Written by John Dale
It’s not uncommon to have guests in the cataloging department, important customers or potential customers who visit our humble wing as part of a grand tour of Heritage world headquarters. Last week was one such occasion, and I had the opportunity to show off a coin I was cataloging.
“Do you like gold?” I asked.
“Ever seen a three dollar gold coin before?”
The usual ooh-ing and ahh-ing ensued. Then one gentleman turned it over.
The question struck me as odd. I didn’t remember which three dollar gold coin I’d handed to the tour, but none of the threes on my desk had been dated 1878.
He turned the coin over. “Oh, it’s 1873.”
Then I understood why he’d been confused. He passed the coin back to me with a comment about needing to get his eyes checked. I reassured him that his eyes weren’t the problem, and he was far from the first to make the same mistake.
At the start of 1873, the U.S. Mint used a four-digit date punch, or logotype, that had the two ends of the 3 in 1873 nearly touching the center. The 3 looked like an 8 at first glance, and it didn’t take long for this to come to the attention of the then-Chief Coiner of the Mint.
A new logotype, this time with the ends of the "3" well apart, went into service and was used for most of the year. Two dimes in the upcoming June Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction show the difference between the two logotypes: the last digit goes from ambiguous on the Closed "3" coin to obvious on the Open "3" piece.
Now there’s a funny wrinkle to that 1873 three dollar coin I showed to the tour. According to official Mint records, it shouldn’t exist. There are no records of three dollar gold coins being struck for circulation in 1873. So what gives? There are multiple possibilities, none conclusively proven.
The coins could have been struck in 1874 but from dies dated 1873. For example, when demand for $3 gold coins spiked in 1874, Mint workers may have just used the dies that were on-hand, which has historical precedent.