Background and History
The Liberty Double Eagle series is filled with rarities during its 57 years of production from 1850 to 1907. Some of these rarities were were the result of extremely low original mintages, while others were created due to extensive circulation which left few or no survivors in uncirculated condition. Some rarities, like the 1854-O Double Eagle, were created through a combination of both factors. The 1854-O, together with the 1856-O Double Eagle, represent two of the absolute key dates to a set of double eagles struck at the New Orleans Mint.
The twenty dollar denomination was first struck as a pattern in 1849 and regular production commenced at the Philadelphia and New Orleans Mints in 1850. The denomination carried twice the value of the ten dollar gold piece which had been authorized as the highest value in the American monetary system in 1792 and was born as a direct result of the California Gold Rush. Immense quantities of gold were flowing out of California and much of it was sent to both the New Orleans and Philadelphia Mints.
Mintage levels during the initial years of double eagle production at the two facilities were correspondingly high. The situation would change in 1854 when the San Francisco Mint opened and became the closest Federal Mint to the gold fields. With much of the gold now deposited and struck into coins at San Francisco, the mintage levels of double eagles at Philadelphia and New Orleans declined dramatically. This was especially the case for New Orleans, which already had relatively small mintages during 1850 to 1853 and would now see levels fall to miniscule levels.
Key Date Coin Mintage
At the time of production, the 1854-O Double Eagle had the lowest mintage of any double eagle since the first coins were struck for the denomination in 1850. The total output during the year were just 3,250 pieces, for a total face value of $65,000, only a fraction of previous mintages which often totaled in the hundreds of thousands of coins and millions of face value. The low mitnage level would create a major rarity, but this was not yet understood at the time, and all were released into circulation.
In 1854 there was not a significant number of coin collectors in the United States. The first large influx of new coin collectors would come three years later, in 1857, when the familiar large cent was withdrawn from circulation. Before that the coin collectors that were in existence often focused on Ancient coins, with some collectors buying United States coinage as well. These purchases were usually made directly at the Philadelphia Mint, and few to none actually cared about mintmarks. Proofs could be requested but were very rarely made (pre 1859 Proofs of any denomination are now among the greatest rarities in American numismatics).
No 1854-O Double Eagles have survived in uncirculated condition, and the survival of any pieces is a miracle, and most likely a matter of a very slim chance. It is known that a very small number of pieces ended up overseas, and some of those were discovered in recent times, later returning to the United States for sale at auction. Other pieces must have been stored in bank vaults within the United States. Private holdings do not appear to have been a major source for this rarity, as few people could afford to keep a double eagle in 1854, when daily wages were a mere fraction of twenty dollars for most people.
Finest Known and Values
As previously mentioned, there are no 1854-O Double Eagles known in uncirculated condition. Most resources list anywhere between 25 to 45 pieces known across all grades with the true number likely towards the middle of the range. Of the few survivors, only a minority appear to be in problem free condition. Many have been cleaned or are otherwise impaired. This is also a problem for a few of the AU coins which were found aboard the shipwreck of the S.S. Republic. After almost 150 years in the salty sea water, the surfaces were far from perfect and professional cleaning was done to restore the surfaces.
NGC has certified three specimens in AU-58. One of these came from the shipwreck of the S.S. Republic. It holds the absolute sale record for this issue, selling at $675,000 in 2004 (in a private transaction). None of the other AU-58’s have ever appeared for sale or at auction, and it is unknown if there are 3 individual coins, or if the same coin has been submitted on multiple occasions. The latter certainly is a problem for researchers, as many more AU examples have been certified by the major grading companies than could ever be in existence.
PCGS has certified two examples at the AU-55 level, both of which appear to be unique examples, and not a result of a resubmission of the same coin. One of these sold in January 2011 for $460,000 in a public auction. The same coin sold in October 2008 for $603,750. Only about half a dozen other specimens are known in AU, while all the others are graded VF to XF or are impaired. Examples of the 1854-O Double Eagles in lower grades sell somewhat regularly, although no more than a few opportunities exist every year, often consisting of lower grade coins with below average eye-appeal.
For an impaired, lower grade specimen, a low six-figure sum should be expected. The price goes up from there and an AU-50 specimen, if it comes to the market, should bring about $300,000. New Orleans gold coins have been an increasingly popular collecting area and the pricing history reflects this as well. Many of the high grade specimens are locked up in specialized collections and should not be expected at public auction any time soon.