So...You've Decided to Collect Liberty Head Double Eagles...

The decision to collect this series should not be made lightly as Liberty Head double eagles have the distinction as being among the most difficult and longest-lived series in all of 19th/early 20th century American numismatics. Specializing in 20 Libs requires patience, a healthy budget (although there are ways to collect these coins which are not as costly; see below for some suggestions) and the need for a good specialist dealer to assist you on your quest.

Before we look at ways by which to collect this series, let’s look at some background information.

Upon its inauguration in 1849, the double eagle became the largest regular issue gold coin struck by the United States. The Liberty Head design was the work of James B. Longacre and it is found in three distinct iterations.

Type One, 1849-1866. No Motto on the reverse. Produced at the Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco mints.

Type Two, 1866-1876. Motto on reverse, value spelled as TWENTY D. Produced at the Philadelphia, San Francisco and Carson City mints.

Type Three, 1877-1907. Value spelled as TWENTY DOLLARS. Produced at the Philadelphia, New Orleans (1879 only), San Francisco, Carson City and Denver (1906-1907 only) mints.

Of the three types, the Type One is clearly the most popular but it is also the most difficult to collect due to the presence of many rare issues. A number of Type One issues are either unknown or are extremely rare in Uncirculated. A decision to specialize in high-end Type One double eagles is a serious seven-figure commitment and it will require luck, patience and plenty of knowledge as this is a difficult series replete with potential land mines.

Don’t let my ramblings scare you off collecting Liberty Head double eagles. You don’t have to be a billionaire to specialize in this series. I am going to suggest some ways, both affordable and spendy, by which a collector can actively participate in this active and interesting market.

1. A Complete Set of Liberty Head Double Eagles

We might as well begin with the most ambitious way to collect this series: a complete date and mintmark set, issued from 1850 through 1907. This set consists of no less than 150 different issues and includes every major variety with the exception of the exceedingly rare Philadelphia 1861 Paquet (of which just two are known).

one of two 1861 Paquet double eagles, graded PCGS MS61

one of two 1861 Paquet double eagles, graded PCGS MS61

This is not a project for the faint-of-heart or the collector on a limited budget. Many of the rare dates don’t generally exist in grades higher than AU55 to AU58, and they are not often found with good eye appeal. Locating semi-affordable collector quality coins is also exceptionally difficult as many issues didn’t see extensive circulation and were roughly handled after they were struck.

The Type One series really came of age after the SS Central America treasure coins became available to collectors in 2000. The purchase of a nice 1857-S motivated some collectors to further investigate the series, and it also encouraged a number of dealers (myself included) to take a greater interest in this type.

Type Two issues have been promoted on and off for over a decade by a large marketing firm but they have never really caught fire with specialist collectors. An exception to this is, of course, the Carson City issues which are very popular.

Type Three double eagles are somewhat messy to collect as they consist of issues which are very rare or reasonably common with little in between. There are also three expensive dates struck only as Proofs (1883, 1884, and 1887) which are problematical as to whether or not they should be included in a set of all business strikes.

There are at least 8 dates in the Liberty Head double eagle series which will run the advanced collector six figures to add to their set (1854-O, 1856-O, 1861-S Paquet, 1870-CC, the three Proof-only dates mentioned above, and 1882) and there are literally dozens which will run from the mid-to-high five figures for a nice example.

2. A Complete Mint Set

Five different mints produced Liberty Head double eagles; this includes the short-lived Denver issues of 1906-1907.

In my opinion, the popularity of the remaining four mints is ordered as follows:

  1. Carson City
  2. New Orleans
  3. Philadelphia
  4. San Francisco
1870-CC $20.00 PCGS EF45

1870-CC $20.00 PCGS EF45

A Carson City set is difficult to complete due to the rarity and high price point of the 1870-CC; a marginal quality example runs in excess of $250,000. If this issue is not included, the keys are the 1871-CC, 1878-CC, 1879-CC, 1885-CC, and 1891-CC. The 1871-CC is nearly impossible to locate in Uncirculated while the other four dates exist in the MS60 to MS62 range but are difficult to find.

1856-O $20.00 PCGS AU55

1856-O $20.00 PCGS AU55

A New Orleans set consists of just 13 issues but even the relatively available issues (1850-O through 1853-O) are rare in Uncirculated and not easy to find in properly graded AU55 to AU58. The 1854-O and 1856-O are the keys to the set, and both are extremely expensive ($300,000-500,000+) and difficult to locate with any semblance of originality. This set is challenging, expensive, and it definitely will take patience.

1859 $20.00 NGC MS60

1859 $20.00 NGC MS60

Liberty Head Philadelphia double eagles were made from 1850 through 1907 without interruption. In the Type One series, the key issues are the 1859, 1862, and 1863. All three are available in the higher circulated grades but are rare in Uncirculated. None of the Philadelphia Type Two issues are rare, while the Type Three dates (in addition to the three Proof-only dates mentioned above) contain rare low mintage issues from 1881, 1882, 1885, 1886, and 1891. A Philadelphia date set is extremely challenging and is best left to deep-pocketed collectors.

1861-S Paquet $20.00 NGC AU53

1861-S Paquet $20.00 NGC AU53

San Francisco Liberty Head double eagles were struck continuously from 1854 through 1907 with the exception of 1886. The two key issues are the 1861-S Paquet Reverse and the 1866-S No Motto. Most of the other dates are available in the higher AU grades for $5,000 and under and this mint has the added attraction of many shipwreck issues which are very popular with collectors. While the two keys make this set hard to complete, most of the other dates are easy to acquire and this would be my choice for the collector on a more limited budget.

3. A Complete Year Set

Liberty Head double eagles were produced for 57 years. A complete date set attempts to assemble one example for each of these years. The only potential stumbling block is the 1886 which was made only at Philadelphia in extremely limited quantities and which is a rare and expensive issue. That’s the bad news. The good news is that every other year has at least one affordable option and even the collector on a reasonably limited budget ($2,500-5,000 per coin) has a realistic chance to complete this set with coins grading EF45 to AU50 and finer.

1850 $20.00 PCGS MS62

1850 $20.00 PCGS MS62

I have a few suggestions. The first is to try and include at least one example from each of the five mints which produced the Liberty Head double eagle types. A common Carson City double eagle in nice EF grades can be obtained for around $4,000 while a common date New Orleans double eagle will run around $5,000 or so.

I would suggest not overdoing it on the mundane 1890’s and 1900’s dates (stick with nice MS62 or MS63 coins) and stretching a bit on the more interesting Type One issues. Don’t go lower than EF40 on any of the coins, and whenever possible try and stick with nice AU pieces.

4. A Rarities Collection

Let’s say you have a large coin budget but you aren’t all-in on the concept of assembling a 150+ coin set or even a 57 coin year set. The answer might be a small collection which focuses on the 7 Liberty Head double eagles which I regard as Classic Rarities. These are as follows:     

  1. 1854-O
  2. 1856-O
  3. 1861-S Paquet Reverse
  4. 1870-CC
  5. 1883
  6. 1884
  7. 1887

I’ve written extensively on all of these issues (search older articles and blogs on this site) and because of space limitations I’m not going to discuss each in detail.

1854-O $20.00 PCGS AU55

1854-O $20.00 PCGS AU55

I can’t honestly state that any of these seven issues are “good investments” or that they are “undervalued or underrated.” The ship sailed on most really rare 20 Libs around the time of the Bass sales (1999-2000).

Let me give you an example. In May 2000, I purchased (along with two partners) a nice PCGS AU55 1856-O for $103,500. At the time it was a record price for an 1856-O. Prices began to creep upwards for this date (and most of the others super-rare issues in this series) and suddenly exploded around the Summer of 2004 when the Richmond I sale was held by DLRC. By July 2005, an NGC AU58 had sold for $431,250 and in the 2010 ANA Sale I purchased a nice PCGS AU55 for $488,750. So basically, this date (and many others) tripled or even quadrupled in a decade. Impressive, yes…sustainable, probably not.

That said, a wealthy collector focusing on the Classic Rarities in the Liberty Head double eagle has a formidable challenge on his hands. Coins one through four are pretty much non-existent in grades over AU55 with the exception of a few reasonably nice slider-ish (i.e., AU58 to MS61) Paquets.

The three Proof-only issues are found in relatively high grades but all are, of course, rare and expensive in Gem.

Earlier in this article, I mentioned the 1882 and described it as a “six figure rarity.” It’s a really rare issue but I don’t put it in the same class as the Spectacular Seven discussed above. It is not well-known outside of specialists and it doesn’t have the multiple levels of demand which most of these other coins do.

5. Learning About Liberty Head Double Eagles

Given the popularity of this series, there have been fewer useful references written about them than you would think.

The Akers book on Double Eagles is a great basic guide but it was published in the early 1980’s and is well out-of-date at this point. Dave Bowers published a guide to Double Eagles a few years ago in his Redbook collector series which is quite good but for some strange reason, it seems to have sunk without much of a trace.

In 2015, I published an e-book titled doubleeaglecoinbook.com which focuses on Type One issues. I think it is an excellent resource and I have plans to expand it to include Type Two and Type Three issues.

Many years ago, I wrote a small book on Type Two Liberty Head double eagles with Mike Fuljenz. It is out-of-print but reasonably easy to locate.

A few years ago, Mike Fuljenz revised our original book on Type Three Liberty Head double eagles. It is a solid, well-written book with much useful information.

Other good information can be found on numismatic websites. My own site (raregoldcoins.com) has over 10 years of searchable content with a number of good articles and blogs about Liberty Head double eagles. Another great resource is pcgscoinfacts.com which is an online encyclopedia of US coins.

6. Some Buying Tips For the Liberty Head Double Eagle Collector

Liberty Head double eagles are a complex series. There are 150+ different issues from five different mints using three different designs. I’d like to share some tips which are the result of personally buying millions of dollars’ worth of these coins through my three decades+ of be a professional coin dealer.

1857-S $20.00 PCGS MS65 CAC, SSCA

1857-S $20.00 PCGS MS65 CAC, SSCA

  • Learn your area of specialization. Let’s say that you’ve decided to put together a set of Carson City double eagles. Learn how each issue is supposed to look (surfaces, strike, color, die characteristics, eye appeal) before you buy the coins. The most important takeaway from this is to create a “model” coin for each date and to try and look for a coin which closely resembles your ideal specimen.
  • On certain issues, lower your expectations. If you are a collector who has a “problem” with abrasions you will be dissatisfied by most Type One and Type Two issues. Remember: these are big, soft coins which were mostly transported loose in bags. It can be extremely hard to find certain dates without “baggy” surfaces.
  • Become familiar with real and artificial coloration. On many better date issues (1859-O and 1860-O to name just two) a significant percentage of coins have been processed and show unnatural color which ranges from subtle to cartoonish.
  • Carefully study prices. A certain date in the Liberty Head double eagle series may be worth $3,500 in AU55 and another similarly graded example of the same date might be worth $6,000. A lot depends on a specific coin’s appearance: is it choice or abraded? Is it natural or processed? Are there rumors of a hoard overhanging the market or is a date thought to be “safe?” I would suggest you navigate these rocky waters with the assistance of a knowledgeable specialist-dealer.
  • Don’t overbuy meaningless issues. Let’s look at a randomly selected date: the 1884-S. The 1884-S is a high mintage issue with thousands of survivors. It is plentiful in grades up through MS63, scarce in MS64 and exceedingly rare in MS65. A nice MS63 will cost you $3,000 while an MS64 runs four to five times this amount. Unless you are working on a super high-grade San Francisco date set, there is no really compelling reason for spending $15,000 on such a meh date. Safe your resources for more interesting dates (of which there are many in this series…)
  • There are still potentially many hoards of Liberty Head double eagles overhanging the market. The sources may vary (European banks, shipwrecks) but there is no getting around the fact that a date which is scarce today could become more available tomorrow. While this should always be in the back of your mind, it shouldn’t hamstring your purchase. A date like the 1859-O is still going to be rare even if a group of four is located in Switzerland.

The popularity of Liberty Head double eagles will likely increase in the coming years. More interesting coins from the second round of the SS Central America treasure will bring new collectors into the market and an increase in gold bullion prices could lead many new collectors into this area as well.

Are you interested in collecting Liberty Head double eagles? Would you like to work directly with the world’s leading expert on these coins? Doug Winter is here to help you and can be reached by email at dwn@ont.com.