For many years, it's been no secret that I haven't been a big fan of the 1857-S double eagles that trace their origin from the famous S.S. Central America shipwreck. I've written that price levels of these coins haven't made sense to me and I've have had problems with their appearance. More than a decade after they were first released onto the market, has my opinion changed? I believe that this is (finally) a sensible time to purchase an S.S.C.A double eagle. But there are some important parameters for the collector to follow when considering a purchase. Some of these are as follows:
1. Be Selective. There are over 5,000 1857-S double eagles from this shipwreck and they range in grade from Extremely Fine to Mint State-67. With this wide variety of grades, there are a tremendous number of coins to choose from. At any given major auction, there are typically three to five available and it isn't terribly hard to find them in specialist dealer's inventories. I have noticed a huge variation in quality for coins in the same grade. As an example, I've seen some in MS63 holders that I've loved and I've seen some in MS63 holders that I thought were horrible. Spend 10-20% more and buy a coin that is high end and attractive. In some instances, you will be able to buy nice, high end examples for little or no premium.
2. Find the Sweet Spot. In my opinion, the "right" grade range for one of these 1857-S double eagles is MS63 to MS64. There is not much of a premium for these two grades over AU and lower Mint State grades and when you buy a coin that grades MS63 to MS64 you are getting good value. In the current market, AU58 examples can bring as much as $3,500-4,000. An MS63 is worth around $7,000-8,000 while an MS64 is worth $8,000-9,000. It seems to me that an MS63 at around 2x the price of an AU58 is good value. And it also seems to me that an MS64 at around $1,000 more than an MS63 is good value as well.
3. Stick With Coins in Original Holders. It is important to focus on 1857-S double eagles that are in their original gold foil PCGS holders. And having the original box and other packaging is an added benefit. Avoid coins that are not in these holders and stay clear of NGC graded S.S. Central America double eagles. They may be nice coins but they have been cracked from their original holders and probably upgraded.
4. Avoid Coins That Have "Turned" in the Holder: All of the coins in this treasure were conserved after they salvaged. The conservation process has been well-documented and, in some cases, the work was outstanding. But there are other coins that have "turned" in the holder. These can be identified either by very hazy surfaces or unnatural splotchy golden color. Avoid these coins and look for pieces that are bright, lustrous and evenly toned. At this point in time, coins that haven't turned are probably not going to.
5. Disregard The Die Varieties. All 1857-S double eagles from the shipwreck are attributed to a distinct die variety. There are over 20 varieties known. Some are probably rare but it is even rarer to find a collector who cares. I'd suggest not paying a premium for these.
6. If You Are Buying a PL or DMPL Example, Carefully Study the Market. A very small number of 1857-S double eagles were designated as either Prooflike (PL) or Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) by PCGS. These are some of the most visually arresting coins from the shipwreck. I have seen a few pieces in the last few years bring extremely high premiums. These are no doubt very scarce and very flashy coins but I question the premium that they are currently bringing. If you do decide to purchase such a coin, carefully check auction prices for comparable examples and make certain that the price you are paying is in line with the last auction trade.
Now that I've told you the coins to avoid, let me tell you my ideal S.S. Central America double eagle and let me tell you why my opinion about these coins has changed over time. My ideal 1857-S double eagle from this shipwreck would be a choice, high end PCGS MS64 in a gold foil holder with original papers and box. It would be very lustrous and bright with no haze or discoloration. I'd expect to pay $8,000 to $9,000 and I'd expect to be able to find a nice one within a month or two of beginning my search.
What made me change my mind about these coins? For years, I thought they were very overpriced. I don't remember the exact issue price but I do know that whenever I would buy the coins from original investors, they would have to sell them at a loss; often a considerable one. I didn't like it that there was no real secondary market for these coins and that many of the investors who bought them had been told that they would appreciate in value.
What changed about these coins, at least for me, was the creation of a secondary market. A few of the larger firms that sell Liberty Head double eagles have done a great job of creating this market. For many new double eagle collectors, a bright, shiny high grade 1857-S is a great starter coin and this has created a new level of demand that hasn't exited since the coins were being sold (and heavily hyped) over a decade ago.
Another thing that changed my mind about the S.S. Central America coins is their comparative value with other Type One double eagles in higher grades. As an example, compare an MS64 1857-S to an 1861 in this grade. Prior to the discovery of this hoard, the 1861 was the "generic" date of this type and it was certainly the only coin that was seen, from time to time, in MS64. In 2001, an MS64 1857-S in a PCGS gold foil label was a consistent seller at auction for $6,900. At that same point in time, an 1861 would sell for $10,000 to $12,000. Today, the same 1857-S is only worth $8,000 while an MS64 1861 would sell for $18,000-20,000+. Non-1857 S double eagles in high grades have become expensive and hard to locate. This has increased demand for the 1857-S double eagles and I wouldn't be surprised to see them reach $10,000 in the next year or so.
One last observation about my about-face. I've seen thousands of 1857-S double eagles from this shipwreck and I've got to admit, that they've grown on me. Ten years ago, when conservation was not so widespread, these coins appeared funky and I hated the way they looked. Today, with conservation more readily accepted (and way more widespread) they don't look so funky anymore. I love the quality of strike and blazing luster that many of them show and they are certainly an interesting contrast to the dirty, crusty often bagmarked AU Type One double eagles that are a staple of my day-to-day business. Do I love these coins? Not really. But I've become more accepting of the way they look and have always loved their back story. Today, if a collector asks me "should I buy an S.S. Central America double eagle my answer will typically be "yes, but with a few red flags." A few years ago, my answer would have been a quick and curt "no."