The 1857-S Coronet Head double eagle began with a mintage of 970,500 pieces in San Francisco in 1857. This is a solid mintage that reflects the fact that the tiny and unpleasant place they called a Mint at the time was still capable of producing a decent number of coins despite all of its difficulties.
At least some of the gold coins produced in San Francisco would head off to other locations. The 1857-S was no exception as thousands were loaded on a ship bound for Panama. The best estimates are that some $2 million in gold valued at $20.67 an ounce headed off on the voyage.
Eventually, all that gold and the passengers after crossing Panama boarded the S.S. Central America for a stop in Havana with an eventual destination in New York. The stop in Havana was brief though few realized they were just hours from disaster. Hit by a hurricane, the S.S. Central America and about 435 souls were lost along with all the gold.
At 7,200 feet below the surface, some 160 miles off Charleston, S.C., nothing could be done at the time to recover the treasure. That changed in the 1980s when the ship was found and the treasure recovered. It is worthy of a book and Q. David Bowers has written “A California Gold Rush History” about the S.S. Central America and its fabulous cargo.
In the case of the 1857-S, the recovery produced a stunning total of 5,402 examples as Bowers suggests, “mostly in very attractive Mint State.” The supply was never great and to suddenly have 5,402 coins, many in upper Mint State grades, hit the market had to be news that was taken with a bit of caution. There had to be some concern that the coins could see prices drop as there was not enough demand.
In fact, the marketing of the 1857-S hoard from the S.S. Central America was brilliant. People were not just buying a nice coin but rather a nice coin with a great and tragic history. Serious collectors knew as well that finding any Mint State double eagles from San Francisco in the 1850s was a rare opportunity.
If you look at the grading service totals at NGC, they have graded 126 1857-S double eagles known to have been on the S.S. Central America and 92 of that total were MS-65 and MS-66 compared to 93 not known to have been from the ship. PCGS adds hundreds more although does not say what coins were from the S.S. Central America.
Since 1998, the assumption would be the 1857-S has declined or at best been stable in price with hundreds of new examples coming into the market. Back in 1998, the 1857-S was $600 in VF-20, $2,600 in MS-60 and $10,000 in MS-63. Today, in VF-20 the 1857-S is at $2,315 while an MS-60 is $4,750 with an MS-63 at $9,300. To be sure the picture is mixed with the MS-63 down in price but the MS-60 is up and up strongly. In all probability, an MS-65 is likely to be lower as well as they were basically unknown before the S.S. Central America.
That said, the overall situation is stable and shows some increased prices. This makes the 1857-S more interesting and more important as it is one San Francisco double eagle many can afford.