The Three Dollar Gold Piece was a coin that had no purpose. The best reason anyone could give for authorizing this denomination was to facilitate the purchase of three cent postage stamps. While that made sense for the Silver Three Cent piece, it didn’t hold up as a rational for the three dollar coin. In reality the coin was a product of the gold lobby, which was looking for new uses for the metal after a glut developed from the California gold rush.
The 1854 Three Dollar Gold Piece is a minor type. The word “DOLLARS” on the reverse was smaller this year than it was on the subsequent issues of the coin. From 1855 until the series ended in 1889, letters in the word were larger. I have never read a formal explanation as to why the mint made this change.
The mintages for the Three Dollar Gold Piece were generally small. From 1854 to 1889, the U.S. mint system produced only 537,824 three dollar coins for general circulation and about 2,200 Proof pieces. The most common dates with their mintages are 1854 (138,618), 1855 (50,555), 1874 (41,800) and 1878 (82,304).
The coin in the left picture is an 1887 Three Dollar Gold Piece. It has vibrant luster and virtually mark free surfaces, which is unusual for an MS-64 graded coin. According to Q. David Bowers and Doug Winter, the 1887 three dollar gold coin is a bit scarcer than its mintage (6,000 pieces) would indicate. The coin in the right picture is an 1854 Three Dollar Gold Piece which is shown to illustrate the small “DOLLARS” subtype.