Until the California Gold Rush in 1849, the largest denomination in US coinage was the $10 gold piece, or Eagle. Significant quantities of gold were piling into the Philadelphia Mint. It was clear something had to be done to conserve space and make tremendous amounts of gold more convenient to handle. The coin under discussion would be specifically for large-scale international and domestic transactions. The significant influx of precious metal from the California Gold Rush caused Congress to pass the Act of March 3, 1849. Two gold coins resulted from this legislature. The Gold Dollar was designed, engraved, minted, and released into circulation in a matter of months. The second gold coin, the Liberty Head Double Eagle was a different story. Certain aspects of the new coin’s design presented challenges in creating dies with the proper relief to strike correctly. The situation provoked a great deal of infighting that would leave a scar on the culture of the Philadelphia Mint, but more about that later.
The $20 Liberty Head Double Eagle, also known as the Coronet Double Eagle, is the longest-running series of gold coinage. Chief Engraver James Longacre experimented with different approaches to designing the Double Eagle. After much infighting at the Philadelphia Mint, Longacre produced several $20 gold pieces in 1849. The following year saw the new Liberty Head Double Eagles released into full circulation and continued until the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle replaced the series in 1907. So it’s no wonder that two Liberty Head Double Eagles are on the list of the Top 15 Most Valuable US Gold Coins. They are:
The 1856-O $20 Liberty Head Double Eagle
Only 2,250 Gold Double Eagles were minted in New Orleans in 1856. That fact alone makes it a key date and highly sought by collectors of the series.
There could be tremendous inconsistencies in the quality of strikes on a coin back in the days before electricity. An excellent example of these inconsistencies is the Double Eagles created at the New Orleans Mint in 1856. Most of these coins have weak design features and lack details; however, the 1856 Special Strike (SP designation) coin certified by PCGS as SP-63 is exceptional. The quality of the strike shows that the craftsman at the New Orleans Mint took special care to create a showcase example of this coin. Although there is no documentation of proof coins, this specimen displays the kind of beautiful details and reflective surfaces you’d expect from a proof coin. The 1856-O $20 Liberty Head Double Eagle PCGS SP-63 sold at auction for $1,437,500.
The 1961 $20 Liberty Head Double Eagle with the Paquet Reverse
As the Civil War erupted in the United States, Liberty Head Double Eagle became a new variety. Anthony C. Paquet, an assistant engraver at the Mint, created a revised die for the reverse of the Liberty Head Double Eagle. The new die by Pacquet used taller, heavier letters around the reverse border. No sooner than Mint Director James Ross Snowden approved the dies, it was quickly considered unpractical for mass production and canceled. Before the order to cancel arrived on the West Coast, the San Francisco Mint sent 19,250 pieces into public circulation. Philadelphia produced three coins, and two of them are known to survive. One of them, certified by PCGS as a Mint State 61 (MS61), sold at an auction for $1,645,000.
Remember the original “several” 1849 Liberty Head Double Eagles?
The most highly regarded engraver of his time, James Longacre, secretly worked to produce several prototypes, or pattern coins, of the Liberty Head Double Eagle in 1849. It seems every aspect of the work proceeded under an emotionally-charged environment at the Mint (more about this later). No one knows how many of the initial pattern coins Longacre was able to produce, but only one is known to survive today, and that one is on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute. The 1849 Double Eagle Pattern coin is one of the most valuable US coins in existence, but it will never be available on the market. J.P. Morgan couldn’t buy it from the Smithsonian in 1909, and he offered $35,000 (nearly a million dollars by today’s standard).
The Liberty Head Double Eagles and the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles that followed remain a popular series with many offerings, including several rarities. Strike quality can be elusive for the earlier varieties until 1878; however, the most common dates from the 1890s to the end of the series in 1907 exist in choice conditions.
Shipwreck Specimens & the Seawater Effect Designation
There were several shipwrecks off the Eastern Coast and the Gulf of Mexico during the mid-19th Century. The most notable examples are the SS Central America and the SS Republic.
The Sinking of the SS Central America
The sidewheel paddler SS Central America sank off the coast of North Carolina during a category two hurricane on September 12, 1857. The ship went down with 426 souls and over 9 tons of gold, including 10,600 gold coins, 577 gold ingots, and 14,000 silver coins. Because the gold was being moved from the West Coast to the desperate banks and struggling businesses on the East Coast, the sinking of the SS Central America contributed to the financial panic of 1857. One hundred and thirty-one years later, most of the sunken treasure had been recovered by a private expedition. The 1856-S and over 5,400 of the 1857-S varieties were part of the retrieved inventory.
The Sinking of the SS Republic
The SS Republic, a Civil War-era side-wheel steamship, sank in 1865 while carrying a large cargo of gold and silver coins, including many varieties of the Liberty Head $20 Gold Double Eagle from the mid-1860s. Unlike the SS Central America crew, the passengers and crew survived the sinking ship, yet the fortune went down with the ship. The wreckage was discovered 140 years later.
Gold is not a reactive metal, so prolonged submersion in seawater doesn’t affect its appearance. The shipwreck effect doesn’t have the same impact on gold as silver coins. The SS Republic and SS Central America Gold coins were certified against strict modern grading standards. All of them were certified uncirculated and even Mint condition.
Type 1 Liberty Head Double Eagles (see below) in immaculate condition have been recovered from shipwrecks. These recovered shipwreck treasures have a certain romance that entices public demand.
Shipwrecks aside, most Liberty Head Double Eagles from 1870 to 1907 are available in choice Mint State.
Proof Liberty Head Double Eagles
Proof gold coins are genuinely something to behold. All the proof Liberty Head Double Eagles are scarce and cost thousands of dollars even for the higher-mintage dates. Proof Double Eagles are the most famous and the most impressive. The earliest generally available date is 1859, a great rarity, after which each year up through 1878 is quite rare. Several years later, the only Liberty Head Double Eagle was a proof strike. There were no regular circulation strikes for 1883, 1884, and 1887, only proofs, and these specimens have tremendous numismatic importance and hefty price tags.
The Design of the Liberty Head $20 Gold Double Eagle
The Liberty Head Double Eagle design follows the aesthetic tradition of time and is not forward-leaning as would be the designs later created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The dictates of the 1792 Coinage Act specified all coins have an
impression of emblematic liberty, the inscription of the word LIBERTY, and the year of creation somewhere on the obverse side. The reverse of gold and silver coins must represent an eagle and the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. These were the rules, so to speak, that James B. Longacre had to keep in mind as he sat down to design the coinage.
James B. Longacre was a self-educated classical artist who learned to draw portraits by emulating illustrations while still a teenager. He grew up seeing the figure of Liberty personified on coinage with a cap and pole. When it came time for him to design the Double Eagle, he followed the aesthetic conventions of the day and the tradition of depicting Lady Liberty as a Greco-Roman goddess.
Longacre’s profile of Lady Liberty has her facing left. Her hair is under a bonnet with LIBERTY inscribed. Some of her hair cascades along the back of her neck. Below her neckline is the coin’s mintage date. Thirteen stars frame the design. The stars represent the original thirteen colonies.
The composition for the reverse of the Liberty Double Eagle offers more sophisticated imagery in design than the front. A variation on the Great Seal of the United States forms the design on the reverse. A heraldic eagle protects the shield, which represents the nation. Clutched in the talons of the Eagle are olive branches, representing peace, and arrows, representing readiness for war. The Eagle also holds two ribbons with E PLURIBUS UNUM (Out of Many, One). The two ribbons are symbolic of the denomination of the coin itself.
The contemporary reaction to the coin upon circulation was largely adverse. Many thought the reverse design was too convoluted and utterly
destitute of taste. Despite the initial response to the coin’s creation, the Liberty Head Double Eagle is popular amongst modern collectors.
The Three Variations on the Liberty Head $20 Gold Double Eagle Design
The Double Eagle series used more gold than all the other denominations combined. Upon general circulation of the Liberty Head $20 Gold Double Eagle in 1850, just over a million coins were minted. Once the San Francisco Mint opened in 1854, the New Orleans Mint produced very low mintages.
There are three varieties of Liberty Head Double Eagles over the life of the series.
Type 1 (1850–1866)
TWENTY D. indicates the coin’s denomination. The original version has the word LIBERTY spelled as LLBERTY by Longacre. His assistant engraver, Anthony C. Paquet, completed a revision of the reverse in 1860. The 1861 Paquet reverse has taller, narrower letters but was later reverted because the new version lacked the high rim needed to protect the design from abrasions.
Type II (1866–1876)
Although the Civil War had ended, the horrors of it were fresh in everyone’s memory. Many citizens urged the government to recognize God on the US coins. So, in 1866, they added the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the design. Longacre made the revisions by enlarging the circle of stars on the reverse and embedding the motto there. He also made other changes to the design. For example, Longacre made the edges of the shield more rounded. He altered the shape of the leaves and added a ninth leaf to the olive branch.
Type III (1877–1907)
William Barber had succeeded James Longacre as Chief Engraver in 1872. Five years later, he altered the reverse of the Liberty Head Double Eagle by emboldening IN GOD WE TRUST. He would continue to tweak the design later, like shortening the neck to make more room for the date. The most notable change was to the reverse. The denomination was changed to read TWENTY DOLLARS. The phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM was enlarged to be more prominent. Coins of this combination were minted till the end of the series in 1907, with the most common date being 1904. Adjustments to Longacre’s original design continued when William Barber’s son took over the position. Still, the basic concept remained the same until President Teddy Roosevelt coerced the Mint to contract Augustus Saint-Gaudens to
beautify the nation’s coinage.
The History of the Liberty Head $20 Gold Double Eagle
The Philadelphia Mint approaching the mid-19th Century was a rat’s nest full of intrigue, double-dealings, politics, and infighting. James B Longacre joined the Mint in the late summer of 1844; he had personality conflicts with the Mint Director Robert Patterson and Chief Coiner Franklin Peale. Longacre received the position through the political influence of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, a person whom Director Patterson despised.
The congressional order for a new Gold Dollar and a new Gold Double Eagle was an important milestone for the Mint. Although the Gold Dollar project ran smoothly, the evolution of the Double Eagle, just as it would be some fifty years later with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was fraught with problems, accusations, and insults. More than once did Patterson and Peale conspire to have Longacre fired from his position as Chief Engraver. They even tried to orchestrate the commission of an outside engraver which was equivalent to a slap-in-the-face to Longacre. As soon as Longacre proceeded to work on the Double Eagle design, Peale and Patterson began systematic harassment. Patterson ordered Longacre to give Peale the wax model for the new design so that Peale could make a metal Galvano of it. The model was soon mysteriously destroyed. Fortunately for Longacre, he had a cost of the design in plaster and used it in the lathe machine. The resulting steel die had to be hardened in Peale’s department, where it split in the process.
Undeterred and persistent, Longacre created the third die despite the continual opposition by Peale and Patterson. A friend of Longacre saw what was going on and arranged for an assistant to help Longacre make hubs and dies. With this help, Longacre was finally able to complete a Liberty Head Double Eagle prototype, which he promptly sent to Secretary of the Treasury William M. Meredith for approval. Upon finding out about this, Peale objected to the design in writing. Peale said the relief of the head of Liberty was so high that pieces struck using the Philadelphia Mint’s steam-powered machinery could not fully bring out the design. The coin sent to Meredith had been stamped by hand on a metal press. Peale’s letter said Liberty’s head was in such high relief that the coins would not stack properly.
Longacre created lower-relief dies, but Peale dragged his feet until rejecting the new dies a few weeks later. The situation grew intense over the days and weeks that followed. Longacre was even told by Peale that his services were no longer needed and that steps were being taken for his removal. Finally, Longacre left Philadelphia for Washington, DC, to meet with Secretary Meredith. Longacre discovered that Director Patterson had been lying to Meredith about many things. When Longacre took a new Liberty Head Double Eagle from his pocket and showed it to Meredith, he was shocked. Reports to Meredith stated that the dies kept breaking and that Longacre couldn’t produce the coin. Showing the prototype Liberty Head Double Eagle to Secretary Meredith resulted in Longacre keeping his job.
Interestingly, as a footnote, James B. Longacre’s work on the Flying Eagle cent (1856–1858) would be Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s favorite US coin designs.