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Why Are Old US Gold Coins So Rare?

Why are old US gold coins so rare?

Prior to the 1930’s, gold coins were commonplace in the United States. They were in common circulation, and used for everyday purchases as well as a means of saving and building wealth.

In the modern era, these coins are collector’s items. Many of them are rare, some exceptionally rare, even though millions were produced. Where did all these coins go?


Pre-1933 US Gold Coins

NW Double Eagles St. Gaudens Collection

The US mint produced millions of gold coins each year, with editions like the $20 St. Gaudens (1907-1933) and the $20 Liberty Gold Double Eagle (1849 – 1907), and around a dozen others. The face value of these gold coins ranged from as little as $1 to as much as $20 — sums that were worth substantially more than they are today.

Many of these coins were stunningly beautiful, as well as valuable.

The $20 St. Gaudens, for example, is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful US coins ever produced. Indeed, the design was a direct result of president Theodore Roosevelt’s push to beautify US coinage. 

$20 Liberty Gold Double Eagle


What Happened To All Those Coins?

Part of what makes the pre-1933 US coinage so special is its fascinating history. 

Gold coins were commonplace for much of the United State’s early history. Things changed dramatically in 1933, when president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102.

The act made it illegal to own gold bullion or coins in the United States. Citizens were asked (forced, really) to turn in their gold, in exchange for $20.67 per troy ounce. 

Executive Order 6102

Around 2 years later, the official price of gold was raised to $35 per ounce: A roughly 70% increase over what the US government had paid its own citizens for their gold. Ouch! 

At this time, the US was still on the Gold Standard. This meant that every dollar in circulation needed to be backed by a certain amount of gold held in US reserves.

During the Great Depression, the federal government needed to increase the money supply in order to prop up a weakened economy. However, they faced a problem: They were running out of gold! 

Thus, Executive Order 6102 was issued, essentially seizing gold from US citizens in order to bolster the gold reserves (and financial firepower) of the federal government. 

You may think, well, why did people give up their gold for less than it was worth? Perhaps because the executive order’s harsh criminal penalties…

As voluntary sales and involuntary seizures of gold increased, millions of gold coins were melted down into bullion. This included millions of the beautiful pre-1933 US coins. 


Destruction Leads to Rarity

This massive destruction of coins created some exceptionally rare issues. The St. Gaudens, in general, is relatively rare – even though hundreds of thousands to millions were minted each year. 

The St. Gaudens 1927-D is so rare, in fact, that a MS-65+ sold for a whopping $2,160,000 at auction in 2020. 

If you think that coin is unattainable, the 1933 St. Gaudens Double Eagle is on a whole other level. 

The 1933 St. Gaudens had an official mintage of 445,500 coins. However, the coin never entered circulation, as it came out the same year that the legal landscape for gold changed dramatically.

The US Government ordered that all but two of the coins be melted down. Fortunately, it’s estimated that around twenty escaped their fiery doom (most were likely stolen). 

Today, it’s thought that only thirteen coins remain. Two are held in the U.S. National Numismatic Collection, while ten others are under lock-and-key at the Fort Knox Bullion Depository. 

That leaves just one coin: The only known 1933 St. Gaudens to be privately held. The coin was sold at auction in June 2021. The final price? $18,872,250. This makes the 1933 St. Gaudens Double Eagle the most expensive single coin ever sold.

The simple fact that so many of these beautiful coins were destroyed gives us all the more reason to appreciate the beautiful US gold coins that remain today.


Looking to expand your collection of historical US gold coins? Bellevue Rare Coins stocks a wide variety of gold bullion and collectible gold coins. Stop by one of our showrooms today, or call (425) BUY-GOLD (425-278-9670)

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