The 1856-S Eagle: A Study of Mintmark Varieties

I'd like to thank collector John Toffaletti for writing this interesting study of 1856-S eagles and contributing it to for publication. I think you'll find it very interesting and it contains information that has never been published before. There appears to be new interest in the older gold coins from the San Francisco mint. This is especially true for the double eagles, but also for the other denominations.

In searching the eagles from this period, I have noticed that the 1856-S comes in two very different mintmarks: a large S located farther to the right between the arrow feathers and the stem of the right branch and a medium S, located to the left of these same arrow feathers and the eagle’s right claw (left claw as you view the coin).

I started searching the Heritage Auction Archives for this date and mint mark and noticed that the large S was sometimes described as “very rare” because that’s how it was described in Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. To me, “very rare” means a coin that is really difficult to find, so I was puzzled when the two most recent 1856-S Eagles in the Archives for April 2011 were both large S types.

Continuing to look farther down, the Archives appeared to confirm that the large S was less common among the images that I viewed: of the first 20, 14 were medium S and 6 were large S. Still, not what I would call “very rare”. However, I was really interested by now, so I continued down the list until I got to 1999, at which point Heritage did not include images in their Archives.

All told, there were 80 1856-S Eagles sold from April 1999 to April 2011, with 55 being the medium S and 25 being the large S variety. So the large S would certainly appear to be rarer by about a 2 to 1 ratio.

Now for the “double S,” as in Steam Ship. I noticed one P55 1856-S eagle had an exceptionally high price for the grade. This was a shipwreck coin from the SS Central America. In a recent article, Doug Winter mentioned that certain shipwreck coins were selling at markedly increased prices relative to their landlubber cousins. Winter noted that the greatest differential was for such coins with low “shipwreck populations”.

As an example, the very common 1857-S shipwreck double eagle sells for a small premium in the middle Uncirculated grades, while most others would sell for a significant premium. Since the large majority of coins found at shipwreck are double eagles, eagles would certainly have low shipwreck populations. Here is a list of the 1856-S shipwrecked coins on the Heritage Archive:

April 2010 N25 SS Republic $1955.00 March 2010 P55 SS Central America $7475.00 May 2008 N50 SS Republic $2990.00 June 2008 N45 SS Republic $1610.00 January 2002 P58 SS Central America $3450.00 (typical 58s sold for around $2600 at the time)

While I much prefer an original, attractively toned coin that survived actual circulation with minimal wear and damage, it is clear that these shipwrecked coins sell for a premium.

Now back to the mintmark search. Breen states that the medium S variety has at least 2 positional varieties. As I looked at the medium S eagles, I noticed that one of the medium S mintmarks really stood out. It seemed to be much lower and to the right than the other medium S’s that I had seen (but still an obvious medium S).

I saved this image and another of the more common medium S coin with the mintmark located in the upper left area. Now able to clearly compare these two images, I confirmed that the two medium S’s were located in distinctly different locations.

The more common medium S is more toward the left and tucked up between the arrow feathers and the left claw, with a line along the right tips of the S pointing almost directly through the left bar of the “N” in “TEN” [for an example, see the coin sold in the Heritage January 2011 auction, graded P58].

On the other type, the right tips of the S point almost to the middle of the same “N” and the top of the S is no higher than the lower tip of the arrow feathers [for an example see the coin sold in Heritage’s April 2008 sale, graded P40].

Also, I felt that another of the medium S marks seemed a little different than the others. Indeed, this third type of medium S variety is somewhat between the other two: the right tips of the S point down to the right of the left bar of the “N” in “TEN” and the top of the S is just above the lower tip of the arrow feathers [for an example, see the Heritage March 2010 coin graded P58 CAC. This same coin was later upgraded to an N61 and sold in the September 2010 auction by this firm].

Breen speculated that the large S eagles may have been the last of three deliveries by the San Francisco mint: Jan 1856: 14,000; Sept: 55,000; Dec 2,500. However, the relative rarity figures of the Heritage Archives do not support this.

Since the 1854-S eagle has a large S, while the 1857-S eagle has a medium S in the lower right position, this suggests that the first shipment of 14,000 were the large S variety. Most of the 55,000 shipment (from September) were the upper left medium S, while the final shipment was the lower right medium S. These numbers are congruent with the Heritage Archive numbers.

The rarest variety appears to be the medium S in the lower right position, followed by the large S, then the upper left medium S. The center medium S is relatively scarce also, perhaps about the same as the large S type.

In closing, I have to tip my hat to Walter Breen, who amassed much useful information about a huge number of coins without the grading service population reports or the great convenience of the Heritage Archives.