Coin collecting can be a hobby for everyone, starting with affordable Wheat Cents and going all the way up to the rarest and most expensive pieces. However, it takes time and dedication to collect the very best. Despite the vast array of options in numismatics, few collectors have a chance to own the rarest and most famous pieces. Here is one collector’s take on the top 10 trophy coins for the elite collector and connoisseur.
1. 1884 and 1885 Proof-Only Trade Dollars
The Trade Dollar series was created for trade with China and the Orient and was intended to compete with the dollar-sized coins of other nations. However, by the end of its run in the 1880s, silver prices had declined and the coins were no longer considered to be legal tender in the United States. The law authorizing the creating of these trade coins was repealed in 1887, but not before wonderful rarities were created that collectors seek out today! The last several years of Trade Dollar production, from 1879 to 1885, saw proof-only issues with special mirrored coins for collectors but no business strike pieces intended to circulate.
The 1884 and 1885 Proof Trade Dollars are especially rare, with tiny mintages of only 10 pieces for the 1884 and 5 pieces for the 1885! One of these two dates would be a great piece for the advanced collector. Such coins are rarely available at auction and command significant attention when they come up for sale, such as the marvelous Eliasberg NGC Proof 66 piece that recently brought nearly $4,000,000!
Here is the lovely 1884 Proof that would be its companion in a top Trade Dollar set:
2. 1804 Bust Dollar
Often called the “King of American Coins,” the 1804 Draped Bust Dollar is a classic rarity that has sparked the imagination of many collectors over the years. It is the most famous US Coin and has accordingly inspired a trail of unconvincing imitations and replicas, sold at flea markets and online for those who cannot aspire to the “real thing.”
Owning an 1804 Dollar would result in true bragging rights for any collector, with most pieces starting at over $1,000,000 and rarely coming up for sale. For example, Heritage Auctions has been honored to offer the Mickley-Hawn-Queller specimen on only two occasions since the year 2000, bringing $3,737,500 and $3,877,500. This would be a true trophy coin for only the most serious of collectors, adding one’s name to a storied list of stewards of these prized pieces over the years.
3. 1933 $10 or $20 Gold Piece
The infamous 1933 $20 gold piece may be an unobtainable prize for most, given that only one coin—the King Farouk specimen—is considered by the US Mint to be legal to own. However, a 1933 $10 Indian is a rare prize that you can set your sights on! This piece has the cache of being the only 1933-dated gold coin that is legal to trade other than the King Farouk piece, and they are in high demand whenever they come up for auction. This makes for a great piece of trivia to non-collectors as well. It does not require a numismatist’s eye to love the intrigue and mystery of this rare date.
4. $4 Gold Stella
While a “Stella,” or $4 Gold Piece, can sometimes be purchased for a six-figure rather than seven-figure price tag, these pieces fully merit their spot on this list. They were produced as part of a fascinating, short-lived experiment to try out a new denomination aimed at trade. Struck only for two years but with two different designs, in 1879 and 1880, the Stella is instantly recognizable to collectors today and would be a wonderful piece to own and enjoy in the years to come. Their odd $4 denomination is a quirk that is nearly as popular with numismatists as the lovely design of the Flowing Hair pieces or the true scarcity of the Coiled Hair pieces.
A Proof 63 or 64 example of the more common 1879 Flowing Hair design starts around $150,000 or so, but these coins can quickly escalate in value at the top echelons of condition or if one seeks out the rarer Coiled Hair variety. The 1880 Coiled Hair Stella is so scarce that only 9 pieces are known today. Heritage Auctions offered a Proof 65 PCGS example, endorsed by CAC, in 2015 that sold for over $1,000,000!
For a true challenge, why not acquire both a Flowing Hair and a Coiled Hair example? Example of a Flowing Hair:
5. 1913 Liberty Nickel
The 1913 Liberty Nickel is another storied rarity that would be at home in the finest coin cabinet belonging to the elite collector. With only 5 pieces minted, this coin is shrouded in mystery as it is unclear why these pieces were even made. The new Buffalo Nickel design was struck in 1913, so why were just a handful of the old Liberty Nickel design produced? There are many theories, but what is clear today is just how desirable these rare pieces are to collectors!
All 5 of the specimens were sold in 1924 by Philadelphia coin dealer August Wagner. After changing hands a few times, they eventually ended up in the storied collection of Eric P. Newman and Burdette Johnson. Newman and Johnson sold them piece by piece to individual collectors in the 1940s, beginning their journeys through history that gave these coins their nicknames today, such as the Olsen-Hawn Specimen and the Eliasberg Specimen. These amazing coins have inspired countless articles and even a full-length book.
Heritage Auctions sold the Olsen Specimen a few years back, which was featured on an episode of the popular police television Show “Hawaii 5-0” and graded NGC Proof 64. It brought an impressive $3,290,000!
6. 1907 Ultra High Relief $20 Gold Piece
The 1804 Dollar may be America’s most famous coin, but many argue that the 1907 Ultra High Relief $20 is the most beautiful. Designed by artist and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, the Ultra High Relief $20 gold pieces from 1907 have significant depth to their surfaces and immediately stand out with their medallic and artistic qualities. This well-known American artist has works in the great museums but was also chosen by President Roosevelt to infuse the designs of new coins with the loveliness and style that only an artist could contribute.
These coins are so infrequently available for sale that this rare opportunity would generate significant press. When Heritage offered an amazing Proof 69 NGC piece in 2005, it brought $2,990,000!
An Ultra High Relief $20 would be a true show-off piece that even non-collectors can understand and appreciate due to its beauty and striking appearance.
7. 1894-S Dime
What makes the 1894-S Dime stand out amongst its Barber Dime peers is the tiny “S” mintmark on the back and its special surfaces as a Branch Mint Proof. With only 24 examples struck and less than 10 believed to be known today, Heritage Auctions made headlines when this example crossed the auction block for $1,997,500:
This sale generated so much media attention at the time that many coin experts’ inboxes were full of photos from hopefuls who wished that their “normal” Barber Dime was one of the rare ones. Being able to tell other collectors that you are a connoisseur who owns the famous 1894-S—not one of the many less exciting 1890s dimes out there—would definitely attract attention and accolade.
The story claiming that US Mint Superintendent John Daggett’s young daughter, Hallie, spent one of these dimes for a cone at the ice cream parlor on her way home from the Mint only adds to the charm and popularity of this coin. Even though recent research indicates this anecdote is fanciful, this story has still captured collectors’ imaginations over the years.
8. Brasher Doubloon
The phrase “doubloon” can conjure up images of pirate treasure and ill-gotten gains. The Brasher Doubloon goes even further than that to capture our imaginations—it is a very special type of gold coin that holds a unique place in the pantheon of numismatics as the only pre-Federal US gold piece. Called “second to none” by B. Max Mehl, Brasher Doubloons have ranked among some of the most expensive American coins ever sold at auction. They were created by American patriot and silversmith Ephraim Brasher, born in 1744. He served in the Revolutionary War as part of the New York Evacuation Committee, which oversaw the transition of New York out of British occupation in 1783. He also lived mere feet from George Washington, on Cherry Street in New York City, after the war.
When the US Mint was founded in 1792, he started assaying foreign gold coins for conversion into American coinage. Shortly after, he began with the private coinage that carries his name today—Brasher Doubloons. He created the New York-style Doubloon in 1787, and these coins are considered today to be a top prize for the most advanced numismatist and student of history. These pieces generate considerable press whenever they are available at auction and would immediately elevate any collection into the upper echelons of fame.
The discovery coin, graded NGC MS63 and verified by CAC, sold at Heritage Auctions for $4,582,500 in 2014!
9. Continental Dollar
The history buff would do well to seek out an enigmatic and historic Continental Dollar, which is another piece from early America that immediately adds cache to one’s collection. These coins have been the focus of recent scholarship and investigation about their origins, but their popularity and values remain strong. For over 200 years, these pieces have been considered an essential aspect of early American coinage by collectors, and they are no less beloved today.
Coded with the inscription “EG FECIT,” which means “EG made it” in Latin, numismatic scholar Eric P. Newman posited the possibility that these coins were created by American engraver Elisha Gallaudet, who engraved paper money for New York in the late 1700s. More recent theories have suggested European origins for these coins, but they remain a classic piece to own and enjoy. These coins would be impressive not just to numismatists, but also to anyone with an appreciation for US history! They remain a key image of colonial America and an iconic piece for collectors and historians today.
Have your chance at one of these pieces as part of Heritage’s April Central States sale.
10. Top Registry Coins
Another area of collecting that can quickly turn heads is the top Registry-quality pieces that one needs to acquire if you want to be competitive with a PCGS or NGC Registry Set. In a world where the highest grades mean the highest rankings, ultra-grades like MS67, 68, and 69 come to the fore. Unlike the other trophy coins on this list that are a particular date or type only, a “top pop” coin can come from any series across the board to inspire admiration and envy from other collectors as you increase your Registry Set rankings and work towards the ultimate goal of a complete set.
Some examples of “top pop” registry coins that commanded impressive prices at Heritage Auctions recently are:
- 1945 Dime, MS67+ Full Bands – The Single Finest Full Bands Coin Known
- 1918-S Dime, MS67 Full Bands – One of the Two Finest Pieces Known
- 1878-S Trade Dollar, MS68 – The Only One Graded
- 1919-S Standing Liberty Quarter, MS67 Full Head – Sought-After Series Key, Tied for Finest Certified
- 1951-D Roosevelt Dime, MS68 Full Bands – Registry Grade Example