Gold Coins

Obverse of 1907 Ultra-High Relief $20
Reverse of 1907 Ultra-High Relief $20

Ron Guth: The first, official United States gold coins appeared in 1795, two years after the first copper coins were struck. The delay was caused by an inability of Mint officials to obtain the proper performance bonds that would allow them to handle precious metals such as silver and gold. Once the bonds were obtained, production of gold coins begain with the half eagle ($5) and eagle ($10) in 1795. In the early years of the Mint, coinage was based on demand and, since no quarter eagles ($2.50) were ordered, none were produced until the next year. Gold dollars, $3 gold pieces, and double eagles ($20) would not be authorized as official denominations until decades later.

Mintages of the earliest U.S. gold coins were limited to the capacity of the Mint personnel and equipment, as well as the supply of gold. Most gold came from native sources or from the conversion of foreign gold coins that circulated at the time.

In 1796, the first quarter eagles were produced without stars on the obverse, an oversight that was corrected shortly thereafter.

Around 1797 to 1798, confusion reigned at the Mint, due in part to closings forced by yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia. As a result, the design types of the half eagles overlap, with old 1795 obverse dies being mixed with new reverses and new 1798 obverse dies mixed with old reverses.

Production of eagles ($10) ceased in 1804 and did not resume again until 1838. Quarter eagles and half eagles were produced with some interruptions between 1795 and 1834, after which gold supplies increased and production became more regular. Some of the greatest U.S. rarities, such as the 1815 half eagle, the 1822 half eagle, and the 1825/4 half eagle, were produced during this period.

The Philadelphia Mint produced all early U.S. gold coins until 1838, when mints opened at remote locations in Dahlonega (Georgia), Charlote (North Carolina), and New Orleans (Louisiana). The San Francisco Mint began operations in 1854; Carson City in 1870; and Denver in 1906.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 made two new denominations possible: the gold dollar (1849) and the double eagle (1850). In 1854, a $3 gold piece was added as a new denomination. The $4 gold "stella", though technically a pattern, appeared in 1879. In 1877, the government proposed a $50 gold coin, but it never made it past the pattern stage until 1986, when the first American Eagle bullion coins were produced.

Gold coins are among the most desirable of all U.S. coins, mostly because of their intrinsic value, but also because of the beautiful designs. Ranked highest among them are the Saint Gaudens designs on the $10 and $20 gold pieces of 1907-1933.