1856-O Gold $20
Doubles its Prior Record
By Greg Reynolds
29, at the Long Beach Coin, Stamp and
Collectible Expo, Heritage auctioned the finest
known 1856-O double eagle for $1,437,500. No
other New Orleans Mint coin has ever been
publicly auctioned for more than $1 million. It
is the only 1856-O gold $20 that is known for
sure to grade above -60 and it seems to be the
only one that is a "special striking."
The previous record for an 1856-O was set in
October 2008, when an Numismatic Guaranty Corp.
graded AU-58 coin was auctioned for $576,150.
This result is the second highest auction price
for any Liberty Head double eagle. In 2006,
Heritage sold an 1861 Philadelphia Mint, Liberty
Head with the Paquet reverse, for $1,610,000.
This same 1856-O, then NGC certified
Specimen-63, was previously auctioned in June
2005, for $542,800. The "Specimen" designation
refers to coins that are neither proofs nor
business strikes, but are specially made and
have certain characteristics that are different
from those of corresponding business strikes.
Usually, Specimen strikes are intended to be
better looking than business strikes.
Not long before this May 2009 auction, this coin
was submitted to the Professional Coin Grading
Service and it "crossed over" to a PCGS holder
also with a "SP-63" certification. Additionally,
it was given a sticker of approval by the CAC.
Jeff Garrett and I viewed the coin together in
Long Beach, at which time he remarked that it is
"obviously special" and "beautifully struck."
Garrett is a very experienced dealer and the
co-author of two widely recognized books,
including an "Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins."
He emphasizes that "the surfaces [are] deeply
mirrored and completely different from other
double eagles of the era." Interestingly,
Garrett likened the mirror surfaces on this
Specimen 1856-O to those on the pattern 1849
double eagle and especially to those on the
Smithsonian's 1854-S double eagle. The late
researcher Walter Breen raved about the
Smithsonian's 1854-S double eagle, which he
strongly regarded as a proof.
While I do not believe that this 1856-O screams
"Specimen," I agree that it is a true Specimen
striking. I am not as impressed by the mirrors
as Garrett and others. There are many 19th
century, prooflike gold coins with fully
reflective surfaces. Very few of them are true
specimen strikings. In my view, the crisp,
exceptionally even strike and the ways in which
the devices meet the fields place this coin in a
category above any other New Orleans Mint double
eagle. A magnifying glass is needed to verify
its "Specimen" status.
Not everyone is impressed by specimen
designations. Bob Green declares that "most of
the $20 Liberty double eagle collectors" that he
has "worked with had no interest in ever owning
this coin as it is likely to be a special
striking and not a business strike meant for
commerce at a time in our history." Green, of
Park Avenue Numismatics, is a specialist in the
Liberty double eagle series.
Green "was very surprised that this coin sold
for $1,437,500. [He] would not have bid more
than $1 million." Garrett, in contrast, remarks
that "the coin was a bargain in relation to the
cost of circulation strike 1856-O double eagles
and the unique status of the coin elevates it to
In my view, the price realized was a little
high, given current market conditions. A
circulated 1856-O could probably be purchased,
at some point over the next 18 months, for less
than $475,000. This 1856-O is a coin of such
importance, however, that it is very difficult
to put a price tag on it. Plus, it is really