Superb Gem Proof Cameo 1885 Twenty
1885 $20 PR67 Cameo NGC. The 1885 proof Liberty double eagle
is one of the rarest and most valuable issues of the series, from a
mintage of just 77 pieces. In addition to the limited proof
mintage, only 751 business-strike examples were struck, making the
1885 a rare issue in either format.
Only 77 Pieces Struck, Possibly 22 Survive
Highest Numerical Grade Ever Offered at Auction
Gold coins began to circulate at par with paper money in 1879, for the first time since the early days of the Civil War. While the government expected a great demand for gold coinage under the new circumstances, the anticipated rush to obtain gold coins never developed in the Eastern part of the country, where people had become accustomed to the more convenient paper currency. Only in the sparsely populated Western areas was "hard money" still popular for large purchases. Responding to this difference in demand, the San Francisco Mint coined large numbers of double eagles during most of this period, while the Philadelphia Mint produced only token mintages for most of the decade, accounting for the low business-strike mintage of the 1885.
While the Philadelphia Mint continued to offer gold proof sets during this era, collector interest in double eagles was quite small. The high face value of the double eagle was a powerful deterrent to collecting the series by date, and there was virtually no interest in mintmarked issues until the 1890s. The only real market for the big gold coins was from well-heeled collectors who purchased complete gold proof sets every year. We know that Thomas Cleneay, T. Harrison Garrett, David S. Wilson, and R.C.W. Brock, among others, purchased gold proof sets from the Mint regularly during the 1880s. Walter Breen determined that 30 gold proof sets were delivered on January 17, 1885, along with five single double eagles. The remainder of the 77-piece proof double eagle mintage was made up of single coins, delivered at different times throughout the year. Considering the low survival rate of the issue, it is likely that most of the coins we know about today came from the 30 proof sets, while most of the single coins probably went unsold and were melted after the end of the year.
Large denomination gold coins were not collected to any significant extent in this country until the 1930s, when the Gold Recall of 1933 made it illegal for private citizens to own gold. Economically minded numismatists like Louis Eliasberg and Dr. Charles W. Green began extensive gold coin collections during this era as a legal means of investing in gold. This increased popularity of double eagle date collecting put extreme pressure on the tiny proof mintage of 1885 double eagles, since high-grade business-strike examples were almost unobtainable by this time. The high demand for these rare coins has increased exponentially over the years. In the early 1940s, a proof 1885 double eagle could be purchased for less than $200, if a collector was lucky enough to find one. Recent auction sales include the impressive PR66 Cameo NGC example in lot 5289 of the January FUN Auction (Heritage, 1/2011), that realized $207,000.
Experts are in close agreement about the number of surviving 1885 double eagles, with Walter Breen and Q. David Bowers both estimating an extant population of 14-18 pieces, David Akers postulating 15-18 specimens, and Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth thinking the total is probably in the 15-20 examples range. Population from the leading grading services coincides well with these figures, as NGC and PCGS have combined to certify 19 Coins in all grades (2/12). This small supply is further reduced by the fact that two of the survivors are in impaired condition, and three coins are impounded in institutional collections.
We have compiled a roster of all specimens of the 1885 proof double eagle known to us, 22 examples in all, based on a study of auction records over the last two decades. We believe these are all separate coins, but it is possible that some duplication has occurred, due to the inherent difficulty of plate matching proof gold coins, which typically have few distinguishable pedigree markers. Interestingly, the coins in numbers 3, 4, 5, and 11 all show a denticle planchet flaw below star 8. Walter Breen believed this feature was caused by foreign matter stuck to the die.
The coin offered here is the highest-graded example ever offered at public auction. Its technical quality is matched in the population reports by only a single specimen graded PR67 ★ Cameo at NGC (6/12). The fully struck design elements display rich mint frost that provides intense cameo contrast with the deeply mirrored fields. There are no post-strike impairments visible on either side, and the surfaces show the orange-peel texture typical of the finest 19th century proofs. Eye appeal is extraordinary. This coin deserves a place in the finest collection or Registry Set.
Roster of 1885 Proof Double Eagles
1. PR67 Cameo NGC. 55th Anniversary Sale (Stack's, 10/1990), lot 1467; Robert Swan and Rod Sweet Collections (Bowers and Merena, 3/2004), lot 3226; Heritage (4/2012), lot 5349; the present coin.
2. PR66 Deep Cameo PCGS. Highland Collection (Bowers and Merena, 10/2005), lot 7643; St. Louis Rarities Sale (Bowers and Merena, 5/2007), lot 414; Chicago ANA Auction (Stack's Bowers, 8/2011), lot 7777.
3. PR66 Cameo NGC. FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2011), lot 5289.
4. PR66 Cameo NGC. Garrett Collection (Stack's, 3/1976), lot 488; Portland ANA Signature (Heritage, 8/1998), lot 7919.
5. PR65 Ultra Cameo NGC. November Signature (Heritage, 11/2003), lot 7975; Papyrus Way Collection (Stack's, 3/2008), lot 1333; January FUN Signature (1/2009), lot 4156.
6. PR65 Deep Cameo. Smithsonian Institution.
7. PR65 Cameo NGC. Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 2/2003), lot 8562.
8. PR65 Deep Cameo PCGS. Newcomb/Wolcott Collections (Ed Frossard, 5/1901); John M. Clapp; John H. Clapp; Clapp Estate; Louis Eliasberg, Sr.; United States Gold Coin Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 10/1982), lot 968; New York Signature (Heritage, 12/2011), lot 4771.
9. PR65 PCGS. Gilhousen Collection, Part I (Superior, 2/1973), lot 934; later, Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection (Bowers and Merena, 10/1999), lot 1895.
10. PR65 PCGS. Tower Hill Collection (Bowers and Merena, 9/1993), lot 3222.
11. PR65. Ullmer Collection (Stack's, 5/1974), lot 529
12. PR64 Deep Cameo. Smithsonian Institution.
13. PR64 PCGS. Chicago Sale (Superior, 8/1991), lot 823
14. PR64 NGC. Ed Trompeter Collection, Heritage Auctions by private treaty.
15. Choice Proof. Ellis Robison Collection (Stack's, 2/1979), lot 851; Public Coin Auction (Stack's, 6/2003), lot 851.
16. Choice Proof. Acquired directly from the Mint by Anna Brooks Snow on May 20, 1885; Americana Sale (Stack's, 1/2006), lot 3302
17. PR63. N.M. Kaufman Collection (RARCOA, 8/1978), lot 936; Auction '80 (RARCOA, 8/1980), lot 1986; Auction '86 (Stack's, 7/1986), lot 444; Buddy Ebsen Collection (Superior, 6/1987), lot 2886.
18. PR63+ Cameo PCGS. Philadelphia Signature (Heritage, 8/2012), lot 5425.
19. PR61 Ultra Cameo NGC. Houston Signature (Heritage, 12/2009), lot 2124.
20. PR58 NGC. Atlanta ANA Signature (Heritage, 8/2001), lot 8201.
21. PR50. Public Auction Sale (Stack's, 3/1990), lot 1444.
22. A specimen in the collection of the American Numismatic Society, exhibited at the 1914 ANS Exhibition. Earlier from a complete gold proof set purchased from the Mint by R.C.W. Brock in 1885; J.P. Morgan; donated to the ANS in 1908.
Ex: The William D. Plumley Collection (Heritage, 4/2012), lot 5349.(Registry values: P5) (NGC ID# 26E6, PCGS# 89101)
Weight: 33.44 grams
Metal: 90% Gold, 10% Copper
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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