Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagle Gold Coins from the Shipwreck of the S. S. Central America
by Greg Reynolds
In 1987, there was the greatest discovery of a shipwreck relating to the history of the United States. Yes, other shipwrecks may be especially important to the history of Spain and Latin America. The loss of the S.S. Central America in Sept. 1857, however, had an impact on the history of the United States. Although a recession had already started in 1856, and a major insurance company failed in August 1857, the loss of this ship caused upheaval in financial markets and exacerbated the “Panic of 1857.”
The Library of Congress website reveals that the S. S. Central America “had aboard 581 persons, many carrying great personal wealth, and more than $1 million in commercial gold. [This ship] also bore a secret shipment of 15 tons of federal gold, valued at $20 per ounce, intended for the Eastern banks”. In this context, the Library of Congress website cites several pertinent, recognized 19th century books and other contemporary sources. “As banking institutions of the day dealt in specie (gold and silver coins instead of paper money) the loss of some thirty thousand pounds of gold reverberated through the financial community.” In October, many banks suffered terribly or failed altogether. There were ‘runs’ on many banks by depositors.
The crisis reached its worse point on Oct. 14, about a month after the sinking of the S. S. Central America, which was “Suspension Day, when banking was suspended in New York and throughout New England [http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/aug24.html.” The U.S. economy did not fully recover for years.
In the wreckage of the S. S. Central America, there were thousands of 1857-S Double Eagles ($20 gold coins), which were very scarce before the salvaging of the S.S. Central America. Of all the Double Eagles found in the wreckage, however, only fifty were designated as being Prooflike, and only seven as Deep Mirror Prooflike, by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). In late 1999 and/or early 2000, the PCGS certified and graded most of the coins found in this shipwreck. As far as I know, these fifty-seven PCGS certified 1857-S Double Eagles and one NGC certified 1858-S Double Eagle coins are the only reliably certified, Prooflike gold coins from the early years of the San Francisco Mint, which formally began striking coins in 1854.
I. The Rarity of Type One Prooflike Double Eagles
The 1857-S Double Eagles that the PCGS has designated as Prooflike are unusual in that it is generally the policy of the Professional Coin Grading Service to not designate gold coins as being ‘Prooflike.’ In a Dec. 2000 Christie’s auction, it is stated that a PCGS certified ‘MS-65 PL’ 1857-S is “Tied with two others for finest of 50 PL examples from the S.S. Central America treasure certified by PCGS.” According to the Christie’s cataloguer, who is an expert regarding the histories of coins found on shipwrecks, nineteen 1857-S Double Eagles are (or then were) PCGS certified as ‘MS-64 PL.’
Sources indicate just seven of the S. S. Central America 1857-S Double Eagles were designated as Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) by the PCGS. The NGC has not designated any 1857-S Double Eagles as PL or DMPL. Before the finding of the wreck of the S. S. Central America, it is likely that no Prooflike 1957-S Double Eagles were known to exist. Furthermore, probably all (or almost all) of these certified Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagles are in PCGS holders with their respective original gold foil inserts (labels) that were specially designed for coins found in the wreck of the S.S. Central America. Therefore, it seems that there exist fifty-seven Prooflike (PL) or Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) 1857-S Double Eagles. Only a handful of these have been publicly sold since the initial offerings in 2000 when coins from the S.S. Central America appeared in coin markets.
These fifty-seven PL or DMPL 1857-S coins are very rare in more than one way.
(1) These are the only Prooflike Double Eagles from the wreck of the S. S. Central America. The PCGS graded more than five thousand distinct 1857-S Double Eagles from the shipwreck of the S.S. Central America, and thus these fifty-seven amount to only around one percent of the total.
(2) As far as I know, these fifty-seven are the only gold coins, of any type, that the PCGS has designated as Prooflike.
(3) These fifty-seven are the only surviving PL 1857-S Double Eagles from any source.
(4) Except for one 1858-S that the NGC has designated as Prooflike, these 1857-S coins are the only San Francisco Mint Double Eagles, from the 1850s, that have been designated as Prooflike. This Mint commenced operations in 1854.
(5) As for all Type One Double Eagles that have been designated as Prooflike, in addition to these fifty seven PCGS certified 1857-S S.S. Central America coins, the NGC has designated about twenty-eight others, of all Mints and various dates, as Prooflike. The NGC totals, however, may reflect re-submissions of the same coins. There may be only around seventy Type One Double Eagles that have been designated as Prooflike by the PCGS or the NGC. Only six or seven of these 1857-S Double Eagles, and no other Prooflike Type One Double Eagles, have stickers of approval from the CAC.
(6) The NGC has not designated even one Type One Double Eagle as DMPL. The seven PCGS designated DMPL 1857-S Double Eagles are the only Type One Double Eagles that have been PCGS or NGC certified as being Deep Mirror Prooflike.
II. Type One Branch Mint Double Eagles
Double Eagles (U.S. $20 gold coins) were minted from 1850 to 1933. Type One Double Eagles were produced from 1850 to 1865 plus some Type One 1866-San Francisco issues. Type One Double Eagles are much more popular than Type Two and Type Three Double Eagles, all of which have, more or less, the same obverse (front) Liberty Head design. This popularity is partly because of finds in shipwrecks and partly because Type One Double Eagles played important roles in commerce during a time in U.S. history when paper money and checks were not widely accepted in many areas of the nation. By the 1870s, checks and paper money played much larger roles in commerce.
Branch Mint Type One and Type Two (1866-76) Double Eagles tend to be more popular than corresponding Philadelphia Mint Double Eagles. New Orleans Mint coins are reminders of a culture and society that was much different from societies in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York or Boston.
San Francisco Mint and Carson City (Nevada) Mint Double Eagles are relics of the ‘Wild West’! Many collectors regard these as being more exciting than Philadelphia Mint products, though I do not share this view. Certainly, during the period from 1850 to 1876, the West was a not-fully explored region and life for many Westerners was characterized by adventures. By the standards of citizens in the Northeastern U.S., life in California was risky, grungy and tough. People living on the East Coast at the time tended to have typical jobs and their respective lives were usually governed by routines. As the Carson City (Nevada) Mint did not begin operations until 1870, the only Type One Double Eagles of the West are those that were struck in San Francisco.
III. The Concept of Prooflike
Before discussing the term ‘Prooflike,’ the terms ‘Proof’ and business strike must be mentioned. Most coins are business strikes, which were made as part of the routine operations of a Mint. Usually, business strikes are intended for circulation, though this is not always true.
There is more than one category of coins that are specially made to look more appealing than, or just very different from, business strikes. Several criteria must be met for a coin to be a Proof. All non-Proofs are not business strikes.
For 19th century silver or gold coins, a Brilliant Proof must have been struck more than once. It will usually have very deep and very complete mirror surfaces, though such surfaces are not required for a coin to be a Proof. The relationships of the devices (raised design elements) and the fields (relatively flat areas) are different on Proofs than on business strikes. A definition of a Proof would require a long explanation. I sketch a definition in my Jan. 2008 article on the unique Proof 1876-CC dime and I am working on a more precise definition. It suffices to say here that a Proof will meet several criteria, including evidence of double-striking and greater design detail than found on a business strike or even on a Prooflike business strike.
To be Prooflike, a business strike must have the one characteristic of Proofs that most collectors associate with Proofs, fields that are mirrored. Even if a coin had the same mirrors as would be found on a Proof of the same type, however, it would not be a Proof unless it possesses a combination of other characteristics of Proofs. No matter how deep, how thick, or how complete, the presence of mirrored fields does not demonstrate that a coin is a Proof. Often, however, it means that a coin is Prooflike. Only a very small percentage of all business strikes are Prooflike. For some coin types, few, if any, Prooflike coins are known.
How is a Prooflike (but not Proof) coin made? The dies are heavily polished, perhaps more so than is typical. If the dies are new or relatively new, a stronger impression may be made into the planchet, which is prepared blank disk that is transformed into a coin by a mechanical press. Prooflike coins, however, may be minted with worn dies.
Each coin is minted with two dies, an obverse (front) die and a reverse (back) die. Each die is somewhat cylindrical in shape and has the design of one side of a coin sunk into its face. One die is underneath the planchet (prepared blank disk) and the other die is slammed hard, with much force, on top of the planchet, which was heated prior to striking. The design elements (devices) of the coin are imparted from the dies onto the planchet to make a coin.
Dies are polished before these are employed, and, usually, dies are again polished at various times during their respective lifetimes. Depending on the polishing techniques, extent of polishing, and kinds of liquid applied to the dies, coins struck from recently polished dies will have varying degrees of reflective surfaces. Even in the 1790s, coins struck from recently polished dies became characterized by mirror surfaces. Many 1796 quarters and quite a few 1795 Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) are Prooflike or Semi-Prooflike. The terms Prooflike, Semi-Prooflike, and Deep Mirror Prooflike refer to the extent and depth of the mirrored surfaces on a non-Proof coin.
Some Prooflike coins were made intentionally so; most Prooflike coins are simply strikings from dies that were recently polished or from dies that had not been used to strike many coins since they were last polished. Sometimes, Prooflike coins have additional characteristics of Proofs, such as frosted devices (raised design elements) that contrast with the mirrored fields. My guess is that, sometimes, U.S. Mint personnel excessively polished and otherwise enhanced dies because they were bored. A job that involves working on making coins all day long was not extremely interesting and may have dulled the minds of many workers. Certainly, some Mint personnel sought ways to add zest to their days. They may have enjoyed using their skills to polish dies to a greater extent than was really necessary and they must have enjoyed seeing the brightly mirrored coins that were sometimes produced as a result of extensive polishing of dies.
Whether Prooflike coins were made intentionally or by way of routine procedures is beside the point that these are exceptional coins, which are really cool and are different from ordinary business strikes. If a markedly Prooflike coin, especially a DMPL coin, is placed side-by-side with an ordinary coin of the same type, the difference in appearance is often astonishing. Mirrored fields are frequently too cool to describe and really cannot be fairly represented in photographs.
IV. Prooflike Morgan Dollars
Besides these few 1857-S Double Eagles from the S.S. Central America and innumerable Prooflike Morgan silver dollars, I am not aware of the PCGS designating any other 19th century coins as being Prooflike. The NGC, however, has so designated numerous silver coins of various types and a substantial number of Prooflike coins of several gold denominations.
Many Morgan Dollars are examples of business strikes that were not made for circulation. For political reasons, partly due to the influence of the silver mining industry, millions more Morgan dollars were minted than could possibly have been utilized in commerce. Indeed, there was no intention of releasing most of them into circulation. These were bagged and stored by the U.S. Government. Many were eventually melted.
There are many thousands of Prooflike and DMPL Morgans. These have been avidly collected over the past thirty years. For some dates, PL or DMPL Morgans are relatively common. For other dates in the Morgan series, PL and especially DMPL coins are very rare.
Consider some of the price differentials published in the PCGS price guide. An 1879 Morgan that is PCGS graded MS-65 is valued at $875, one that is designated as Prooflike (PL) is valued at $2400, about 2.7 times as much. A PCGS certified MS-65 DMPL 1979 Morgan is valued at $14,000, SIXTEEN times as much as the value of a MS-65 grade 1879 that is not Prooflike.
Here are the corresponding values for 1883-S Morgans, MS-64 $5000, MS-64 PL $7500, MS-64 DMPL $92,000. So, while a PL is worth just 50% more than a non-Prooflike, a PCGS certified MS-64 DMPL is worth more than EIGHTEEN times as much. For 1885-S Morgans, a PL tends to be worth four to five times as much as non-Prooflike 1885-S in MS-64 or 65 grade, while the DMPL coins are worth many multiples of non-Prooflike 1885-S Morgans of the same PCGS assigned numerical grades. Clearly, many collectors regard Prooflike coins as being very special.
More than 90% of coin collectors have seen PL Morgans. Though often stunning, these are not mysterious or rare in general. Further, real Proof Morgans are not nearly as valuable as real Proof Double Eagles. Plus, while Prooflike Morgans have been openly collected and marketed for decades, there is something mysterious about Prooflike gold coins. There are countless, 19th century Prooflike Morgans of all dates combined and there are very few Prooflike Double Eagles, of all dates, from the 19th century.
Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagles are in a special class. The physical rarity of the Prooflike pieces, the drama of the early years of the San Francisco Mint, the decade-long rage for Type One Double Eagles in general, and the tremendous historical significance of the S.S. Central America, altogether are responsible for the Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagles being of great significance.
As so few Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagles have been ‘on the market’ during the last eight years, experts have not been thinking about them and most collectors, who are potentially interested, are not even aware of their existence. It is certainly time to focus on the fascinating nature of these coins.
Research for this article was supported by Legacy Rare Coins, of Newport Beach, CA, and this firm provided images of Prooflike 1857-S Double Eagles.
©2010 Greg Reynolds
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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