There are a number of denominations within American numismatic history which were struck for several decades but eventually discontinued and largely forgotten by the American public. One of those is the Three Dollar Gold Piece, introduced in 1854 and struck each year until the denomination was abolished in 1889. Mintage levels were extremely small, in most cases fewer than 10,000 pieces per year with some years having fewer than 1,000 pieces produced. Providing some additional allure and intrigue, the series includes two issues which are currently represented by only a single known specimen.
The three dollar gold piece has an unlikely origin rooted in both philately and numismatics. In 1851, the United States Postal Service lowered the rate for postage stamps from five cents to three cents. In the same year, the three cent silver piece was introduced in order to facilitate the purchase of stamps. By similar logic, the three dollar gold piece was introduced in 1854 to make it easier for individuals and business owners to buy full sheets of 100 stamps.
The denomination was officially authorized under the Act of February 21, 1853. The coins would be designed by Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre, who had also been responsible for numerous other coin designs in use at the time. He designed the coin at the same time he redesigned the gold dollar, and the designs are virtually identical. The obverse of the coin carries the image of a so-called “Indian Princess” representing Liberty, facing left. She wears a crown of feathers inscribed with the word LIBERTY. The words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surround the image. On the reverse, there is an agricultural wreath composed of tobacco, wheat, corn, and cotton tied with a bow at the base. The denomination 3 DOLLARS and the date appear within the wreath. This design would remain unaltered throughout the lifespan of the denomination.
Production of the Indian Princess Three Dollar Gold Piece would commence in 1854 at the Philadelphia, Dahlonega and New Orleans Mints. While the Philadelphia issue had a sizeable mintage of 138,618 coins, production at the other two facilities was much smaller. After the initial year, mintages quickly declined and never reached 100,000 again. For some of the later years of the series, production was absolutely minuscule and it appears the Mint only produced circulation strikes to prevent the proofs from becoming instant rarities. Most of the proofs had extremely tiny mintages of less than two dozen, and are extremely rare, making completion of a full proof set very difficult. The highest mintage for proofs, as an example, was 291 pieces in 1888.
In 1889 the denomination was discontinued and soon forgotten by the American public. Because of the small initial mintages, there are very few survivors for some dates. In fact, the total number of survivors for the entire series is lower than the number of survivors for some common dates from other classic gold series. Demand, however, is also relatively low as few people have chosen to specialize in this series. Most people purchase three dollar gold pieces for a type, date, or mint set. This has kept prices relatively low, although some of the low mintage dates certainly do not come cheap. The main problem is availability, as few dates are on the market at any given time and patience is often required to wait for a certain issue to become available for purchase.