1854-O Double Eagle, AU55, A Legendary Rarity
1854-O $20 AU55 PCGS. The 1854-O and the 1856-O are the two
key issues in a collection of twenty dollar Libertys. As Doug
Winter states in Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint:
1839-1909 (2006), "Ownership of an 1854-O double eagle is
considered a hallmark of a truly great collection of New Orleans
coinage." For years there was dispute among experts about which was
rarer, but it now is settled that the 1856-O is the number one
issue in the series. But not by much. A diligent search of auction
records reveals only 23 different example of the 1856-O, and the
1854-O has a similarly low estimate of only 25-35 coins known. Each
coin is impossibly rare in high grades. The only coin certified
above AU58 between the two issues is the branch mint proof 1856-O.
The finest examples certified of the 1854-O are a trio of AU58 NGC
pieces. One of them, recovered from the wreck of the S.S.
Republic, sold for a record $675,000 in late 2004 in a private
One of the Finest Known
There is considerable disparity between the number of 1854-O twenties certified--or, more accurately stated, "submission events"--and the number actually believed known. When the numbers certified in AU50-AU58 are added together from both PCGS and NGC, the total is a surprisingly high 24 events (11/10). But only five to seven different coins are believed to exist in all grades of AU, which leads one to the conclusion that most of the AU coins known have been submitted multiple times without being dropped from the population data.
The 1854-O boasts a tiny mintage of only 3,250 pieces, down from a respectable 71,000 examples the year before. Double eagles were produced in small numbers every year from 1854-1861, when the New Orleans Mint was seized by the Confederacy and coinage ceased. The mint was hampered by extensive building repairs and equipment modifications during this time period, which undoubtedly led to production delays.
Another, perhaps even more important explanation for the decline might be the opening of the San Francisco Mint in 1854. Prior to the opening of the new facility, the New Orleans Mint was the closest mint to the California gold fields, both by land and sea routes. After the San Francisco facility became operational, the long journey, arduous and dangerous, could be avoided. Deposits of gold bullion must have dropped precipitously at the time, accounting for the low mintage of double eagles during this period.
Collecting large-denomination gold coins did not become popular in this country until the 1930s. At the time the 1854-O was minted, it is doubtful that even a single numismatist was systematically collecting double eagles by date and mintmark. By the time a few collectors, such as John M. Clapp and Virgil Brand, became interested in these coins in the 1890s, the tiny mintage of 1854-O double eagles had been widely dispersed. None of the great collections of the 19th century included an example of the 1854-O, and little information was available about them. Augustus Heaton mentioned the 1854-O in his seminal work on mintmarks in 1893, but he only knew about it from reading the mint reports of that era. Heaton assumed the issue was rare because of the low reported mintage, but he had never actually seen one of the coins himself.
Even in the early 20th century, the rare double eagles of the New Orleans Mint were almost never encountered. In 1909, Edgar Adams published a price list of U.S. gold coins, but he did not itemize Liberty Head double eagles because there was no demand for them. There was no example of the 1854-O in the Mint Cabinet when T.L. Comparette inventoried those holdings from 1912 to 1914. No one exhibited a specimen at the great 1914 ANS Exhibition. To quote the cataloger of the Cicero Sale (New Netherlands, 12/1960), where an 1854-O appeared in lot 8, "Back in the 1920s, when Waldo Newcomer obtained his, only one other specimen was known." The earliest auction appearance we have been able to trace is the coin that appeared in the John Nickerson Collection (Thomas Elder, 12/1933), lot 1124:
"1854. New Orleans. Don't believe we ever had it before. It has a sale record of $200. Very fine. Unpriced in Raymond's book."
The coins began to appear more often in auctions of the 1930s and 1940s. Colonel Green obtained a specimen, possibly the Newcomer example, which was sold to King Farouk via Stack's in a blockbuster private transaction in 1944. Farouk was charged $125 for the 1854-O, which was called "V.F. Mint Luster." Auction appearances have continued, with prices rising unabated to the present day. The present coin set the all-time record for prices realized at auction, $603,750, when it appeared as lot 3012 of the Dallas Signature Auction (Heritage, 10/2008).
A coin of such rarity has certain die characteristics that are seen on all genuine examples. This piece has all the characteristics including: small digits in the date which slant up to the right, die lines in the area of TY of LIBERTY on the coronet, and a tiny, raised die lump on Liberty's neck in front of the largest curl. While striking characteristics generally are of no concern on an 1854-O, they are consistent on this piece just as are die characteristics. Slight softness is seen on the hair curls closest to Liberty's face, and on the reverse some weakness can be found on the eagle's tail feathers and the banner. As usual, the denticles are sharply defined and the peripheral stars show significant definition on the centrils.
As with all known high-grade 1854-O twenties, each side retains a significant amount of prooflikeness. On this lightly handled example, reflectivity is limited to the more protected areas surrounding the devices. The surfaces are unusually clean for this normally heavily abraded issue; both obverse and reverse have a noticeable accent of reddish patina, with yellow-gold clinging to the areas around the devices and further accenting the prooflikeness. The only marks that could be used for pedigree purposes are a short, diagonal abrasion below Liberty's ear, a short mark above the 54 in the date, and a short bagmark between stars 6 and 7.
The chance to acquire an 1854-O in any grade is an opportunity to be considered by the specialist. The availability of such a high-grade piece as this one, one of the finest examples known, should give the advanced collector pause to consider the overall and conditional rarity of this extraordinary coin. The 1854-O is listed among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. Population: 3 in 55, 0 finer (11/10).
Ex: Dallas Signature Auction (Heritage, 10/2008), lot 3012, realized $603,750.
From The Las Vegas Collection, Part Two.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 268T, PCGS# 8912)
View all of [The Las Vegas Collection, Part Two ]
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