In the recent Stacks Bowers 2016 ANA Sale, I was fortunate to purchase an amazing 1860 double eagle, graded MS65 by PCGS, which was part of the Bull Run Collection and earlier was sold as Lot 900 in the famous October 1982 Eliasberg Collection auction.
After I bought this coin, I told another dealer that the Eliasberg 1860 “was the finest non-shipwreck Type One double eagle I had ever owned.” This got me to thinking: just how rare are non-shipwreck MS65 and finer double eagles of this type?
Type One double eagles have become the single most popular area of collecting in the rare date United States gold coin market. With the discovery of over 10,000 high grade, formerly rare issues in the S.S. Central America, S.S. Brother Jonathan, and S.S. Republic shipwrecks, Type Ones have received tremendous publicity in both the numismatic and non-numismatic press. This is clearly a design type which is destined to remain popular with a number of future generations of collectors.
The 2002 edition of my book An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles represented ground-breaking research on the series. I had previously written on New Orleans double eagles in my book New Orleans Gold Coins: 1839-1909 (published in 1992 and revised in 2006). Prior to this, collectors had to rely on the Breen Encyclopedia and David Akers’ trailblazing work on Liberty Head double eagles which was published in 1982. The 2002 edition of this book filled a great, need but it soon became outdated and needed to be revised.
After numerous starts and stops, I decided to revise the book in 2014 but with a twist: instead of publishing it in traditional book form, it will be released as a web-based project, and we will announce its availability (and URL!) later this year. (Here is the new site!) This was done for a number of reasons. The first is flexibility in updating. With a traditional book, updating it is a major chore. With the web-based format, it will be easy for me to continually update things like Condition Census, Auction Price Records, certified population figures, hoards, and important new discoveries. A web-based double eagle book will have a far greater reach than a traditional published book, and this might serve to bring more new collectors into the series. It will also enable me to have interactive features such as a comments section where collectors can add their input to each issue, and expanded potential to include more high-quality color photographs than in a traditional printed book. The possibilities are endless.
Type One double eagles appeal to collectors for a variety of reasons. They are the first type of double eagles produced and the highest denomination struck for circulation. They are large and attractive with a high intrinsic value which appeals to the “gold bug.” They were struck during an extraordinary historic era (1850-1866), and have wonderful back stories. Many issues are available in collector grades and a number of issues can found in presentable grades for less than $3,500 per coin. At the same time, there are a number of rare to very rare dates which appeal to advanced collectors.
There is a host of ways in which to collect this series. I’d like to suggest a few that I have found interesting and add some practical suggestions from years of experience with assisting collectors in this series.
1. Collecting Type One Double Eagles as a Type Coin
Type collectors seek to obtain a representative example of a specific type or design. For Type One double eagles, a type collector would most likely focus on an issue such as an 1856-S or 1857-S from the S.S. Central America, or a non-shipwreck date such as the 1861. A nice SSCA coin can be purchased for $7,500-10,000, while a high-quality circulated 1861 currently is valued in the $4,000-5,000 range.
A type set could be made more interesting by expanding it to two coins: including a common date from the 1850’s and the 1860’s, the two decades in which this design was produced. The most common issues from the 1850’s are the 1851 and the 1852 and, thanks to the shipwrecks mentioned above, the 1856-S and the 1857-S. The two Philadelphia issues can be easily located in all circulated grades and a very presentable example will cost the collector $3,000-5,000. The 1861 is the most affordable Type One from the 1860’s, and the collector can either purchase a pleasing circulated example or an Uncirculated coin in the MS60 to MS62 range.
If you are taking the time to read this article (and are looking forward to the new double eagle website I mentioned above) you are likely to have enough interest in this series that you will be more involved with them than as mere type coins. But if you have decided to participate solely as a type collector, I suggest you spend a bit more money and buy a scarcer date. In my opinion, the issues which offer the biggest “bang for the buck” include the 1854 Small Date, 1855, 1856, 1857, and 1858.
2. Collecting Type One Double Eagles by Mint
Type One double eagles were struck at three mints: Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Some collectors focus on issues from one of these three mints and assemble complete sets of dates and major varieties.
The Philadelphia mint produced 17 collectable double eagles (this figure does not include the 1849 and the 1861 Paquet, but it does include the 1853/2 and the 1854 Large Date). This is not an easy set to complete in circulated grades. The five hardest issues to locate are the 1853/2, 1854 Large Date, 1859, 1862, and 1863. All five of the dates are scarce to very scarce in Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated, and all are rare to very rare in Uncirculated.
In Extremely Fine, this set should run at least in the $55,000-65,000 range, and more if the collector is picky and seeks choice EF45 coins with CAC stickers. An About Uncirculated set (with the five keys in the AU50 to AU53 range and the more common dates in the AU55 to AU58 range) should run in the $110,000-130,000 range, and more if the collector is picky and seeks choice coins with CAC stickers. An Uncirculated set is possible but it would require considerable patience and some of these issues (notably the 1853/2, 1854 Large Date, 1859, and 1862) are very rare and seldom offered for sale in Mint State. A collector can figure on spending at least $300,000 on an average quality set and considerably more if he wants the majority of his coins to grade higher than MS60 to MS61. An Uncirculated set with all the coins having CAC stickers is certainly possible but it might take many years—and a deep wallet—to assemble.
The New Orleans mint produced a dozen Type One double eagles between 1850 and 1861. Two of these (the 1851-O and the 1852-O) are common, two are moderately scarce (1850-O and 1853-O, three are very scarce to rare (1857-O, 1858-O and 1861-O), three are rare (1855-O, 1859-O and 1860-O), and two are extremely rare (1854-O and 1856-O). Many collectors are forced to skip the 1854-O and the 1856-O due to their extreme rarity and prohibitive prices. However, for those fortunate collectors with the means to acquire one or both, history has proven their worthiness as performing assets.
An Extremely Fine set of Type One New Orleans double eagles is the most realistic for most collectors. Excluding the 1854-O and 1856-O, this set costs at least $175,000-200,000. An About Uncirculated set of Type One New Orleans double eagles is extremely difficult to assemble but it can be completed with patience and a deep pocketbook in a three to five year window. To keep costs down, the collector might buy AU55 examples of the moderately scarce to scarce dates and AU50 to AU53 examples of the very scarce to rare issues. Such a set would cost at least $250,000-300,000+. AU50 to AU53 examples of the 1854-O and the 1856-O would add another $750,000-1,000,000. An AU set with all 12 coins having CAC stickers might be possible, but it would require working with a world-class expert as many of these dates have very low CAC populations.
Between 1854 and 1866, the San Francisco mint produced 14 Type One double eagles. This includes the 1861-S and the 1861-S Paquet reverse. With the exception of the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto, all are reasonably easy to locate in circulated grades. Before the discovery of the three shipwrecks cited above, assembling a high grade set of Type One San Francisco double eagles would have been nearly impossible. Today, it is far more realistic. It is still theoretically impossible to finish this set in Uncirculated, as no 1861-S Paquet reverse double eagles have been graded MS60 or higher by the two services as of the middle of 2014.
A complete set of Type One San Francisco double eagles in EF40 to AU50 costs at least $125,000, with around half of this amount dedicated to the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto. An AU55 to AU58 set costs at least $250,000; again with a significant amount of the cost focused on the two rarities. A set with all of the coins grading at least MS60 except for the Paquet (which would grade AU55 to AU58) would cost in excess of $600,000.
If I had to rank the popularity of the three mints as of the middle of 2014, I would list them as follows:
- New Orleans
- San Francisco
3. Collecting Type One Double Eagles by Year
A popular way to collect this series is to obtain one example from each year in which the Type One design was produced. In this case, such a set would consist of 17 coins.
In a Type One year set, it is advisable to select the most affordable issue produced during a specific year. For example, three mints struck double eagles in 1861: Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Most year sets include the 1861 Philadelphia as it is easier to obtain than the other issues and it can be found in comparatively high grades for a reasonable sum.
The most difficult (and least flexible) year is 1866. The Philadelphia mint’s production of double eagles in 1866 consisted exclusively of the new Type Two (or “With Motto”) design, while San Francisco produced a limited number of Type One coins before switching to the new design. The 1866-S Type One is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated and very rare in any grade higher than About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-53.
A complete year set can be assembled in Extremely Fine grades for around $75,000, with at least one-third of the cost going towards an 1866-S No Motto. A set with all of the coins in About Uncirculated can be assembled for $150,000 and up, with around half of the cost going towards the 1866-S. A set with all of the coins in Uncirculated would be very difficult to complete due to the rarity of the 1866-S. It would cost upwards of $425,000-450,000 to complete with, once again, a significant portion of the cost going towards the 1866-S.
4. Assembling a Complete Set of Type One Double Eagles
For some collectors, Type One double eagles become their primary focus and they seek to assemble a complete set. Such a set consists of every issue struck between 1850 and 1866 (not including the excessively rare 1861 Paquet reverse). Including the 1853/2, 1854 Large Date, and the 1861-S Paquet, there are a total of 44 issues.
Depending on a collector’s budget, the grades for a complete set of Type One double eagles will range from Extremely Fine-40 all the way up to Mint State-65. The more common issues are generally represented by coins in comparably higher grades while the rarities are represented by coins in slightly lower grades. The rarest issues in the set include the 1854-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, 1859-O, 1860-O, and 1861-S Paquet. The rarer issues tend to be very difficult to locate and the most available of these six coins are rarely available at prices lower than $40,000-50,000.
There are some practical guidelines which the collector assembling a complete set should follow. A complete set should be as well-matched as possible. The collector should also attempt to obtain coins with as much visual similarity as possible.
A complete set should not be “all over the map” as far as grades are concerned. It makes no sense to assemble a set which has VF30 coins alongside MS62’s
Many Type One collectors are guilty of “overbuying” the common dates and “underbuying” the rarities in order to save money; I feel this is a mistake. Instead of spending $50,000 on a high-grade example of a mundane date such as an 1851, buy a nice coin one grade lower for $15,000, and use the money you’ve saved to put towards a rarity. Conversely, instead of filling the 1854-O and 1856-O holes with “no grades” or problem coins, try to find the best examples of these you can possibly afford. A set of coins is judged on the quality of the rare issues, not by the common ones.
Don’t assemble a set of Type One double eagles with unrealistic expectations. A collector who has previously worked on more common sets may approach Type Ones with the idea that he can race through set in higher grades. Since a number of Type Ones are unknown in Uncirculated and extremely rare in the higher About Uncirculated grades, certain allowances have to be made. The collector must learn what is realistic for each issue. It isn’t realistic to find an 1856-O in Mint State-60. But it is realistic to find an 1856-S in this range or even higher.
In Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50, a complete set of 44 Type One Liberty Head double eagles is going to cost a minimum of $1,000,000, and probably quite a bit more once the collector finishes upgrading coins he isn’t satisfied with. If the collector decides to eliminate the 1854-O and 1856-O, at least half of this expenditure will be eliminated. A set which included all the coins in About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-58 would cost at least $1,500,000. Eliminating the two ultra-rarities would again remove at least half of the cost. A set in which the majority of the coins grade Mint State-60 and above and the rarities grade at least About Uncirculated-55 is going to cost upwards of $2,000,000-2,500,000, and possibly quite a bit more.
5. A Shipwreck "Mini Set"
A number of shipwrecks containing Type One double eagles have been located since the late 1980’s. These are designated by PCGS and NGC, and they are extremely popular with collectors. A shipwreck mini-set most likely would contain just three coins and would be constructed as follows:
- S.S. Central America. This is the most famous of the three shipwrecks discussed here as it contains thousands of very high quality coins. Most collectors seek a nice Uncirculated 1857-S, typically grading MS63 to MS65. I have a few buying tips for such a coin. First, only buy a piece in the original gold foil holder. Second, be patient as there are thousands of potential coins for your set. Wait for a coin which appeals to you and look for one with bright, flashy surfaces which lack haze or cloudiness. Third, buy a coin with all the “bells and whistles.” By this, I mean look for a coin that has all its original packaging and which has been approved by CAC as well. Finally, don’t overpay. There are hundreds of auction price comparables for these coins, so you should be able to figure a smart price to pay with relative ease.
- S. S. Brother Jonathan. This shipwreck featured Civil War era San Francisco Type One double eagles. The coins tend to be a little less attractive than the S.S. Central America pieces and are harder to locate in the original packaging. The two dates which seem most plentiful from this shipwreck are the 1863-S and 1865-S. The buying tips I mentioned above mostly apply to these coins as well, except original packaging is non-existent.
- S. S. Republic. The third shipwreck in the set is the one which is least interesting to me as the quality of the coins tends to be less nice. That said, there are some interesting coins which come to market from time to time with this pedigree.
6. Collecting by Die Variety
For most Type One double eagles, a number of different obverse and reverse dies were used. As one die became worn or damaged, it was replaced by a new die. The different die combinations created various die varieties which range from significant to very minor.
The field of gold coin die variety collecting is fertile. Little has been written about the varieties of United States gold coins, and almost nothing has been written about the die varieties of Type One Liberty Head issues. A number of interesting and potentially rare die varieties exist. Many are discussed in my book(s) on Type One double eagles. Others wait to be discovered by sharp-eyed collectors.
In order to study double eagle die varieties, the collector should pay careful attention to date and mintmark placement and other more subtle die characteristics such as breaks and die scratches.
Collecting varieties of Type One double eagles has become more popular in the last decade, and part of this is attributable to the fact that some of the major varieties are now recognized by PCGS and NGC. In addition to the widely accepted varieties (1853/2 and 1854 Large Date), the following are often collected alongside “regular” coins:
- 1852 Double Date
- 1853 Repunched Date
- 1854 Small Date, Doubled Date
- 1855-S Small S mintmark
- 1857-S Large S mintmark
- 1859-S Double LIBERTY
- 1865 Blundered date
7. A Civil War "Mini Set"
One of the most popular theme sets in the Type One series is the 11 or 12 coin Civil War set. This includes the following issues, all made during the Civil War years: 1861, 1861-O, 1861-S, 1861-S Paquet, 1862, 1862-S, 1863, 1863-S, 1864, 1864-S, 1865, and 1865-S.
Due to the fact that this set has multiple levels of demand, many of the double eagles from the Civil War have seen considerable increases in price.
There are some difficult issues in the Civil War set. The 1861-O is the only New Orleans double eagle from this period and it is extremely popular. The 1862 is the rarest Philadelphia double eagle from this period, followed by the 1863 and the 1864. The San Francisco issues are more available with the exception of the rare 1861-S Paquet. The price of this variety might cause some collectors to not include it in the set. This makes sense, given that a “normal reverse” 1861-S can be an acceptable substitute.
An 11 piece set in Extremely Fine grades should cost in the area of $80,000. Adding the Paquet reverse would make the set cost over $100,000.
An 11 piece set in About Uncirculated would be challenging but it is completable. It should cost at least $150,000 and could run quite a bit more if the collector seeks choice, original coins with CAC approval. Adding a nice AU55 Paquet will require around a $150,000 commitment.
This set could not be completed in Uncirculated as the Paquet doesn’t exist in this range. However, the rest of the coins do, and here are my suggestions for the best value grade for each date:
- 1861: MS62 to MS63
- 1861-O: MS60 (if available)
- 1861-S: MS61 to MS62
- 1862: MS60 to MS62
- 1863: MS61 to MS62
- 1863-S: MS62 to MS63
- 1864: MS61 to MS62
- 1864-S: MS61 to MS62
- 1865: MS62 to MS63
- 1865-S: MS62 to MS63
8. Collecting Proof Type One Double Eagles
A tiny number of Proof double eagles were struck prior to 1859. From 1859 to 1865, very small numbers were made. Fewer than 350 proofs were struck for the entire type, and fewer than 75 are known.
The rarity of these coins makes them very appealing to a small segment of wealthy collectors. It might be possible to assemble a complete date run of Proofs from 1859 to 1865. This would require patience, luck, and a very healthy coin budget.
Most of the Proof Type One double eagles which appear on the market are in the Proof-63 to Proof-64 range. Gems are exceedingly rare, and are generally offered for sale at the rate of maybe once per two or three years.
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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
The level of popularity for the Liberty Head double eagle series, struck between 1850 and 1907, shows no signs of abating. In fact, I think these are the most avidly collected United States gold coins by date. How has the market fared for $20 Libs. in the last three to five years and what does the future portend? Let's take a look at the State of the Market for Liberty Head double eagles. 1. The Impact of Bullion Prices on $20 Libs
At the end of May 2006, the price of gold stood at around $660 per ounce. Five years later, gold hovered near $1,530 and it had reached a high of over $1,600 earlier in the Spring. Obviously, this huge increase has had an impact on the market for twenty dollar gold pieces.
In May 2006, a generic Liberty Head double eagle in MS63 would have cost a collector around $900. Today, the same coin costs around $1800-1900. The first thing that is noticeable from this is that the value of a generic double eagle relative to its gold content has dropped appreciably. In fact, the spread between the spot price and the numismatic value is as low, in May 2011, as I can recall.
While generic prices have dropped, the demand for scarce and rare collector-oriented Liberty Head double eagles has increased considerably. Let's take a look at two examples.
In May 2006, an AU55 example of the popular 1850 double eagle would have cost a collector somewhere in the area of $3,000-3,500. Today, the same coin typically sells for $5,500-6,000. This is interesting as this is one of the few areas in the numismatic market where a rare coin (the 1850) has actually performed as well as the generic issue since 2006.
Let's also look at a common date Carson City issue. In May 2006, an AU58 example of an 1875-CC was likely to sell in the $2,500-2,750 range. Today, the same coin will bring $4,000-4,500. From an investment standpoint, the $20 Liberty Head market has performed well in the past five years. But this is not a blanket statement and certain areas have done better than others. We will explore these later in this article.
2. What's Popular in this Market in 2011?
As someone who buys and sells hundreds of Liberty Head double eagles each month, I have a good feel for what's popular and what's not. In my observation, I can see a strong level of demand in certain areas. These include nearly all Type One issues in the $2,000-5,000 range, most affordable Carson City double eagles, very scarce and rare dates in all three types, shipwreck coins (more on these later), and coins with exceptional eye appeal. If I had to name some of the specific dates that seem to be in particularly strong demand right now, I'd include the following: 1854-S, 1856, 1859, 1862, 1863, 1868, and 1880.
Areas in the market that seem weak include generics, grade rarities (an example of this would be a coin like an 1888-S in MS64 which is a fairly common date in grades up to and including MS63 but a "rare" and expensive one in grades above this), rarities that showed huge price increases in the middle of the last decade, and coins that have poor overall eye appeal.
3. The Market For Rare Date Liberty Head Double Eagles
The top end of the Liberty Head double eagle market showed incredible strength during the 2000's. Let's look at a few examples.
The 1866-S No Motto was an issue that was considered esoteric 10-15 years ago and I can remember literally begging clients of mine to buy nice EF and AU examples as they seemed incredibly undervalued to me at the time. This issue caught fire and prices soared. In the early part of the 2000's, an AU50 1866-S No Motto double eagle could be purchased for $8,000-10,000. By 2007-2008, the same date in this grade would have realized $40,000+ at auction; and probably would have been far less attractive, for the grade, as the example(s) available in 2000. Today, this same coin is worth in the low to mid-30's.
Possibly the most dramatic price swings in the $20 Lib. series have been for the major rarities like the 1854-O, 1856-O, 1861-S Paquet, and the 1870-CC. These coins became very expensive by the 2006-2008 boom years and, quite frankly, they became priced out of range of all but the wealthiest collectors and investors. These four issues have seen drops of 20-30% since their market highs, but I am noticing that they are starting to percolate once again and prices are raising. I think that buyers of these very rare issues are far more particular than they were five years ago and if a coin that is priced at $250,000 and up doesn't have good eye appeal it will prove to be a hard sell.
4. The Strength of the Market in Cool "One of a Kinds"
While the classic rarities in the Liberty Head double eagle series have taken a bit of a hit lately, the upper end of the market is far from weak. In fact, the market for really cool, really nice condition rarities is exceptionally strong and deep. Usually, coins of this sort wind-up at auction. I can think of a number of these; for the sake of brevity let's look at two.
In the recent Heritage Central States sale (April 2011) there was a gorgeous PCGS MS63 CAC 1869 double eagle. The coin had great color and surfaces and was fresh, choice and high end. Its a population four coin with two graded higher at PCGS and it was the second best I'd ever seen. Trends at the time was $28,500 and I expected this coin to bring in the low to mid-30's. It sold for $45,885. A great coin, yes, but a really robust price especially considering that Type Two double eagles are somewhat out-of-favor with collectors right now.
Another interesting "one of a kind" coin was the NGC MS65 1852-O that was sold as lot 5243 in the Heritage 2011 FUN sale in January. While I wasn't absolutely crazy about this coin from a quality standpoint (I graded it MS64 but didn't think it was a Gem) there was no denying it was a special coin for an O mint double eagle. And the fact that it remains the only New Orleans double eagle of any date meant that it was destined to bring a strong price. It sold for $276,000; not "crazy" money but still a heckuva lot for a common date New Orleans double eagle!
What's interesting to note right now is that any double eagle that is either finest known or well up in the Condition Census is destined to sell for a record price while some of the more classic rarities in the Liberty Head series might still be a bit soft.
5. Shipwreck Coins
No denomination of United States gold coinage has been more affected by shipwrecks/hoards than double eagles. The S.S. Brother Jonathan, S.S. Central America, and S.S. Republic hoards have added thousands of interesting Type One double eagles into the market.
For many years the supply of these coins far outstripped the demand. You couldn't wander through a coin show without tripping over a stack of 1857-S double eagles. (OK, a slight exaggeration but...)
As double eagles became more popular, the appeal of the shipwreck coins grew. There are now a number of retailers who actively sell these and the trend appears to be strongest for dates that have low "shipwreck populations."
Here's an example. Let's say you have an 1851 double eagle in AU58 from the S.S. Republic shipwreck. This coin could bring as much as $5,000 if it were put in an auction. The exact same coin without a shipwreck pedigree might bring $3,000 if it were extremely high end; $2,750 or so if it were just "average."
The shipwreck double eagles that seem to be in the greatest demand are the ones that appear infrequently. In other words, if you have a double eagle from the S.S. Central America that isn't a commonly seen issue (i.e., its not an 1857-S) then it is considered "scarce" by shipwreck collectors.
The entire shipwreck double eagle phenomenon is sort of a mixed blessing to me. I like the fact that these coins attract new collectors and I respect their history and pedigree. But I think many are cosmetically unappealing and I have a hard time justifying the premium that some of these coins are getting. Is a $3,000 double eagle worth $5,000 (or more) because its from a shipwreck? To me, no. But to a number of collectors the answer is clearly yes.
6. Tracking the Market by The 1856-O Specimen
Many collectors feel that the single most desirable Liberty Head double eagle is the unique Specimen-63 example of the 1856-O. The coin first surfaced in the late 1970's/early 1980's and it has bounced around quite a bit more than you'd think.
In Heritage 2002 FUN sale, the coin sold for $345,000. The owner held it for two years and then placed it in the Heritage June 2004 sale where it brought $542,800. It was purchased by an investor who, as I recall, had never purchased another Liberty Head double eagle before and he held it for five years, placing it in the Heritage May 2009 sale where it brought a record-smashing $1,437,500.
In just seven years, the price of this special coin has increased by nearly 5x. Given the fact that there are now numerous United States coins that have brought over $1 million at auction or via private treaty, I am not surprised at the value level of the 1856-O. I would have to think that if it appeared for sale again in the near future it would bring over $2 million.
7. Tracking the Middle Market
This article has been more focused on the upper end of the market than the lower and middle end and this is not representative of the $20 Lib market as there are a lot more transactions in the $2,500-5,000 range than in the rarefied air of six figure coins.
I make a strong two way market in Type One and Carson City double eagles in the $2,000-10,000 range and I find this area of the market to be quite strong. I have a few interesting observations to share.
I find the grading of these coins to generally be more consistent than on smaller denomination coins. That said, I still find inconsistencies. I love lustrous, unmarked "sliders" graded AU58, but see coins in 58 holders that range from terrific to terrible. In my experience, really nice AU58 coins with great eye appeal are now bringing at least 10-15% more than average quality coins and I think that this spread will increase in the future.
In the Type One series, there are certain dates that I literally couldn't keep in stock even if I had multiple examples. Collectors love the Civil War dates and the underrated Philadelphia issues from 1854 through 1859 have become very popular as well.
Carson City issues are collected both by date and as type coins. I find that the key issues like the 1878-CC, 1879-CC, 1885-CC, and 1891-CC are very popular in circulated grades and in Uncirculated as well. The more common dates (priced in the $2,500-5,000 range) are extremely easy for me to sell as long as they are attractive, lustrous coins with fewer-than-average bagmarks. Coins with CAC stickers are especially in demand amongst type collectors or collectors who, while not working on date sets, want to buy groups of four, five, or six different pieces to salt away.
8. In Conclusion: What does the Future Hold?
I think the future for collector-quality Liberty Head double eagles is as bright as for any other type of United States gold coin.
As gold continues to go up in value, more investors become aware of gold coins. For various reasons, more wind-up buying double eagles than any other type of numismatic "product" and due to good marketing, more of these will be steered toward Libs than towards Saints.
The beauty of the 20 Lib series is that, marketing aside, the coins themselves are very interesting. They were issued at a tumultuous time in US history and at significant mints such as Carson City, New Orleans, and San Francisco. And they come in a tremendous array of prices; you can buy $2,000 coins or you can buy $200,000 coins.
I think the more affordable $20 Libs have a really bright future; coins in the $2,000-5,000 range that are interesting, reasonably scarce and which contain nearly an ounce of gold are just about irresistible to collectors. The super high end coins will continue to shine as well; coins priced at $50,000 and up that are very rare or that represent the highest available quality for a specific issue.
The real question is what about the middle market? I could sell as many 1859-O double eagles as I could find in choice VF and EF grades and I'm sure I could sell the first, second, and third finest known(s) of this date. But what about the so-so quality AU50 and AU53 coins? How will those fare in the future? Check back in 2014 when I update this article and we'll see!