Background and History
The Liberty Double Eagle series is filled with rarities during its long production run from 1849 to 1907. Some of these rarities 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 Liberty Double Eagle (Buy on eBay), 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 complete set of Liberty Double Eagles.
The Double Eagle was authorized as the new highest denomination within the United States under the Coinage Act of 1849. The previous highest denomination had been the Eagle, which carried a value of ten-dollars. The aptly named Double Eagle, carried twice the value at twenty-dollars. The new denomination had been authorized as a direct result of the California Gold Rush to serve as a more efficient means of converting the massive quantities of newly mined gold into coin form. The Double Eagle was first struck as a pattern in 1849, followed by regular production beginning in 1850.
During the initial years of the series, production would take place at the Philadelphia and New Orleans Mint facilities. The situation would change in 1854 when the San Francisco Mint opened and became the closest facility to the California gold fields. With much of the gold now deposited and struck into coins in San Francisco, the mintage levels of Double Eagles from Philadelphia and New Orleans declined. This was especially the case for New Orleans, which already had relatively small mintages from 1850 to 1853 and would now see levels fall to minuscule 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 introduction of the denomination. The total output from the New Orleans Mint during the year was just 3,250 pieces for a total face value of $65,000. This was only a fraction of previous mintages at the facility, which had stretched as high as 315,000 in 1851. The low mintage level would create a major rarity, but this was not yet understood and the coins were released into general circulation.
In 1854 there was not a significant number of coin collectors in the United States. The first large influx of new collectors would come three years later, in 1857, when the familiar large cent was withdrawn from circulation. Prior to this time, collectors had often focused on Ancient coins, with only a few buying United States coinage. These purchases were usually made directly at the Philadelphia Mint, and few paid attention to mintmarks.
This situation set the stage for heavy attrition of the tiny number of 1854-O Double Eagles, which circulated extensively. No examples of the coin have managed to survive in uncirculated condition, and the survival of any pieces is most likely a matter of 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 to be sold 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 at this time due to the high face value.
Finest Known and Values
As previously mentioned, there are no 1854-O Liberty 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 performed.
NGC has graded about a dozen pieces at the AU-level, led by three specimens graded AU-58. One of these top graded coins came from the shipwreck of the S.S. Republic and holds the record price for the issue, selling in a private transaction for $675,000. Two of the other NGC AU-58 graded coins have made auction appearances over the years. The first example sold for $92,000 in 2002 and subsequently sold for $189,750 in 2004. The second example reached a price more than double, selling for $431,250 in 2005.
The PCGS population report shows ten pieces graded at the AU-level, with a single coin receiving the highest grade of AU-58. The top graded coin sold at auction for $161,000 back in 2001 and would no doubt command a much higher price if offered again. The auction record for the issue appears to be held by an example graded PCGS AU-55, which sold for $603,750 in 2008. However, this same piece later sold for $460,000 in 2011. Another example graded PCGS AU-55 sold for $440,625 in 2014.
For an impaired, lower grade specimen, a low six-figure sum should be expected. A specimen graded AU-50, if it comes to the market, should bring about $300,000. Auction appearances for this rarity remain infrequent. Many of the high-grade specimens are locked up in specialized collections and are not be expected at public auction any time soon.