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Specimen 63 1856-O Double Eagle--A Unique Example Of This Legendary Double Eagle Rarity1856-O $20 SP63 NGC. Many specialists believe that this is the single most important New Orleans double eagle in existence. It is also one of the most important coins from this mint regardless of denomination. This 1856-O double eagle is the finest example known by a wide margin. It is also a specimen striking and certified as such by NGC. As an issue, the 1856-O needs little introduction. It remains one of the few transcendent rarities among 19th century U.S. gold, recognized as such even by non-gold collectors.
The original mintage for this issue was a paltry 2,250 pieces, making the 1856-O one of the classic rarities in U.S. gold coinage. It is both the rarest gold coin struck by the New Orleans mint, and the rarest regular issue Liberty Head double eagle. The estimated number of survivors ranges from 10-12 (Breen) to as high as 15-20 (Winter). A mere 3-5 pieces are believed extant in the various AU grades, and this is the only Uncirculated example known.
This coin has an appearance unlike any other 1856-O double eagle. While weakness is generally found on O-mint double eagles from this era, including the 1856-O, this coin shows an amazing full strike in all areas and fully reflective fields, quite unlike the finish seen on other New Orleans twenties from this period. Each star has satiny luster and shows shadowing, as though impressed with an extra blow from the die. Liberty's hair details and the stars above the eagle are equally well brought up. There is a bit of incomplete die polish along the top and bottom sides of the right wing. This is a common occurrence on branch mint proof dollars in the Morgan series, and while it is not entirely similar to a Philadelphia proof from this era, it is obviously a very special coin. Clearly, a great deal of care went into its production. The satiny luster over the devices plus the deeply mirrored fields produces a noticeable cameo contrast on each side. Even casual inspection reveals that this coin was produced differently from regular business strikes.
This coin has been submitted to both of the major grading services. According to Superior's January 1995 catalog description,
"Superior submitted the coin to PCGS for grading. In a conversation with PCGS' principal shareholder, Mr. David Hall, Larry Goldberg was told by Mr. Hall that in his opinion the coin is definitely something special, completely unlike regular issue New Orleans double eagles of the period. Only because he (Hall) wanted to insure a conservative estimate was it graded Mint State 63 by PCGS. (The service eschews the terms "Proof" or "Specimen" designations on most branch mint issues except for the few documented Proofs of which the mint has a record."
As a result, even though direct examination of the coin proves it was produced under controlled circumstances and it cannot be other than a special striking, PCGS would only certify it as an "MS63." NGC, on the other hand, recognized the special nature of this piece and was willing to certify it as such. There are, after all, other unquestionable proof New Orleans gold coins from this era: the unique 1844-O half eagle and eagle that both trace their pedigree to the fabled Parmelee sale of 1890.
Recalling the initial appearance of this rarity in the numismatic marketplace, Marc Emory recalled: "New England Rare Coin Galleries was contacted by a family, then living in Vermont. They inquired if we would be interested in purchasing a proof 1856-O double eagle. New England staff explained that no proofs were known of this issue. The party on the other end of the line patiently explained that, well, they had one, nonetheless. The New England staffer asked, rhetorically, or so he thought, if the prospective seller was a descendent of Bienvenu, the superintendent of the New Orleans Mint in the year 1856. All sarcasm was quickly forgotten when the seller on the phone responded, 'Yes.' "
In order to identify this important rarity, we point out the following surface irregularities which essentially "fingerprint" the coin. There are two small planchet flakes seen in the exergual area, one below the 8 in the date, the other at the top of the 5. Several others are located around stars 4, 5, 8, 10, and 13, and in the hair just above the bun. We stress that these are not post-striking imperfections, but small planchet flaws frequently found on proof gold coins from this period. On the reverse, a fine die crack runs from the rim through the D in the denomination and ends at the curve of the scroll.
The answer to the questions about the exact circumstances surrounding the striking of this coin may still be found in the New Orleans mint records from 1856. Unfortunately, mint records from this era are very sketchy, difficult to locate, and, in many cases, simply do not exist any longer. This piece is undoubtedly the highlight of Platinum Night in this memorable June Long Beach Sale. This is only the third appearance of this coin at public auction since its striking in 1856. When sold as part of The Eagle Collection in January of 2002, this piece realized $310,500, which seems like a relative "bargain" today, especially when one considers the strength of the overall market and in particular the strong prices double eagles have brought recently at auction.
Purchased from the New Orleans Mint at the time of issue by Mint Superintendent Charles Bienvenu; from him the piece was passed to his heirs; purchased by Marc Emory of New England Rare Coins directly from Bienvenu's family in 1979; sold by James Halperin later that year to Larry Demerer for approximately $215,000; sold to Superior for a reported $312,500 in late 1980/early 1981; The Premier Auction Sale (Superior, 1/95), lot 1645, where it realized $203,500 as a PCGS MS63; subsequently certified NGC MS63 Specimen; The Eagle Collection (Heritage, 1/02), lot 4147, where it brought $270,000. (#9061) (NGC ID# 268Z, PCGS# 9061)
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