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Classic US Coins: 1870-S Coins for Budget-Minded Collectors

By   /   November 7, 2016  /   No Comments

In the realm of classic U.S. coins, the most exciting and mystifying date may be the 1870-S. For collectors who cannot afford one of the rarest silver dollars, the only 1870-S half dime or the Eliasberg-Bass Three Dollar Gold piece, there are other 1870-S coins, especially quarter eagles, which are affordable. Though rare overall, there are many 1870-S quarter eagles with market values in the range of $250 to $900. Additionally, more than a few 1870-S half dollars cost less than $250, some even less than $100!

Is there a date that is more famous than the 1870-S? Two of the rarest of all U.S. coins were struck at the San Francisco Mint in 1870; both the 1870-S half dime and the 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece are unique. The 1870-S is the rarest silver dollar, notably rarer than 1804 dollars. Though not “Great Rarities”, 1870-S half eagles ($5 gold coins) and eagles ($10 coins) are rare, too. The 1870-S quarter eagle is not as rare, though is clearly rare, and seems to be a forgotten little sister.

While an Extremely Fine-45 grade 1870-S quarter eagle may be purchased for less than $500, an 1870-S half eagle of similar quality would probably cost at least seven times as much. Indeed, last month, a PCGS-graded EF-45 1870-S half eagle realized $5,170 USD at the Long Beach Expo.

Half dollars of this date are also rare. In May 2016, a PCGS-graded VG-10 1870-S half dollar sold for $46.02. Is this a vast sum for a rarity with a famous date?

My estimates for the number of known 1870-S coins are now presented (further information is provided herein). In cases where more than 100 are known, single numbers are midpoints of estimated ranges:

  • half dime: 1
  • dime: 165
  • quarter: 0
  • half dollar: 290
  • silver dollar: 9
  • One Dollar Gold piece: 155
  • quarter eagle: 210
  • Three Dollar Gold piece: 1
  • half eagle: 147
  • eagle: 120
  • double eagle: 2,750

Researchers Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly maintain that at least one 1870-S quarter dollar was struck, a position that they repeated in response to my recent inquiry.

“We have solid documentation of exactly what coins were placed into the cornerstone of the second SF Mint,” including an 1870-S quarter, they say.

My estimates refer to coins that are known now, not to those that existed in the past and are untraced in the present. Undiscovered coins buried in dirt or believed to have been embedded in “cornerstones”* are not currently known.

The sole 1870-S Three Dollar Gold piece is in the “Harry Bass Core Collection”. It is or was recently on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs.

Although 1870-S quarter eagles are less rare than dimes, half eagles or eagles, Extremely Fine to AU grade quarter eagles are better suited for budget-minded collectors than corresponding 1870-S coins of other denominations. Half dollars are good values, too.

The focus here is on coins that have received numerical grades from PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) or NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation). Even given imperfections in grading processes, buying PCGS- or NGC-graded 1870-S coins involves much less risk than buying 1870-S coins that have not been certified by PCGS or NGC. Only a small percentage of surviving 1870-S coins have been approved at CAC, so many interested collectors may have to consider 1870-S coins without CAC stickers.

GC reports 142 1870-S quarter eagles as having received numerical grades. The 36 at the AU-58 level, and the 20 at the AU-55 level include multiple counts of some of the same coins. NGC also reports that 17 have been put into “details” holders without numerical grades; these were denied numerical grades because of serious problems, usually.

The PCGS CoinFacts site puts forth an estimate that “130” survive, which must be too low. PCGS has graded 113 1870-S quarter eagles. Also, the PCGS population report generally does not list data for coins in PCGS Genuine holders without numerical grades.

Invariably, there are 1870-S quarter eagles that are not included in PCGS or NGC data, including a few gradable, privately owned circulated pieces and a very small number in museums. Some 1870-S coins are so obviously non-gradable that they were never submitted to PCGS or NGC. Among these are coins that were in dealer inventories in the era before “genuine” or “details” holders, during which rejected genuine coins were returned in “body bags” by PCGS and NGC.

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