The Coinage Act of 1792 established the US Mint, the nine coins that would be produced, and the amount of precious metal that would be contained in each coin. The nine coins slated to go into production were the copper half cent and cent, the silver half dime and dime, the silver quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar, and the gold quarter eagle, half eagle and gold eagle.
United States gold coins were not minted until 1795. The first coin that went into production was the half eagle. Later, the quarter eagle and eagle went into production the following year. They all bore the same designs – varying versions of a Liberty head bust on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. The gold content of the coins varied somewhat in the early years, but was finally settled on .900 pure in 1834, with an alloy of silver and copper added to ensure long-wearing properties.
Because gold was more expensive overseas, President Jefferson suspended the minting of the eagle and the silver dollar in 1804 – as these coins were being exported overseas where they were melted down. On June 28, 1834 a new law was passed reducing the weight of standard gold, which put America on the gold standard. Minting of the eagle would resume in 1838. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 also jump-started the American economy and the double eagle ($20 face value) and gold dollar entered production. The $3 gold piece followed in 1853, but was discontinued after its minimum 25-year lifespan ended in 1889.
The first gold coins – the quarter, half and eagle – all featured the same design – the bust of Liberty, facing either right or left, and wearing a Liberty cap. On the obverse was an eagle – which underwent more obvious design changes than Liberty, from holding a branch in its beak, to a heraldic eagle (bearing a shield on its chest) with having an extremely long neck, to a shorter neck, to a rakish design that looked as if the eagle could actually take flight.
A little bit of variety was introduced in 1849 with the Indian head coin, but nothing really happened until 1907 when President Roosevelt took it upon himself to beautify American coinage – in particular the gold variety. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Bela Lyon Pratt were commissioned to provide new designs.
Saint-Gaudens is justly famous for his double eagle, featuring Liberty striding forward out of the coin on the obverse and an eagle in flight on the reverse. For the eagle he created an Indian Head, vastly different from that of his student, Bela Lyon Pratt, who’s Indian head on the quarter eagle and half eagle actually resembled a Native American. Another difference, and one that makes Pratt’s unique in American coinage, is that the designs are sunken into the coin itself, not raised above it. These two coins were unpopular at the time, but are desired collectibles today.
The gold coin era for the United States started to come to an end in the later part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century when the last gold dollar was minted in 1889, the last quarter eagle in 1929, the last $3 in 1889, the last half eagle in 1929, the last eagle in 1933, and the last double eagle in 1933. After 1933 no longer would gold coins ever be used again as a form of legal tender.
Since 1986, the United States began producing gold bullion coins.
Americans interested in purchasing gold coins do not need to look outside the borders of the country. The U.S. Mint produces several gold coins that are both attractive and valuable. Recent headlines illustrate the popularity of these coins. By the first week in May, the Mint sold 62,000 ounces of gold coins. Whether people buy gold coins for collection purposes or as economic protection, they are acting now.
Then in 1986, the United States began producing gold bullion coins again with the debut of the American Eagle in one ounce, half ounce, quarter ounce, in 22-karat gold. In 2006 they entered the 24-karat gold market with the Gold Buffalo $50 coin, and in 2007 with the First Spouse $10 dollar coin series.
Gold First Spouse coins feature a portrait of a first spouse on the obverse and a unique reverse design containing an image that symbolizes the woman’s life and work. These half-ounce $10 coins are made from 0.999 fine gold. The coins are released in the order that the female served as first spouse, with Eliza Johnson, Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, and Lucretia Garfield coins issued in 2011.
The American Buffalo 24-karat bullion coin features images created by James Earle Fraser, a well-known American sculptor. This is the first 24-karat 0.9999 fine gold coin struck by the U.S. Mint. The $50 coin offers an investment in 24-karat gold in legal tender coin form. American Buffalo gold proof coins were also issued from 2006 through 2009.
Perhaps most well-known are the American Eagle gold coins. Launched in 1986, these bullion coins have become extremely popular investments. Uncirculated and proof versions of American Eagles are available for collectors. Each proof coin is sealed in a protective plastic capsule, is packaged in a presentation case, and includes a Certificate of Authenticity.
Congress authorizes the Mint to produce commemorative coins as warranted. These are considered legal tender but are not minted for general circulation. The 2011 gold commemorative coins pertain to the Medal of Honor and the U.S. Army. The $5 gold Medal of Honor coin and the $5 gold Service in War U.S. Army coin each feature 90 percent gold composition.
With the raising price of gold and the excellent designs on these new coins, the U.S. gold bullion coins are quite popular with today’s collectors. Collecting gold coins has become an enjoyable and profitable hobby since the days of using gold as a legal tender. Owning any United States gold coin is considered by many to be a highlight of their collection.