By 1840 the Bechtler family of North Carolina had at their private mint produced more than $2.2 million in gold coins, about half of which were dollars. This success put continued pressure on the U.S. government to produce gold dollar coins, but it took the California gold discoveries in the late 1840s to move the idea forward. Great quantities of gold were sent to the Philadelphia Mint for coinage. An initial shipment was coined into quarter eagles, but it soon became apparent that small denomination coins would not keep up with the gold influx. Congressman James McKay, also of North Carolina, modified earlier legislation authorizing the gold dollar to also allow production of a $20 piece, the double eagle, and the statute passed in 1849.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
As with many events in early U.S. coinage history the authorization of the $20 coin provided its share of intrigue. The designs for the first double eagle were by James Longacre, the Mint's Chief Engraver. Opposed by Chief Coiner Franklin Peale and Mint Director Robert Patterson, Longacre produced double eagle patterns and die trials in 1849, none of which were deemed satisfactory. When Longacre learned of efforts by Peale and Patterson to dismiss him, he turned for support to Senator John C. Calhoun, through whose influence he had received his appointment, and the ouster was blocked. The first production coins finally appeared in 1850, only two months before Calhoun died. Only one, or possibly two, 1849-dated double eagles exist, classified either as proofs or patterns. One 1849 twenty is located in the Smithsonian Institution, and though a second was apparently sent to the Treasury Secretary after being minted, the current status of that coin is unknown.
Longacre's classical left-facing Liberty on the obverse is said to be modeled after an old Hellenistic sculpture, the Crouching Venus. A beaded-edged coronet with the word LIBERTY is placed on her head, and curled locks both drape down the back of the neck and sweep from the front to form rolled curls at the back of her head. Thirteen six-point stars encircle inside a dentilled rim, and the date is centered at the bottom. The reverse displays UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the top two-thirds inside a dentilled rim, and the denomination TWENTY D. is centered at the bottom. An eagle with outstretched wings is in the center, clutching three arrows in the left claw and a small olive branch in the right, with a shield placed across its breast.
The eagle, head turned to its right, is holding in its beak one of two top extensions of an elaborately curled and parted double scroll or ribbon, which some suggest represents the double eagle denomination. E PLURIBUS is in the center of the ribbon to the left, and UNUM in a similar location on the ribbon to the right. Above the eagle's head, below STATES OF, thirteen small six-point stars form an oval. Seven of the stars are on the blank field and six overlap sunburst-like rays that form an arc between the eagle's wings. Circulation coins were minted at Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco; O and S mintmarks are located in the narrow space below the eagle, above TWENTY D., on the reverse. All proofs were minted at Philadelphia.
Without Motto Liberty Head double eagles are considered common, and though prices for the lower grades reflect the amount of gold contained in this large coin they advance steeply as low Mint State or finer coins. O-Mint issues command higher premiums for nearly all dates, but the 1854-O and 1856-O are extremely expensive. Other coins with premium prices include the Large Date 1854 variety and the 1861-S Paquet modified reverse variety. An 1861 Paquet reverse from the Philadelphia Mint is also known, but is extremely expensive and nearly unique with only two specimens known. Coins recovered from several shipwrecks, including the Republic, Central America, and Brother Jonathan have added to the Mint State populations, but often carry a modest premium because of the history associated with those pieces. Prooflike circulation strikes are known. All proofs are expensive, dramatically so as near-Gem and Gem, and are represented in census/ population reports by very few coins. Cameo and Deep Cameo proofs have been certified.
Designer: James B. Longacre
Circulation Mintage:high 2,976,453 (1861), low 2,250 (1856-O)
Proof Mintage: high 80 (1859), low 5 (1857, estimated; one or two proofs/ patterns known for 1849, unknown or unconfirmed from 1850 through 1856).
Denomintion: $20.00, Twenty dollars, Double Eagle
Diameter: ±34 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 90% gold, 10% copper
Weight: ±33.436 grams
Varieties:A few dozen die varieties are known, most representing minor die changes and overpunches. Best known are the 1853/2 overdate; the 1854 Small Date and 1854 Large Date; 1852, 1854, and 1859-S double die varieties; an 1857-S inverted S variety; and the 1861-S Paquet and extremely rare 1861 Philadelphia Paquet reverses. The eponymous Paquet reverses were made by Assistant Engraver Anthony Paquet and have a slightly modified eagle, taller reverse lettering, and a narrower border.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, 1795-1933. Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.