Gold is considered rare, but true rarity is a relative term. Rare Gold is really rare.

What do we mean by "rare gold?"

"Rare gold" refers to rare gold coins and rare gold coins are many times scarcer than gold bullion.

Rare Gold Coins vs. Bullion

Consider that millions of gold bullion coins are minted each and every year. In fact, by the time you combine the annual mintage figures from the Gold American Eagle, the Gold American Buffalo, the Canadian Maple Leaf, the Austrian Vienna Philharmonic and the South African Krugerrand, you’ll come up with tens of millions of new coins minted every year.

In contrast, even the most common rare gold coins measure in the thousands. Rare gold coins are generally regarded as those gold coins minted in the United States between 1795 (three years after the Philadelphia Mint was founded) and 1933 (the year in which the United States Mint ceased minting gold coins for circulation).

Why are coins from this 138-year period rare? There are two primary reasons.

First, many coins were simply lost in circulation over the years, or in some cases worn to the extent that they are of little interest to serious collectors.

Second, and by far most importantly, in 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress acted to seize all gold in circulation in the United States. Americans were ordered to turn in their gold coins in return for paper dollars, under penalty of law. The coins that the federal government’s Treasury Department expropriated were subsequently sent to the melting pots to be melted down into gold bars.

This was the fate of the overwhelming majority of the gold coins ever minted by the various United States Mints (Philadelphia, Dahlonega, Charlotte, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver and Carson City).

The result is that today, the surviving rare gold coins number in the thousands. Some issues are relatively "common" with as many as 100,000 examples known to exist, according to independent grading services.

Other issues are "ultra rare," in that perhaps just a handful, or even just one or two examples exist today. This puts the term "rarity" in proper perspective.

Ultra Rarities

Two types of rare gold coins are particularly rare: early U.S. gold coins and proof gold.

Early U.S. gold coins are those coins which were minted between 1795 and roughly 1834. It stands to reason that these coins would suffer higher attrition rates than the more recent issues, but there is a little-known reason why early gold coins are so scarce.

In 1834, an anomaly materialized with the value of gold in U.S. coins exceeding the face value indicated on the coins themselves. In other words, a $10 gold Eagle contained more than $10 worth of gold. Needless to say, people both in the United States and outside our borders began melting the coins down to reap the reward created by the anomaly. This greatly depleted the supply of U.S. gold coins and, what followed escalated this even further.

In response to the anomaly, the U.S. government ordered the recall of all U.S. gold coins. The recalled coins were then melted down and new gold coins issued with corrected gold content to match their face values.

As a result, early U.S. gold coins are among the rarest U.S. coins on the market today.

Proof gold coins are not in the same class of rarity as early gold, and there is a key difference between the two types of coins. While early gold coins became rare due to attrition, proof gold coins were rare the day they left the mint.

Proof coins are coins that were minted using special, exact methods on highly polished planchets. They were also often struck multiple times to obtain sharp images. Very few coins were minted in this painstaking manner, usually just a few dozen. As a result, today proof gold coins are among the most beautiful, but are still bullion and not rare gold.