Numismatists define rarity in various ways. Some consider rare coins to be those with the lowest mintages, while others look at coins that have sold for the highest prices at auction. While there is no firm consensus about which coins are the rarest, here are five that clearly fall into that category.
Another type of rarity is condition rarity, or coins that may not be very rare in lower grades, but that are hard to find in the finest examples available. A common Mercury dime recently sold for almost $400,000 because it is the highest-graded example of that particular coin and has amazing toning.
Another important factor is whether a coin is popular with collectors and whether there is an intriguing story behind it as is the case with certain famous coins that were not supposed to be issued, but somehow made it out of the U.S. Mint.
While there is no firm consensus about which coins are the rarest, here are five that clearly fall into that category. They are also among the most valuable American coins that have been sold at one time or another, although one of them – the 1933 Double Eagle — is illegal to own except for one example.
Few experts would disagree that the unique 1849 $20 Liberty Double Eagle pattern gold coins that is part of the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian is probably the most valuable coin worth an estimated $20 million, but that coin would never come up for sale and is a national treasure owned by all Americans.
1794 Flowing Hair Dollar
The 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Robert Scott was the first dollar coin ever issued by the U.S. Modeled on the Spanish dollar, this coin and the gold eagle became the foundation for the new monetary system of the young American Republic and its Mint that was established by a 1792 law.
The obverse of the piece shows a right-facing profile of Miss Liberty with long, flowing hair and the date inscribed below as well as “LIBERTY” above and eight stars on the left and seven on the right. The coin was issued again in 1795 and then replaced by the Draped Bust dollar.
2,000 of these coins were struck, but 242 were rejected as being very poorly struck, so the number issued was 1,758. Of those, only 130 examples are estimated to have survived. Even after the worst ones were destroyed, the remaining coins were still not well struck because of the limited capabilities of coin presses at the time.
The finest known example of the 1794 dollar, which interestingly does not have a denomination on it, a graded PCGS Specimen-66, was sold at auction in 2013 for $10,016,875 – the highest price ever paid for a coin. Three years before that it sold for $7.85 million
1933 Saint Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin
Most coin collectors are familiar with the Saint Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin issued from 1908 to 1933 — widely considered by most collectors to be the most beautiful American coin ever struck. That coin features a confident Liberty with flowing hair striding forward with a torch in her right hand and olive branch in her left hand. This obverse design, which has also appeared on the American Gold Eagle issued since 1986, conveys the idea that where Liberty goes, led by enlightenment, peace follows. The reverse shows a young eagle flying during a sunrise to represent a young, strong and ascendant America with a bright future before it.
The coin was last struck in 1933, when 445,500 coins were produced. However due to President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Executive Order 6102 from April 5 of that year which made it illegal to own all gold coins, except for those with a $100 face value, all 1933 Saint Gaudens, except for two that were saved and which reside in the Smithsonian, were ordered to be destroyed. However, somehow 20 other coins made it out of the Mint, possibly through collusion between a Mint employee and Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt. 9 of those 20 were recovered by the government over the years and destroyed, which left 11 other examples.
One of those 11 – a coin once owned by King Farouk of Egypt — was sold at auction in 2002 for $7.59 million to a private owner in an unusual sale. The coin was owned by British coin dealer Stephen Fenton who came under the radar of the U.S. government and was about to be arrested for trying to sell the coin, but the two parties reached an agreement under which the government would monetize this one example (which is why the sale price was $7,590,020) and split the proceeds with the seller.
That still left 10 coins, which the heirs of Israel Switt discovered in a safety deposit box in 2005, and which the family voluntarily surrendered to the government. The coins were authenticated by the Smithsonian and NGC President Mark Salzberg. However, the descendants of Mr. Switt (the Langboards) later sued to get the coins back using arguments advanced by some experts that there was a three-week window in March 1933 when the coins could have been legally obtained at face value.
This set off over a decade of legal battles between the family and the government. In 2010 a federal judge ruled the government had the right to the coins because of circumstantial evidence Switt obtained them illegally, while an appeals court in 2015 ordered the coins returned to the family. That order would later be reversed, and the family would then appeal to the Supreme Court. In 2017 the Supreme Court refused to grant judicial review of the case. The coins thus continue to be property of the U.S. government and are stored at Fort Knox, athough they are sometimes displayed during coin shows.
1913 Liberty Head Nickel
In the history of American numismatics, no other coin except the 1933 Double Eagle has as interesting a story behind it as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, whose origins remain a mystery to this day. Although the coin was never supposed to have been issued, unlike the 1933 Double eagle, the 1913 Liberty nickel is not illegal to own. Five examples are known to exist of which two are in museums and three are in private collections.
The Mint’s records do not show any Liberty Head nickels issued that year which is when they began issuing Buffalo nickels. However, Samuel Brown, who served as Clerk of the Mint from 1912 to 1913, advertised to buy the coins a couple years later for $500 each, and then in 1920, displayed one or more of them at an ANA annual convention. He was known to have owned all five examples, which later traded hands numerous times and continued to increase in value over time. There are many theories about how the coins came about such as that they were issued as trial strikes, or more likely that Brown either made them, or had other employees make them.
The five known 1913 Liberty nickels are: the Eliasberg specimen, the highest-graded example, which sold in 2007 to a private collector for $5 million; the Olsen specimen, the most famous example once owned by King Farouk of Egypt, which sold in 2010 for $3,737,500 to a private collector; the Norweb specimen, which today resides in the Smithsonian; the Walton specimen, whose whereabouts were a mystery for many years until the heirs of the original owner discovered the coin, which most recently traded for between $3 and $4 million in a private sale; and the McDermott specimen, the only one with circulation marks on it, which was donated to the ANA Money Museum in 1989.
1907 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle
To truly appreciate the fabulous Double Eagle design by sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens one must see one of the 15-20 known examples of the coin struck in Ultra High Relief in 1907. That coin was an experimental strike made to see if it would be possible to produce the coin with the high level of relief the artists wanted it to have on a mass scale, which Charles Barber, the Mint’s Chief Engraver of the time believed would be impractical to make because of the multiple strikes of the coin press that would be required. 24 of these pieces were made, including one given to President Teddy Roosevelt so he could give it to his daughter for her wedding, and they each required nine strikes for all the sculpted details to appear.
15 of these coins have been certified, and one of the finest-known, a PCGS Proof-69, sold in 2005 for $2,990,900. Although there are coins that have sold for higher prices, this coin is a stunning masterpiece of numismatic art. It was later re-struck using modern technologies in 2009 when Edmund Moy was Director of the Mint. That coin – the 2009 Ultra High Relief Gold Double Eagle – remains one of the most popular modern coins ever issued and a link between the classic and modern eras in U.S. coinage.
Jeff Garrett with Ron Guth, The 100 Greatest U.S. Coins: Third Edition (Whitman, 2008)
2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle Gold Coin, United States Mint, 2009