Elusive 1856-O Liberty Twenty, XF40
1856-O $20 XF40 NGC. The 1856-O double eagle is quite simply
the rarest New Orleans Mint gold coin, although it has been
frequently compared to its close cousin, the 1854-O twenty. The
1856-O had a mintage of 2,250 coins--exactly 1,000 less than the
1854-O twenty, at 3,250 pieces the second-rarest regular issue in
The Rarest Coin From the New Orleans Mint
The 1856-O double eagle garnered extensive coverage recently in the numismatic press, after the heirs of James Bullock turned his newly discovered specimen over to expert numismatist John McCloskey for evaluation. The front-page cover story of Coin World on July 26, 2010, proclaimed "1856-O gold double eagle surfaces in Ohio / Rarest New Orleans Mint gold coin in family holdings."
McCloskey's extensive Coin World coverage included detailed diagnostics of the newfound specimen. Heritage was privileged to offer the example, certified XF45 by NGC, soon after in our Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 9/2010), lot 5554, where it realized the healthy sum of $345,000--quite a payday for the Bullock family consignors, who were unaware of the coin's value and rarity until they turned it over to McCloskey.
The present coin is not the Bullock coin, but it is certified XF40 by NGC--a slight difference when one considers the elusive nature of the 1856-O double eagles as a whole. This coin will accordingly provide an important opportunity for the numerous underbidders in the Long Beach auction with a second chance to acquire what is among the most historic and desirable gold coins ever made by the New Orleans Mint.
It is today unknown exactly why the mintages of the 1854-O and 1856-O double eagles were so skimpy. One possibility is the extensive repairs that the building had required--virtually since its opening, but especially during the mid-1850s. Its designer, William Strickland, had styled many other classical (mostly) Greek Revival structures, beginning with the second Philadelphia Mint, the Dahlonega and Charlotte mints, and the Tennessee State Capitol. (Strickland also occasionally designed Egyptian Revival spaces, such as the famous Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, mere blocks from the Tennessee Capitol.)
For the earlier New Orleans Mint, Strickland used a Greek Revival design with a red-brick façade. Doug Winter's reference on the Gold Coins of the Orleans Mint: 1839-1909 opens with an introduction to the history of the mint, by Greg Lambousy, Director of Collections at the Louisiana State Museum. He writes:
"Strickland was paid $300 for which he provided the government with four watercolor and ink drawings and sixteen pages of manuscript specifications for the New Orleans Branch Mint. He never visited New Orleans and did not oversee the construction. Strickland designed supports and foundation that were better suited to the firm ground of Philadelphia, as opposed to the soft soil of New Orleans. Accordingly, an endless number of repairs, reconstructions, and makeshift accommodations had to be made in various parts of the building throughout its history."
In 1854, the federal government hired West Point engineering graduate and Louisiana native Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard--who would later achieve national prominence as Brigadier General Beauregard, the Confederate officer who attacked the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, during the April 1861 bombardment which would mark the beginning of the Civil War--to fireproof the building, rebuild the arches supporting the basement ceiling, and install masonry flooring. Beauregard completed the work by 1859. During this same period, the Mint's heavy machinery was converted to steam power.
Amid such chaos, it is little wonder that New Orleans managed to produce only 2,250 examples of the 1856-O twenty--and one notices that the later O-mint issues through 1859 are also on the skimpy side. With the Bullock specimen joining the population totals, there are now an even two dozen pieces certified at NGC and PCGS combined--11 at NGC and 12 at PCGS ranging from Very Fine to AU58, plus one Specimen-63 NGC coin. As we wrote when cataloging the Bullock coin, "The certified total almost certainly includes duplications. We would be unsurprised to learn that as few as 16 separate coins exist today that are theoretically available in the marketplace."
The present example shows even wear over the high points on each side, giving the coin a well-balanced appearance. The surfaces are remarkably free from the handling marks one would expect from a coin that was circulation for many years. The only post-striking marks of any note are in the reverse field below the eagle's right (facing) wing. The more obvious pedigree identifiers are two planchet flaws: a small one below star 12 and a larger, irregular-shaped one between star 13 and the date. The subdued orange-gold surfaces show just the slightest trace of charcoal patina around the devices and within the recesses. The 1856-O is listed among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. The pattern of planchet flaws on the lower obverse suggests this example is the Akers plate coin.
Ex: European collection; ANA Auction Sale (Superior, 8/1975), lot 1601, which realized $37,500; Arrowhead Collection (Sotheby's, 5/1987), lot 352.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 268Z, PCGS# 8918)
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