San Francisco Double Eagles: A Date by Date Analysis Part One

It has been a long time since I've written anything about the San Francisco double eagles. As these coins have become increasingly popular over the course of time (they are actually the most popular gold coins from this mint by a considerable margin) I think this would be an excellent time to begin a series of articles. It is only natural to divide these coins into three groups and this would be as follows: *Type One, 1854-1866 *Type Two, 1866-1876 *Type Three, 1877-1907

This first article is going to deal with the very popular Type One issues that were produced, as stated above, from 1854 through 1866.

1854-S: After years of neglect, this historically significant date has finally come into its own. The survival pattern of the 1854-S is different than for any other SF double eagle. Examples are likely to be found either very well worn (in VF35 to EF45 grades) or in Uncirculated (MS61 to MS63). This is because of the fact that this issue saw considerable circulation in the booming local Gold Rush economy and that a hoard of 100 or so Uncirculated pieces with seawater surfaces exists. The 1854-S is extremely rare in high grades with natural surfaces. I have only seen two in Uncirculated not from the shipwreck and just a handful of non-seawater AU pieces. A new price record was set for the date by Heritage 10/08: 3013, graded MS65 by PCGS, which brought a remarkable $115,000. Despite this, published pricing information for the 1854-S is way too low and a solid AU55 or AU58 with natural surfaces is worth well over current levels.

1855-S: For many collectors, the 1855-S is the earliest date SF double eagle that is added to their collection. This issue remains reasonably available in the lower to medium About Uncirculated grades but it is scarce in Uncirculated and much undervalued in my opinion. I believe that there are as many as 150-200 known in Uncirculated with many of these either in the lower range of this grade or sourced from the S.S. Central America or S.S. Republic shipwrecks. As with the other double eagles from this date, the 1855-S is characterized by very heavily abraded surfaces and choice, original pieces are worth a premium. At less than $3,000 for a pleasing, high end AU example, I think that the 1855-S remains an outstanding value in the Type One market.

1856-S: The discovery of over 1,000 high grade examples in the S.S. Central America treasure has made the 1856-S a common issue and one that is very popular with new Type One collectors. Price levels have increased in recent years for nice Uncirculated 1856-S double eagles and for good reason as these are affordable coins with a great story and fantastic eye appeal. The 1856-S in its original S.S. Central America gold foil PCGS holder is harder to find than its counterpart the 1856-S and the premium for the former is starting to increase. I look for nice MS63 and MS64 examples that show minimal discoloration and remaining encrusation.

1857-S: The discovery of more than 5,000 high quality examples on the S.S. Central America is what really jump-started the market for Type One double eagles. There are hundreds of collectors who started out buying a single Uncirculated 1857-S and then became hooked by the Type One series. I've noted some confusion about proper valuation for these coins. As an example, there is a CDN Bid of $7,200 for MS64 examples. This bid represents the value of a coin in a gold foil holder with the original box. An NGC MS64, which is clearly a coin that was broken out of a PCGS holder and likely upgraded, is worth less than this; in some cases as much as 10%. As a collector, if you pay a strong retail price for an Uncirculated 1857-S double eagle, try to be patient and wait for a nice quality piece in the original PCGS holder.

1858-S: The 1856-S and the 1857-S get all the publicity but the 1858-S is a much scarcer coin and a really rare one in Uncirculated. I believe that only two to three dozen are known in Uncirculated and I have not seen one better than MS61. The fact that so few nice 1858-S double eagles have sold at auction means that there are no high sales records and, concurrently, collectors are not aware of the true value of this date in higher grades. I'd have to rank the 1858-S as one of my favorite issues of this type from SF and I certainly think that it is among the two or three best values. I recently sold a lovely PCGS AU58 for less than $5,000 (cheap!!) and have sold nice AU55 coins for less than $3,000.

1859-S: The 1859-S is less rare than the 1858-S both in terms of overall and high grade rarity. But it is another date that it is a favorite of mine and I still maintain that nice quality AU55 to AU58 coins at $4,000+ and below are just about the best value that you can find in the Type One market; especially with very common Philadelphia coins from the early 1850's worth around $2,500-3,000 in nice AU. The 1859-S is often found with bright, baggy surfaces. The finest known example is a PCGS MS63 (ex Bowers and Merena 3/04: 3198) that sold for $31,050. I'm not certain if this coin would realize a ton more today but it still seems undervalued in comparison to other finest known Type One issues.

1860-S: Not much has changed with this date since I wrote my book on Type One double eagles in 2002. There are still fewer than 2000 known in all grades and I actually have revised my estimate of Uncirculated pieces known down from 25-50 to 20-30. This date remains rare and undervalued in higher grades. Trends in AU55 and AU58 is higher than the 1858-S and 1859-S but it is still reasonable, given the rarity of this issue. PCGS has graded a single example in MS63 and MS64 (neither of which I have seen) and there are just a few known in properly graded MS62. If you collect Type One double eagles in high grades and you see a choice, attractive 1860-S my advice to disregard current pricing guides and get aggressive as a considerable amount of time may pass before you get a second chance.

1861-S: Until eleven Uncirculated examples were found on the S.S. Republic this date was almost unavailable in Uncirculated. It remains very rare with fewer than a dozen known with original surfaces in Mint State. I actually think the 1861-S is every bit as tough as the 1860-S in AU55 to AU58 although it tends to sell for a bit less. This issue is unheralded due to the fame of the Paquet Reverse but it is beginning to come into its own as far as specialists go. Heritage 5/08: 3579 (graded MS62 by PCGS) is the current record auction price at $25,300. The finest graded is a single PCGS MS63 that I have have never personally seen.

1861-S Paquet Reverse: As I've written before, for years the Paquet double eagle was extremely undervalued. It was an issue that I can remember literally pleading with clients to buy. Yes, it was a bit on the obscure side but it was very rare, historically significant and impossible to find in higher grades. Not to toot my own horn too loudly but if you listened to me about purchasing a Paquet, we're both happy right now. The market for this issue peaked around mid-2008 when there were three auction sales within a year for AU58 examples that brought in the $160's. Suddenly, this formerly undervalued issue seemed pricey. Very pricey in fact. It has subsequently diminished in value. But I don't think this is a long-term projection for the issue. I've never seen or heard of an Uncirculated example (and a nice one would bring a huge, huge price if offered today) and have just seen two that I regarded as true AU58's. I would suggest that if you are thinking of buying a Paquet you be extremely selective and hold out for a nice coin with good eye appeal.

1862-S: This issue has become more available in higher grades due to the presence of some reasonably choice pieces in the S.S. Republic There are around two to three dozen known in Uncirculated with most in the MS60 to MS61 range. This date remains very rare in properly graded MS62 and there are just two known in MS63 (one each at PCGS and NGC). From a price standpoint, I find the 1862-S a bit overvalued in the higher AU grades when compared to the 1858-S, 1859-S and 1861-S. Interestingly, this is d ate that you never seem to see with the "Euro" look that is seen on some of the earlier S Mint Type One issues. It seems as if few were shipped overseas and the ones that I have seen that have come back from abroad are usually very well worn.

1863-S: Since the discovery of the S.S. Republic the 1863-S is about twice as available in Uncirculated as it was when I wrote my Type One book. I'd venture to estimate that as many as 100 are known in Uncirculated although the majority are shipwreck coins. The Uncirculated pieces in PCGS holders tend to be from the S.S. Brother Jonathan while the NGC coins tend to be from the S.S. Republic. Of all the San Fransisco S mints from this era, the 1863-S tends to be among the worst struck with a lot of flatness seen on the hair. Conversely, the luster is good and there are some original pieces known that have great color and overall eye appeal. This is a date that I think is a bit tougher in original AU55 and AU58 than most people realize and it seems like pretty good value at current levels.

1864-S: This date's rarity has been notably changed by the S.S. Republic and Brother Jonathan shipwrecks. I can remember when the 1864-S was just about impossible to find in Uncirculated. In fact, in the late 1980's/early 1990's I owned a PCGS MS62 which I distinctly remember being far and away the finest 1864-S that I had seen or heard of. This tends to be a poorly produced issue with even less hair detail than seen on the 1862-S and 1863-S. Coins with original surfaces tend to be a bit on the grainy side and if they have natural color tend to be dark and not especially attractive. NGC graded one of the S.S. Republic coins MS65 and this is likely to remain the highest graded 1864-S double eagle for many years.

1865-S: Just as the 1857-S is now officially known as the "Central America" date in this series, the 1865-S is likely to always be remembered as the "Brother Jonathan" date. There were over 550 found on the BroJo. When you combine this number with the 235 found on the S.S. Republic , this adds up to a lot of high grade 1865-S double eagles. This date has been graded as high as MS66 (the best of which brought $72,450 at auction all the way back in May 1999) and enough have been graded in MS64 and MS65 to make it readily available. I'm not personally a big fan of shipwreck coins (as you probably know, I like coins that have original crusty surfaces...) but I think it would be a neat set to have one nice high grade coin from each of the three major Type One shipwrecks.

1866-S No Motto: Only 12,000 examples were struck of this issue and it is the second rarest Type One double eagle from San Francisco, trailing only the 1861-S Paquet. Despite this coin's rarity, it was hugely undervalued for many years. This changed dramatically in the early 2000's when Type Ones became avidly collected by date and interest in the rarest issues soared. The price for a nice EF 1866-S double eagle went from around $5,000 to around $25,000. The height of the market for this issue was 2007-2008 when a number of pieces brought over $100,000 at auction. In January 2007, Heritage sold a really nice PCGS AU58 for $195,000 and I'm told that at least one of the coins graded MS60 by NGC traded privately for over $250,000. Those are pretty heady numbers for a coin that most people barely even knew about a decade ago. But I think the future looks good for this issue. It is truly rare in properly graded AU55 and AU58 and excessively rare in Uncirculated with just two or three currently accounted for.

I think the future looks very bright for San Francisco Type One double eagles. These issues are popular and avidly collected. There are coins available for all price ranges and the fact that many dates have very attractive shipwreck coins available is a great way to introduce this series to new collectors.