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Is the 1856-O Double Eagle A Great Rarity?

An 1856-O double eagle ($20 gold coin) is making the news. B&M, a division of Spectrum, will auction one on March 23 at the Baltimore Convention center. The ‘O’ stands for New Orleans, where it was minted. Is this date a Great Rarity? Before addressing the question, it makes sense to clarify the meaning of a ‘date’ and of a Great Rarity.

Bowers & Merena March 2007 Sale PCGS AU-53

The term ‘date’ refers to more than just the year on the coin. Two coins of the same type and year may have different dates. An 1817 half dollar and an 1817/4 half dollar are of the same year, but different dates. From the year 1906, there are four dates of dimes, 1906, 1906-O, 1906-D and 1906-S.
The term ‘date’ refers to a combination of the year, the characteristics of the digits, the details of the mintmark or lack of one, and the location of the Mint. Small dates, large dates, overdates, or even overmintmarks may indicate more than one date of the same type from the same year, and from the same Mint. Even a difference in the digits of a date, such as a fancy ‘2,’ may constitute an additional date relating to the same year. While the ‘year’ is part of the date, there is much more to the concept of the ‘date’ of a coin.

For U.S. coins, the absence of a mintmark usually indicates that the coin was struck at the main branch in Philadelphia. So, the Philadelphia location is often an implicit part of the ‘date’

New Orleans Mint double eagles struck from 1854 to 1861 are very rare. The 1856-O is the rarest.

The term ‘Great Rarity’ is often misused. For a coin to be a ‘Great Rarity,’ no more than twenty-five of the date (within the type) can be known to exist in the present, including both proofs and business strikes, and including all die varieties.

For some Great Rarities, more than twenty-five were known at an earlier time. The key point is the number that is known to exist in the present, not the number that may have existed at some other time.

A majority of collectors assemble sets of one sort or another. To complete a set of Liberty Head Double Eagles, an 1856-O is needed. So, if the 1856-O is a Great Rarity, then there can never be as many as twenty-five complete sets. Thousands of collectors seek to build such a set. Hence, 1856-O double eagles are extremely expensive. Likewise, there are collectors who build sets of just New Orleans Mint coins and they demand 1856-O double eagles as well.

It is also true that there are many collectors who enjoy owning extremely rare coins even if such coins are never intended to become parts of sets. Owning a rare and famous coin is itself exciting.

How is it known that the 1856-O is a Great Rarity? The late Walter Breen was the foremost coin researcher of all time. In his comprehensive encyclopedia published in 1988, he said that “possibly” ten to twelve survive.

In 1990, David Akers, the author of many books on gold coins, estimated that fifteen to eighteen are around. In 1997, he repeated this exact same estimate when he cataloged the Pittman 1856-O, Very fine, “cleaned, now rather dull, although some of the original prooflike surface is still visible.” It realized $35,750.

Aug.’06 – Heritage Sale 414 Lot 5601 PCGS AU-50

Later, the Pittman 1856-O was certified by ANACS in a holder that indicates that it has problems. Heritage auctioned it in January 2005 for $138,000.

The 1856-O that B&M will offer on Friday, March 23 is from the collection of the late Jack Bains. It is graded AU-53 by the Professional Coin Grading Service.

The finest known 1856-O has been certified as “Specimen-63” by the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. At an earlier time, it was graded MS-63 by PCGS, during an era when officials at PCGS were reluctant to refer to any 19th century branch mint coin as a proof, or as a ’specimen.’ Indeed, according to the Heritage description in 2004, when Superior Galleries offered this same coin in Jan. 1995, an explanation was provided as to why PCGS would not designate it a proof or a ’specimen.’

Breen referred to a coin from the “1979 ANA” as being uncirculated and “probably” the “finest.” Breen’s published remarks are consistent with the 1979-1981 history of the “SP-63” coin given by the Heritage cataloger in 2004.

When Superior auctioned it in 1995, it was PCGS graded MS-63, and realized $203,500. In January 2002, it realized $310,500. By 2004, it was certainly NGC certified as ‘Specimen-63.’ In Long Beach, on June 5, 2004, it sold for $542,800. I really wish that I had seen this coin.

As for 1856-O double eagles in general, they tend to have numerous imperfections that are very noticeable. Typically, they have been moderately to heavily cleaned and have been dipped at least once. Even before they entered circulation, they probably suffered numerous marks from banging against each other. Scratches and gouges are often present as well. Most interested collectors would feel lucky just to see one and would not expect it to be of high quality.

I only vaguely remember the Pittman 1856-O. Three others that I have seen come to mind. The one that David Akers cataloged as part of Auction ‘90 was uncertified, and reasonably graded EF-40 by Akers. It was moderately to heavily cleaned, though not severely. Plus, it was extensively marked, and lightly brushed. It was not attractive. Nonetheless, it is or was at least semi-prooflike with neat, underlying reflectivity. It was sold during an era when most big spenders thought that the minimum acceptable grade for any coin was 64, and 66 to 68 grade pieces were ‘all the rage’! At the time, very few people were really interested in a Great Rarity for which no gem quality examples exist. The $24,200 price then would not even be sufficient for a deposit if the same coin were to be offered in 2007.

In July 2004 in New York, DLRC auctioned the gold portion of the incredible Richmond collection. The Richmond 1856-O, NGC graded AU-50, realized $276,000, a strong price at the time. Prices have since risen. Although I only looked at it for a few seconds, I remember it as having the typical characteristics of an 1856-O.

For an 1856-O double eagle, the Bains piece is better than average, and somewhat attractive. It is moderately to very brilliant, and very lustrous. The deep scratch near stars 6 and 7 in the upper left obverse field is not bad, much less distracting in actuality than it appears in pictures. It has been moderately dipped, and cleaned within reason. The scuff in the inner fields is an issue, but is unsurprising. The several moderate scratches and gashes in the reverse inner fields are not a big deal. Importantly, the raised design elements, especially the Liberty Head and the eagle, are not banged up. It is a credible example. My guess is that there are three to five that are better, but there are certainly more than five that are not as desirable.

In July 2005, in San Francisco, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AU-55 1856-O for $431,250, probably the second highest price for a coin of this date. In August 2006, in Denver, Heritage auctioned a PCGS AU-50 example. Bob Green reported that he bought it for $345,000 and sold it to a client soon afterwards. I did not attend either event, and I have not seen either coin.
Bowers & Merena March 2007 Sale PCGS AU-53

It seems that around twenty 1856-O double eagles have sold at auction during the past fifteen or so years. In the 1990s, however, circulated gold rarities were not extremely popular, and some of the same pieces were traded among dealers and ‘on the market’ for years. These auction appearances may include only eight to twelve different coins.

It is certain that several 1856-O double eagles have each been submitted to the leading grading services a few times. Consider that the difference in price between an EF-45 1856-O and an AU-50 is substantial, probably more than $50,000. The difference between a 50 and a 55 may be as much as $100,000. Plus, the technical differences among AU grades for double eagles from this era are very subtle.

Florida dealer Bob Green reports that he purchased an 1856-O, PCGS graded AU-55, at the 2002 ANA convention. He sold it to a client a short time later. At Green’s “suggestion, the client has since allowed” Green “to resubmit the coin and it [now] resides in [an] AU-58 PCGS holder.” As Green did not mention an additional submission, it may be fair to assume that the two PCGS has graded AU-58 are different coins.

In April 2006, Heritage auctioned an 1856-O that was certified by NCS, an affiliate of NGC. Coins that do not qualify for certification by PCGS or NGC sometimes may be certified by NCS, and may be given a general grade rather than a numerical grade. Likewise, the Pittman piece, certified by ANACS, had a “details” designation rather than a firm grade, indicating that one or more problems are serious. This NCS certified 1856-O, with an extremely fine “details, improperly cleaned” designation, realized $161,000. The same coin, however, may be interpreted in varying ways at different times.

It is not unusual for a certified coin to find a new home in a different holder, and appear in a few different auctions over a period of years. Before 2002, a large percentage of pictures in auction catalogues were not very clear, and are of limited use for pedigree research.

In the 1980s and 1990s, 1856-O double eagles were not nearly as valuable as many high quality, moderately to very rare coins, particularly gem uncirculated and proof rarities. Therefore, in major auctions, catalogers and photographers put much more effort into portraying high quality rarities, even those that are nowhere near as rare as an 1856-O. In addition, auction companies may not have wanted to devote time, money and catalog space to showing enlarged pictures of coins that have very noticeable gashes and scratches, as most all 1856-O Double Eagles do.

Someone who researches numerous auction catalogs would be likely to over-estimate the number of surviving 1856-O Double Eagles. In addition to the issue of inadequate catalog pictures, the appearances of many individual coins change over time. The reasons for the changes require a separate discussion. The pertinent implication here is that the same 1856-O may look like three different coins in three different auction catalogs.

A combination of available information and analysis leads to my theory that PCGS and NGC have certified nine to thirteen different 1856-O double eagles, perhaps ten? Further, it could be that other services, including NCS, have certified two or three different, genuine 1856-O double eagles that have not since found their way into PCGS or NGC holders. It is likely that there are four to seven that have never been encapsulated by a grading service.

It would seem that there are at least fifteen and, at most, twenty-three 1856-O double eagles. My guess of seventeen is in line with Akers’ statements. In 2003, Q. David Bowers concluded eighteen to twenty-two. Heritage catalogers, on more than one occasion, have estimated twenty to twenty-five.

Since no expert seems to be theorizing that there are more than twenty-five extant, there is no reason to doubt that the 1856-O Double Eagle is a Great Rarity. The buyer of the Bains 1856-O will become a part of numismatic history.

© 2007 Greg Reynolds

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About the Author

Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.

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