Coin Profile: 1868 Liberty Double Eagle, Proof Deep Cameo

Very Rare 19th Century Proof, Possibly Six in Private Hands
Condition Census Example, Ex: Harry Bass

The 1868 Liberty double eagle is one of the rarest dates of the series in proof format, from a tiny mintage of just 25 pieces. The coin offered here is one of the finest survivors of that minuscule production, with a pedigree to the celebrated Harry Bass Collection, one of the greatest collections of gold coins ever formed. This is a coin of surpassing quality, and one of the most important offerings in the Heritage Platinum Night sale in Chicago this week.

Experts estimate perhaps 10-12 specimens of the 1868 proof mintage survive today. The leading grading services have certified 15 specimens in all grades, but this total is almost certainly inflated by resubmissions.

1868 20 pr ha 0812111 Coin Profile: 1868 Liberty Double Eagle, Proof Deep CameoIn the roster below Heritage can account for only nine different survivors, but a few more examples may be represented by the coins whose appearances we could not definitely link to one of the established pedigrees. It seems safe to say the 1868 proof double eagle is a R.7 issue, and three of the known specimens are impounded in institutional collections.

The roster below provides much information about the collecting habits of 19th century numismatists with respect to high-denomination gold coins. Of the seven coins we are aware of in the 19th century (Garrett, Mint Cabinet, ANS, Parmelee, Cleneay, Wilson, and Wetmore) all were initially purchased as part of complete gold proof sets. Virtually no one was buying single proof twenties to complete a date run of double eagles. In the Parmelee sale an attempt was made to split up the set and sell the double eagle in a separate lot. The coin realized a dismal $21.50.

There was a ready market for the lower-denomination proofs by the turn of the century, but the tens and twenties were unpopular, and it is likely that many examples were spent for face value in the Panic of 1893 and following years. The face value of the double eagle was too great for most collectors to tie up in their collections, and the gold proof sets were broken up, with collectors keeping as many of the smaller coins as they could afford, while the higher denominations were spent or sold for small premiums.

Writing in 1907, S.H. Chapman said, “These proof sets are exceedingly rare, and my estimate would be that there are not over five sets in existence of the years prior to 1890, and of some of the earlier years probably only three sets.” Of course, business-strike double eagles were even less likely to be saved by collectors. This trend continued until the late 1930s, when collecting double eagles finally became popular, but attrition took a heavy toll on the big coins in the years before that time.

Times have changed since the 1930s, and today double eagles are one of the most popular denominations in the numismatic marketplace. Proof coinage is especially hot, and the PR66 Cameo NGC example of the 1868 double eagle that sold in lot 2506 of the Central States Signature Auction (Heritage, 4/2008) realized $299,000. The trend is even stronger today.

To underscore the high value of 19th century proof gold twenties in the current market, the PR65 Ultra Cameo NGC 1870 coin in lot 5493 of the most recent Central States Signature Auction (Heritage, 4/2011) realized a staggering $345,000.

The present coin is a magnificent PR64+ specimen with profound Deep Cameo contrast. Where this coin stands in the Condition Census is open to some interpretation, as it is currently the only Deep Cameo example certified by either of the grading services (6/11). A few pieces have been certified in higher numeric grades, but the intense black-on-white cameo effect gives this coin an eye appeal that the other coins cannot match.

Harry Bass was one of the most astute numismatists of all time, and his legacy of scholarship is probably unmatched by any other gold coin collector. Bass had several opportunities to purchase the PR66 Cameo Garrett coin during his collecting life, but he chose to retain this coin in his collection because of its outstanding visual appeal.

Population: 1 in 64+ Deep Cameo, 0 finer (6/11).

To be sold at the Heritage Platinum Night Sale in Chicago as Lot 7669

The following roster was compiled from Heritage auction archives and lists all 1868 proof double eagles we are aware of. Most of the pieces listed under “Other Appearances” are probably duplicate citations of coins in the main roster, but it is impossible to definitely place them in the established pedigree chains. There may be only six coins in private hands.

1868 Proof Double Eagle Roster

  • 1. PR66 Cameo NGC. Heman Ely; W. Elliot Woodward; purchased by T. Harrison Garrett as part of a private transaction involving nine complete gold proof sets of various dates in October 1883, before Woodward sold the balance of Ely’s collection in his auction of January 1884; Robert Garrett; John Work Garrett; Johns Hopkins University; Garrett Collection (Stack’s, 3/1976), lot 422, realized $12,500; New Jersey Collection until 1991; King of Siam Auction (Superior Galleries, 1/1993), lot 1510, realized $46,200; FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/1998), lot 8059; Dr. Robert Loewinger Collection (Heritage, 1/2007), lot 3143, realized $207,000; Central States Signature (Heritage, 4/2008), lot 2506, realized $299,000.
  • 2. PR65 Cameo NGC. Amon Carter, Sr.; Amon Carter, Jr.; Amon Carter Family Collection (Stack’s, 1/1984), lot 880, realized $26,400; Ed Trompeter; Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 2/2000), lot 6884.
  • 3. PR64+ Deep Cameo PCGS. Mocatta Collection (New England Rare Coin Auctions, 7/1979), lot 450, realized $27,000; Harry W. Bass, Jr.; Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection Part II (Bowers and Merena, 10/1999), lot 1790, realized $41,400; ANA Signature (Heritage, 8/2004), lot 7685, realized $80,500; Pre-Long Beach Auction (Superior Galleries, 9/2005), lot 2025, realized $94,300; FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2007), lot 3751; Pre-Long Beach Auction (Goldberg, 5/2007), lot 1708, realized $97,750; Pre-Long Beach Auction (Ira and Larry Goldberg, 9/2008), lot 1289, realized $106,375. The present coin.
  • 4. PR64 PCGS. FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2005), lot 30078, realized $74,750; Denver Signature (Heritage, 8/2006), lot 5687, realized $86,250; FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2007), lot 3750.
  • 5. Brilliant PR63. Jascha Heifetz Collection (Superior, 10/1989), lot 5054.
  • 6. Select Brilliant PR63. United States Gold Coin Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 10/1982), lot 920, realized $26,400.
  • 7. PR64 Cameo. National Numismatic Collection, Smithsonian Institution, earlier in the Mint Cabinet, directly from the coiner in 1868 as part of a complete proof set.
  • 8. PR63 Cameo. National Numismatic Collection, Smithsonian Institution.
  • 9. Proof. A specimen in the ANS Collection, probably part of the Brock-Morgan donation in 1908, exhibited by the Society in 1914.

Other Appearances

A. PR65. Kingswood VII (Kingswood Coin Auctions, 10/1998), lot 760, realized $99,550. Kingswood catalogs from this era are surprisingly hard to locate, and we could not obtain a copy for comparison. It seems likely that the coin in this appearance is one of the high-grade specimens listed above, but we cannot determine that for certain.

B. Brilliant Proof. Adolphe Menjou Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 6/1950), lot 1806. Possibly the same as number 3 above, per Superior 9/2005 catalog.

C. Perfect Brilliant Proof. J.F. Bell Collection (Stack’s, 12/1944), lot 828, realized $400.

D. Perfect Brilliant Proof. William Cutler Atwater Collection (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 1260, realized $275.

E. Perfect Brilliant Proof. Colonel James W. Flanagan Collection (Stack’s, 3/1944), lot 1578, realized $242.50. This coin was plated in the catalog and the plate matches none of the coins listed as numbers 1 through 7 above. We have seen no images of coins 8 and 9, but this coin cannot be number 9 since that example was in the ANS Collection at the time of the Flanagan sale. By process of elimination, it seems likely that the Flanagan coin became the second example in the Smithsonian, number 8 above, probably via the familiar C.T. Weihman/Josiah K. Lilly route. More research is needed to confirm this.

F. Sharp, Perfect Proof. George Seavey, part of a complete proof set purchased from the Mint in 1868; Seavey Illustrated Collection (William Strobridge, 6/1873), lot 830; Lorin G. Parmelee, who purchased the collection intact in 1873; Parmelee Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 6/1890), lot 1359, realized $21.50.

G. Proof. Thomas Cleneay Collection (S.H. & H. Chapman, 12/1890), lot 417, part of a complete six-piece gold proof set, realized $48 for the set.

H. Proof. David S. Wilson Collection (S.H. Chapman, 3/1907), lot 328, part of a six-piece complete gold proof set, realized $190 for the set.

I. Brilliant Proof. William B. Wetmore Collection (S.H. & H. Chapman, 6/1906), lot 152, part of a complete six-piece gold proof set; Virgil Brand.

About the Author:

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