The 1854-S Double Eagle: A Study

The 1854-S double eagle is one of the most interesting Liberty Head double eagles. It is widely acclaimed by collectors due to its status as the first double eagle from this mint, and the rarity of the quarter eagle and half eagle from this year makes it a famous coin as well. That said, it is an issue that is not well understood and one whose rarity profile has been made confusing by inconsistencies from NGC and PCGS.

The 1854-S has a high original mintage figure of 141,468 and one would expect it to be available in higher grades. This is not necessarily the case, despite what appears to be a decent number in Uncirculated as per the grading services’ current figures.

As of August 2013, NGC had graded a total of 48 in Uncirculated, including 23 in MS63 and another 10 in MS64. PCGS had graded a total of 55 in Uncirculated, including 17 in MS63 and another three in MS64. With a total of 103 graded in Uncirculated, we can conclude that the 1854-S is only a marginally scarce coin in higher grades and it seems more available in comparably high grades (i.e., MS63 and higher) than such contemporary non-shipwreck dates from this mint as the 1855-S, 1858-S and 1859-S.

However, this is not the case.

What the NGC and PCGS populations fail to address is the fact that virtually every Uncirculated 1854-S double eagle is a shipwreck coin. And what’s worse is that these are designated on the holder as being from a shipwreck - and both services seem wildly inconsistent with how this date is graded and why some blatantly “environmental damage” coins are in “normal” holders while others are not.

Essentially every high-grade 1854-S double eagle is from the S.S. Yankee Blade shipwreck which was found in 1977. This wreck contained approximately 200-300 coins. These were Uncirculated coins which must have been spectacular before the boat carrying them sank; the survivors tend to show very few marks but they have matte-like surfaces from exposure to seawater. Some examples have less etching in the surfaces than others; some are clearly salvaged and have oxidation as well as scratches from the process of removing crud from the surfaces.

What few collectors realize is that, as with the 1854-S eagle, the survival rate of high grade 1854-S double eagles with original surfaces is exceptionally low. I have seen exactly three with original surfaces which I grade Choice AU to Mint State by today’s standards. In comparison, I have probably owned 20 examples graded MS62 to MS64 but with “unoriginal” surfaces.

The choicest 1854-S double eagles I have seen with original surfaces include a PCGS 61 from the Bass collection (ex Bass III: 781 at $10,450; I later sold this coin to a collector on the East Coast), an NGC MS61 which I bought out of a Heritage sale around ten years ago (and can’t currently remember the exact pedigree), and a PCGS AU58 which I purchased from a New York dealer around four years ago and which was very choice for the grade. I believe that a few others are known but I can stately with reasonably strong conviction that none exist in grades higher than MS61.

There are certain diagnostics seen on the Yankee Blade coin which are not seen on the coins with original surfaces. Some of these are as follows:

  1. The shipwreck coins always have an obverse die crack which runs up from a denticle at 6:00 on the obverse through the left side of the 5 in the date, terminating at the truncation.
  2. The reverse has a total of three cracks. The first runs into the field (at the viewer’s left) from the base of the N in UNITED. The second crack begins between the denticles left of the first T in TWENTY up to the left tip of the letter. The third begins at the tip of the T in TWENTY and travels left into the field ending below the N in UNITED. On the late die state, these three cracks meet below the base of the right foot of the N in UNITED.
  3. The shipwreck coins always show a broken crossbar in the A in STATES.

The original surface coins do not show these die cracks. They do have a similar mintmark, and all seem to have the broken crossbar. Interestingly, there are a number of small raised die dots on the obverse with two to the right of the 4 in the date, and three at the throat. There is also a small raised die dot on the neck.

I don’t believe that the original surface coins are from a different die pair than the seawater coins; just a different die state.

Breen lists four different die varieties for the 1854-S, but one of these is a Proof-only die (the unique coin in the Mint Collection) while another, described as having “extra thin numerals and letters,” is just a late state with lapped dies. He states that 8 pairs of dies were created and that the mintmark “usually…touches the tail; though on one it is free.” (He then states that on one it is “embedded.”). I have only seen one reverse and it always has a broken A in STATES and a mintmark which firmly touches the tail at its top.

There is, of course, another significant difference on the original surface coins and that is a different texture from a lack of exposure to seawater and sand.

1854-S $20.00 NGC AU58+ CAC with original surfaces

Original surface 1854-S double eagles typically show a deep green-gold or orange-gold hue. The luster doesn’t tend to be as frosty as that seen on 1855-S or 1856-S double eagles. The overall look tends to be subdued with multiple abrasions from hard circulation.

1854-S $20.00 NGC MS64, with evidence of seawater

There are two distinct looks for seawater 1854-S double eagles. The first is blatantly matte-like with heavy environmental damage; some of these are slabbed as “normal” coins by NGC and PCGS while others are “details only” or “genuine.” The more familiar look on the Yankee Blade coins is bright and slightly matte-like with rich yellow-gold color and a virtual absence of circulation marks on the surfaces.

The normal surface 1854-S double eagles should sell for a significant premium in all grades due to the scarcity. This date is seen from time to time in the EF40 to AU50 range, but it becomes very scarce in AU53 to AU55, and it is very rare in properly graded AU58. As I mentioned above, I have seen only three examples with original surfaces in Uncirculated and doubt if more than five or six exist.

For more information on Type One double eagles, I invite you to look through the blog and articles archive(s) on raregoldcoins.com or email me at dwn@ont.com with specific questions.

"Originality"

“Originality.” It’s one of the most overused terms in all of numismatics. And it’s one of the most misunderstood as well. Given the choice, I believe that most people would rather own an “original” coin instead of one that has clearly had its appearance changed in recent years. With the help of some good quality images, I’d like to show some of the characteristics that I equate with “originality” and offer some suggestions on how to judge if a coin is original or not. The first coin that we are going to look at is an 1844-D quarter eagle graded AU55 by NGC. (Disclosure: this coin is currently in my inventory and it is currently for sale. I am not using this coin as an example in the hope that someone will buy it as I am certain someone will and I don’t need to go to this much trouble to sell it. I am using it to illustrate this report because I believe it represents what I believe is complete originality.)

One other quick topic before we review this 1844-D quarter eagle. My definition of an “original” coin is one that appears to have never been cleaned, lightened or in any way altered. I would be quick to point out that the flaw in this definition is that, of course, there is no way to make such a comment without having had access to this particular coin at all times since 1844. There is always the possibility that, in the 1850’s or the 1860’s (or even the 1960’s), it may have been lightly cleaned. But there are some things to look for on a coin that I think gives a reasonably good assurance that it hasn’t been messed with. The most obvious is hairlines. If a coin has been improperly cleaned at one time, it is going to show hairlines. These may range from subtle to very obvious. If a coin has nice seemingly “original” color but it shows noticeable hairlines, this probably means that it was cleaned years ago and has subsequently retoned. Such a coin may have a natural appearance but, from the standpoint of semantics, it can’t truly be called “original.” You can also look for areas of cloudiness or haze. If a coin has these, the chances are good that something has been applied to the surfaces at one time.

In looking at this coin, there are a few points to note. The first is its depth of coloration. Take a look at the color on the obverse and the reverse and note how the hues in the fields are richer than in the protected areas. On coins with natural color this is generally going to be the case. On a coin that may have been dipped at one time, you are going to see the opposite; the color tends to be lighter at the centers and deeper at the peripheries. Also, note how on this 1844-D quarter eagle there is color present even on the high spots and relief detail. A coin that has been cleaned or dipped typically lacks color on these areas as they are the first places that the original color is lost. Finally, note the depth and intensity of the color. On natural coins, the color is “sharp” in hue and depth. On dipped or cleaned coins, the color tends to be “fuzzier” and less intense.

Secondly, note the patches of dirt or “crust” in the protected areas, especially on the letters in the reverse legend. On coins that have been lightened, this dirt is typically lost.

The third thing to note requires some specific knowledge of a series. This 1844-D quarter eagle has the “right” color for the issue. If you become familiar with the Dahlonega quarter eagle series, you will learn that the original color for the 1844-D tends to be either “bright yellow-gold, light orange-gold or dark coppery-gold.” (this quote is taken directly from my book on Dahlonega coinage, page 98). As you learn more about Dahlonega coins and see more examples in person, you learn what the “right” color is for each specific issue. The color for this 1844-D is as “right” as on any example that I have ever seen.

The second coin that we are going to look at is an 1840-O quarter eagle that is graded AU58 by NGC. This is another piece that is currently in my inventory and the reason that I purchased it was because I thought it had uncommonly attractive and original coloration.

On this coin, note the depth of the color. As they should be, the hues are deeper in the fields than at the borders. The color is very bold in its hue and can be seen with the same degree of intensity on the high spots as in the fields.

On page 52 of my book on New Orleans gold coinage I state that the color of the 1840-O quarter eagle is “a distinctive medium to deep yellow-gold.” The hues on this specific example are, in my opinion, more of a deep green-gold with reddish overtones. Why the discrepancy from the description in my book? This is a hard question to answer but my guess has to do with how this coin was stored. To me, it has the look of a piece that may have been housed in an old manila envelope or even in a leather pouch.

If you do not know this series well, you are probably thinking that this coin exhibits a considerable amount of wear at the centers and that this lightness may, in fact, be signs of an old cleaning. This is incorrect. Many 1840-O quarter eagles are weakly struck at the obverse and reverse center (this specific coin actually has a fairly decent overall strike) and have a slightly “sunken” look as a result. Although it is hard to tell from the image, this coin shows natural coloration even in the vertical shield lines which is another good indicator of its originality.

Coins that are not original often have foreign substances applied to them in an attempt to hide imperfections such as obvious marks or strong hairlines. The foreign substance(s) may not be visible at the time the coin is sent to a grading service but it usually becomes noticeable after time has passed and its chemical composition has changed. Notice on this 1840-O quarter eagle how all the marks on the surfaces are plainly visible and nothing is being “hidden.”

Let’s look at one final coin that I believe is totally original. This is an 1856-S Type Two gold dollar graded AU58 by NGC. This is an issue that is very hard to find with original color and surfaces, especially in higher grades. There is strong motivation to make a properly graded AU58 magically become an MS60 or an MS61 as evidenced by the fact that Trends jumps from $6,500 in AU58 to $12,000 in MS60.

The first thing to note about this 1856-S gold dollar is the depth and evenness of the coloration. There isn’t a coin doctor alive who has figured out (at least yet...) how to make color on a 150+ year old gold coin look 150+ years old. Notice the warmth and the depth of the color that this coin has--that’s something that just can’t be faked. Notice also that there is a good deal of luster peeking out through the depth of the aforementioned coloration. This luster can be seen most easily in the image from around 9:00 to 12:00 on the obverse border, alongside the portrait, at the left reverse and inside the wreath. Notice as well how consistent the coloration is on the obverse and reverse. Often times when someone has recolored a coin, they are lazy and only enhance one side or if they do both sides, one is done better than the other.

If you are not familiar with the strike of 1856-S Type Two dollars, you are probably wondering why the hair around the face appears so flat. This has to do with the design of the Type Two gold dollar and it is the exact reason why this design was discontinued in 1856. The highest spot on the obverse was exactly opposite the highest spot on the reverse and this made it nearly impossible for Type Two gold dollars to be well struck. In fact, this 1856-S is actually very well struck by the standards of the date and the variety and it lacks the pronounced central weakness and heavy clashmarks that are so often seen on examples of this short-lived type.

One last point before I close. I have mentioned time and time again that you can not accurately grade a coin based on an image. But I do think you can get a good idea if a coin is original or not, provided that the quality of the image is as good as the ones on my website or on a few other dealer and auction websites. Please note that this article was NOT intended to try and teach you how to grade. It was intended to give you an idea of what I believe are very original coins and how such coins should look.