the 1856-O Double Eagle
A Great Rarity?
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink - March 6,
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.
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
New Orleans Mint double eagles
struck from 1854 to 1861 are very rare. The 1856-O is the rarest.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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