such as the Saint-Gaudens double eagle. These coins are viewed more like snowflakes, each of them being different from every other.

You can expect to pay about $2,800 for a coin of this type graded About Uncirculated-55 and $11,000 for one that is MS-60. Those are not inconsiderable sums. Then again, these are extraordinary coins.

(6) Augustus Humbert eagle.

The California Gold Rush spawned numerous private issues of “territorial” gold coins. There was, after all, no federal mint in the region until the establishment of the San Francisco Mint in 1854. And there was certainly plenty of raw material.

Among the most interesting–and important–of the private gold issues were those produced by Augustus Humbert, a New York watch-case maker who won an appointment as U.S. assayer in California shortly after the gold rush got under way.

Humbert was responsible for a series of gold coins, and his $50 “slugs” tend to get the most attention. However, many collectors also admire–and covet–the round $10 coins, or eagles, issued under the assayer’s imprimatur.

The one illustrated here, issued by Humbert in conjunction with Moffat & Co., is especially intriguing because it bears the overdate 1852-over-1. Its grade is Fine-12. Even in that relatively low grade, this coin commands a four-figure premium.

Collectors and non-collectors alike appreciate coins that have a story to tell–and this one certainly does. It’s often used, in fact, to illustrate books and articles concerning the California Gold Rush or the history of gold in America. All this greatly enhances its status as a collectible.

(7) Liberty Head eagle.

Liberty Head $10 gold pieces, also sometimes designated as Coronet eagles, were part of American life for nearly three-quarters of a century. True, the average American seldom got to handle gold coins during those years, when $10 might have represented the better part of a week’s pay. But these coins were familiar and much admired.

Common-date Liberty $10’s have tended to hold their value much better than most U.S. coins. And they have one characteristic that makes them extremely attractive to many collectors, as well as many investors: When gold bullion moves up in value 10 to 20 percent, common-date Lib $10’s tend to rise by multiples of that.

This remarkable coin is worth over $10,000, putting it out of the price range of most collectors. But don’t despair: You can obtain a common-date mint-state coin, still possessing great appeal, for just several hundred dollars.

(8) Indian Head half eagle.

The MS-65 illustrated here showcases the beauty of this unusual coinage type. It also shows why Indian Head $5 gold pieces and their smaller $2.50 companions are so difficult to grade.

Unlike other U.S. coins, these popular gold pieces have their design incuse, or recessed below the surface. This requires graders to approach them from an entirely different perspective and makes it devilishly tricky to grade them consistently with accuracy.

In some cases, the difference between an AU-58 coin and an MS-65 may be almost imperceptible to the eye. But the difference in price can be tremendous. For the average collector, then, it might be prudent to stick with coins that are graded AU-58, or a lower mint-state level. These coins are still extremely collectible, but the risk of overpaying is removed.

An MS-65 example might cost you $10,600. But you can buy one grading MS-60 or even somewhat better for $300 or less. That’s a very good value for a mint-state $5 gold piece with such an attractive design certified by a leading grading service.

The Indian $5 gold piece is high on the list of collectible U.S. gold coins. In fact it is among the most collectible of all coins.

(9) Liberty Head double eagle.

The Liberty Head $20 gold piece doesn’t get the same attention, or admiration, as its Saint-Gaudens successor. But this is nonetheless a very desirable coin.

Like the Saint, it contains very nearly a full ounce of gold. Its size is impressive and appealing. And while its design may not evoke comparisons with the artworks of ancient Greece, it’s a handsome and aesthetically interesting coin.

People love large gold coins with high intrinsic value. In fact, people of affluence frequently buy coins such as this in quantity, because they represent so much wealth in such a concentrated–and attractive–form. It gives them a feeling of security.

The Lib $20 series is divided into three types: the no-motto type from 1849 to 1866 and two different types with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.

A Type 1, minted from 1849-1866, costs about $6,000 in MS-63. A similar Type 2, issued from 1866 to 1876, costs about $4,700. A common-date Type 3, minted from 1877 to 1907, can be purchased for about $600 in the same grade. That’s an excellent value for a mint-state coin with nearly $400 worth of gold.

(10) $3 Indian Head gold piece.

Three-dollar gold pieces were issued for a span of only 35 years, from 1854 to 1889, and their mintages tended to be extremely low–generally below 10,000 and sometimes even below 1,000. Clearly then, these are highly collectible coins–a status reinforced by their interesting Indian Princess design.

The coin illustrated here is an MS-65 example of the 1854, a popular first-year issue. Its mintage of 138,618 is by far the highest in the series–indeed, the only one to top 100,000. That, of course, makes it more affordable and consequently more collectible.

Investor demand for these coins pushed up their prices to astronomical levels in the late 1980s. The premium-quality MS-65 coin shown here would have cost $30,000 in May of 1989, but today it can be bought for one-third that amount.

Three-dollar gold pieces are not for the low-budget buyer. But considering their rarity, $10,000 seems quite reasonable for a gorgeous MS-65 specimen. And for only about $4,000, you can obtain an example graded MS-64, with very nearly the same great appeal.

Throughout this article, I have talked for the most part about coins in mint condition. For those who find these beyond their financial reach, circulated gold coins are an excellent alternative. They won’t have the same exquisite detail and radiant luster–but they also won’t have the same high price tags.

You can get scarcer-date Saint-Gaudens double eagles in circulated grades for just a tiny premium over melt price. What could be more collectible than a coin that old and that beautiful–with almost an ounce of gold and a scarce date–for just a nominal cost above melt.



Gold has begun to glitter again, and gold bugs are exhorting us to climb aboard and strap ourselves in for a rocket ride to the Moon.

There’s no way of knowing how high this hopeful boomlet will carry the yellow metal. Before we get too comfortable on the launching pad, however, we ought to reexamine the events of recent years, especially in the market for generic gold coins.

It will soon become apparent that far from embarking on a rocket trip, those who buy gold coins today could actually be in for a roller-coaster ride.

The fact of the matter is that over the last half- decade, gold coins have risen in value dramatically in many cases, only to lose that added value in a relatively short period of time.1990 W Gold $50 American Eagle NGC PF 70 Ultra Cameo

The gold coin marketplace has been shattered by volatility and by sharp ups and downs that often have little or no correlation to the current price performance of the yellow metal itself. This has served to magnify the risks for those who venture into this market. But at the same time, it also has created opportunities for those with the savvy and wherewithal to use the peaks and valleys to their advantage. At the very outset, it’s crucial to understand the difference between “generic” gold coins and those that are genuinely rare.

Generic coins are those which exist in sufficient quantities to be traded as like-kind units–very much like commodities.

These coins may be in high levels of preservation; more often than not, in fact, those traded frequently in the current marketplace are in mint-state condition. But they’re readily available in those grades, so buyers and sellers have quick access to sources of supply. And one is treated much like any other, so that these coins are interchangeable. Common-date Saint-Gaudens double eagles ($20 gold pieces) are viewed, for example, as generic coins.

By contrast, truly rare coins are one-of-a-kind pieces, and each has its own personality. Low mintage, not high quality, is the key determining factor in their value. Some, of course, possess not only rarity but also exceptional quality–and that combination greatly enhances their value. But unlike generic coins, truly rare coins are treated first and foremost as collectibles, not commodities; they’re regarded as distinctive, rather than interchangeable.

No-motto Liberty Head half eagles ($5 gold pieces)– those minted between 1839 and 1866 without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse–fall within this category. They’re very scarce as a group, with mintages generally well under 100,000, and flat-out rare in a number of individual instances.

Precious-metal content forms an important part of generic gold coins’ value–much more so than it does in the case of rare gold coins. This is particularly true for coins in high circulated grades such as About Uncirculated-55 or 58, and in low-end uncirculated grades such as Mint State-60 through 62. In these levels of preservation, generic gold coins are virtually “bullion” coins: They command just a modest premium over the market value of the metal they contain, and they rise and fall in value as the precious metal itself goes up or down in price.

The price differential widens considerably as the grade level moves up to Mint State-63 and above. And at times when the market is bullish, the differential balloons even more. Conversely, when conditions are adverse, the differential contracts.

Since May of 1989, when the coin market scaled its last major peak, high-grade generic gold coins have fallen in value sharply–even though gold itself actually went up in value slightly during that time: The average price of gold was $372 an ounce during May of 1989, and this July it averaged just under $400. But during that span of more than four years, there have been a number of well-defined points when these coins rallied. And those who were shrewd and/or fortunate enough to ride the up-and-down waves in the marketplace, buying at low ebb and selling at high tide, could have made–and, in some instances, did make–very substantial profits.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • The Certified Coin Dealer Newsletter (or Bluesheet) of May 26, 1989, assigned a value of $3,950 to common-date Saint-Gaudens double eagles graded Mint State-65 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). In early June 1993, those same coins were valued at $1,440, meaning they were worth only about 36.5 percent of their 1989 peak value. But they didn’t fall to that point in a straight line. On July 3, 1992, for example, the Bluesheet listed them at just $1,010, only about 25 percent of their May ’89 peak–so between then and June of this year, they actually rose in value nearly 50 percent. And similar swings, quite dramatic percentage-wise, have occurred throughout the four-year period.
  • On May 26, 1989, the Bluesheet set the market price at $2,400 for Indian Head eagles ($10 gold pieces) graded MS-63 by PCGS. In June 1993, those coins were worth $1,400, or 58 percent of the peak. But in July 1992, they had been worth only $790, or less than one-third of the peak. Thus, between then and June of this year, they rose in value nearly 80 percent
  • On May 26, 1989, the Bluesheet valuation was $3,050 for Liberty eagles with IN GOD WE TRUST graded MS-63 by PCGS. In June 1993, those coins had a market value of $1,240, or roughly 40 percent of the peak. But that was still more than 40 percent higher than their value in July 1992, when the Bluesheet listed them at only $875.

Not all generic gold coins fell as far as these, or have fluctuated as greatly during the last four-plus years. But many have experienced significant swings in value, creating opportunities to buy and sell advantageously–even though the coin market has remained depressed throughout this period, relative to its status in May 1989.1922 Saint-Gaudens double eagle graded PCGS/CAC MS64

Rare gold coins, by contrast, have had no similar intermediate ups and downs; rather, they have remained unremittingly depressed. The reason for this is simple: Being unavailable in quantity, rare coins cannot be promoted profitably–manipulated, if you will–by numismatic entrepreneurs, the way their generic cousins can be. Thus, they don’t enjoy the temporary boosts in value generated by what might be called artificial market stimulation. Instead, they lie dormant until the market regains more permanent underlying strength.

Truly rare coins benefit more dramatically than generic ones when market conditions are bullish–and I consider them much better buys from the standpoint of long-term investment. Just as their malaise is more persistent and pronounced during market slumps, their performance is also more spectacular and sustained when the good times roll. They have the potential to soar in value far faster and higher when the inevitable turnaround occurs–and justifiably so, since they are more elusive and desirable.

But, as we have seen since 1989, the coin market–like any other segment of the economy–is subject to its share of slumps, and these can be protracted. And during such periods, it’s comforting and challenging for action-oriented “players” to know that there is still some ferment in the marketplace and they still have a chance to realize meaningful profits on a short-term basis without having to wait for the possibly distant light at the end of the long-range tunnel.

Anyone who purchased rare gold coins during the last four years has probably incurred paper losses; those coins are very likely worth less today–perhaps a great deal less– than when they were acquired. And their prices have trended consistently downward, furnishing little or no window of opportunity for selling them at a profit along the way. With generic gold coins, on the other hand, handsome profits could have been made through judicious buying and selling.

Many generic coins lost 50 percent of their value between May 1989 and May 1990, then regained roughly half the lost value before sinking lower again. This ebb-and-flow pattern was subsequently repeated twice more. Let’s say a certain coin was worth $10,000 in May 1989 and you bought it a year later for $5,000. You could have sold this coin for $7,500 when the market rebounded temporarily, then bought it back for $5,000–or even less–at the next bottom and sold it again at a profit when it went up. By doing this several times, you could have doubled or tripled your money during the four-year period–in the very teeth of a raging bear market.

A word of caution: This is a gambler’s game–one that can be extremely risky. In a sense, it’s like playing musical chairs with your money, and it’s not something an ordinary consumer can be expected to do. In fact, even expert dealers have trouble doing it successfully.

Having said this, the fact remains that most of the profit-making opportunities in the coin market during the last four years–short of waiting years for the market as a whole to turn around–have existed in the area of generics. While other coins were dropping in price like rocks and then simply staying low and flat, generics were behaving more like bungee-jumpers–bouncing up after each plunge and giving people a chance to cash in their chips.

In this sense, volatility can be–and has been–the investor’s best friend in time of need. And if ever coin investors needed a friend, the last four years have been the time.

If you decide to try your luck and gamble on generic gold coins, I urge you to limit your investment to totally discretionary funds–money that isn’t essential to your economic well-being.

To play this market properly, you should buy at times when both gold itself and generic gold coins are relatively low-priced, compared to near-past levels, and sell at times when prices are trending upward without economic justification.

Let’s say a certain generic gold coin has increased from $200 to $500–and we’ve seen this happen with a number of gold coins in the last couple of years–and the coin is a relatively common one of which thousands of examples are available in a comparable level of preservation. If the only apparent reason for the price increase is the fact that a certain company is promoting this coin, then you should sell it and take your profit (assuming that you purchased it while the price was lower). Then, when the price comes down again after the promotion, as it almost certainly will, you can buy the coin again and wait for another chance to repeat the sell-buy cycle.

If you believe the price increase resulted not from promotion but rather from genuine economic justification, and you believe the justification will last, then you should consider turning your attention to coins with greater long- term potential–rare gold coins, for example. Those should do far better in the long run.

Factors that would constitute true economic justification include inflation, an expanded money supply and increased federal spending. Generic gold coins WILL go up in value in times of high inflation, just as gold itself will go up. But truly rare coins will go up even more, so that’s where you should turn your attention at such times. Gold may not be heading to the Moon anytime soon, so it’s probably premature to make a reservation on the gold bugs’ rocket ride.

But roller-coaster rides can be exciting, too–and possibly even rewarding. So while reconstruction continues on the coin market’s launch pad to outer space, why not enjoy one of the most stimulating rides now being offered here on Earth:

Go for the generic gold!



Skip to content