1898 Liberty Twenty, PR67 Ultra Cameo
1898 $20 PR67 Ultra Cameo NGC. CAC. The 1898 proof Liberty
double eagle boasts a low mintage of just 75 pieces, the lowest
production total for any Philadelphia proof twenty from 1896 until
the Liberty series ended in 1907. In addition, the business-strike
mintage for the year was quite small, at 170,395 pieces. High-grade
business-strike examples have been scarce since collecting double
eagles first became popular in the late 1930s, creating extremely
high demand for the small number of proofs that are still extant.
Any offering of an 1898 proof twenty is a notable numismatic event,
but this is only the third time a Superb Gem proof with the Ultra
Cameo designation has ever been offered at public auction.
Tied for Finest Certified
Meager 75-Coin Mintage
The number of surviving examples of the 1898 proof double eagle is a subject of much debate among experts. The population data from the leading grading services has been heavily distorted by resubmissions and crossovers. To date NGC and PCGS have combined to certify a total of 80 specimens in all grades, five more submission events than the official reported mintage. Walter Breen estimated the surviving population at "30 odd" pieces in 1989, while David Akers ventured a slightly higher total of 35-40 coins in his October 1997 Pittman catalog. Q. David Bowers offered a still-larger figure of 45-55 examples in his 2004 series reference, but this was probably based, at least partially, on the steadily climbing population data from the grading services.
PCGS and NGC have worked hard in recent years to reduce the number of duplications in their totals, and an awareness of the problem has resulted in lower population estimates by numismatic writers. Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth offered the following assessment in their Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933:
"Although the number of examples offered at auction in the last two decades is on the high side, many of the coins are mishandled pieces. Just six or seven choice coins have been sold. The population numbers are also highly inflated by resubmissions. It can be estimated that only 35 to 40 coins remain in all states of preservation."
The estimate of 35-40 specimens still extant seems most reasonable, as most proof gold issues from this period claim a survival rate of about 50 percent.
In addition to their rarity, the proof double eagles of 1898 have always been prized for their technical quality and beauty. The U.S. Mint had virtually perfected the process of proof production by the late 1890s, and the quality of gold proof coins probably reached its zenith in 1898. In the early 20th century, the Mint switched to an all-brilliant finish that reduced the frosty texture of the devices, preventing the dramatic cameo contrast collectors appreciate so much on the earlier issues. After 1907, the high relief design of the coins rendered the brilliant finish unsuitable, and the Mint experimented with increasingly more unpopular matte proof finishes, until public interest reached nadir, and proof set offerings were discontinued in 1916. All these unfortunate innovations were still in the future in 1898, and proofs of this date are masterpieces of the minter's art.
The coin offered here is one of the finest examples of this highly esteemed issue. The richly frosted design elements display razor-sharp definition throughout, and the deeply mirrored fields are free of mentionable distractions, even on close inspection. Tilting the coin in the light produces a stunning black-on-gold cameo flash. The surfaces exhibit the distinctive orange-peel texture that characterizes the best 19th century proofs. This combination of highest available technical quality and overwhelming eye appeal should inspire keen competition when this lot is called. A comparable specimen may not become available for years. Census: 4 in 67 Ultra Cameo, 0 finer (6/12).
Ex: William D. Plumley Collection (Heritage, 4/2012), lot 5359.(Registry values: P2) (NGC ID# 26EK, PCGS# 99114)
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