Background and History
The 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Piece represents one of the most famous U.S. gold coins, as a potentially unique rarity with an interesting backstory. The Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint, General O.H. LaGrange, indicated that only a single specimen had been struck to be placed within the cornerstone of the new mint building. A specimen which appeared in the William H. Woodin Sale in 1911 was claimed to be a duplicate of the coin in the cornerstone, although researchers subsequently determined that the two coins were one in the same. If this is the case, the cornerstone may be responsible for two unique coins: the 1870-S Half Dime and the 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Piece.
The Three Dollar Gold Piece was introduced in 1854 and struck until 1889. The creation of this odd denomination was directly related to the postage rate of the time. In the 1850’s, it cost 3 cents to send a letter by first class mail, and the $3 gold coins were introduced to facilitate businesses and people buying 100 count sheets of first class postage stamps. The denomination would see limited use and by its final decade of mintage the coins were mostly struck for collectors.
The introduction of the denomination roughly corresponded with the establishment of a federal mint in San Francisco in 1854. After striking coins for a number of years, the mint would outgrow the facility due to the large influx of freshly mined gold coming out of the Sierra mining region. In 1870, the cornerstone would be laid for the second San Francisco Mint building. For most of the year production numbers were small at the old San Francisco Mint. Yet, it is believed that an example of almost every denomination was struck for inclusion in the cornerstone of the new Mint on Fifth Street.
The second San Francisco Mint opened for production in 1874 and still stands to this day. It was one of the very few buildings in San Francisco that survived the great earthquake in 1906. Its wells were an important water supply during the months following the earthquake and the facility remained in use as a Mint until the 1930s, when a new San Francisco Mint was opened.
Key Date Coin Mintage
The circumstances of the mintage of the 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Piece were somewhat unusual. At the time, it was customary for the Philadelphia Mint to prepare dies for coins to be struck at the branch mints, add the proper mint marks, and then ship the dies to each branch mint location. Due to an oversight, the dies for the 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Coin were sent to the San Francisco without mint marks. Rather than sending the dies back to Philadelphia, the Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint had the coiner engrave an “S” at the bottom of the reverse die to allow the striking of a ceremonial coin for inclusion in the cornerstone of the new mint building.
The exact mintage of the 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Coin remains unknown. For a time, it was believed that a total of two coins had been struck. These pieces would have been the coin laid in the cornerstone as well as the coin from the 1911 Woodin sale. However, most researchers now believe these coins were one and the same, leading to the conclusion that only a single example was struck. In either situation, only a single example of the coin is currently known to exist leading to its status as a unique rarity.
There is another mystery associated with the unique 1870-S coins. All other denominations were struck at the San Francisco Mint that year (albeit mostly in small quantities) except for the 1870-S Quarter Dollar. If the box containing the 1870-S coins was placed into the cornerstone of the new Mint it would have been likely that such a coin was produced as well. However, none are presently known to exist, and none have ever been rumored to exist. Would it be possible that an 1870-S Quarter Dollar is the next greatest discovery in United States numismatics?
Finest Known and Values
There is only one 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Coin currently known to exist. The piece traces its pedigree back to the early 20th century. The coin grades an estimated EF-40 although it does has the numbers “893” scratched in the upper field on the reverse. In its first auction sale, in 1911, the coin brought $1,450. It was offered in 1945 for $25,000, although the coin allegedly did not sell. The coin then ended up in the collection of Louis E. Eliasberg, who assembled the only “complete” collection of United States coins at the time.
The gold coins in the Eliasberg collection were sold at auction in 1982. Eliasberg had purchased the coin in 1946 for $11,500, which was a huge amount at the time. In 1982, after spirited bidding noted gold coin specialist Harry Bass purchased the coin for an astonishing $687,500. Interestingly enough the price was the same as another important purchase made by Bass, the only privately held 1822 Half Eagle.
While most of the Bass collection was sold after his death, the unique 1870-S Three Dollar Gold Piece was not. The coin presently resides in the numismatic collection of the American Numismatic Association and is on permanent display. At this point, it seems unlikely that the ANA will offer the coin for public sale at any time in the future. Most likely the 1982 auction will represent the final public sale for a coin that is permanently off the market. Thus, unless the rumored second example turns up, the 1870-S is one of those coins struck by the United States Mint that truly can be considered “non-collectible”.