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1856-O gold $20 doubles its prior record

On May 29, at the Long Beach Coin, Stamp and Collectible Expo, Heritage auctioned the finest known 1856-O double eagle for $1,437,500. No other New Orleans Mint coin has ever been publicly auctioned for more than $1 million. It is the only 1856-O gold $20 that is known for sure to grade above -60 and it seems to be the only one that is a “special striking.”

The previous record for an 1856-O was set in October 2008, when an Numismatic Guaranty Corp. graded AU-58 coin was auctioned for $576,150.

This result is the second highest auction price for any Liberty Head double eagle. In 2006, Heritage sold an 1861 Philadelphia Mint, Liberty Head with the Paquet reverse, for $1,610,000.

This same 1856-O, then NGC certified Specimen-63, was previously auctioned in June 2005, for $542,800. The “Specimen” designation refers to coins that are neither proofs nor business strikes, but are specially made and have certain characteristics that are different from those of corresponding business strikes. Usually, Specimen strikes are intended to be better looking than business strikes.  

Not long before this May 2009 auction, this coin was submitted to the Professional Coin Grading Service and it “crossed over” to a PCGS holder also with a “SP-63” certification. Additionally, it was given a sticker of approval by the CAC.

Jeff Garrett and I viewed the coin together in Long Beach, at which time he remarked that it is “obviously special” and “beautifully struck.” Garrett is a very experienced dealer and the co-author of two widely recognized books, including an “Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins.”

He emphasizes that “the surfaces [are] deeply mirrored and completely different from other double eagles of the era.” Interestingly, Garrett likened the mirror surfaces on this Specimen 1856-O to those on the pattern 1849 double eagle and especially to those on the Smithsonian’s 1854-S double eagle. The late researcher Walter Breen raved about the Smithsonian’s 1854-S double eagle, which he strongly regarded as a proof.

While I do not believe that this 1856-O screams “Specimen,” I agree that it is a true Specimen striking. I am not as impressed by the mirrors as Garrett and others. There are many 19th century, prooflike gold coins with fully reflective surfaces. Very few of them are true specimen strikings. In my view, the crisp, exceptionally even strike and the ways in which the devices meet the fields place this coin in a category above any other New Orleans Mint double eagle. A magnifying glass is needed to verify its “Specimen” status. 

Not everyone is impressed by specimen designations. Bob Green declares that “most of the $20 Liberty double eagle collectors” that he has “worked with had no interest in ever owning this coin as it is likely to be a special striking and not a business strike meant for commerce at a time in our history.” Green, of Park Avenue Numismatics, is a specialist in the Liberty double eagle series.

Green “was very surprised that this coin sold for $1,437,500. [He] would not have bid more than $1 million.” Garrett, in contrast, remarks that “the coin was a bargain in relation to the cost of circulation strike 1856-O double eagles and the unique status of the coin elevates it to iconic status.”

In my view, the price realized was a little high, given current market conditions. A circulated 1856-O could probably be purchased, at some point over the next 18 months, for less than $475,000. This 1856-O is a coin of such importance, however, that it is very difficult to put a price tag on it. Plus, it is really cool.

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