Memorable 1891 Double Eagle
1891 $20 PR67 Ultra Cameo NGC. Shortly after the 52 1891
proof double eagles were struck, George Heath, William Jerrems,
David Harlowe, J.A. Heckelman, and John Brydon convened with 61
charter members at the Commercial Hotel at the corner of Lake and
Dearborn streets in Chicago for the inaugural convention of the
American Numismatic Association. The initial membership was scant,
but the push for a numismatic organization nationwide was
indicative of the growing movement of coin collecting in America.
The August 1891 edition of The Numismatist made note of the
growing number of collectors: "There are said to be over 20,000
collectors of coins in this country. While we believe this to be
much too high an estimate, we will, in the absence of proof to the
contrary, accept it."
PR67 Ultra Cameo
The suggested number of collectors was likely an exaggeration that included passive collectors of the type to assemble a date set from circulation, but not acquire a premium specimen of any coin directly from the Mint. That would explain the minuscule mintages of proof issues in the latter part of the 19th century; the logic being that the Mint, which was technically a coin dealer by then, would have increased production of proof issues to meet with collector demand.
Fortunately, at least some of the collectors who procured proof coins from the Mint were astute custodians of these numismatic delicacies. The November 1891 edition of The Numismatist provided the new membership with advice on the care of coins: "The less coins and medals are handled, the better; we should avoid allowing anyone unused to handling coins to do so; as damp or sweaty hands start a corrosion on the coins. ... Coin cleaning should never be indulged in except it be absolutely necessary. Many a valuable coin has been ruined by cleaning. More or less injury cannot be avoided in this process." This sage advice--at least partially--accounts for the relatively low attrition rate of 1891 proof twenties, and the exemplary condition of a few of the survivors. Of the 52 pieces struck, Akers estimated in 1982 an extant population of 20 to 25 examples. Writing a quarter of a century later, Garrett and Guth, in their Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, suggest the same rate of survival.
The NGC Census Report documents two 1891 proof double eagles at the PR67 Ultra Cameo level, with one piece grading higher (8/09). The finest graded specimen is the PR68 Ultra Cameo coin that Garrett and Guth believe to be pedigreed to the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection. In fact, Jeff Garrett noted the same coin to be the "finest proof $20 ever seen." That immaculate proof was sold as part of our 2006 FUN sale, where it realized $299,000.
The current offering is comparable in quality to the Bass coin, as evinced by NGC's lofty grade designation. Although examples do exist in wonderful states of preservation, the fact that only 25 or so pieces exist provides obvious barriers for even the wealthiest of collectors. Of the couple of dozen extant 1891 twenties, only seven Ultra/Deep Cameo coins have been certified above the Gem level by NGC and PCGS combined. As a result, several notable collections contained an inferior example or were lacking one altogether. As a case in point, the Norweb specimen was graded PR50 by the cataloger of that sale in November 1988. Further collecting pressure is caused by the fact that the business strike mintage of 1891 Philadelphia twenties was a staggeringly low 1,390 coins, of which only 100 survivors are believed extant.
Splendid cameo contrast inspires the awe of anyone examining this double eagle. Frosty orange-gold devices seemingly float atop darkly mirrored fields, which display a subtle "orange peel" effect. We cannot find a single flaw worth mentioning, as should always be the case with a Superb Gem proof coin. This memorable specimen is sure to witness strong bidding activity when it crosses the auction block.(Registry values: P3) (NGC ID# 26EC, PCGS# 99107)
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