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    1856-O Liberty Double Eagle, AU50
    Rarest New Orleans Mint Twenty
    Newly Discovered Example

    1856-O $20 AU50 NGC. Variety 1. According to Doug Winter, the 1856-O Liberty double eagle is the rarest gold coin ever struck at the New Orleans Mint. The 1856-O claims the smallest recorded mintage of any O-mint double eagle, at a meager 2,250 pieces, and the survival rate for the issue is quite low. PCGS CoinFacts estimates the surviving population at 30-40 examples in all grades, but that estimate is quite liberal, since PCGS and NGC have combined to certify only 27 coins between them (11/17). In addition, the population data undoubtedly include some resubmissions and crossovers. Our extensively researched roster of known specimens consists of 24 examples (see previous lot for roster), including two specimens in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and the present coin, which is a new discovery and is entirely new to the numismatic market place. Heritage Auctions is privileged to offer this classic gold rarity in its first public auction appearance.

    Before 1854, the New Orleans Mint received large deposits of gold bullion from the California gold fields on a regular basis, but the situation changed drastically when the San Francisco Mint opened that year. Depositors naturally preferred to avoid the expense and danger inherent in shipping their precious metal to a distant location like New Orleans when a suitable local coinage facility was available. The river of gold deposits slowed to a trickle at the Southern mint, and production of gold coinage was reduced accordingly. Other factors, including much needed repairs to the buildings and equipment, also reduced the Mint's capacity. By 1856, production of double eagles reached nadir, with the tiny mintage of 2,250 pieces.

    The coins were released into circulation at the time of issue and, since there was little interest in collecting large denomination gold coins at the time, and even less interest in branch mint issues, few high quality specimens were saved by contemporary numismatists. Actually, only one exception to this rule is known, as a single remarkable specimen was preserved by New Orleans Mint Superintendent Charles Bienvenu and passed down to his heirs through several generations. That coin is graded SP63 by NGC today, and holds the current prices realized record for the issue, established when it sold for $1,437,500 in lot 1989 of the Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 5/2009).

    Most of the coins circulated widely in both domestic and foreign trade, since New Orleans was a major port and an important economic hub. The few survivors have surfaced in widely scattered locations. One coin was included in the famous Baltimore Hoard, which was buried around 1857, showing how fast the issue traveled from its place of origin in the Deep South to the Eastern Seaboard. Another coin traveled up the Mississippi-Ohio River system to the Ohio-Kentucky border, where it was eventually acquired by a farmer named James Bullock. Bullock tucked the coin away in a safe deposit box and it only surfaced in 2010, after being overlooked by generations of Bullock's heirs.

    With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederate government scoured Southern banks and bullion brokers to acquire gold coinage for use in foreign trade. The political and economic uncertainties of the time made European trading partners reluctant to accept payment for goods and services in any form but hard money and the South desperately needed medical and military supplies for the war effort. Undoubtedly, a number of 1856-O double eagles left the country in this way, as several specimens on the roster (including both coins in this sale) have their first appearances in European holdings. The fate of the coins that went to Europe varied widely from one destination to another. Many specimens that went to England were melted, because the weight and composition of the coins was inconvenient for exchange with the pound sterling monetary system used by Britain at the time. Almost all American gold coins in British hands were melted for recoinage into the popular British sovereigns, which were used extensively throughout the world. Coins that reached the Continent had a better chance of being held intact as bullion reserves, although many of them were melted, too. Over the years, many U.S. double eagles have been discovered in European banks and repatriated to this country, to delight and amaze present day collectors.

    Unfortunately most of the coins that remained in the U.S. circulated heavily for decades before any numismatic interest developed in the issue. As a result, almost all examples seen are heavily abraded. Doug Winter notes, "An example that is minimally bagmarked is extremely desirable." At least three examples on our roster are in impaired condition, due to cleaning or damage.

    The present coin was held for generations as a non-numismatic bullion investment by its European owners, its true rarity and value unrecognized until earlier this year. It probably circulated for a short time in this country, and may well have been one of the coins sent overseas in the wartime economy of the early 1860s. This piece has unusually smooth orange-gold obverse surfaces, with a few hints of red patina. The only mark of note is a short horizontal scratch on Liberty's cheek. The reverse is even better, with only inconsequential signs of contact, and some highlights of yellow and rose. The design elements were strongly impressed, and only light wear is evident on the devices. The surfaces are completely original, with slightly subdued semiprooflike reflectivity in sheltered areas. A completely fresh and attractive specimen of this iconic Southern gold issue, this newly discovered coin has caused much excitement in the numismatic community in recent days. We expect intense competition when this lot is called. The 1856-O is listed among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 268Z, PCGS# 8918)

    Weight: 33.44 grams

    Metal: 90% Gold, 10% Copper

    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    January, 2018
    3rd-8th Wednesday-Monday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 15
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 843

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