The Dark History of Gold Began With Smashed Stars

The discovery of a single gold nugget can set off a chain reaction of historic proportions.


No element is simultaneously as trivial to our survival but as vital to human history as gold. Fortunes have been made. Armies have been raised. Empires have been built. Not bad considering that all of the gold ever mined -- all 165,000 metric tons of it -- if melted down would fill just three and a half Olympic swimming pools.

Gold is a precious metal associated with power and privilege, two virtues that historically have had absolutely nothing to do with mining or the gold trade. Even today, gold mining is a profession relegated to the world's poorest, often operating in illegal mines that pose a threat to their health and the environment.

 Gold has always had a transformative power and usually not for the better. Learn how gold and gold mining has shaped human history.

Watch VIDEO: How Gold Mining Works


Silver three-cent pieces 1851-1873

Silver was made a common metal after the gold rush of 1848. The silver 3 cent piece or trime was made of 75% instead of 90% silver, making them worth less than face value giving no incentive to melt or hoard them. Also, silver coins from the half dime to the dollar began disappearing from circulation. The influx of silver was undervalued. The trime was introduced to provide a small coin for commerce. Eventually the type two was lightened from 12.375 grains to 11.52 grains. There designs were made. The first 1851-1853 distinguished by no frame around the obverse star. In 1854 the trime was changed to the type II which was made through 1858. The alloy was made to the standard 90% silver and 10% copper as were other silver coins. A raised border was added to the obverse star, on the revers an olive branch and a bundle of arrows were added. This new motif was very difficult to strike up properly. In 1859 the type III was created. Demand was small, after 1862 very few were made. Silver coins were again hoarded by the public and began trading at a premium. In 1873 only proofs were made then the coin was discontinued. Striking on the type I lacked certain details. Sharp coins are rare as the striking quality was was nearly overlooked. Cherry picking is the order of the day. Type II trimes were miserably struck, with most characteristics weak on both sides. Ironically with the lowest mintage, a sharp 1855 is found now and then. Most type III trimes are struck well, with full details observed.

Circulated type I trimes are plentiful with mint state examples often seen. The one branch mint issue 1851-0 is very scarce. Most mint state coins are attractive and lustrous. Circulated type II grades are scarce. Needle sharp grades are rarities. Among type III trimes 1859 to 1862 are easy to find. All later dates are scarce to rare. Gem and mint state coins 1856 and later are very rare. Keep your eyes open, cherry picking again is in order.


Marty Feldman

Nickel Three-cent Pieces 1851-1889

While silver coins were being hoarded by the public, the nickel three cent piece coin was launched in 1865. The highest denomination coin at that time had been the two-cent piece. When silver coins began circulating after 1875 the three cent piece lost it's attractiveness and mintage dropped until the last of them ware minted in 1889.

Among circulation strikes clashed dies are common, especially in early versions. Most dated in the 1880's are well struck while earlier mintages have weaknesses in several areas. Check the portrait details and hair on the obverse while on the reverse check the tiny lines in the Roman numerals, these can be weak.

Mint state coins of the 1880's are readily found except for 83', 84', 85' and 1887 versions, some of them probably sold as proofs. Extensive mint luster was found on many proof coins. Mint state coins of the 1860's are readily found, but many have weaknesses or lack eye appeal. Good luck!


Marty Feldman

Two Cent Pieces 1864-1873

The two cent coin debuted in 1864 under the mint AG 08. That year it was struck in bronze as was the Indian Head of that year. The civil war was raging and coins were scarce because of hoarding. “Hard Money” was desired by the public. Production was increased in 1864, then mintage declined due to once hoarded Indian Cents being available action. Also the new nickel three cents were produced in 1965. Smaller quantities were made through 1872 then proofs only in 1873. Most coins were well struck. On the obverse check the leaves and the “we” in the note and the shield lines. Check the wreath details and border letters on the reverse. Also check the dentals on both sides.

Most mint state coins are dated 1864 or 1865 availability then declines rapidly especially the 1872 coins. Most 1864 coins have the large motto. Small motto coins are rare. In the market place most coins have been recorded. The original mint red-orange color are rare especially in later years. Happy hunting.

Marty Feldman

1909-1958 Lincoln Cent, Wreath Reverse

First released on August 2, 1909. Designed by Victor David Brenner. His initials were on the reverse but were soon discontinued with those initials. In 1943 zinc coated steel replaced copper due to the WWII copper shortage. The Philadelphia, Denver, and San Antonio mints all produced the coins, but not in all years. Produced by the billions, these coins are plentiful today, certain varieties although are scarce. As a rule 1909 through 1914 are well struck, from 1915 through the 1920's are weak. Denver mint being particularly weak with many die pairs used over a long period of time striking qualities vary. Coins struck from overused or worn dies can have a grainy or even slightly wavy fields on either side, it's good to avoid these.

Cents of the first year 1909, are easily found in mint state after which they become scarce, Philadelphia varieties were made in higher qualities and more often seen. There are a number of rare and scarce varieties. In the 1930's collectors retrieved many earlier coins from circulation with typical grades for the key 1909 VDB and 1914 being fine or so. By the late 50's most early date coins were apt to be worn down to GF. The demand is great for scarcer types, thus keeping the market strong. Many early cents have be en dipped and recolored, particularly true of RD listed pieces. To assemble a truly choice collection, well struck of Lincoln cents of the 1910-1929 years takes a lot of patience.

Marty Feldman

* As always, I reference the book “Grading Coins by Photographs” by Q. David Bowers.

1859-1969 Indian Head

After almost a dozen varieties of patterns were made in 1958, in 1959 the Indian Head was adopted as the new motif for the cent. The 1859 Revers was an olive wreath. Later in 1860 it was changed to an oak leaf wreath with a shield at the apex. These were struck on a new 49 grain bronze alloy. These cents remained in circulation till the 1940's but rarely seen by the 1950's. In the 30's many became scarce with the advent of coin albums and collectibles. Most key dates were picked out and became scarce.

Striking can vary widely. On the obverse check the details at the tips of the feathers and the diamonds on the ribbon. These details can be correctly dated only if you have familiarity with how sharp the coins were struck. In general the reverse is usually harder, check the leaf and shield details. Generally copper nickel cents of the early 1860's are usually lightly struck as are the latter issues in the bronze format from the 1890's onward.

In worn grades these coins are available in proportion to their mintages. Mint state coins survive as a matter of chance 1878 being scarcer than those 1879 or later, and some of the 1900's being readily available. Coins should be a warm red-orange with traces of natural brown. Beware of dipped or re-colored coins.

Marty Feldman

Small Cents 1857-1858, Flying Eagle

Due to the expense of producing large cents, in 1850 the mint started experimenting with smaller versions. Many patterns were made of this design in 1856, re-strikes were extensive. Distribution started on May 25, 1857. The motif was discontinued in 1858 from problems with striking. Examples remained in circulation until the early 1900's, survivors were well worn. The heavy wreath on the reverse was opposite in the dies (while in the press) and from the head and tail on the eagle, pieces were weakly struck in these areas. Striking weakness is most noticeable on the tail feathers. However, many flying eagles were quite well struck.

The flying eagle is easy to find, although some varieties such as 1856 and 1858 are scarce and rare. Most are seen in worn grades. In mint state many in the marketplace have been dipped, cleaned and re-colored, eliminate many from consideration of connoisseurs. Cherry picking is the order of the the day here.

Marty Feldman

1793-1796 Liberty Cap

OU MS 60 and 61 coins are traces of abrasion on the portrait. Luster is incomplete particularly in the field. Luster should be complete and no abrasions seen at MS 63. Luster is deeper at higher levels. Some original mint color may be seen. Scattered contract marks and some discoloration and traces of fingerprints may be seen at the MS 65 level, but are generally not distracting examples of 1790 and 1794 are rarer and have stronger eye appeal than the latter. Mint state coins of 1798 have a satiny finish. Created in the summer of 1793 by John Wright who also designed the half cent, 1793 cents have Mrs. Liberty facing right. These 1793 rarities have raised beaded letters instead of dentals. Others have dentals, while those made later in 1795 and 1796 have plain edges and are on thinner planchets. To truly determine wear, it is important to compare the die variety used.

Cents of this variety are readily available, though the 1793 are rare and desirable. Attractive AU of mint state coins are elusive, but when found are usually 1795 on a thin plantchet.


Happy hunting

Marty Feldman

1795 Wreath Reverse Large Cent

Between April 9th and July 17, 1793 the US Mint struck and delivered 63,353 Large Copper cents. Most all of these were of the wreath type. There are no records as to when the designs were changed that year. Named for the reverse style, it was an elegant change in design. Miss Liberty on the obverse side is in very high reverse almost sculptured. Wreaths and sprays of berries adorn the reverse side surrounding the denomination, other inscriptions surround the border. Both sides have raised beads around the edge similar to the 1793 styles half cent. Fairly well struck, they exhibit weakness on the highest hair tresses and on leaf details, even on high grade pieces. On lower grade pieces these areas are very weak. Panchets vary wildly, smooth, glossy brown to dark and porous.

Several thousand examples exist of different varieties of the type. Most are lower grades. EF and AU coins are highly sought numismatic prices. Some mint state coins have been billed as presentation or specimen coins although no record exists.


Marty Feldman