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New Coin Discovery: 1856-O Double Eagle Discovered in Ohio to Be Offered At Long Beach

This recently discovered coin made front-page news in the July 26, 2010 Coin World, with a headline proclaiming “1856-O gold double eagle surfaces in Ohio.” The double-decker headline added, “Rarest New Orleans Mint gold coin in family holdings.” Numismatic researcher John W. McCloskey relates in detail how this rare coin–one of about 20 to 30 1856-O twenties known–was turned over to him for evaluation as part of a “small accumulation of gold coins held by a family in Ohio for nearly 100 years.” The coin has now been authenticated, encapsulated, and certified XF45+ by NGC.

Gold coin specialist Doug Winter calls the 1856-O double eagle issue “the rarest New Orleans double eagle and the rarest gold coin struck at the New Orleans mint.”

The Discovery

McCloskey’s Coin World article describes how an Ohio resident asked him to evaluate the family holdings:

“He indicated that ownership of the coins could be traced back to James Bullock, a gentleman who owned a farm near the city of Livermore, KY., during the early years of the 20th century.

“When Bullock died on June 26, 1923, his estate included a collection of gold coins that were passed down to his heirs as treasured family heirlooms. These coins have passed through three generations of family descendents over the years since his death and are now spread out among several family members.”

The Realization

The Coin World story relates the owner’s gradual realization of how fabulous and rare the 1856-O twenty is:

“After my evaluation session with the new owner I went home and checked the June 2010 issue of Coin World’s Coin Values and realized that I had just stumbled upon a great rarity that was completely unknown to the numismatic community. I then called the owner and told him that the 1856-O double eagle was listed at $220,000 in an Extremely Fine grade and that the piece might bring considerably more than that at auction considering its beautiful original surfaces and minimal field marks. I don’t think that the family really believed my estimate of the coin’s value but it began to sink in after I showed them the price listing in my copy of Coin Values.”

The Authentication

McCloskey goes into great depth over how, after they realized that “we had a treasure on our hands,” he studied the present piece under a microscope and identified various surface diagnostics that helped in its authentication as a genuine 1856-O double eagle. His descriptions of those obverse and reverse criteria, as quoted from Coin World, follow:

“The date on this obverse die is low in the field between the bust above and the dentils below. The left edge of the digit 1 is closer to the dentils below than the top of the digit is to the bust above. The date has an upright 5 with a short upper serif that does not extend to the right edge of the digit. The date has a small knob 6 with a wide opening between the knob and the lower loop of the digit below. These are all date characteristics that are consistent with the only known obverse die used to strike double eagles in 1856.

“In 2007 Seated Liberty half dollar expert Bill Bugert reported that all 25 known obverse dies used to strike half dollars at the Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco Mints in 1856 have a small triangular notch along the bottom edge of the base of the 1 in the date. This defect is identical on all of these dies and appears near the right edge of this digit.

“This feature is the result of a defect in the four-digit logotype that was used to prepare the dates on half dollar dies of this year. My own personal research has shown that the same four-digit punch was also used to prepare the dates on eagle and double eagles dies for this year.”

“The reported mintage for the 1856-O Coronet double eagle was a minuscule 2,250 pieces and there is only one known reverse die for this issue. The New Orleans Mint mark is centered below the eagle’s tail feathers and is also centered over the N in TWENTY in the denomination. The O Mint mark is closer to the tail feathers than it is to the letter N below.

“A die crack runs from the rim up through the space between two dentils, up through the right side of the opening in the D in the denomination and finally up through the field to the ribbon below the M in UNUM.
“The left half of the crossbar on the A in STATES is broken due to a defect in the reverse die.
“These are all surface features that are known to appear on the only reverse die used to strike double eagles at the New Orleans Branch Mint in 1856.”

Importance of This Discovery

The importance of this discovery coin cannot be overstated, as a high-grade specimen that has reposed in family holdings, completely unknown to the numismatic community, for the better part of the past century. Almost all certified survivors grade in the range from XF40 to AU58. Two examples are permanently impounded at the Smithsonian Institution. The total certified at NGC and PCGS combined is only 23 coins–10 at NGC and 12 at PCGS that range from Very Fine to AU58, plus one Specimen-63 coin. The certified total almost certainly includes duplications. We would be unsurprised to learn that as few as 16 separate coins exist today that are theoretically available in the marketplace.

A single example of the 1856-O is now certified as Specimen-63 by PCGS, a coin that was passed down directly from New Orleans Mint Superintendent Charles Bienvenu to his heirs. We have handled that coin three times at Heritage, in 2002, 2004, and 2009, where it realized, successively, $310,500; $542,800; and, most recently, $1,437,500. (Its first appearance was MS63 Specimen NGC, the second, Specimen-63 NGC.) That example is the only Uncirculated piece that Doug Winter lists in his 2006 edition of Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint.

The Present Specimen

While the present example is not quite in the same league as the stellar 1856-O above, it is a momentous discovery that has again generated broad awareness of the desirability and eminent rarity of this legendary early O-mint issue. The last two appearances of XF45 1856-O twenties in our auctions–both XF45 PCGS with CAC sticker, dating from 2009–each generated returns in excess of a quarter-million dollars (Heritage, 1/2009, lot 4131, $276,000; 7/2009, lot 1315, $253,000).

The present piece, certified XF45+ by NGC, is destined to also generate remarkably strong results. The Plus grades at NGC and PCGS are still new to the market, but we are seeing strong results for Plus-graded coins from both services, and in fact we are seeing remarkably strong prices for rare coins across the board.

Most examples of the 1856-O are heavily abraded, but this piece is a remarkable, pleasing exception. A few tiny field marks are individually insignificant. The only marks useful for pedigree identification are located below the inner point of star 6, another above star 13, and a tiny mark just to the upper left of the top of the mintmark, in the field. The surfaces have a somewhat subdued orange-gold coloration. Slight traces of luster remain around the peripheral lettering and between the glory of rays. The coin is sharply struck overall, with no singular areas of weakness. Slight high-point rub is characteristic and as expected for the Choice XF grade. It is interesting to note that the same “Broken A” reverse die diagnostic that McCloskey describes above is better-known to many collectors from the 1856-S and 1857-S double eagles, many of them recovered from the S.S. Central America shipwreck.

Q. David Bowers writes in his Guide Book that “the acquisition of an 1856-O has been the dream of every advanced specialist in the double eagle series.” Bowers estimates “fewer than 25 known, and perhaps fewer than 20.” Garrett and Guth, in their gold Encyclopedia, repeat the estimate of “fewer than 25 coins,” which includes the Specimen-63 and the two Smithsonian coins.

This Coin will be offered By Heritage at the 2010 September Long Beach, CA Signature US Coin Auction #1144

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