One of the rarest coins known had been planned to go to auction this Saturday, June 2nd. The Four Seasons Auction Gallery in Alpharetta, Georgia, claims that a gold coin found glued into in an old book turned out to be one of the rarest coins ever minted: the 1870-S $3 gold coin. A tourist is said to have found the coin 15 years ago, and waited until the time was right to put the coin up for auction.
Although things might be “as phony as a three-dollar bill” today, it had been a genuine denomination of U.S. money several times in history. $3 seems like an odd denomination, but the government felt the economy had a strong need for it at the time. In 1851, the U.S. postal rate for a ½ ounce letter dropped from 5¢ to 3¢, so to avoid every post office from having to stock a vaultful of pennies for making change, the U.S. Mint developed a 3¢ coin, called the “trime“. The trime worked well if you were buying a single stamp, but what if you wanted to buy a full sheet of 100? Well, therein lies the perceived need for a $3 coin. The problem was that, for most other things, a multiple of three wasn’t much use. The 3¢ and $3 didn’t take off, much like the $2 bill today, and both coins were removed from circulation in the 1870s.
When the dies for the 1870 coins, including the $3 coin, arrived at the San Francisco Mint in 1869, some were missing their “S” mint mark, making them essentially unusable. While waiting for a response of what to do with the markless dies, the mint supervisor had an “S” carved into the $3 die, and initially it was believed only one coin was struck. That coin was put into the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint building, with other 1870 coins struck with the “S” mint mark. At the time it was thought to be the only 1870-S coin in existence, buried in the Mint.
That is, until the William Woodin sale in 1911, which included a previously unknown 1870-S gold $3 coin. The coin isn’t in mint condition; it has marks consistent with being part of jewelry, and significant wear on the obverse, below the bust, as though it rubbed against something, like a necklace or watch fob. Being the only $3 1870-S not buried beneath a monument of concrete and brick made it a very rare and desirable coin. This coin currently belongs to the Harry Bass Foundation and is on display at the American Numismatic Association’s museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
So, for the Four Seasons coin to be real, lightning would have to strike twice. Either there was a third unrecorded striking done, or somebody managed to remove the $3 coin from the San Francisco Mint cornerstone. To add to the suspicion of fakery, the original press release did not indicate any numismatic authentication service had evaluated the coin, and there would only be a brief examination of the coin right before the sale. The coin was eventually submitted to PCGS in Paris, and, unsurprisingly, Don Willis, President of PCGS, announced that the coin was counterfeit. It turns out that the coin was as phony as a $3 bill after all.