There is probably not a better collection of true gold rush souvenirs than the San Francisco Coronet Head double eagles. Interestingly, enough ?S? Coronet Head double eagles are available thanks to a variety of factors, and that only makes their story all the more interesting for they are truly relics of a fascinating time.
The most basic fact about double eagles is simply that had there been no gold in California, it is unlikely there would have ever been a double eagle produced by the United States. The proof is extensive. Starting with the first authorization of coins of the United States, which took place on April 2, 1792, there were no double eagles. The highest denomination was the $10 gold eagle.
Even the eagle had its share of problems. The production of the $10 gold piece was suspended in 1804 and it would not resume until the late 1830s. For almost 35 years the nation managed to conduct commerce without a $10 gold coin. The denomination was so high at the time that the bulk of the use of gold eagles was limited primarily to being reserves. A gold eagle might be seen in circulation periodically but not frequently.
Back in the 1790s and early 1800s the thought of any higher denomination was simply out of the question. There was no assurance that gold supplies would be adequate for the denominations that were already authorized.
There was the added problem of the early U.S. Mint having limited capabilities, and the idea of the suspension of the eagle was to enable the facility to produce greater numbers of smaller denominations. They were what was needed in circulation, not large gold coins to sit in banks.
Even once the gold eagle had its production resumed, there was still evidence that such a high denomination did not see a great deal of use. The first branch mints included Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., and those facilities would only produce gold coins. As it turned out, those two facilities only produced gold coins with face values of $5 or less as neither ever produced a gold eagle or double eagle. The likely reason is that there was basically no commercial need in the region for such denominations.
The facility at New Orleans, La., was a different matter. It was a transportation center. But, even at New Orleans when double eagles were produced, especially in the 1850s, the gold from which the coins were made was many times from California.
The discovery of gold in California changed everything in relation to gold coins. Suddenly there was enough gold to eliminate any fears of future problems of gold shortages. Moreover, there was an immediate lobby from California for additional gold coins denominations. If the California interests had their way, there would have been $25, $50 and $100 gold coins. Lawmakers were not willing to go that far. What they got instead was approval of a gold dollar and double eagle and then later a $3 gold piece. As it turned out, two of the three would have a useful purpose as gold dollars were used in circulation. Gold double eagles were also used in circulation, but they also became the major denomination for reserves and for international transactions.
The first gold $20s for circulation were produced in 1850. Ironically, none were made in California as in 1850 California did not have a U.S. Mint facility. There were private mints, but for the gold in California to be converted into U.S. gold coins required that it be shipped to the East. That is what happened. California gold was used in every branch mint at the time, but especially in New Orleans and Philadelphia. Only at those two facilities would it be used to make new double eagles.
The situation in California was a complicated one, one made no easier by the fact that it was 3,000 miles away from the main facility in Philadelphia and the lawmakers in Washington, D.C. The first response to the situation was to have a U.S. Assayer located in the Moffat building, which had been a private gold operation. In 1852 Congress approved a mint facility in San Francisco, and that was done by simply purchasing the old Moffat building and setting up what was really a very small operation in what was only a 60-square-foot building, three stories high.
Things were cramped, loud and generally uncomfortable, with the smell of acid spreading through the building. They did the best they could under difficult circumstances, but the fact was that the San Francisco Mint was going to be limited in its capabilities simply because of its size. As a result, there would have to be priorities as to what coins were made. Those priorities were set basically by those who supplied the gold or silver. The demand was almost totally for large coins and the double eagle was a natural favorite.
Producing the first coin would, however, took time. The first double eagle dies arrived from Philadelphia on March 15, 1854, along with additional machinery. The first gold deposit was taken on April 3, 1854, with the first coin being produced April 15, 1854. It was a gold double eagle. In that first year there were token mintages of quarter eagles and half eagles, which both became great rarities; a small mintage of gold dollars; and
large mintages of gold eagles and double eagles, both over 100,000 with the double eagle total standing at 141,468.
From the very start, San Francisco double eagles had a number of potential fates. They could be used in circulation, and certainly many were. Others would be held in vaults used as reserves as double eagles were later widely used by local national banks as part of their required reserves. Or they could be sent east or to other destinations.
What almost never happened to San Francisco double eagles is that they were saved by collectors. At least not for decades. Back in 1854 there is no record of any double eagle collector in the United States collecting by date and mint. As a result, the San Francisco Coronet Head double eagles in the case of date after date would be basically impossible to find in Mint State were it not for the fact that there have been surprise hoards found in shipwrecks and vaults in Europe and other locations.
The 1854-S was the date most often associated with the treasure of a ship known as the S.S. Yankee Blade, which was salvaged by divers around 1977. Something between 200 and 250 examples of the 1854-S were reported from the treasure, and those coins represent the bulk of our Mint State supply today of the 1854-S. There are other examples that surfaced in more conventional ways, but they tend to be in circulated grades. The combination makes the 1854-S an available date, listed at prices close to average dates in circulated grades and at roughly $5,000 in MS-60.
In the case of the 879,675-mintage 1855-S and 1,189,750-mintage 1856-S, there is a different treasure, making the available supply much better today, especially in the case of the 1856-S. Called the Fort Capron Treasure, in the early 1970s hundreds of examples of gold coi ns turned up that had once been a part of a payroll for army soldiers fighting the Seminole Indians at Fort Capron, which is near Fort Pierce, Fla. The boat with the payroll capsized and the coins were lost in the surf, only to be discovered more than a century later. The coins involved are what some call ?seawater uncirculated? as they have sharp design but no longer have luster. That said, they are still a supply of a couple dates that would otherwise be potentially much tougher to locate than at present.
In the case of the 1856-S, as well as small numbers of the 1854-S and 1855-S, there would prove to be another source. That was the S.S. Central America, which was on its way from Havana to New York in 1857 when it went down in a storm. The first evidence that the S.S. Central America had been located was in 1986, and over the next decade the coins were recovered. Eventually, after the required legal proceedings, the coins were made available to collectors. The notion that appearance of a hoard will lower prices was really put to the test. This was especially the case for the 1857-S, which was the date most heavily represented in the recovered treasure at just over 5,400 Mint State examples. The promotion of the ship?s coins saw the 1857-S receive more publicity than ever before. Now, a number of years after the initial sales, the 1857-S has actually had a price increase to $4,800 in MS-60, which puts it above the most available dates.
There is no change in sight as the popularity of the treasure continues to keep demand high. The 1857-S ranks as an available San Francisco Coronet Head double eagle from a facility and a time where virtually none would normally be available, especially in Mint State.
The 1858, 1859 and 1860, ?S? Coronet Head $20s follow the pattern that is most common for them if they are not found in hoards or recovered in shipwrecks. The three had solid mintages and have survived to the present day in circulated grades. They are not, however, readily available in Mint State. There were no active collectors to save them, leaving us with very few Mint State examples, and those we have are usually in lower Mint State grades.
The double eagle reverse had created problems for officials. It caused dies to wear out much faster than was the case for the obverse. In 1861 a change was attempted. Anthony Paquet designed a reverse with slightly taller and more compact lettering. Dies were made and shipped to both New Orleans and San Francisco for use. The new reverse, however, would be tried first at Philadelphia, and there is was discovered that the rim was too narrow and might abrade quickly. Apparently that did not happen, but the potential caused the Mint director to order the production of the new reverse stopped.
In Philadelphia the production was stopped immediately. New Orleans had not even started using the new dies. Out in San Francisco, however, production had started, and the instructions to stop could only go as far as St. Joseph, Mo., by telegraph. Beyond St. Joseph, they had to travel by overland express. The delay saw the order to stop production arrive in the first days of February, by which time a total of 19,250 had been made, according to Superintendent Charles H. Hempstead. The coins were seen as stacking slightly higher but no problem was seen in releasing them, and that is what happened.
Today the presence of 19,250 coins with a different reverse would create a major sensation, but this was San Francisco back in 1861. There was virtually no notice of the Paquet reverse as virtually no one was looking carefully at doubles eagles. The coins simply circulated. When any mention was made of the fact that there were slightly different reverse 1861-S double eagle, there were few who would have been interested as there were virtually no double eagle collectors to care. As late as 1959 it was reported that there were fewer than 10 examples known. In fact, there were probably more at the time, and still more started to appear as American dealers looked through the alrge quantity of double eagles in the bank vaults of Europe. Numbers of the 1861-S with the Paquet reverse were returned home, with more than 100 having been found by the 1970s. In his book A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins, Q. David Bowers suggested that now there might be nearly double that total.
The 1861-S Paquet reverse is not available in Mint State in any numbers. It lists for $17,500 in VF-20 but in MS-60 the listed price is $245,000. With all the confusion over the years, we cannot even be sure if a single Mint State example exists.
There is no confusion for the dates that follow as the 1862-S is available in circulated grades but tough in Mint State while the 1863-S, 1864-S and especially the 1865-S are all known in Mint State thanks to another shipwreck. In this case it?s the S.S. Brother Jonathan, which went down in 1865. A total of 1,207 coins were recovered from the wreck, the 1865-S being the most heavily represented $20.
In 1866 there was a change in the Coronet Head double eagle: IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse. The Philadelphia coins of 1866 would all carry the new motto, but in San Francisco the dies were either late in arriving, or perhaps it was decided that because there were old dies, they would be used first. The latter was common, especially at branch mints.
Whatever the reason, it appears that at least two old dies were used to produce 12,000 1866-S double eagles without IN GOD WE TRUST. The 1866-S, however, is usually heavily bagmarked and not very attractive. The added matter of importance is that it is not readily available, with a VF-20 at $2,800 while an MS-60 lists for $60,000. In fact, there are serious doubts that the 1866-S no motto Coronet Head double eagle even exists in Mint State.
The rest of the 1866 production with the motto and the ?S? Coronet Head double eagles of that type, which lasted until 1877, are all available, as are those of the last type which featured TWENTY DOLLARS spelled out on the reverse. The mintages at San Francisco were usually high. While there were not significant numbers of collectors saving examples at the time, the majority of dates of the type are possible at least in lower Mint State grades.
Just because they are available does not mean that the rest of the San Francisco Coronet Head double eagle lack interesting stories. The 1897-S, for example, is a date that along with the 1896-S was probably made from gold from the Klondike region. During that period, a large amount of Klondike gold was received in San Francisco. The 1897-S was also a date that returned from Europe in significant numbers, and it is typical of many others that had also ended up in European vaults. When the coins arrived back in the United States, they were slightly dirty or greasy, but conservation techniques are able to clean off such ?vault grime,? leaving usually very nice-looking coins frequently in lower Mint State grades.
For the collector, the San Francisco Coronet Head $20s are a fascinating group as they truly did emerge directly from the gold that made California famous. Because of the nature of the San Francisco facility at the time, almost every date can be found, and with a little help in the form of recovered shipwrecks and European bank vault holdings, almost every date is also available in Mint State. There are a couple exceptions, but overall ?S? Coronet Head double eagles are one group of double eagles that many of us can collect and enjoy.