Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Extremely Fine 1856-O $20 gold coin to be auctioned

News and Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the coin collecting community #73

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

On Friday, Oct. 14, Heritage will auction an 1856-O Double Eagle ($20 gold coin) in Pittsburgh as part of the official auction of the first Fall ANA Convention. Traditionally, there have been two ANA Conventions in each calendar year. The main ANA Convention is held during the summer and a smaller ANA Convention is held, often in a small city, in March or April. This is the first year in which there will be three ANA Conventions, and I expect the Fall Convention to be a significant event.

This 1856-O Double Eagle is PCGS graded 'Extremely Fine-45' and has a sticker of approval from the CAC. It was previously auctioned by Heritage on July 31, 2009. It then realized $253,000, an amount which was considered to be reasonable at the time. Both this 1856-O and an 1854-O Double Eagle, also a famous rarity, in this same auction were consigned by the same collector and are parts of the “Rubic Collection.” Any 1856-O Double Eagle is an extremely important coin and, in my view, this is one of the more important 1856-O Double Eagles.

I. Lack of Fame

When people talk about Great Rarities, they often forget to mention 1856 New Orleans Mint Double Eagles ($20 gold coins). None were found in shipwrecks and only one of the survivors grades above 60. The only person who has written a lot about 1856-O Double Eagles is me.

In 2003, QDB devoted less than one page to the 1856-O in a book titled “Double Eagle Gold Coins” (Whitman). In 2006, Garrett & Guth devoted one-third of each page to each gold coin issue, including the 1856-O, in their gold coin encyclopedia, though they did allocate an additional one-third of a page just to the famous 'Specimen' striking of an 1856-O. Winter's book on Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint (Zyrus, 2006) includes two pages on 1856-O Double Eagles.

In 2007, I devoted a whole long article to a business strike 1856-O that was fresh and was auctioned by B&M. In 2009 and again in 2010, I covered sales of the 'Specimen-63' 1856-O. In Sept. 2010, I wrote about the newly discovered 1856-O in the September Long Beach auction event. Reportedly, it was owned by the “Bullock” family for a very long period of time.

Among Double Eagles, collectors tend to think about 1927-D Saint Gaudens Double Eagles and even Ultra High Relief 1907 Double Eagles. The unique, pattern 1849 Double Eagle in the Smithsonian is frequently mentioned. Though not Great Rarities, 1861 San Francisco Mint Double Eagles with the Paquet reverse have typically command attention. Indeed, the extremely rare Philadelphia Mint Double Eagles with the Paquet reverse have received a great deal of media attention. Furthermore, though 1857-S Double Eagles are barely scarce, those found in the shipwreck of the S. S. Central America are famous. Please read my article on Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagles for some background about these. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Even given the wild demand since 2000 for Type One Double Eagles, which were minted from 1850 to 1866, there has not been much public discussion of 1856-O coins, apart from my writings. A few have appeared at auction over the last four years, without as much fanfare as I would have expected. Most recently, a PCGS graded 'Very Fine-20' 1856-O, with a CAC sticker, sold for $184,000 during the Stack's-Bowers 'Rarities Night' event, as I mentioned in my column of Aug 22nd.

In October 2008, a record was set when an NGC graded “AU-58” 1856-O realized $576,150. This record was broken on May 29, 2009. Heritage then auctioned the 'Specimen-63' 1856-O for $1,437,500. Adam Crum of Monaco Rare Coins was the successful bidder. As I reported in the premier issue of this weekly column, about a year later, Crum sold this same coin for even more. This specimen striking, however, is much different from business strike 1856-O Double Eagles and requires a separate discussion. Business strike 1856-O Double Eagles are Great Rarities in their own right.

II. The Rarity of 1856-O Double Eagles

In 2007, I figured that there are at least fifteen and, at most, twenty-three 1856-O Double Eagles. My tentative thought then that seventeen survive is in line with David Akers' statements in auction catalogues, which were published in 1990 and 1997, respectively. Akers' estimate is or was fifteen to eighteen. In 2003, Q. David Bowers said eighteen to twenty-two are known. Heritage catalogers have estimated twenty to twenty-five.

I now assert that at least sixteen are known, most likely eighteen or nineteen. Also in 2007, I concluded that the 1854-O Double Eagle is a Great Rarity as well.

In an Aug. 2007 article, I estimated that there exist seventeen to twenty-four 1854-O Double Eagles, an estimate which is similar to, though slightly different from, David Akers' count of twenty to twenty-five. I continue to hypothesize that the 1856-O is slightly rarer than the 1854-O, perhaps there are twenty or twenty-one 1854-O Double Eagles.

While I am much more confident in my rarity range estimates than in exact numbers, nineteen 1856-O Double Eagles and twenty-one 1854-O Double Eagles are logical numbers, though very tentative estimates. My strong impression is that most collectors are not aware of the extreme rarity of these issues.

Now in Sept. 2011, John Albanese indicates that his perspective on the rarity of these two issues is consistent with my estimates, though Albanese tends to view the 1854-O and the 1856-O as being of “equal rarity. Less than two dozen '56-O Double Eagles” exist, John says, and there are “about the same number of 1854-O Double Eagles.”

I remain curious as to why 1856-O Double Eagles are not often discussed, and not nearly as famous as I would have expected them to be, especially given the widescale promotions of Type One Double Eagles during the first decade of this century (2000 to '09). Albanese finds that one reason why 1856-O Double Eagles are not more famous is because “1856-O and 1854-O Double Eagles share the spotlight among early Double Eagles. They take away [attention] from each other,” John points out.

“If two players on the same major league baseball team have spectacular seasons, the best of any players in the whole league, a player on another team may get the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award because he stands out and is not splitting attention with a teammate,” Albanese asserts. “Because the '56-O has to share the spotlight with the '54-O, who is to say which is the MVP among” early Double Eagles, John asks. Both were produced in the 1850s at the New Orleans Branch Mint. Neither “stands out in the way that 1894-S dimes, 1901-S quarters, 1854-S Quarter Eagles or 1933 Eagles stand out” in their respective series.

III. The Condition of 1856-O Double Eagles

Except the 'SP-63' 1856-O, all Double Eagles of this date exhibit wear. Indeed, 1856-O Double Eagles tend to have a very large number of contact marks and scratches in addition to loss of detail from circulation. At least two of those that are now graded Almost Uncirculated (AU) were in the past graded Extremely Fine.

On July 31, 2009, Heritage auctioned two 1856-O Double Eagles. The one that is PCGS graded EF-45 is the topic here, now known as the 'Rubic' 1856-O. A short discussion of the other, however, may be illuminating.

The NGC graded “AU-58” 1856-O that was auctioned in 2009 is the same as the 1856-O that Heritage sold for $576,150 in Oct. 2008. It realized less, $460,000, in July 2009. It was not unusual for a coin to sell for less in 2009 than the same coin was worth in 2008. In a series of three articles in August 2009, I explain the dramatic changes in the market climate that occurred from the middle of 2008 to the middle of 2009: Market Report, part 1; Market Report, part 2; Widening Gap.

This NGC graded “AU-58” 1856-O is extremely sharp, yet does not have an 'original' look. It is true that this coin has plenty of luster, especially about the design elements, more so on reverse (back of the coin). It has not been overdipped or washed out. The color and surfaces, however, are just not very natural and are bothersome. Perhaps it is fair to say that it has been moderately dipped. It is not unusual for a pre-1880 U.S. gold coin to have been moderately dipped, which means it was immersed in a standard coin related solution featuring an acid. This one, however, may have been dipped in a slightly unusual solution. Personally, I am not thrilled about this “AU-58” 1856-O.

Generally, New Orleans Mint Double Eagles from the 1850s tend not to have particularly original surfaces. Indeed, most 1856-O Double Eagles score low in the originality category. I have never seen one that I believe is entirely original. All have been cleaned or dipped in one way or another. Some have been processed in terrible ways. It is important, however, to avoid 'all or nothing' thinking in this regard. A light dipping or very light cleaning is much less serious than immersion in a solution that drastically changes the appearance of the coin.

The PCGS and the NGC already take the extent of originality into consideration when these services assign grades. As I explained in my three part series, however, sophisticated collectors tend to weigh originality to a higher degree than do the two leading grading services. (See Collecting Naturally Toned Coins, part 1 - part 3.) If the two leading grading services placed greater weight upon originality, dealers would have less to gain by modifying 19th century coins.

The newly discovered “Bullock” 1856-O that Heritage auctioned in Sept. 2010 is the most original looking 1856-O Double Eagle that I have ever seen. Even it, though, is not entirely original. The surfaces have been very slightly modified by some type of cleaning, perhaps long ago.

I emphasize that its green colors are amazingly original. Furthermore, the presence of relatively few contact marks and scratches is especially noteworthy. While most 1856-O Double Eagles have dozens of abrasions, the Bullock coin has much less than usual. It was NGC graded 'EF-45+.' The Bullock 1856-O has since been PCGS graded “AU-50.” Despite mild reservations, I found it to be especially desirable for an AU grade 1856-O. It realized $345,000 on Sept. 26, 2010. Moreover, it is the certified AU-50 grade coin that is listed in the CAC Population Report. The Bullock 1856-O is, surely, an excellent coin.

IV. The Rubic 1856-O

I have examined at least nine different 1856-O Double Eagles. After the Specimen-63 coin and the just mentioned newly discovered Bullock 1856-O, the third most desirable 1856-O on my list is the one that will be offered in October. As this coin is indicated by Heritage to be “From the Rubic Collection,” I refer to it as the Rubic 1856-O. It makes sense for coins to have names.

I remember being enthusiastic about the Rubic 1856-O when I saw it in July 2009. I then noted that it has nice color and a pleasing overall 'look.' It is evenly worn and nicely struck. As an 'O' Mint Double Eagle from the 1850s, it is expected to have many contact marks, including a few very noticeable gashes. This coin has a fair number of such abrasions, though less than is found on most extremely fine grade 'O' Mint Double Eagles.

While there are many surviving Philadelphia Mint business strike Double Eagles from the 1890s that have only a small number of contact marks, this 1856-O should be considered in the context of other 'O' Mint Double Eagles. In relative terms, it has fewer marks than the average 'O' Mint Double Eagle. Moreover, 'O' Mint Double Eagles from the 1850s were usually struck from highly polished dies and many of these HAD semi-prooflike (or even prooflike) fields when they left the New Orleans Mint. For reasons that are hard to explain, abrasions are more likely to show on prooflike or semi-prooflike fields than on regular fields. Heavily abraded Deep Mirror Prooflike Morgan Dollars, for example, tend to look much worse than heavily abraded regular Morgan Dollars. Therefore, the fact that 1856-O Double Eagles once had semi-prooflike fields causes some contact marks and scratches to appear worse than they are, from a technical standpoint. The Rubic 1856-O did have semi-prooflike fields and the reverse is still somewhat prooflike.

The Rubic 1856-O has either been very lightly dipped or never was dipped. Again, 'dipping' refers to immersing a coin in a standard acid solution for the purpose of removing matter, including microscopic amounts of metal, usually with idea of making the coin brighter.

Long ago, the Rubic 1856-O was extensively lightly cleaned, on the reverse (back) more so than on the obverse (front). The extensive light cleaning is barely noticeable without magnification. A glass with 'five-times' magnification is needed to see most of the numerous very light hairlines.

The color of this coin is very appealing, if I accurately remember it. Much of this coin is sort of a creamy tan-gold color with greenish tints in the inner fields. Some of the highpoints are characterized by a neat russet tint, probably toning from being kept in a cabinet, a case or an envelope. It is important to remember that most U.S. gold coins consist of a ten percent copper alloy and copper actively tones. Trace metals also found their way into alloys in the 19th century or on blanks before striking.

When the reverse of this 1856-O is tilted under a light, luster here and there is evident, especially about the outer design elements, the name of our nation and the denomination. On or near the shield, there is, if my memory serves correctly, a nice light russet tone.

The Rubic 1856-O is an impressive coin. It is attractive and very pleasing for an 'O' Mint Double Eagle.

©2011 Greg Reynolds

1 Comment on "Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Extremely Fine 1856-O $20 gold coin to be auctioned"

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  1. montie says:

    If we did most of the US Governmental employees would be in trouble when they do an audit on the gold in storage in the vaults at Fort Knox and other locations.

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