The Three Kings: The Proof-Only Double Eagles Dated 1883, 1884 and 1887

Continuing my fascination with Proof-only issues, I'd like to discuss the rare Proof-only double eagles dated 1883, 1884 and 1887. These issues are not all that well-known outside of Type Three Liberty Head collectors and I think they merit more than a passing mention. Beginning in 1881, production of double eagles at the Philadelphia mint became little more than an afterthought. And it would remain as such until 1888. In 1883, there were no business strikes produced. The Mint did strike 92 Proofs; ostensibly for the limited numbers of collectors who were interested in Proof double eagles at this point in time.

The Mint struck considerably more Proof 1883 double eagles than they were able to sell and it is believed that as many as half of the original mintage was melted later in the year. Of the four dozen or so that were distributed to collectors and dealers, around twenty at most are known today. This figure includes at least three that are impounded in museums and another two or three that are impaired.

The 1883 is the second rarest collectible Liberty Head double eagle, trailing only the 1884 (I consider the 1849 and the 1861 Paquet reverse non-obtainable and do not include them). Despite this coin's indisputable rarity, it is only fairly recently that the 1883 became known as a major rarity. Prices for this issue had remained fairly stagnant for many years, hovering in the $75,000-100,000 range. This only changed in 2004 when Heritage sold an example for $172,500. Today, a Gem is worth at least $200,000-225,000.

There are a small number of Gems that have been graded by the services and at least one has been slabbed as PR66 by NGC. I know of six or seven Gems and the two nicest that I have personally seen are Heritage 1/06: 3580 (graded PR65 Ultra Cameo by NGC) and Heritage 1/04: 3224 (graded PR65 Deep Cameo by PCGS and possibly also ex Dallas Bank collection).

There are a few diagnostic criteria that make this an easy issue to authenticate. All show roughness on the back of the eagle's neck and fragmentation of the fleur de lys beneath its beak. These die markers do not exist on any business strike reverses of this era.

The 1884 is the rarest of these three Proof-only issues. A total of 71 were struck and it is possible (although unconfirmed) that a few were melted as unsold, given the fact that so many Proofs dated 1883 suffered this fate. There are slightly fewer than twenty known. I wrote in 2000 that 15-17 exist and I think this number might be a tiny bit on the low side. A total of twelve have sold at auction since 2000 but this includes a number of coins that have sold more than once.

The current auction record is $264,500 which was set by ANR 8/06: 1644, a coin graded PR66 Cameo by NGC. It had sold two years earlier (as Heritage 1/04: 3225) for $149,500.

The 1884 is much rarer in Gem than the 1883. I do not believe that a full-blown Gem exists and most that I have seen are in the PR63 to PR64 range. For some reason, this date was not as well handled as the 1883 or 1887 and most show signs of having been cleaned.

There are some interesting die characteristics for this issue that make it very easy to identify. All known examples show an uneven pattern of frost on Liberty's face. It is thick on the right half of the neck and near the ear but it is quite light on the neck. This is why none have ever been designated as "deep cameo" or "ultra cameo" by PCGS or NGC. In addition, all 1884 double eagles have a noticeable diagonal die line just to the left of the Y in LIBERTY.

There is no question that, as a date, this is the rarest collectible Liberty Head double eagle. Given this fact, it seems fairly reasonably priced at current levels.

The last of the Three Kings is the 1887. This issue has a mintage of 121 struck. I believe that, as in 1883, a number went unsold and were later melted. My best guess is that around half were released to collectors and that there are 25-30 known today.

The 1887 tends to come better preserved than the 1883 and 1884 and it is more available in Gem than the other two Proof-only dates. There are around six to eight Gems known. The finest is an incredible NGC PR67+* Cameo that will be sold in the upcoming Heritage 2011 FUN auction. The current auction record for this issue is $161,000 that has been achieved twice (Goldberg 9/08: 1295 and Heritage 1/07: 3145) but this mark is certain to be broken by the aforementioned Heritage coin.

There are no major die characteristics seen on Proof 1887 double eagles. This tends to be a very well made issue and many of the examples that exist show excellent contrast between the frosted devices and the mirror fields.

The three Proof-only Liberty Head double eagles from the 1880's are among the more interesting and desirable United States issues from the 19th century. I believe that they are all highly undervalued, considering how few are known for each issue. As I have said in other recent blogs, if the Type Three series were to become more active among date collectors, these three issues would be considered true "stoppers" and would show dramatic increases in price.