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Classic 1856-O Twenty Dollar Rarity, AU58
1856-O $20 AU58 NGC. In 1856 New Orleans coined 2,250 double
eagles, and few survive today. It is easily the rarest double eagle
from that Mint, and ranks alongside the 1854-O and 1870-CC issues
as the rarest business strike Liberty twenties. It is also
considered the rarest gold coin struck at the New Orleans Mint. In
fact, the 1856-O has the lowest combined NGC and PCGS population of
any business strike Liberty twenty. Only 18 pieces have been
certified by the two grading services in all grades, and none have
ever reached the Mint State grade category. NGC has only certified
seven 1856-O double eagles in all grades, including two submissions
certified as AU58, with a single finer piece that is certified as
Specimen-63 by NGC. PCGS has certified 11 examples of this issue,
with two AU58 submissions representing the finest they have
Condition Census Example
Probably Third Finest Known
Less than two dozen pieces are thought to exist today. In their Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coin 1795 to 1933, Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth write: "There are thought to be fewer than 25 coins known in all grades. The known coins range in grade from polished Very Fine to Specimen-63. Most collectors of double eagles have given up on this date, as the starting price for an attractive example begins in the six figures." Those that are known include two different examples that are part of the Smithsonian Institute holdings. The same authors included the 1856-O among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, where they called it "one of the 'crown jewels" of the market.
This issue and the 1854-O double eagles are two of the three major rarities, and the object of desire for advanced collectors for decades. In A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins, Dave Bowers writes: "The acquisition of an 1856-O has been the dream of every advanced specialist in the double eagle series." Comparisons between the '54-O and '56-O twenties are commonplace in the literature. Bowers continues: "If one were to play 'double eagle whist" and give points for Mint State coins and, separately, for the total number known, the 1854-O, of which no Mint State coins are known, would have the lower score, and thus, would be the 'winner' from a rarity viewpoint, as two Mint State 1856-Os have been recorded. On the other hand, there seem to be a few more circulated 1854-Os than there are of 1856-O. The situation may be moot, for both are key issues, both are famous, and both are eminently desirable."
The present specimen probably ranks as the third finest known 1856-O twenty, or it is at least tied for that rank. The finest known is an incredible MS63 piece that NGC has certified as a specimen strike. The same coin has previously been called MS63 by both NGC and PCGS. In his 2006 reference, Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909, Doug Winter provides a pedigree reference of this finest known specimen dating back to 1979. He also discusses a PCGS AU58 coin that he calls the second finest known specimen. After those two coins, the present piece appears to rank as the third finest 1856-O Liberty double eagle.
This specimen has lightly abraded surfaces, although only a couple pedigree markers are of any significance. They include a small chatter mark above the 6 on the obverse, and a longer, thin mark above the right (facing) wing. Winter notes that the typical 1856-O is heavily abraded, and those with minimal marks are extremely desirable. The obverse and reverse surfaces are frosty with brilliant lemon-yellow luster. The frosty surfaces are entirely unlike most examples that typically have prooflike or reflective surfaces with satiny luster, if they have any luster at all. The advanced specialist will recognize that this piece has excellent eye appeal. Because of the typical heavy abrasions that are normally found, Doug Winter writes: "this is such a rare and desirable coin that the concept of eye appeal has to be applied differently than on a more available issue." The strike is excellent, although it is clearly not full. The hair behind the face and along the forehead is bold, with sharp star radials. The hair details along the neck are a trifle weak, as are the hair at the top of the head and the hair bun. The wing tips and tail feathers seem to be sharper than usual for the issue.
The obverse die has the date a trifle low, with the 1 slightly closer to the border than the bust, although the difference is minute. Only the top half of J.B.L. is visible on the bust line, with the J directly over the center of the 5. The mintmark is large and it nearly touches the tail feathers. It is positioned over the center of the N in TWENTY, and appears to tilt very slightly to the right. All other obverse and reverse design aspects are normal, and the dies appear to be perfect without any evidence of cracks or clash marks.
The advanced collector will want to take full advantage of the present opportunity to acquire a Census level example of the extremely rare and famous 1856-O double eagle. This is only the 11th time that we have offered an example in any of our auctions since 1993. Including two appearances of a single MS63 piece, the average grade of all 11 appearances is just AU50. Census: 2 in 58, 1 finer (10/08).
From The Baltimore Collection.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 268Z, PCGS# 8918)
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