Background and History
The 1856-O Liberty Double Eagle (Buy on eBay) is one of the classic rarities of United States gold coinage. While it is often mentioned together with the 1854-O Double Eagle, the 1856-O had a lower mintage at just 2,250 pieces and a lower survival rate. This makes it the rarest gold coin struck by the New Orleans Mint and arguably the rarest regular issue of the Liberty Double Eagle series. All surviving examples are in circulated condition with the notable exception of a single uncirculated coin which has been determined to be a specimen striking.
The New Orleans Mint began operations in 1838 and would strike coins in both gold and silver to support the circulation needs of the southern states. During its early history the sources for gold deposits included recently mined gold from Alabama and foreign supplies from Mexico. The gold denominations produced included Quarter Eagles, Half Eagles, and Eagles. This situation changed with the California Gold Rush and the Coinage Act of 1849, which prompted the New Orleans Mint to begin striking the Double Eagle denomination with newly mined gold from California. Once the San Francisco Mint began operations in 1854, the flow of gold from California declined sharply and mintage levels for Double Eagles at the New Orleans Mint fell to minimal levels.
Key Date Coin Mintage
The 1856-O Liberty Double Eagle had one of the smallest mintages for the series, with a total output of just 2,250 pieces, or $45,000 in face value. Most other issues of the series saw mintages stretch into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Although there were a handful of issues that saw lower mintages, these came later in the series and saw much higher survival rates, making these coins relatively more available. In the case of the 1856-O Double Eagle, the low mintage and the heavy attrition through circulation combined to leave extremely few surviving examples. It is estimated that between 30 to 40 pieces remain in existence.
As most experienced collectors of New Orleans coinage will know, quality was not up to the best standards at the Southern-most Mint in the United States. Planchets were not always of the same quality as those from the Philadelphia or San Francisco Mint and coins were often weakly struck. Quality control was inconsistent, as the quantity of coins produced was often considered more important.
Given these numerous issues, there is one 1856-O Double Eagle that stands apart from all other known examples. Not only has the coin survived in uncirculated condition, but the coin also features an extremely strong strike and fully reflective fields. These special qualities have led the coin to be identified as a specimen striking. The coin surfaced a few decades ago in the possession of direct descendants of Charles Bienvenu, who was the superintendent of the New Orleans Mint in 1856. The reason for the creation of this coin remains unknown. Perhaps it was struck for a personal celebration, to commemorate an important visit, or for some other reason entirely. Although its full origin may never be understood, it is surely is an intriguing coin.
Finest Known and Values
Without a doubt, the finest known 1856-O Liberty Double Eagle is the singular specimen striking. The coin has resided in both PCGS and NGC holders at various times since its reemergence. The firms have both graded the coin as MS63, or later SP63 to denote the specimen striking status. The coin has changed hands at sharply escalating prices since leaving the Bienvenu family. The coin first sold at auction for $215,000 in 1995, followed by $310,500 in 2002, $542,800 in 2004, and finally $1,437,500 in 2009. The coin now appears to be included in a major collection and will likely remain off the market for the foreseeable future.
Besides the specimen striking, all other known examples of this rarity exist in circulated condition. Although the numbers may be impacted by resubmissions, the PCGS population report shows ten examples graded at the AU-level, with the highest graded example at AU-58+. Over at NGC, there are eight examples shown in AU condition, with two coins sharing the highest grade of AU-58. One of the NGC AU-58 pieces sold for $576,150 in 2008, although the same piece later sold for the lower price of $460,000 in 2009.
When it comes to purchasing an 1856-O Double Eagle, even a lower grade or impaired example with less than excellent eye appeal will command a minimum of six figures. The price goes up from there. A problem free XF specimen with good eye-appeal will typically sell at auction for a mid $200,000 figure, at the minimum. These offerings, however, are extremely infrequent. There are no more than a few opportunities each year to purchase an 1856-O Double Eagle at public auction, in any grade, problem-free or not.