1849 No L Gold Dollar, PR64 Cameo
1849 G$1 No L PR64 Cameo NGC. The debate over proof 1849 No L, Open Wreath
gold dollars boils down to a four-word question that only seems
simple: "What makes a proof?"
Finer of Two Certified Specimens
A Landmark Numismatic Offering
Perhaps the only universal criterion for "proof" in U.S. numismatics is the intent to make a special coin. While there are varying degrees of quality for regular-issue or business-strike coins, a proof is meant to be set apart from those peers -- apart and above. That said, the difference between a quality "prooflike" business strike and a true proof can be hard to discern, and the farther back in U.S. numismatic history one goes, the hazier the boundary gets. This is especially true in the pre-1858 era, when proof production was irregular and many protocols that apply to later 19th century issues were not in place.
Further complicating matters for the 1849 No L, Open Wreath gold dollar proofs is that the mintage was relatively small (Q. David Bowers estimates 10,000 pieces in A Guide Book of Gold Dollars) and many coins were saved, so the proportion of "prooflike" survivors is high -- muddling the question of whether true proofs exist. In his Guide Book on the subject, Bowers recounts how esteemed experts can disagree on whether or not a coin is a true proof, using a coin in a Bowers and Merena auction as an example (italics his):
"At the viewing of the lot, qualified observers were divided in their opinions, but one suggested that all that was needed was to have it certified 'Proof' and that would end the matter; today, it is not unusual for opinions to change into facts (sort of) by this method!"
The one coin that has the most published acceptance of any claimed proof 1849 gold dollar ("unquestioned" according to Bowers, "indisputable" per Garrett and Guth in their Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins), acquired in 1849 and now in the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution, has been harshly cleaned on the reverse; effectively, it is called a proof based on one side's "prooflikeness," for its acquisition the same year it was struck is mere circumstantial evidence.
Leaving cynicism about grading services aside for a moment, the existence of proof 1849 No L, Open Wreath gold dollars rarely has been in question, even as the statuses of various coins have come under scrutiny. (Mint records do not indicate the striking of any proofs, but as the historical record shows, this is hardly a disqualifier.) Walter Breen gave multiple estimates of the number of proofs extant, never more than a dozen; David Akers too evolved with time, from "seven to eight" with two auction appearances in his landmark book series from the 1970s to "nine or 10" in his 1984 cataloging of a coin he believed to be a proof.
Returning to the grading services, while PCGS has certified no 1849 gold dollars as proofs, NGC recognizes two. This PR64 Cameo example was the first to be certified, as it is mentioned in the first (2006) edition of Garrett and Guth, whereas the PR62 specimen also in the Census Report goes unmentioned and so must have been certified later. Based on the Star designation, NGC recognizes this coin's eye appeal and quality by proof standards, which crystallizes how strongly NGC felt about the topic when it encapsulated the piece.
The overriding question for this specimen is not "What makes a proof?" but rather "What else could this coin be?" The deep mirrors, pale sun-yellow or glossy "black" depending on the angle of the light, do not suggest a "prooflike" trick but an honest attempt at making a coin special; the same goes for the frost on Liberty's portrait, the 13 stars around that show complete centers (!), and the reverse wreath. Light linear flaws through the letters ITE of UNITED suggest die cracks, but this alone has little bearing on the coin's proof status. Three parallel depressions between the left ribbon end and the U of UNITED may serve as a pedigree marker.(Registry values: P9) (NGC ID# 286M, PCGS# 87592)
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