Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #379
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds .....
Liberty Head double eagle $20 gold coins were minted from 1850 to 1907. Before 1850, the largest U.S. coin denomination was the $10 gold piece (the eagle). This discussion is about collecting circulated double eagles of the first type (1850-66) with noticeable wear. Extremely Fine or higher grade representatives of most dates may be purchased for less than $5,000 USD each, often for less than $3,500.
This discussion is not about choice to gem uncirculated double eagles. A large percentage of type one double eagles that have been PCGS- or NGC-graded as MS-64 or higher came from excavations of shipwrecks, which require separate discussions.
Shipwreck coins have been aggressively promoted for more than 15 years. Additional finds will be offered in the marketplace, especially fresh 1857-S double eagles from another round of excavations at or very close to the site of the wreck of the SS Central America. It is best to wait until those appear before commenting upon them. Thousands of SS Central America pedigree 1857-S double eagles were unearthed during the late 1980s and early '90s before being sold in the 2000s.
Whether from shipwrecks or from private collections over the years, most Liberty Head double eagles that grade from ‘Mint State’-60 to MS-62 are very heavily abraded and/or exhibit noticeable friction from handling. Those MS-60 to -62 grade type one double eagles that are not from shipwrecks are often full of hairlines and/or have considerable friction from medium to heavy cleaning.
Typical contact marks and minor scratches notwithstanding, Extremely Fine-40 to AU-55 grade double eagles are much better values at current market levels than MS-60 to MS-62 grade coins of the same respective dates. For example, an EF-40 grade 1852 would be likely to sell for less than $2,050 and a MS-62 grade 1852 would be likely to command a price above $12,300, more than six times as much.
Although a significant number of people collect Liberty Head double eagles ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location), a far greater number of people collect double eagles ‘by design type’. Only six double eagles ($20 gold coins) are needed for a complete type set:
- Liberty Head ‘No Motto’ (1850-66)
- Liberty Head ‘With Motto’ (1866-76)
- Liberty Head ‘With Motto & ‘Dollars Spelled Out’(1877-1907)
- Saint-Gaudens High Relief (1907)
- ‘No Motto’ Saint (1907-08)
- ‘With Motto’ Saint (1908-33)
A “Saint,” in this context, is a Saint-Gaudens double eagle. The designer was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an important figure in the history of art in the United States.
Liberty Head double eagles were designed by James Longacre. In 1861, a modified version of Longacre’s reverse design created by Anthony Paquet was briefly considered. Two Philadelphia Mint 1861 Paquet reverse pieces are known and more than 125 San Francisco Mint 1861-S Paquet reverse double eagles survive.
Paquet reverse coins are generally considered to be varieties rather than separate design types. There has been much debate regarding the meaning and status of the Philadelphia Mint 1861 Paquet reverse double eagles. I am certain that the Dallas Bank piece is a business strike. Although it has a somewhat unusual satiny finish, the Norweb 1861 is likely to be a business strike as well. There are many 19th-century business strike gold coins with satiny finishes.
In 1866, the motto, ‘In God We Trust’ was added to the reverse designs of double eagles, eagles, half eagles ($5 gold coins), silver dollars, half dollars and quarters. Type two double eagles are also called Liberty Head double eagles ‘With Motto’. The artistic design of the shield was changed as well.
Beginning in 1877, the word ‘dollars’ was spelled out on the reverse. On type one and type two double eagles, dollars is abbreviated with just the letter ‘D’ and a period. It has been argued that Miss Liberty’s head on the obverse of type three double eagles is notably different from her head on type one and type two doubles, partly due to positioning. Such differences are minor, to the extent that they exist at all.
There really is only one obverse design for all Liberty Head double eagles. There are minor varieties regarding design elements.
There is one currently known 1849 Liberty Head double eagle, which is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. I thank Richard Doty, Karen Lee and Adam Crum for facilitating my request to closely examine this piece for a considerable time in 2010. I am convinced that it is a pattern. The dies, finish and planchet are all much different from those for any Liberty Head double eagles from the 1850s, Proof or business strike.
Collect Philadelphia Pieces First
Regular issue Philadelphia Mint type one double eagles tend to be available, as are most San Francisco Mint coins. New Orleans Mint type one double eagles are a whole different matter. Several of these are extremely rare. It is probably a good idea for collectors to start with Philadelphia Mint pieces, perhaps along with a few San Francisco Mint coins.
After collecting Philadelphia and/or San Francisco Mint double eagles for a while, a collector can decide whether he or she has the resources and enthusiasm to pursue New Orleans Mint coins, which often go for five figures. The 1854-O and the 1856-O each sell for six-figure prices.
History & Politics
Liberty Head double eagles are generally collected by people who are interested in the historical and political aspects of large gold coins. Additionally, there are non-collectors who buy them because of an attraction to the very nature of large gold coins. There have always been a notable number of U.S. citizens who are uncomfortable with paper money, wire transfers and bank accounts.
Historically significant, large gold coins embody philosophical and political views relating to so called ‘hard money’ and tangible assets, views often held by people who are skeptical or continually critical of government implementation of monetary policies. Generally, this political aspect of Liberty Head double eagles is one reason why they tend to be worth premiums over other mid-19th century coins of equivalent rarity, such as quarter eagles, half eagles and Liberty Seated quarters.
During the second half of the 19th century, business people in the South and in the West typically preferred receiving gold coins to paper money, wire transfers or any kind of check. Western Union began wiring money in 1871, yet many people were suspicious.
Large transactions were then often effected with gold coins, and double eagles attracted the most interest. The opinions of commentators, researchers and economists now are beside the point that large gold coins are important parts of United States history.
Collectors of circulated double eagles often do not use a magnifying glass. They tend to be more interested in the history and concepts attached to the coins rather than the physical details of the coins.
In contrast, I am very interested in the physical details. Different coin enthusiasts have different viewpoints, priorities and collecting propensities. Liberty Head double eagles have an aura of their own.
Gold is a relatively soft metal, and these are large, relatively heavy gold coins. Each weighs more than a Troy ounce, though the net gold content is under one Troy ounce. Double eagles are 90% gold (0.900 fine), with the balance being silver and copper or just copper.
By the 20th century, there were frequently employed methods to count, arrange and transport double eagles such that they were not notably ‘banged up’ while moving. In terms of quantity, length and depth, 19th-century double eagles have the most contact marks of any series of U.S. coins. A pre-1880 double eagle often exhibits more than a dozen blatant gashes. Even most ‘mint state’ pieces have many sizable contact marks and scratches.
Although I maintain that they should be very concerned, experienced collectors of Liberty Head double eagles tend not to be concerned about the doctoring of circulated coins. Automobile putty, powder, wax, grease and films that have been added can be removed, often easily. While artificial smoothing of fields is effected by coin doctors at times, they are far more likely to just ‘cover up’ or deflect attention from contact marks and scratches by adding russet or gold-colored materials, which can usually be removed via immersion in acetone or with water streamed from a hose.
A doctored coin that is certified as grading EF-40 might very well be certified as grading EF-40 again after being undoctored, though no one should count on this being true. An immediate point is that circulated gold coins are sometimes doctored to deflect attention from contact marks rather than to provide a false impression that the coin merits a grade that is significantly higher than a grade that has already been assigned. A coin that appears to have fewer marks or shallower gashes may be easier to sell. Besides, for type one double eagles, which tend to have many deep marks, the dividing line is relatively unclear regarding fulfillment of criteria for a coin to be gradable.
People who collect these usually just accept the reality that many of their coins have problems, either from accidental mishandling or procedures to deflect attention from imperfections. Given the ongoing popularity and historical significance of classic U.S. gold coins, there will probably always be active markets in type one double eagles in all states of preservation. Historical artifacts and political symbols need not be of high quality to be desired.
Dates & Prices
Collectors might as well start with an 1850, a representative of the first year of issue. It is not difficult to acquire an Extremely Fine grade 1850 for a price between $2,000 and $4,000. In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded EF-40 1850 for $3,055.
In January 2017, Heritage sold two different PCGS-graded EF-45 1850 double eagles, one for $3,525 and the other for $3,201.88. Interestingly, the one that sold for $3,525 was earlier auctioned by Heritage in January 2008, a time when coin markets were booming. The same coin then realized $2,300! As coin markets moved downward from August 2008 to April 2009, and then gradually recovered, type one double eagles held their value to a greater extent than coins of most other series.
It might not be easy to buy an 1850-O for less than $5,000. In November 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-25 1850-O for $3,997.35.
In circulated grades, 1851, 1852 and 1853 double eagles are worth about the same. Extremely Fine-40 to -45 grade pieces have been selling at auction for amounts between $1,700 and $2,350.
The 1854 ‘Small Date’ is also moderately scarce and is in the same category as the earlier Philly dates. The 1854 ‘Large Date’, however, is rare. The 1853/2 overdate is too subtle to be collected as a distinct date, and should be ignored by those collecting ‘by date’.
The San Francisco Mint formally commenced coinage in 1854. As the 1854-S quarter eagle and half eagle are Great Rarities, 1854-S twenties are conceptually appealing. Decent pieces are not easy to find. In January 2014, the Goldbergs auctioned an NGC-graded EF-45 1854-S for $8,225. Earlier that same month, Heritage auctioned a different NGC-graded EF-45 1854-S for $7,050.
The 1855-O is not as rare as the 1854-O and the 1856-O, which are six-figure coins in all grades. It would be very difficult, nearly impossible even, to buy an 1855-O that is truly gradable or possibly borderline-gradable for less than $20,000.
The 1855-S is relatively affordable. In November 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1855-S for http://www.goldbergcoins.com/content/?utm_source=coinweek$2,115. In January 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-50 1855-S for this exact same price.
The 1856, 1856-S, 1857, 1857-S, 1858, 1858-S, 1859-S, 1860, 1860-S, 1861 (typical reverse), 1862-S, 1863-S, 1864-S, 1865 and 1865-S probably can all be purchased for less than $3,000 each in Extremely Fine grade, sometimes for less than $2,000.
So far in 2017, Heritage has auctioned two different PCGS-graded EF-45 1856-S double eagles for $1,880 each. In September 2016, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-50 1858-S for $2,820. Also in September 2016, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded EF-45 1859-S for $1,854.60.
On March 19, 2017, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-50 1861 for $2,158.20. This same firm sold an NGC-graded AU-50 1862-S for $2,378.20 on January 8, 2017, and a PCGS-graded EF-45 1862-S for $2,200 on June 12, 2016.
The 1858 might command a premium over the least scarce dates of the design type, regarding coins of equivalent quality and eye appeal. The 1859 certainly is worth a premium. This is a rare coin in all grades. The 1859-O is even rarer.
While the 1857-O and the 1858-O are not nearly as rare as some other type one New Orleans Mint dates, they are rare - potentially very rare. A coin is rare if fewer than 500 in total survive in all states of preservation, and is very rare if less than 250 are around.
The PCGS CoinFacts estimate of “302” 1859 double eagles surviving may be too high. I hypothesize that there are at most 160 different 1859 double eagles that have received numerical grades from PCGS or NGC, plus another 15 to 30 that have been authenticated without being assigned numerical grades. Moreover, perhaps 30 to 50 have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC. Therefore, 190 to 240 survive, in my estimation.
In September 2016, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1859 for $13,525.43. Many collectors ignore this date, or save funds by acquiring a non-gradable 1859 for a complete run of Philadelphia Mint dates.
The 1860-O is very rare. It would be difficult to buy a PCGS- or NGC-graded 1860-O for less than $25,000! In April 2014, an artificially smoothed non-gradable 1860-O in a PCGS holder, with ‘Extremely Fine level details,’ brought $9,400. It was from the famous collection of Donald Bently.
The 1861-O is not as rare as the 1860-O, which might be underrated. Most circulated 1861-O double eagles, with PCGS or NGC grades, retail for amounts from $25,000 to $75,000.
In November 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-authenticated, non-gradable 1861-O with the “details” of an Extremely Fine grade coin. It brought $8,812.50, perhaps a good deal. Gradable 1861-O double eagles tend to have notable glaring imperfections anyway. The issues with this coin might not be all that negative.
The Philadelphia Mint double eagles from 1862 to 1864 are a little scarcer than most collectors realize. The 1862 is the most expensive of the three. Market levels for 1862 double eagles have risen recently, and could fall back in line. It might make sense to acquire other type one double eagles before considering an 1862.
In November 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded VF-35 1863 for $4,406.25. Although this is not a great coin, a much better 1863 might very well cost more than $15,000.
Earlier this month, a PCGS-graded EF-45 1864 was auctioned for $5,170. In my view, this coin has serious problems. A distinctly better PCGS-graded EF-45 1864 double eagle would probably sell at auction for a price in the $7,000 to $9,000 range, if offered this spring.
The 1866-S is noteworthy as a ‘No Motto’ coin minted during the year in which the motto, ‘In God We Trust’, was adopted. Reverse dies embodying the design change were not shipped to San Francisco in time for the first press runs. During 1866, both ‘No Motto’ (type one) and ‘With Motto’ (type two) double eagles were struck at the San Francisco Mint.
The 1866-S ‘No Motto’ double eagle is rare and popular. For this issue, surface quality tends to very widely for coins with approximately the same level of detail.
In February 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded EF-40 1866-S for $15,275. In May 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1866-S ‘No Motto’ for $22,325. In January 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-35 coin for $11,162.50.
While ignoring major rarities, it is practical to collect Liberty Head double eagles ‘by date’, with a large number of different dates costing less than $5,000 each. A $15,000 per coin limit for a few better dates would be helpful.
For some dates, very few survivors have been approved by CAC. Collecting circulated Liberty Head double eagles with CAC stickers ‘by date’ might not be practical.
Experts at Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) evaluate coins that are already graded by PCGS or NGC. If experts at CAC find that a coin’s numerical grade is in the middle or high end of the grade range associated with the numerical grade that has been already assigned by PCGS or NGC, then a green sticker is affixed to the holder and the respective coin’s PCGS or NGC serial number becomes part of a database that can be accessed by anyone who visits the CAC web site.
If a collector is seeking just one or two type one double eagles for a type set, it is rational and easy to buy coins that are CAC-approved. In February 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-53 1852 with a CAC sticker for $2,820. During the same month, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded AU-55 1860, with a CAC sticker, for $4,675.
Last year, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-58 1861 with a CAC sticker for $3,532.10. More recently, in January 2017, this same firm sold a PCGS-graded AU-50 1865-S, with a CAC sticker, for $2,475. There are many, really neat CAC-approved type one double eagles that may be acquired for less than $3,750 each, sometimes for less than $2,500!
© 2017 Greg Reynolds
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