The 1891-S double eagle is a fairly available coin. However, if the reverse on the 1861-S happens to have taller letters in the inscription that make it a Paquet reverse, then the rather ordinary 1861-S suddenly becomes much more interesting.
The story of the Paquet reverse starts with the fact that the mints were having trouble with the reverse dies of the double eagle. For example, in Philadelphia in 1851 they made 13 obverse dies but 33 dies for the reverse. Anthony C. Paquet was given the task of trying to make alterations to the reverse to prolong die life, and he came up with what we know call the Paquet reverse.
The dies were prepared for the new reverse and shipped to New Orleans and San Francisco. They were never used in New Orleans. In Philadelphia, they began production of the new reverse on Jan. 5, 1861, but immediately discovered a potential problem: the narrow rim might cause striking problems. The order was given to halt production immediately.
Today we know of only two examples of the Paquet reverse from Philadelphia. Stopping the production out in San Francisco was a very different problem. A telegraph was sent, but telegraphs at the time only went as far as St. Joseph, Mo. From there it had to travel across country by overland express, and that process took a month with word finally reaching San Francisco to change to the old reverse in early February. By that time a total of 19,250 double eagles with the Paquet reverse had already been produced, and most had been released.
At the time there were few double eagle collectors, and those who did exist were assembling date sets with basically no interest in coins of different mints. Even so, the 1861-S with the different reverse was noticed. We know this because an 1865 sale included a Philadelphia example. But there is no indication that they were even aware of a San Francisco Paquet reverse at the time of that auction in 1865.
In fact, it appears that for decades there was basically no discussion or interest in the possibility that there was an 1861-S with a different reverse. By the 1930s, however, there was greater interest but basically no research into the Paquet reverse until the 1950s. At that time Walter Breen, among others, took an interest, stating in a 1959 Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine article that he knew of six or seven pieces.
At that time there were others in the United States who simply had never noticed, but there were even more sitting in bank vaults in Europe. In his book, A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins, Q. David Bowers suggests that dealer Paul Wittlin is said to have found 25 to 30.
That was just the start.
“By the 1970s more than a hundred had been found, and by now that number has about doubled,” Bowers observed.
With no collectors to save the 1861-S with the Paquet reverse, the coins ended up circulating, and apparently in some numbers. That meant ending up in foreign bank vaults, as was the case with large numbers of gold coins and especially double eagles.
The situation creates a bit of a pricing dilemma. The supply of the 1861-S Paquet reverse double eagle has been increasing, with examples being returned for bank vaults primarily in Europe. The demand, however, has probably not been growing as fast as the supply, especially in the grades involved. The coins discovered in the bank vaults tend to be in the VF-20 range with bag marks and indifferent strikes. Bowers describes them as “scruffy.” The current VF-20 price is $22,000 but with the numbers we now have that level seems suspect as these are lower-grade examples and there are probably at least 150 if not 250 examples of the 1861-S Paquet reverse known.
Conversely, the price of the 1861-S Paquet reverse in Mint State is not at all suspect. The MS-60 price listing is currently $272,000, and the fact is there may be none. In Mint State, if an 1861-S Paquet reverse is offered, sit back and watch – it’s going to be quite a battle to find a new owner.