Top 10 Rare American Coins

By: GenXinvestor

Here is my top 10 list for rare American coins.

This is a companion piece to my Top 10 Rare Canadian Coins article.  There are so many rarities in United States coinage with equally fascinating stories behind how they came into being.  I put this list together based on value, rarity and historical significance.

So here is my Top 10 list for rare American coins.

1. 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar Class I (8 known examples)

Top 10 Rare American Coins 1804 Draped Bust

Image courtesy of GovMint.com

Known as the “King of Coins,” these legendary coins are highly sought after by high-end collectors.  The most fascinating thing about this coin is that it was not struck in 1804 but much later.

In fact all 8 coins were minted in 1834.  The story of how the coins came into being has to do with the United States trying to establish trade with certain parts of Asia in the 1830s.  The coins were to be presented by the U.S. ambassador to Asian rulers as gifts in the hopes of receiving certain trade advantages.  Two examples were presented to the King of Siam and the Sultan of Oman.  A third was kept in the collection at the US Mint.  The other 5 examples disappeared when the ambassador died while negotiating trade deals in Southeast Asia.  From time to time examples appear at auction and will usually fetch between US $3-4 million.

2. 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle $20 (surviving examples 12)

Top 10 Rare American Coins 1933 Double Eagle

Image courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection

While there are technically more surviving examples than the 1804 Silver Dollar, the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle $20 is far rarer because only 1 example is available for collectors to purchase.  There are 10 in a vault at Ft. Knox and 1 is in the national collection at the Smithsonian.  The story behind these coins has to do with the US Government outlawing gold coins as legal tender during the depths of the Great Depression.  Nearly 500,000 of these coins were minted but nearly all of them were melted down.  A few examples were rescued from the melting pot and all but one were tracked down by the Secret Service.  The 1 example in private hands sold at a 2012 auction for US $7.6 million.

*Update* April 2015 – I just saw that the 10 coins seized by the government will now be returned to the Israel Switt’s family ( Joan Langbord and her sons).  So that means you can expect 10 more to be available at auction.  This may change this coins position on this list of top 10 rare American coins to number 6.

3. 1913 Liberty Head V Nickel (5 examples)

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

The interesting thing about the 1913 Liberty Head nickel is that it should’ve never been produced at all.  At the time, the Indian Head Buffalo nickel was introduced in early 1913 as a replacement for the Liberty Head nickels.  What many believed happened was that a mint employee deliberately made the unauthorized coins.  Samuel Brown exhibited the coins at a 1920 coin auction.  He was a former mint employee who worked there in 1913 so many speculate that either he made them himself or had someone else make them for him.  The original set of 5 was subsequently broken up and sold at auctions separately from the mid-1930s onwards.  One example sold at a 2010 auction for US $3.7 million.

4. 1870 S Three-dollar piece (1 example)

Image Courtesy of Stack's Bowers

Image Courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

This coin is certainly a prize among rare American coins.  The $3 dollar piece is a curious denomination that saw limited circulation from 1854-1889. Nearly every $3 dollar piece is a rarity but none stand out more than the 1870 S variety as there is only 1 known example.  In 1870 the San Francisco Mint received dies to strike the $3 coins but they lacked the “S” mint mark.  The superintendent of the SF Mint had an engraver make the “S” mint mark on one of the dies so that they could strike a coin to be placed in the cornerstone of the new mint building.  It’s unclear whether or not a coin was ever placed in that cornerstone.  However, at least 1 example is known to exist and perhaps 1 more is encased at the SF Mint – although many believe there really is only 1 in existence.  This example last sold at auction in 1982 for nearly US $700,000.  Today estimates are that this coin could fetch over $2 million.

5. 1885 Trade Dollar (5 known examples)

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

Trade Dollars were produced from 1873-1885 for the sole purpose of having a competitive currency for overseas trade.  The lion’s share of the trade dollar coins were struck between 1873 and 1879.  Consequently examples dating between 1879 and 1885 are scarce and some only exist as proofs not circulation strikes.  The 1885 trade dollar is the rarest with only 5 known proof examples in existence.  One of these sold for over US $3 million in 2006.

6. 1873 Carson City Liberty Seated Dime, No Arrows (1 known example)

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

Certainly the rarest in terms of known examples on this list of top 10 rare American coins is the 1873-CC “No Arrows” Liberty Seated Dime is the only one of its kind in existence.  Over 12 thousand of these dimes were made but when the mint changed the weight standard for dimes all but one were melted down.  The new dimes were struck with arrows on either side of the date to mark the change.  This coin sold at auction in 2012 for nearly $2 million.

7. 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar (surviving examples 120-130)

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

The 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar was the very first $1 coin minted by the US Government making it one of the most sought after pieces among collectors.  The finest know example (SP-66) sold at a 2013 auction for a record $10 million!

8. 1866 “No Motto” Dollar (2 known examples)

Two examples of this coin exist and are thought to have been unauthorized strikes by someone at the mint in 1866.  They are called the “No Motto” dollars because they do not have the words “In God We Trust” on them.  The most famous example of this coin is the one owned by the du Pont family.  It was stolen along with thousands of other coins when they were robbed back in 1967.  It surfaced in 2004 and was returned to the du Pont family.  It is estimated that these coins are worth over US $1 million.

9. 1870 S Silver Dollar (around a dozen examples exist)

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers

The 1870 S Silver Dollars were created under the same circumstances as the $3 gold coin.  The dies shipped to the SF Mint did not have an “S” mint mark.  As an emergency measure, the mint engraver put an “S” mark on one of the dies and struck a number of silver dollars for circulation.  About a dozen of these exist and, of them, only 1 mint state example, an MS-62, has ever been graded.  Auction prices for these coins range from several hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million.

10. 1793 Chain Links Penny (mintage 36,103)

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Coming in at number 10 on this list of rare American coins is the 1793 Chain Links Penny.  While not exactly a super rare coin I thought I’d include this as an example of the value of an old penny.  1793 pennies are tough finds and in the lowest of grades can sell for thousands of dollars.

These pennies were among the first US coins to be minted and had very low survival rates, not to mention the fact that the design was only around for a year.  The reverse of the coin depicts 15 interlocking chain links that represented the 15 states in the union at that time.  There was some controversy surrounding that design because many people felt that the chains represented an image of slavery.  The chain links were quickly replaced with a wreath design.  One of the finest examples known recently sold at auction for a whopping $2.35 million.

For more information about U.S. coins and their values check out R.S. Yeoman’s A Guide Book to United States Coins 2016

Thanks for reading my article on the Top 10 Rare American Coins.  See my other articles on rare coins and investing in coins:

Investing in Rare Coins

Top 10 Rare Canadian Coins

Rare Canadian Quarters

Modern Rare Canadian Coins

Top 10 Rare Canadian Nickels

Top 10 Rare Canadian Pennies

The Thousand Dollar Bill

Rare Victorian Quarters

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