One of the more interesting and most misunderstood Type One double eagles is the 1854-S. This is an issue whose seemingly high population of Uncirculated coins belies the fact that it is actually extremely rare in higher grades. Read on for some more information about this interesting issue. The 1854-S double eagle is a historically significant coin as it is the first double eagle produced at the new San Francisco mint. Unlike the quarter eagle and half eagle of this year, it is a relatively obtainable coin as one would expect from its original mintage of 141,168. PCGS has graded a total of 148 while NGC has graded a total of 158. In my book “An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type I Double Eagles” I suggested a total population of 325-425+. I believe that this figure remains accurate.
What is especially interesting about this date, however, is its population in Uncirculated. Looking at the PCGS and NGC populations, one might think that the 1854-S is only moderately scarce. After all, PCGS has seen 52 in all grades of Mint State while NGC has recorded 68.
But the population reports fail to explain an important fact about the 1854-S double eagle: virtually every coin in a PCGS or NGC Uncirculated holder has matte-like surfaces as a result of exposure to seawater.
Seawater Uncirculated 1854-S double eagles come from no less than three sources:
The wreck of the Yankee Blade which sank off the coast of Santa Barbara in October 1854. It is believed that somewhere between 100 and “a few hundred” coins with Uncirculated sharpness were recovered.
The wreck of the S.S. Central America which sank in 1857. It is believed that 20 or so 1854-S double eagles were salvaged from this ship and this includes some with Uncirculated sharpness.
The wreck of the S.S. Republic which sank in 1865. There were eight 1854-S double eagles salvaged from this ship including five that were graded by NGC and three which were “no grades” due to problems. Seawater Uncirculated 1854-S have a matte-like surface texture due to exposure to the oceanic environment in which they rested for over a century. But there are also a few other interesting tell-tale signs that they show.
As mentioned above, the majority of the seawater 1854-S double eagles are from the Yankee Blade shipwreck. These coins (as well as the ones that I have seen from the S.S. Central America) have die cracks on the obverse and the reverse which are easily identifiable. On the obverse, there is a crack to the left of the 5 that runs from the rim to the truncation and which branches off to the right over the 4. Another crack begins at the left side of the coronet and runs up to the space between stars six and seven. The reverse shows a large crack from the first T in STATES out into the field below the UN in UNITED. I have never seen a seawater 1854-S double eagle in any grade that did not have these cracks.
What’s interesting about the non-seawater coins is that they do not show any of the cracks described above.
There are some other minor diagnostic differences between the seawater and non-seawater coins as well. On the former the 54 in the date are very close and the top of the mintmark is firmly embedded in the tail feathers. On the latter, the 54 appears to be less close and the mintmark is a bit lower.
I first learned about the rarity of high grade 1854-S double eagles with original surfaces around fifteen years ago and have searched for Uncirculated pieces for many years. The finest that I have ever seen is a piece that was recently sold as Lot 61779 in Heritage’s November 2007 sale where it brought $21,850; it had earlier been in the Bass collection and it sold for $10,925 when offered as Bass III: 781 in May 2000. The only other example I can recall having seen with claims to an Uncirculated grade was Heritage 1/05: 9473 ($5,175). This coin was in an old holder and it might grade MS60 or better by today’s standards. It is now owned by a collector in Connecticut.
So where are all of the high grade 1854-S double eagles without seawater surfaces? My guess is that a considerable number were melted. This seems more likely when one takes into account the fact that the vast majority of the 325-425+ pieces known lack original surfaces. My best estimate is that only 25-50 are (currently) known from non-shipwreck sources. It is my opinion that these should command a strong premium over seawater coins in all grades.