Type One Liberty Head Double Eagles

How to Collect Type One Double Eagles

Type One double eagles have become the single most popular area of collecting in the rare date United States gold coin market. With the discovery of over 10,000 high grade, formerly rare issues in the S.S. Central America, S.S. Brother Jonathan, and S.S. Republic shipwrecks, Type Ones have received tremendous publicity in both the numismatic and non-numismatic press. This is clearly a design type which is destined to remain popular with a number of future generations of collectors.

The 2002 edition of my book An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles represented ground-breaking research on the series. I had previously written on New Orleans double eagles in my book New Orleans Gold Coins: 1839-1909 (published in 1992 and revised in 2006). Prior to this, collectors had to rely on the Breen Encyclopedia and David Akers’ trailblazing work on Liberty Head double eagles which was published in 1982. The 2002 edition of this book filled a great, need but it soon became outdated and needed to be revised.

After numerous starts and stops, I decided to revise the book in 2014 but with a twist: instead of publishing it in traditional book form, it is here as a web-based project. This was done for a number of reasons. The first is flexibility in updating. With a traditional book, updating it is a major chore. With the new web-based format, it will be easy for me to continually update things like Condition Census, Auction Price Records, certified population figures, hoards, and important new discoveries. A web-based double eagle book will have a far greater reach than a traditional published book, and this might serve to bring more new collectors into the series. It will also enable me to have interactive features such as a comments section where collectors can add their input to each issue, and expanded potential to include more high-quality color photographs than in a traditional printed book. The possibilities are endless.

Type One double eagles appeal to collectors for a variety of reasons. They are the first type of double eagles produced and the highest denomination struck for circulation. They are large and attractive with a high intrinsic value which appeals to the “gold bug.” They were struck during an extraordinary historic era (1850-1866), and have wonderful back stories. Many issues are available in collector grades and a number of issues can found in presentable grades for less than $3,500 per coin. At the same time, there are a number of rare to very rare dates which appeal to advanced collectors.

There is a host of ways in which to collect this series. I’d like to suggest a few that I have found interesting and add some practical suggestions from years of experience with assisting collectors in this series.

1. Collecting Type One Double Eagles as a Type Coin

Type collectors seek to obtain a representative example of a specific type or design. For Type One double eagles, a type collector would most likely focus on an issue such as an 1856-S or 1857-S from the S.S. Central America, or a non-shipwreck date such as the 1861. A nice SSCA coin can be purchased for $7,500-10,000, while a high-quality circulated 1861 currently is valued in the $4,000-5,000 range.

A type set could be made more interesting by expanding it to two coins: including a common date from the 1850’s and the 1860’s, the two decades in which this design was produced. The most common issues from the 1850’s are the 1851 and the 1852 and, thanks to the shipwrecks mentioned above, the 1856-S and the 1857-S. The two Philadelphia issues can be easily located in all circulated grades and a very presentable example will cost the collector $3,000-5,000. The 1861 is the most affordable Type One from the 1860’s, and the collector can either purchase a pleasing circulated example or an Uncirculated coin in the MS60 to MS62 range.

If you are taking the time to read this article and explore this website, you are likely to have enough interest in this series that you will be more involved with them than as mere type coins. But if you have decided to participate solely as a type collector, I suggest you spend a bit more money and buy a scarcer date. In my opinion, the issues which offer the biggest “bang for the buck” include the 1854 Small Date, 1855, 1856, 1857, and 1858.

2. Collecting Type One Double Eagles by Mint

Type One double eagles were struck at three mints: Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Some collectors focus on issues from one of these three mints and assemble complete sets of dates and major varieties.

The Philadelphia mint produced 17 collectable double eagles (this figure does not include the 1849 and the 1861 Paquet, but it does include the 1853/2 and the 1854 Large Date). This is not an easy set to complete in circulated grades. The five hardest issues to locate are the 1853/2, 1854 Large Date, 1859, 1862, and 1863. All five of the dates are scarce to very scarce in Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated, and all are rare to very rare in Uncirculated.

In Extremely Fine, this set should run at least in the $55,000-65,000 range, and more if the collector is picky and seeks choice EF45 coins with CAC stickers. An About Uncirculated set (with the five keys in the AU50 to AU53 range and the more common dates in the AU55 to AU58 range) should run in the $110,000-130,000 range, and more if the collector is picky and seeks choice coins with CAC stickers. An Uncirculated set is possible but it would require considerable patience and some of these issues (notably the 1853/2, 1854 Large Date, 1859, and 1862) are very rare and seldom offered for sale in Mint State. A collector can figure on spending at least $300,000 on an average quality set and considerably more if he wants the majority of his coins to grade higher than MS60 to MS61. An Uncirculated set with all the coins having CAC stickers is certainly possible but it might take many years—and a deep wallet—to assemble.

The New Orleans mint produced a dozen Type One double eagles between 1850 and 1861. Two of these (the 1851-O and the 1852-O) are common, two are moderately scarce (1850-O and 1853-O, three are very scarce to rare (1857-O, 1858-O and 1861-O), three are rare (1855-O, 1859-O and 1860-O), and two are extremely rare (1854-O and 1856-O). Many collectors are forced to skip the 1854-O and the 1856-O due to their extreme rarity and prohibitive prices. However, for those fortunate collectors with the means to acquire one or both, history has proven their worthiness as performing assets.

An Extremely Fine set of Type One New Orleans double eagles is the most realistic for most collectors. Excluding the 1854-O and 1856-O, this set costs at least $175,000-200,000. An About Uncirculated set of Type One New Orleans double eagles is extremely difficult to assemble but it can be completed with patience and a deep pocketbook in a three to five year window. To keep costs down, the collector might buy AU55 examples of the moderately scarce to scarce dates and AU50 to AU53 examples of the very scarce to rare issues. Such a set would cost at least $250,000-300,000+. AU50 to AU53 examples of the 1854-O and the 1856-O would add another $750,000-1,000,000. An AU set with all 12 coins having CAC stickers might be possible, but it would require working with a world-class expert as many of these dates have very low CAC populations.

Between 1854 and 1866, the San Francisco mint produced 14 Type One double eagles. This includes the 1861-S and the 1861-S Paquet reverse. With the exception of the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto, all are reasonably easy to locate in circulated grades. Before the discovery of the three shipwrecks cited above, assembling a high grade set of Type One San Francisco double eagles would have been nearly impossible. Today, it is far more realistic. It is still theoretically impossible to finish this set in Uncirculated, as no 1861-S Paquet reverse double eagles have been graded MS60 or higher by the two services as of the middle of 2014.

A complete set of Type One San Francisco double eagles in EF40 to AU50 costs at least $125,000, with around half of this amount dedicated to the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto. An AU55 to AU58 set costs at least $250,000; again with a significant amount of the cost focused on the two rarities. A set with all of the coins grading at least MS60 except for the Paquet (which would grade AU55 to AU58) would cost in excess of $600,000.

If I had to rank the popularity of the three mints as of the middle of 2014, I would list them as follows:

  1. New Orleans
  2. San Francisco
  3. Philadelphia

3. Collecting Type One Double Eagles by Year

A popular way to collect this series is to obtain one example from each year in which the Type One design was produced. In this case, such a set would consist of 17 coins.

In a Type One year set, it is advisable to select the most affordable issue produced during a specific year. For example, three mints struck double eagles in 1861: Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Most year sets include the 1861 Philadelphia as it is easier to obtain than the other issues and it can be found in comparatively high grades for a reasonable sum.

The most difficult (and least flexible) year is 1866. The Philadelphia mint’s production of double eagles in 1866 consisted exclusively of the new Type Two (or “With Motto”) design, while San Francisco produced a limited number of Type One coins before switching to the new design. The 1866-S Type One is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated and very rare in any grade higher than About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-53.

A complete year set can be assembled in Extremely Fine grades for around $75,000, with at least one-third of the cost going towards an 1866-S No Motto. A set with all of the coins in About Uncirculated can be assembled for $150,000 and up, with around half of the cost going towards the 1866-S. A set with all of the coins in Uncirculated would be very difficult to complete due to the rarity of the 1866-S. It would cost upwards of $425,000-450,000 to complete with, once again, a significant portion of the cost going towards the 1866-S.

4. Assembling a Complete Set of Type One Double Eagles

For some collectors, Type One double eagles become their primary focus and they seek to assemble a complete set. Such a set consists of every issue struck between 1850 and 1866 (not including the excessively rare 1861 Paquet reverse). Including the 1853/2, 1854 Large Date, and the 1861-S Paquet, there are a total of 44 issues.

Depending on a collector’s budget, the grades for a complete set of Type One double eagles will range from Extremely Fine-40 all the way up to Mint State-65. The more common issues are generally represented by coins in comparably higher grades while the rarities are represented by coins in slightly lower grades. The rarest issues in the set include the 1854-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, 1859-O, 1860-O, and 1861-S Paquet. The rarer issues tend to be very difficult to locate and the most available of these six coins are rarely available at prices lower than $40,000-50,000.

There are some practical guidelines which the collector assembling a complete set should follow. A complete set should be as well-matched as possible. The collector should also attempt to obtain coins with as much visual similarity as possible.

A complete set should not be “all over the map” as far as grades are concerned. It makes no sense to assemble a set which has VF30 coins alongside MS62’s

Many Type One collectors are guilty of “overbuying” the common dates and “underbuying” the rarities in order to save money; I feel this is a mistake. Instead of spending $50,000 on a high-grade example of a mundane date such as an 1851, buy a nice coin one grade lower for $15,000, and use the money you’ve saved to put towards a rarity. Conversely, instead of filling the 1854-O and 1856-O holes with “no grades” or problem coins, try to find the best examples of these you can possibly afford. A set of coins is judged on the quality of the rare issues, not by the common ones.

Don’t assemble a set of Type One double eagles with unrealistic expectations. A collector who has previously worked on more common sets may approach Type Ones with the idea that he can race through set in higher grades. Since a number of Type Ones are unknown in Uncirculated and extremely rare in the higher About Uncirculated grades, certain allowances have to be made. The collector must learn what is realistic for each issue. It isn’t realistic to find an 1856-O in Mint State-60. But it is realistic to find an 1856-S in this range or even higher.

In Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50, a complete set of 44 Type One Liberty Head double eagles is going to cost a minimum of $1,000,000, and probably quite a bit more once the collector finishes upgrading coins he isn’t satisfied with. If the collector decides to eliminate the 1854-O and 1856-O, at least half of this expenditure will be eliminated. A set which included all the coins in About Uncirculated-50 to About Uncirculated-58 would cost at least $1,500,000. Eliminating the two ultra-rarities would again remove at least half of the cost. A set in which the majority of the coins grade Mint State-60 and above and the rarities grade at least About Uncirculated-55 is going to cost upwards of $2,000,000-2,500,000, and possibly quite a bit more.

5. A Shipwreck “Mini Set”

A number of shipwrecks containing Type One double eagles have been located since the late 1980’s. These are designated by PCGS and NGC, and they are extremely popular with collectors. A shipwreck mini-set most likely would contain just three coins and would be constructed as follows:

  1. S.S. Central America. This is the most famous of the three shipwrecks discussed here as it contains thousands of very high quality coins. Most collectors seek a nice Uncirculated 1857-S, typically grading MS63 to MS65. I have a few buying tips for such a coin. First, only buy a piece in the original gold foil holder. Second, be patient as there are thousands of potential coins for your set. Wait for a coin which appeals to you and look for one with bright, flashy surfaces which lack haze or cloudiness. Third, buy a coin with all the “bells and whistles.” By this, I mean look for a coin that has all its original packaging and which has been approved by CAC as well. Finally, don’t overpay. There are hundreds of auction price comparables for these coins, so you should be able to figure a smart price to pay with relative ease.
  2. S. S. Brother Jonathan. This shipwreck featured Civil War era San Francisco Type One double eagles. The coins tend to be a little less attractive than the S.S. Central America pieces and are harder to locate in the original packaging. The two dates which seem most plentiful from this shipwreck are the 1863-S and 1865-S. The buying tips I mentioned above mostly apply to these coins as well, except original packaging is non-existent.
  3. S. S. Republic. The third shipwreck in the set is the one which is least interesting to me as the quality of the coins tends to be less nice. That said, there are some interesting coins which come to market from time to time with this pedigree.

6. Collecting by Die Variety

For most Type One double eagles, a number of different obverse and reverse dies were used. As one die became worn or damaged, it was replaced by a new die. The different die combinations created various die varieties which range from significant to very minor.

The field of gold coin die variety collecting is fertile. Little has been written about the varieties of United States gold coins, and almost nothing has been written about the die varieties of Type One Liberty Head issues. A number of interesting and potentially rare die varieties exist. Many are discussed in my book(s) on Type One double eagles. Others wait to be discovered by sharp-eyed collectors.

In order to study double eagle die varieties, the collector should pay careful attention to date and mintmark placement and other more subtle die characteristics such as breaks and die scratches.

Collecting varieties of Type One double eagles has become more popular in the last decade, and part of this is attributable to the fact that some of the major varieties are now recognized by PCGS and NGC. In addition to the widely accepted varieties (1853/2 and 1854 Large Date), the following are often collected alongside “regular” coins:

  • 1852 Double Date
  • 1853 Repunched Date
  • 1854 Small Date, Doubled Date
  • 1855-S Small S mintmark
  • 1857-S Large S mintmark
  • 1859-S Double LIBERTY
  • 1865 Blundered date

7. A Civil War “Mini Set”

One of the most popular theme sets in the Type One series is the 11 or 12 coin Civil War set. This includes the following issues, all made during the Civil War years: 1861, 1861-O, 1861-S, 1861-S Paquet, 1862, 1862-S, 1863, 1863-S, 1864, 1864-S, 1865, and 1865-S.

Due to the fact that this set has multiple levels of demand, many of the double eagles from the Civil War have seen considerable increases in price.

There are some difficult issues in the Civil War set. The 1861-O is the only New Orleans double eagle from this period and it is extremely popular. The 1862 is the rarest Philadelphia double eagle from this period, followed by the 1863 and the 1864. The San Francisco issues are more available with the exception of the rare 1861-S Paquet. The price of this variety might cause some collectors to not include it in the set. This makes sense, given that a “normal reverse” 1861-S can be an acceptable substitute.

An 11 piece set in Extremely Fine grades should cost in the area of $80,000. Adding the Paquet reverse would make the set cost over $100,000.

An 11 piece set in About Uncirculated would be challenging but it is completable. It should cost at least $150,000 and could run quite a bit more if the collector seeks choice, original coins with CAC approval. Adding a nice AU55 Paquet will require around a $150,000 commitment.

This set could not be completed in Uncirculated as the Paquet doesn’t exist in this range. However, the rest of the coins do, and here are my suggestions for the best value grade for each date:

  • 1861: MS62 to MS63
  • 1861-O: MS60 (if available)
  • 1861-S: MS61 to MS62
  • 1862: MS60 to MS62
  • 1863: MS61 to MS62
  • 1863-S: MS62 to MS63
  • 1864: MS61 to MS62
  • 1864-S: MS61 to MS62
  • 1865: MS62 to MS63
  • 1865-S: MS62 to MS63

8. Collecting Proof Type One Double Eagles

A tiny number of Proof double eagles were struck prior to 1859. From 1859 to 1865, very small numbers were made. Fewer than 350 proofs were struck for the entire type, and fewer than 75 are known.

The rarity of these coins makes them very appealing to a small segment of wealthy collectors. It might be possible to assemble a complete date run of Proofs from 1859 to 1865. This would require patience, luck, and a very healthy coin budget.

Most of the Proof Type One double eagles which appear on the market are in the Proof-63 to Proof-64 range. Gems are exceedingly rare, and are generally offered for sale at the rate of maybe once per two or three years.