Some coins just stick out like sore thumbs. That is the case with the 1879-O gold Eagle as there are no other New Orleans gold Eagles stretching all the way back to 1860. This, coupled with the extremely low 1,500 mintage, raises some questions.
The 1879-O gold Eagle was part of a soap opera of sorts that goes back to the founding of the New Orleans facility. In the 1830s when the facility was approved, it had been unlike the others also approved at the time. The Dahlonega and Charlotte facilities were in the region where gold had been discovered and they were set up to service the gold fields without having to ship it to Philadelphia.
New Orleans had no gold except in the form of real estate, and the city was offering the government a choice piece of real estate if it would establish a mint. As a transportation center the deal made sense, so New Orleans got its mint. However, the state of Louisiana seized the facility in 1861 and turned it over to the Confederates. That ended the New Orleans Mint, at least for a time.
Even with the end of the Civil War, the U.S. was basically over the notion of southern mints. The needs of the nation were being served by Philadelphia, and there were plans for new facilities in Carson City and San Francisco. Dahlonega and Charlotte were finished, and the facility in New Orleans was in disrepair.
The original deal stated that the federal government could have the land as long as it housed a mint that was making coins. New Orleans officials raised the issue in the early 1870s. It was about that time that the silver legislation started passing, and it was decided to bring New Orleans back on line to help with silver dollar production.
By 1879 the New Orleans facility was ready to begin coin production again. The focus was on silver dollars, but there were also small mintages of gold Eagles and Double Eagles.
Certainly with a mintage of 1,500 the historic 1879-O gold should have been noticed and saved, but collectors did not regularly collect by date and mint.
It is not too surprising under those circumstances that today the 1879-O lists for $2,150 in VF-20 and $28,750 in MS-60. The prices seem reasonable considering the mintage and the situation at the time.
Grading service numbers suggest that the price could go higher. NGC has seen just 38 examples and only one, an MS-61, was called Mint State. The PCGS total is just 40 coins and none were called Mint State.
The 1879-O appears to be as tough as we might expect and is even tougher in Mint State. The lack of Mint State coins is not all that surprising, but it certainly makes the current MS-60 price look low. After all, this is no ordinary date. It is a popular one that had an important place in the history of the New Orleans facility.