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Lot
1989

1856-O $20 SP63 PCGS. CAC....

2009 May Long Beach, CA Signature US Coin Auction #1125

 
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Auction Ended On: May 29, 2009
Item Activity: 14 Internet/mail/phone bidders
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Location:

Long Beach Convention Center
100 S. Pine Avenue
Long Beach, CA 90802

Description:
Fantastic 1856-O Double Eagle
Certified Specimen-63 by PCGS
Rarest O-Mint Double Eagle, Finest Known
1856-O $20 SP63 PCGS. CAC. Variety One. The status of the 1856-O double eagle as the rarest New Orleans twenty, from a paltry mintage of 2,250 pieces, was established as long ago as the Atwater Sale (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946). In lot 1338 of that celebrated catalog Mehl proclaimed, "1856 Strictly very fine; free from any nicks or dents. The rarest Double-Eagle of the New Orleans Mint. Smallest coinage, that of only 2250. Not in some of the largest collections of U.S. Gold. Not even in the recent Sale of 'World's Greatest Collection of U.S. Gold Coins.' "
Many specialists believe that this is the single most important New Orleans double eagle in existence, and one of the most important O-mint coins of any denomination. The coin offered here is the finest example known by a wide margin. Its special characteristics have earned this coin the Specimen designation, certified as such by PCGS. Doug Winter once believed this coin was a proof, but he later revised his opinion to coincide with the PCGS designation. 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 1856-O is 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 a conservative 10-12 (Breen) to as high as 20-30 (Winter). The issue is very rare in AU grades, and the present coin is the only Uncirculated example known. The example in the Bell Collection (Stack's, 12/1944), lot 899 was cataloged as Uncirculated, but that coin is believed to be the Eliasberg specimen, which graded AU50 in the sale of that storied collection.
The present 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, somewhat different from 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 major grading services. When the coin was featured in the Premier Auction Sale (Superior, 1/1995), the catalogers offered the following account:

"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."

It is worth noting there are 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, and to George Seavey's collection before that.
The reason for the small mintage of New Orleans double eagles from 1854-1856 probably lies in the establishment of the San Francisco Mint, which began operations in 1854. Before that date, large amounts of bullion from the California gold fields were shipped to New Orleans for coinage. When the new facility came online, the flow of gold deposits to the New Orleans Mint was drastically reduced.
Another factor in reducing the availability of this issue was the timing of its release into numismatic circles. Early double eagles were not valued as numismatic items at their time of issue. Coin collecting as a hobby did not become popular in the United States until after 1857, when the old large copper cents and half cents were discontinued. A wave of nostalgia for the "old coppers" transformed itself into a viable market for all older denominations. Unfortunately, double eagles were viewed as neither historic nor interesting pieces, since they had only been circulating since 1850. The 1856-O was released only one year before the ground swell of enthusiasm for coin collecting took hold in the United States. The large intrinsic value of the coins also mitigated against casual collecting.
A further complication for branch mint coins was the widespread unfamiliarity about mintmarks. Collectors regarded mintmarks as unimportant details and were content to save only one example of each date for their collections, paying no attention to which mint the specimen represented. Most advanced collectors simply ordered a proof from the Philadelphia Mint every year to represent the date. As late as 1893, Augustus Heaton (author of the seminal Mint Marks pamphlet in that year) would write he was unaware of any collector in this country who systematically collected large denomination gold coins by date and mintmark.
In the early 20th century, only a few collectors such as John H. Clapp, Virgil Brand, and Waldo Newcomer collected double eagles systematically. In 1909 Edgar Adams published a list of U.S. gold coins and their values, but he did not even itemize the early double eagles, as there was no demand for them. Auction appearances of Liberty Head double eagles were decidedly rare, although the new Saint-Gaudens High Reliefs stirred some interest when they appeared. Collecting interest in the older twenties languished until the late 1930s, when collectors such as Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. became interested in the coins as a way to invest legally in gold, after the federal government made it illegal for citizens to own stocks of that metal. By the time numismatists became interested in the early double eagles, the supply of nice coins had been exhausted for decades. The survival of a Mint State branch mint double eagle from the 1850s can only be regarded as a miracle by modern collectors.
Recalling the initial appearance of this particular specimen 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 appear 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 that era are very sketchy, difficult to locate, and, in many cases, simply no longer exist. This piece is undoubtedly the highlight of the current sale. This is only the fourth appearance of this coin at public auction since its striking in 1856. When sold as part of The Eagle Collection in January 2002, this piece realized $310,500, which seems like a relative bargain today. In its next appearance, in the Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 6/2004), lot 6372, the coin bought a healthy $542,800. The current record for an 1856-O double eagle belongs to the AU58 NGC-graded example sold in the Baltimore Collection (Heritage, 10/2008), lot 3018, which realized $576,150. Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth have included the 1856-O double eagle in their list of 100 Greatest U.S. Coins.
Ex: Purchased from the New Orleans Mint at the time of issue by Mint Superintendent Charles Bienvenu; passed to Bienvenu's heirs; purchased by Marc Emory of New England Rare Coin Galleries 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, 1/1995), lot 1645, where it realized $203,500; The Eagle Collection (Heritage, 1/2002), lot 4147, where it realized $310,500; Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 6/2004), lot 6372, where it realized $542,800.
(PCGS# 9061)

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