Low Mintage Philadelphia Double Eagles

One of my favorite groups of coins are the low mintage Philadelphia double eagles produced in 1881, 1882, 1885, 1886 and 1891. During this five year period, only 5,911 business strikes were produced; an average of just 1,182 pieces per year. Despite the obvious rarity of these coins, they are still overlooked by many collectors. A total of 2,199 business strike 1881 double eagles were produced. Estimates of the surviving population range from a low of 25-35 to a high of 35-40. This date is usually seen in the EF40 to AU50 grade range and it becomes extremely rare in AU55 and above. To the best of my knowledge there are just two examples known in Uncirculated. One of these, ex: Heritage 1/07: 3203 (graded MS61 by PCGS) sold for a record $138,000. The other, ex: Goldberg 5/05: 1086 ($69,000), Heritage 6/04: 349 ($57,500), ANR 3/04: 1067 ($39,100; as PCGS MS60) is now graded MS61 by PCGS.

Price levels for this date in Uncirculated have, obviously, increased dramatically in recent years. But this date seems like very good value in EF and AU grades. Trends is $18,000 in EF45, $25,000 in AU50 and $30,000 in AU55. Given the fact that the last Uncirculated 1881 to trade brought more than double Trends (which is $60,000 in MS60), my feeling is that EF and AU Trends are considerably out of date.

In 1882, the mintage figure for business strike double eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint dropped to a record low 571 coins. I regard this as the single rarest Type Three double eagle in business strike form and the number known is probably in the range of 20-25 coins. I am aware of two or three in Uncirculated. The finest is owned by a prominent Midwestern collector and is ex: Dallas Bank Collection (Stack’s/Sotheby’s 10/01: 88) where it brought $86,250. It is now in a PCGS MS61 holder. In January 2007, Heritage sold a PCGS MS60 for a whopping $138,000. This coin had first appeared in their 2000 ANA auction where it went unsold.

While far less underappreciated than the 1881, the 1882 is still an excellent value when compared to the rare date Type One double eagles from New Orleans. The 1882 is just a bit less rare than the celebrated 1854-O and 1856-O double eagles yet it sells for about a fifth of the price of these two issues in AU grades.

In 1883 and 1884, only Proof double eagles were produced in Philadelphia. Business strikes resumed in 1885 but only 751 pieces were struck.

When I first became interested in double eagles (back in the early to mid 1980’s), this date was almost impossible to find and it was considered a major rarity on par with the 1881 and 1882. It seems that a small hoard reached the market in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s and today the 1885 is a bit more available in circulated grades than one might assume given its incredibly low mintage figure. I think around four to five dozen are known with most in the AU50 to AU55 range. There may be as many as eight or nine known in Uncirculated with most in the MS60 to MS62 range.

There are two known in MS63. The first, which was graded by PCGS, is owned by a prominent Midwestern collector and it is the finest known. The second, also in a PCGS MS63 holder, is ex: Bowers and Merena 2003 ANA: 4291 ($50,600), Kingswood 2/00: 882 ($39,100).

The 1885 is the most affordable of these five issues. I recently sold a nice EF45 example in the mid-$10’s and have handled two attractive AU58’s within the last two years in the $25,000-30,000 range.

Production of business strike double eagles in Philadelphia shot up to a “whopping” 1,000 coins in 1886. This date has a much lower survival rate than the 1885 and it is actually close to the 1881 and 1882 in terms of overall rarity. At one time, it was believed that as few as 15-18 pieces were known. I feel that the correct number is more in the 25-30 range. This includes a greater number of lower grade coins than the 1881, 1882 and 1885; the 1886 is sometimes seen in the VF-EF range.

There are at least three 1886 double eagles known in Uncirculated. The finest by a vast margin is the PCGS MS63 owned by a Midwestern collector. There is also a PCGS MS61 that was last sold as Lot 7845 in the Heritage March 1998 auction (where it brought $35,075) and a PCGS MS60 which I have not seen or been able to trace its pedigree.

The price appreciation for this date has been pretty amazing in the last few years. As an example, in January 2004, Heritage sold a PCGS AU55 example for $24,150. In January 2007, another PCGS AU55 brought $69,575. It is also interesting to note that Trends for this date in AU55 is still just $40,000.

After a year in which only Proof double eagles were struck at the Philadelphia mint (1887), production of business strikes increased dramatically from 1888 to 1890. But in 1891, production was severely curtailed and only 1,390 business strikes were made.

For many years, the 1891 was regarded as the major sleeper in the Type Three series by gold coin experts. Only 35-45 coins are known but this issue traded in the $12,500-17,500 range in AU grades until recently. The 1891 is, curiously, as rare as the more celebrated 1882 and 1886 in Uncirculated. I am aware of just two that qualify as such. The best is the amazing NGC MS64 from the Dallas Bank Collection that is owned by the same Midwestern collector who is mentioned frequently throughout this blog. This coin realized $80,500 when it was first offered in 2001. It brought $155,200 five years later when Heritage offered it in their January 2005 auction.

This group of five Type Three Liberty Head double eagles is not as well known as The Fab Five St. Gaudens double eagles or as popular as the rare Type One issues from New Orleans but it is a remarkable and highly challenging group that is clearly worth careful examination by the serious, deep-pocketed collector.