The history of American coinage is really the history of America itself, and the stories each coin tells are as varied and unique as the people who have used them. They are pieces of art in their own right, and a piece of Americana any person can own, which is what makes coin collecting such a popular hobby.
While most people understand that coins are valuable in part due to their inherent intrinsic value, most people are often stunned to learn how much a particular coin can command in an auction, or understand why people are willing to pay so much to own them. What coins am I speaking of? Here is my list of the ten most valuable coins in American history and how they found themselves into the annals of numismatic fame:
(Please keep in mind that values on these coins vary from year to year, making the ordering of this list subject to change. The prices listed below are the most current ones I can find. August, 2010)
10. 1794 Silver Dollar
If you think there isn’t much to say about coins, think again. This rare chunk of metal is the subject of an entire book, Martin A. Logies’ The Flowing Hair Silver Dollars of 1794 – A Historical and Population Census Study, which documents the appearances of over 125 different examples of the valuable coin over the years. Buy the book. It’s certainly a lot cheaper than the $2.1 million dollars you’ll have to pay to get your hands on one of these pieces of early Americana.
9. 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Piece
Records reveal that one and only one specimen of the 1870-S $3 gold coin was struck – specifically to be sealed within the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint building at the corner of Fifth and Mission Streets. This was done on May 25, 1870, so how is it then that a second example turned up thirty seven years later and was able to fetch a stunning $687,500 at auction back in 1982? Time and rarity have driven up its value to the point that today this same tiny gold piece will set you back a cool two-and-a-half million dollars.
8. 1873-CC Liberty Seated Dime
One of the great Wild West artifacts, this coin is said to be the only unique issue from the Carson City Mint, which filled its coins with gold plucked from nearby mines. Curious that with all the gold coins the Carson City mint made, its most valuable coin—at just over two-and-a-half million dollars a copy—would be a silver dime. Actually, there were 12,400 no-arrows dimes minted in 1873 at the Carson City Mint, but because of the Mint Act of February 12, 1873, most of them were melted down, leaving only a handful for major collectors to fight over.
7. 1885 “Trade” Silver Dollar
Designed by William Barber, for some reason only five proof copies of this coin were ever printed. In January 2006 an authentic 1885 Trade Dollar which was previously owned by the legendary “King of Coins” banker, Louis E. Eliasberg Sr., was sold for $3.3 Million at an auction in Dallas, Texas. (The buyer’s identity remains unknown.) What it’s worth today is anybody’s guess.
6. 1849 Coronet Twenty Dollar Gold Piece
Only one example of this coin is known to exist, and that specimen is locked away in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, making it unavailable — at ANY price — to collectors. Besides being the ultimate rarity, this is also a coin with exceptional historical significance, for it is the very first U.S. double eagle (or $20 gold piece) ever made, plus it was issued as a direct result of the California Gold Rush. Some believe that if this coin ever became available to collectors, it could fetch as much as $4 million dollars.
5. 1861 Coronet Twenty Dollar Gold Piece
Production of this coin was stopped by the U.S. Mint due to late-breaking design revisions, but authorities did not receive word until after a few of the coins had already been produced and put into circulation. Just two examples are known (although a third example of the 1861 Paquet double eagle has been rumored to exist) and one of them can be yours if you can cough up 5.6 million dollars.
4. 1804 Ten Dollar Gold Piece
For some reason, fewer than 10 of these coins were ever produced, and only three of them are currently known to exist. Adding to the novelty, the coins were minted in 1834–three decades after the date on the coin–to be used in diplomatic presentations, making them part of one of the most famous sets in American coinage. While the 1804 Silver dollar—also struck at this later date—is much better known, the eagle is even more rare and, as such, is seldom offered at auction. The only piece which has ever been offered in recent times was the one contained in the King of Siam set, a complete Proof set in its original case, which sold for $8.5 Million dollars in 2005. Of course, you don’t have to spend that much to get one of the other two proof coins; you can get it for just $6 million dollars.
3. 1913 Liberty Nickel
Though it seems only a fool would pay upwards of six million dollars for a five-cent coin, this particular piece of metal is highly unusual because it was somehow produced without the knowledge of its maker–the U.S. Mint. Not much is known about the actual minting of the 1913 Liberty Head Nickels. Since the mints were to start production of the famous Buffalo Nickels that year, no Liberty Head type nickels were to be minted that year. However, the die for the nickel bearing the year 1913 had already been produced and delivered and it is believed that five specimens were struck at the Philadelphia mint before the die could be destroyed.
One theory says that the coins were struck as advance test pieces while another theory proposes that someone illegally struck the five specimens before the dies were destroyed for fun. In either case, it’s clear that the valuable coins left the Mint in some unauthorized fashion, and didn’t surface until 1920, after the statute of limitations for theft had safely run out. Apparently, U.S. Treasury officials have concluded that they were legally struck, making it possible to own one of the five known examples if you can afford the price tag.
2. 1933 Saint-Gaudens Twenty Dollar Gold Piece
Selling at auction in 2002 for a measly $7.5 million (and thought to be worth at least $10 million today), while it’s not the most valuable coin, the 1933 Double Eagle is perhaps the rarest and most famous. Although 445,500 Double Eagles had been minted with the 1933 date, none were released into circulation because of changes made to currency laws during the Great Depression which took America off the gold standard. Once it became illegal for private citizens to own gold coins, the Mint melted down the entire 1933 run of Gold Double Eagles and converted them to gold bullion bars. However, there is evidence that a mint cashier may have absconded with up to twenty of these expensive coins, which he sold over the years to various collectors. Once the government found out, however, they confiscated them and as such, besides two examples made specifically for the Smithsonian Institute, only one example—a specimen once owned by Egypt’s King Farouk—remains. At least, that was the case until ten more examples were discovered in 2004 by an heir to one of the jewelers who originally sold a number of the earliest specimens, and their fate remains the source of considerable legal wrangling between the heiress and the government over their fate while they languish at Fort Knox. It will be interesting to see, should the 10 coins ever come to market, if the 1933 Double Eagle will retain its place as the world’s highest priced coin when the number of available specimens increases ten-fold. Stay tuned.
1. 1804 Silver Dollar – The Most Valuable Coin in America
The all-time most valuable coin one can own, a specimen in top condition can be worth as much as $47 million. With only 19 copies known to exist, it’s also the envy of numismatists across the country thanks to its rarity, design and beauty. What’s most curious about these most valuable coins is the fact that no silver dollars were minted in 1804. (Actually, over 19,000 dollars were minted that year but they bore the year 1803 and were indistinguishable from those minted the previous year.) In fact, silver dollars dated 1804 did not appear until 1834, when the U.S. State Department decided to create sets of coins to present as gifts to certain rulers in Asia in exchange for trade concessions. The U.S. Government ordered the Mint to produce “two specimens of each kind now in use, whether of gold, silver or copper” and since the silver dollar was still in use but had last been recorded as produced in 1804, Mint employees struck several dollars with an 1804 date. Additionally, an enterprising employee of the mint in Philadelphia illegally struck a few dozen more examples between 1858 and 1860 using the old 1804 die, most of which were confiscated and destroyed, but a few of which remain in private collections today.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with valuable coins, history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at http://www.ourcuriousworld.com.