After a probable absence of over a century, perhaps the most important New Orleans gold coin in existence is coming back to its ancestral home. My friend Paul Hollis, a coin dealer from Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans), has arranged for the unique Proof 1844-O eagle to be placed on exhibit at the New Orleans mint. This coin, with an estimated value of $2.5 million, goes on public display November 1 and will also be taken around Louisiana on tour by Hollis.
The New Orleans Mint began producing coins in 1838. The very first issue struck by this mint was a group of 20 half dollars to inaugurate coinage and a small group of Proof half dollars were made in 1839 (plus at least one Dime dated 1839-O is known that has been designated a “Specimen” by NGC). So, we know that the New Orleans mint had experience with making Proof coins and that the quality of these was comparable to that seen at the Philadelphia mint.
In 1844, the New Orleans mint produced at least one example of a Proof half eagle and eagle. Remarkably, both still exist and, even more remarkably, both are superbly preserved. Why were they produced and who were they struck for?
Unfortunately, contemporary documentation does not exist that gives the definitive answer to these questions, so we have to make some assumptions. I think it’s safe to say that the Proof 1844-O gold set was struck in commemoration of either a special event or, more likely, a visit to the Mint by some special VIP or dignitary. My guess would be that they were made for personal presentation to President John Tyler.
What is interesting about these 1844-O Proofs is that there were no other Proof gold issues produced at the branch mints until 1854 when San Francisco struck a double eagle in this format. But in the case of the 1854-S double eagle, the reason for producing the coin is obvious as it was made to commemorate the opening of the new mint. One would think that if New Orleans were to have made gold Proofs, they would have struck a small number of Proof quarter eagles in 1839 or half eagles in 1840. But if these were ever made, they have disappeared without a trace.
The earliest numismatic reference to the 1844-O Proofs appears to be in the Seavey descriptive catalog that was published in 1873. In 1890 when they were sold as part of the famous Parmelee collection the eagle sold (as Lot 1151) for the princely sum of $16 while its companion half eagle brought just $9.50. It was next seen in the collection of William Woodin who was famous both as a coin collector and as Secretary of the Treasury for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
Woodin sold his primary collection at auction in 1911 but I am not aware if the Proof 1844-O set was included in either of his two sales (it would be easy to check these in the sale catalogs but my library does not contain them). It is documented that Woodin also sold many of his coins privately to the leading collectors and dealers of the day. I do not know this with certainty but I surmise that the 1844-O Proofs went into the Brand collection.
From here on, the pedigree chain for the 1844-O half eagle and eagle gets murky. In fact, I think it is possible that the coins were split up when the Brand collection was being sold in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
The half eagle was in all likelihood sold to Waldo Newcomer and then likely went into the Colonel Green collection. From there it is believed to have been sold to King Farouk and remained in this collection until it was forcibly sold at auction in 1954. It was later sold to a prominent Texas collector (not Harry Bass, by the way...) by Abe Kosoff in 1959. I was shown the Proof half eagle in the early 1990’s by the Texas dealer Michael Brownlee. It was still in the original flip with Kosoff’s writing on it. I used it as the cover coin of the first edition of my New Orleans book. The coin is a superb Gem.
Brownlee told me soon after showing me the Proof 1844-O half eagle that he believed the Proof eagle existed but he didn’t know where it was. In fact, he claimed, he had been searching for it for many years as he desperately wanted to reunite the two coins in the prominent Texas collection (which he had built and was, rightfully, very proud of).
If Newcomer did, in fact, buy both the half eagle and eagle, it is not likely that Col. Green would have purchased the eagle as he was not specializing in this denomination. What would be interesting to learn was, if the coins were indeed split up, in which collections did it reside between the 1920’s and the 1990’s.
Did Brownlee know where this coin was all along? I have my theories but won’t expound on them here. I will say, however, that his search for the elusive Proof 1844-O eagle was rewarded when, in the late 1990’s, he announced that the coin was “rediscovered.” It was sent to NGC where it was ultimately graded PR66 Cameo. Then, it was offered for sale by dealer Robert Leece at various price levels for a number of years.
Finally, the coin was sold to a Florida collector in 2006 by Louisiana dealer Chuck Bloomfield. The price was reported to be $1.5 million.
I have had a chance to examine the Proof 1844-O eagle and it is a simply amazing coin. It is 100% unquestionably a Proof with incredible cameo contrast and a deep “black and white” appearance that one wouldn’t expect to see on a Proof gold coin from this era, let alone one from New Orleans.
If you are going to be in the New Orleans area in the coming months, I urge you to take a look at this great coin and to visit the New Orleans mint.