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Coin Profile – 1849-C Open Wreath Gold Dollar – Rarest Gold Dollar Issue

1849-C G$1 Open Wreath MS62 PCGS Secure
1849-C G$1 Open Wreath MS62 PCGS Secure. Variety 1.

The following coin is being presented by Heritage  for sale at the 2016 FUN Platinum Night Auction as Lot # 5512. The description below is from the Auction Catalog.

The 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar is one of the rarest and most valuable coins in the U.S. gold series. As Doug Winter states in Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint (2008):

“The 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar is the rarest coin ever produced by the Charlotte Mint. It is the rarest gold dollar from any mint and it also ranks as one of the rarest gold coins made as a business strike issue. Despite an example having sold for a high six-figure price in the last few years, this variety remains underpublicized among non-specialists. Among Charlotte collectors, it has assumed near-mythic proportions.”

Heritage Auctions is pleased to present the finest-known example of this classic gold rarity, the “high six-figure” coin mentioned by Winter, in this important offering.

Birth of a Denomination
The discovery of vast quantities of gold in California prompted Representative James Iver McKay of North Carolina to introduce a bill authorizing coinage of the gold dollar denomination on January 25, 1849. The bill was later amended to include the twenty-dollar denomination, as well, and passed into law on March 3, 1849, despite opposition from Mint Director Robert M. Patterson.

Mint Engraver James Barton Longacre engraved the dies for the gold dollar in early 1849 and the initial reverse design showed the wreath ends widely spaced, far away from the large 1 in the denomination. This style is known as the “Open Wreath” type today. Proofs of the Open Wreath design were first struck on May 7, 1849, and business-strike coins were struck the following day.

Perhaps predictably, Mint Director Patterson objected to the design of the gold dollar, saying the milling was too high and the coins were not well-made. Longacre redesigned the master hubs, creating the “Closed Wreath” design by adding a cluster of leaves and two berries to each of the wreath branches in the process.

Dies of the Open Wreath design had been sent to all the branch mints, and all gold dollars struck at the Dahlonega and New Orleans facilities in 1849 feature this design. Coins from both reverse designs were struck at Philadelphia and Charlotte.

1849-C G$1 Open Wreath MS62 PCGS Secure

Creating a Rarity
Two pairs of dies were shipped from the Philadelphia Mint to Charlotte on June 10 and 13, 1849. The reverse of these dies was apparently the Open Wreath type and coinage of gold dollars commenced on July 3, 1849. Director Patterson received two coins from the first delivery for his inspection and expressed his opposition to the design in his reply.

Patterson notified the Charlotte staff that new dies were being sent and included two examples of the new design, which were struck at Philadelphia, as examples of how the coins should look. Apparently, only a small number of Open Wreath gold dollars had been struck before Patterson’s message was received and coinage of the denomination was suspended until the new dies were on hand.

Of the 11,634 gold dollars struck at the Charlotte Mint in 1849, Q. David Bowers estimates no more than 125 examples featured the Open Wreath reverse. The small initial mintage suffered heavily from attrition over the years and only five examples of the Open Wreath type are known to numismatists today.

Discovery and Enigmatic Early History
For many years after coin collecting became popular in this country numismatists believed all 1849-C gold dollars were of the Closed Wreath type. Augustus Heaton was the foremost student of branch mint issues in the 19th century, but he never found an example of the 1849-C Open Wreath in his studies. He was familiar with the Open Wreath type, from the emissions of the other branch mints and the Philadelphia issue, but noted:

“The 49 C has a small planchet, a small c and a close wreath, thus differing from the other two mintages of this date, the Philadelphia Dollar of 1849 having both varieties.”

The 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar remained undiscovered for decades after Heaton wrote his seminal work on branch mint coins in 1893. The first notice of the variety in print was in lot 1083 of the Belden Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1944):

“1849 Mint letter C below wreath, as all are. This specimen seems to be of an entirely new variety. It is open wreath and the stars on the obverse are smaller; the borders are raised, making the coin appear somewhat thicker than the regular issue. Uncirculated with brilliant luster. Almost equal to a proof. Struck in light yellow gold. I unhesitatingly say that this coin is of excessive rarity, if not unique. (Not listed in the new 1944 Standard Catalog.)”

Mehl noted the prominent borders that Patterson had objected to and the distinctive Open Wreath on the reverse, but he seemingly had no information about the earlier history of the coin. Later numismatists have attributed this piece to Waldo Newcomer, a keen student of varieties who assembled one of the most complete collections of U.S. gold coins in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, there is no mention of the coin in the Newcomer Inventory, currently owned by PCGS (thanks to Ron Guth for this information).

To further complicate the situation, it was Mehl who handled the liquidation of Newcomer’s collection in the early 1930s and he clearly did not recognize the Roach specimen as a former Newcomer coin.

Most of Newcomer’s important gold coins were acquired by “Colonel” E.H.R. Green, via Mehl, but there has never been any suggestion that Green owned this coin. While it is possible that Newcomer owned this example and disposed of it prior to his association with Mehl, we believe this long-accepted origin for the discovery specimen must be taken with a grain of salt.

The 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar made its next public appearance in a letter to the editor of The Numismatist from Texas collector Robert Schermerhorn in the March 1951 issue of the magazine:

“About eight years ago I acquired an 1849-C gold dollar which I believe to be unique for unlike all the others I have been able to locate, this one has an open wreath. It is the same weight and size as other gold dollars of 1849.

“I would very much appreciate hearing from other collectors who have seen or who own a similar specimen.”

Since the 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar was believed to be unique in the 1940s and 1950s, numismatists believed the Roach and Schermerhorn coins were the same specimen. There are problems with this aspect of the accepted pedigree, however.

The coin was imaged in the magazine, but the low-quality images in both the Roach catalog and the 1951 Numismatist make a positive plate match problematic.

Schermerhorn’s letter gives no indication that he was aware of the coin’s appearance in the Roach catalog and it seems unlikely that he purchased it there. His timeline for ownership is slightly out-of-sync as well, as he noted he had acquired the coin eight years prior to the 1951 article, which would have been a full year before Mehl’s auction took place.

Schermerhorn consigned his collection of gold dollars to Jim Kelly’s ANA Convention auction in August of 1956. Lot 1571 was the 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar:

“1849 Charlotte Mint with Open Wreath. Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated. From the Newcomer, and later the Williams Collection, but discovered and first published by Mr. Schermerhorn. The above picture, which is double size, shows the distinctiveness of this type. Certainly no collection could be called complete without it. It is very difficult to set a valuation on this unique coin. Mr. Schermerhorn values it at $7,500.00. This seems justified when we compare it to what numerous rare coins, not unique, have brought at recent sales. This coin is mounted in a large plastic holder, approximately fifteen by ten inches, with blown up photos of the 1849 Philadelphia, Open and Closed Wreaths, and 1849 Charlotte, Open and Closed Wreaths for comparison. Certainly a prized possession for some fortunate collector.”

Kelly’s description gives the provenance as Newcomer-Williams- Schermerhorn, and he was unaware of the appearance of the coin in the Roach Collection. It could be that Charles Williams purchased the coin at the Roach sale, as he was buying heavily during that period, and sold the coin to Schermerhorn later without mentioning the Roach appearance.

Against this is the fact that Williams did not sell his collection until 1950, making it impossible for Schermerhorn to own the coin for eight years before his 1951 article. Altogether, the Newcomer-Roach-Williams-Schermerhorn pedigree for the discovery specimen seems unreliable, but it has been widely accepted for many years.

A careful reading of Jim Kelly’s 1956 ANA catalog description (see above) reveals no mention of a second example, much less a collector named McReynolds.

Despite the best efforts of later numismatists to untangle contradictory and unreliable reports and lot descriptions, we believe it is not possible to reliably reconstruct the early history of the 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar at this time. We have listed the controversial information under Additional Appearances in our roster below.

The Present Coin

It is tempting to speculate that this coin might be the piece described by Mehl in the Belden Roach catalog in 1944. That example was described as Uncirculated and this coin is the only Mint State specimen known to collectors today, grading a full four points better than the second-finest specimen. The surfaces show prooflike reflectivity in the fields and the design elements are sharply detailed in most areas, attributes that would suggest it was “Almost equal to a proof” to Mehl. The high borders and small stars mentioned by Mehl are immediately evident on this coin as well, but those features are common to all specimens of this variety. The Schermerhorn coin, which is listed as the same specimen in most recent pedigrees, only grades AU58, and neither Schermerhorn nor Kelly suggested that it came from the Roach Collection. Unfortunately, the low resolution of the image in the Roach catalog prevents a conclusive plate match.

The first appearance of this coin that can be reliably established is lot 1005 of the Richmond Collection, Part I (David Lawrence, 7/2004). The coin was the only piece in the catalog that was not owned by the Richmond collector himself. It had come on the market a few months earlier, and the owner consigned it to David Lawrence Rare Coins as one of the few gold issues not already included in the collection. The lot realized a record price for any gold dollar of $690,000. As the finest-known example of this classic gold rarity, with outstanding eye appeal and intense historic interest to match its technical quality, we would not be surprised to see it set another record when this lot crosses the block. Population: 1 in 62, 0 finer (6/15).

Roster of 1849-C Open Wreath Gold Dollars

1. MS62 PCGS. Richmond Collection (David Lawrence, 7/2004), lot 1005, (as MS63 Prooflike NGC) realized $690,000; to a partnership of Heritage Rare Coin Galleries, Martin Paul, and Steve Contursi; sold to a private collector in 2005 for a sum reportedly close to $1 million; Central States Signature (Heritage, 4/2015), lot 5228, (still MS63 Prooflike NGC) realized $493,500. The present coin.

2. AU58 PCGS. Robert Schermerhorn Collection; 1956 ANA Sale (James Kelly, 8/1956), lot 1571; later, a Midwestern Collection; Auction ’79 (Stack’s, 7/1979), lot 749, realized $90,000; New England Rare Coin Galleries; private collection; 1982 FUN Sale (New England Rare Coin Auctions, 1/1982), lot 1350, realized $55,000; Southern Collection; Kevin Lipton; Winthrop Carner; North Georgia Collection; FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/1999), lot 7722, unsold; Doug Winter and Hancock and Harwell; James Blanchard & Co.; North Carolina Collection (Heritage, 4/2006) lot 1520, unsold. The March 1951 issue of The Numismatist carries a notice from Robert Schermerhorn that he acquired his coin “about eight years ago.”

3. XF45 NGC. Jefferson Coin and Bullion; purchased by a private collector; Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 2/2010), lot 1359, realized $218,500.

4. XF. New England Rare Coin Galleries (8/1978); Delaware Collection. The New England coin remains in the Delaware Collection where it has resided since 1978.

5. Fine 15 NGC. The reverse is scratched and shows traces of an old jewelry mounting. Leo Young; Charles Southwick; 1974 GENA Sale (Pine Tree Auctions, 9/1974), lot 1952, realized $35,000; Elrod Collection (Stack’s, 5/1986), lot 1330, realized $25,850; a California Collection (via Winthrop Carner for a reported $150,000); Heritage Rare Coin Galleries (1997); William Miller Collection; Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 2/1999), lot 6086, unsold; 2000 FUN Sale (Heritage, 1/2000), lot 7549, realized $86,250; Ashland City Collection (Heritage, 1/2003), lot 4607, realized $97,750; a North Carolina Collection (via Doug Winter).

Additional Appearances

A. A specimen attributed to Waldo Newcomer, but not listed in the Newcomer Inventory, long-believed to be the coin in number 2 above.
B. A specimen attributed to Charles Williams, probably the coin in number 2 above.
C. Belden Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1944), lot 1083, long believed to be the coin in Number 2 above, but probably the Uncirculated specimen in number 1.
D. A specimen removed from jewelry mounting, reportedly in the possession of a Dallas collector named McReynolds before 1956, per Walter Breen. Likely the coin in number 5 above.
E. A coin in the New Netherlands inventory in the 1950s, probably the coin in number 1 above, per Doug Winter.
F. A coin in the possession of Connecticut dealer Donald Lumadue, per Q. David Bowers and Doug Winter, likely the coin in number 3 above.(Registry values: N1)
(PCGS# 7506)

Heritage Auctions
Heritage Auctionshttps://www.ha.com/
Heritage Auction Galleries is one of the world's largest collectibles auctioneers. Besides offering rare and valuable U.S. and world coins and currency, Heritage offers ancient coins, exonumia, antiques, comic books, sports memorabilia, and many other collectibles. The firm is based in Dallas, Texas.

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