There are five ultra-low mintage Type Three Liberty Head double eagles that were produced for circulation during the 1880's and 1890's. These five issues have not necessarily received the attention that the so-called Fab Five late date St. Gaudens double eagles (the 1929, 1930-S, 1931, 1931-D and 1932) have but they are now popular with collectors and have risen dramatically in value over the last decade. The 1881, 1882, 1885, 1886 and 1891 double eagles have a combined mintage of just 5,911. There are a number of possible reasons as to why these issues were made in such limited quantities. The first is that the Philadelphia mint was primarily interested in making silver dollars in these years and a majority of their efforts went towards these coins. I don't find this plausible as mintage figures for other gold denominations during these years were high; as an example the mint made nearly four million eagles in 1881 alone. The second was that there was limited demand. This is certainly possible but it does not explain why mintage figures for double eagles during these years at the San Francisco mint tended to exceed one million per annum. Another reason is that the United States economy was slow or worse during most of these years.
In looking at these dates in terms of overall rarity (the total number known) and high grade rarity (rarity in AU50 and higher grades), I rank the Fab Five as follows:
I. Overall Rarity 1. 1882 2. 1881 3. 1886 4. 1891 5. 1885
II. High Grade Rarity
1. 1881 2. 1882 3. 1886 4. 1891 5. 1885
Let's take a look at each of these dates and discuss their overall and high grade rarity, Condition Census levels, the numbers graded by PCGS and NGC and record prices realized at auction.
I. 1881 Double Eagle
A total of 2,199 were struck of which an estimated three to four dozen exist today. There are none that I know of that grade lower than EF and around seven to ten are known in this grade range. The majority of the examples known are in the AU grades with around twenty-six to thirty-four accounted for.
I am aware of two in Uncirculated and they are as follows:
1. PCGS MS61. Heritage 4/09: 2762 ($120,750), ex Heritage 10/08: 3091 ($138,000), Heritage 1/07: 3203 ($138,000).
2. PCGS MS61. Heritage 6/04: 6363 ($57,500), probably ex Heritage 1997 ANA: 7843 ($29,325; where graded MS60 by PCGS).
The record auction price for this date is $138,000 which was set twice by the coin listed first in the Condition Census above. PCGS, as of December 2010, has graded 24 examples in all grades with just two in Uncirculated (both MS61). NGC has graded 19 in all grades with three in Uncirculated (an MS60 and two in MS61). I believe that the populations for AU coins are inflated by resubmissions. The 1881 is the rarest of the Fab Five is higher grades.
As I mentioned above, there are only two that I am aware of that grade Uncirculated. Of the two to three dozens AU that are known, most are lower end with heavy bagmarks and signs of circulation.
The 1881 is always found with below average surfaces and most have poor eye appeal as a result. Interestingly, despite this issue's low mintage figure, the luster is often frosty in texture; not the reflective prooflike finish that one might expect.
For many years, it was possible to purchase a very presentable EF to AU example in the $10,000-20,000 range. This is no longer the case, but it is still possible to buy an above-average 1881 double eagle for less than $60,000. I think this is incredible value, given the price levels of less rare (but more popular) Type I double eagles from New Orleans or better date CC double eagles.
II. 1882 Double Eagle
The 1882 is one of two business strike Liberty Head double eagles with an original mintage of less than 1,000 (the other is the 1885). It is the rarest of the Fab Five overall but I regard it as just a little less rare than the 1881 in high grades. To put the rarity of this date in perspective, it is rarer overall than the celebrated 1854-O and 1870-CC and comparable to the 1856-O.
There are either two or three known in Uncirculated and they are as follows:
NGC MS62. Sotheby's 10/01: 88 ($86,250), ex Dallas Bank Collection. It is likely that this coin was upgraded from a PCGS MS61 holder and may not have been removed from the PCGS population report.
PCGS MS61. There is a second coin graded MS61 by PCGS. It may be a second appearance of the Dallas Bank coin. PCGS MS60: Heritage 1/07: 3204.
The auction price record is $138,000 which was set by the PCGS MS60 coin listed above. The NGC MS62 would sell for more if it were to become available.
As of December 2010, PCGS had graded eighteen examples with seven in Extremely Fine, eight in About Uncirculated and three in Mint State. NGC had graded only tweleve with one in Extremely Fine, ten in About Uncirculated and one in Mint State. These figures are inflated, especially in AU grades.
Almost every example of this date that I have seen is very heavily abraded and has reflective surfaces which make the marks look even more pronounced. The 1882 is a true rarity in all grades and there are an estimated thirty to forty known. I think the grade distribution includes six to nine in Extremely Fine, twenty-two to twenty-eight in About Uncirculated and two to three in Uncirculated.
Prices for this date have risen considerably in the last few years as collectors have become aware of the real rarity of the 1882. A presentable example will cost in the area of $60,000-80,000 and a Condition Census piece might cost in excess of $100,000. In my opinion, this is still reasonable given the extreme rarity of this issue.
III. 1885 Double Eagle
The 1885 is the most curious of the Fab Five. It has a tiny mintage of 751 business strikes, the second lowest of this illustrious group. This coin is clearly very scarce but it is more available than one might expect and I regard it as the least rare of the Fab Five. It is also a date that has a slightly different grade distribution than, say, the 1882. The 1885 is more available in Uncirculated than the other four dates in this group and it is also seen in lower grades; showing that it did actually circulate to a degree.
I am aware of five Uncirculated examples which are as follows:
1. PCGS MS63. Bowers and Merena 2003 ANA: 4291 ($50,600)
2. NGC MS62. Heritage 6/08: 2332 ($103,500)
3. PCGS MS62. Heritage 6/08: 2333 ($86,250)
4. NGC MS61. Heritage 2007 FUN: 3738 ($63,250)
5. PCGS MS61. Heritage 10/09: 1754 ($57,500) As far as I am aware, these are all different coins. It is interesting to note that four of the five have appeared for sale within the last three years. These are not coins that are previously unknown. I believe that most--if not all--were coins that previously resided in About Uncirculated holders and were upgraded.
The current auction record for the 1885 double eagle is $103,500 which was set by Heritage 6/08: 2332. I am aware of at least one private treaty sale for a figure higher than this.
The eye appeal of this date tends to be better than the 1881, 1882 and 1886. It is a coin that is typically seen in About Uncirculated grades and with prooflike surfaces. Most are found with heavy marks but I know of a small number that are actually high end.
Aproximately sixty to eighty 1885 business strike double eagles are known. I can account for at least five in Uncirculated and feel that there may be a few more that qualify as such by today's standards. Around fifty to sixty exist in AU grades plus another six to ten in Extremely Fine and below.
The 1885 is the most affordable of the Fab Five. It is possible to buy a decent quality example in the $40,000-50,000 range. While I think this is an interesting and legitimately scarce coin, I don't think it is as good a value as the 1881, 1882 and 1886. That said, I would strongly advise purchasing an 1885 in AU55 or above at current price levels if the piece is choice and original.
IV. 1886 Double Eagle
A total of 1,000 business strikes were produced. I regard the 1886 as the third rarest overall of the Fab Five and the third rarest in high grades as well. I know of at least two that are Uncirculated. These are as follows:
1. PCGS MS63. Superior 10/92: 1612 ($45,100), ex Akers Auction '90: 1968 ($66,000).
2. PCGS MS61. Heritage 3/98: 6637 ($35,075), probably ex Stack's Miles sale.
A coin graded "MS65" appears on the NGC population but I would assume that this is a clerical error and that the coin does not exist.
The current auction record for a business strike 1886 double eagle is $86,623 which is held by a PCGS AU55 sold as Heritage 10/08: 3103. If an Uncirculated coin were to appear it would shatter this record with ease.
There are an estimated forty to fifty pieces known. I know of either two or three in Uncirculated as well as another two to three dozen in About Uncirculated and a dozen or so in Extremely Fine. The typical 1886 double eagle is a low end EF to AU that has heavily abraded surfaces and unappealing Prooflike luster. This date is exceedingly hard to find with good eye appeal and I can't recall the last piece I saw that was original and appealing.
An "entry level" example costs in the area of $60,000-70,000 and you can expect to spend closer to six figures (if not more) for a Condition Census level piece. I regard the 1886 as good value even at these current levels.
V. 1891 Double Eagle
The 1891 is the fourth most available of the Fab Five. There were only 1,390 business strikes made of which an estimated four to five dozen are known. I am aware of three of four Uncirculated, forty or so in About Uncirculated another ten to twelve in VF to EF grades.
The Uncirculated examples are as follows:
PCGS MS64 (this coin also appears in the NGC population as MS64): Heritage 1/05: 30540 ($155,250), ex Sotheby's 10/11: 111 ($80,500), Dallas Bank collection.
PCGS MS63: Heritage 1/10: 2267 ($138,000), ex Stack's 1/08: 9211 ($115,000).
PCGS MS 61: I do not know the pedigree of this coin.
The auction record for the 1891 double eagle is $155,250 set by the PCGS MS64 listed above. In my opinion, this is among the single most significant Type Three double eagles of any date. It is a magnificent coin that combines rarity and great appearance.
The 1891 double eagle is usually seen in th EF45 to AU55 range and it is characterized by deeply reflective prooflike surfaces. Most examples are heavily abraded although a few choice, clean examples are known.
Price levels on this date were reasonable for many years and I can remember selling nice AU examples for well under $20,000 at the beginning of this decade. Today, such a coin will cost double or triple this amount but I still believe that the 1891 is good value at current levels.
I'd like to thank my good friend Paul Nugget of Spectrum Numismatics for his input on the rarity rankings of these double eagles.
If you have an interest in the Fab Five and would like to discuss them in greater detail feel free to email me at email@example.com