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HomeUS Coins1865-S Liberty Head Double Eagle : A Collector's Guide

1865-S Liberty Head Double Eagle : A Collector’s Guide

1865-S Liberty Head Double Eagle. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
1865-S Liberty Head Double Eagle. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

The 1865-S Liberty Head double eagle is a popularly collected $20 gold coin that owes much of its availability today to two early 2000s shipwreck salvage efforts. The United States Mint in San Francisco struck 1,042,500 coins in 1865, sourcing the gold from California’s abundant deposits. As with most Type I Liberty Head double eagles, much of the coined gold either circulated or was used to facilitate export trade.

A quantity of the issue was loaded onto SS Brother Jonathan, a paddle steamship used to transport treaty payments to Indian tribes. That ship sank off the coast of California on July 30, 1865, taking 300 passengers and crew, and approximately $500,000 in gold coins down with her. In 1996, the wreck site was discovered, in part due to the crew of mini-sub seeing the “glint” of gold coins on the ocean floor. This discovery led to a series of recovery efforts, and most of the 1,207 coins recovered from the ship were Mint State 1865-S double eagles–more than 600 in Mint State.

Still more 1865-S Liberty Head double eagles were recovered from the salvage of SS Republic, although the number of these is far fewer.

Republic had an interesting service life. It was built in Baltimore by shipbuilder John Alexander Robb and launched in 1853 as SS Tennessee. Initially serving as a merchant vessel, Tennessee transported Americans hoping to find their fortunes in California to the eastern shores of Panama, where they traveled across the isthmus to catch their westbound voyage.

1865-S Liberty Head Double Eagle with PCGS novelty insert. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1865-S Liberty Head Double Eagle with PCGS novelty insert. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

In the opening months of the Civil War, Tennessee was captured by the Confederacy. Her Confederate service was shortlived, as a Union blockade of the New Orleans harbor kept her in port. In April 1862, Union forces captured the vessel and put her into service as a gunship. Tennessee was renamed USS Mobile in 1864. In March 1865, after being damaged in a hurricane, the Navy sold her off after deeming the ship too expensive to refit. Auctioned off and repaired, she was renamed Republic. On the ship’s fifth voyage after her Navy service, Republic sank off the coast of Georgia with passengers and over $400,000 in gold and silver coins. The wreck was discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. in August 2003, and salvaged.

Once recovered and conserved, the shipwreck recovery coins were distributed to wholesalers, marketing firms, and select dealers. These coins were typically sold as recovered “treasure” coins. Both grading services denoted the recovered 1865-S Liberty Head double eagles with their respective shipwrecks. PCGS designed a novelty insert that depicted an image of a steamship. This insert is crude by modern novelty insert standards but was devised to draw attention to the coin’s connection to the shipwreck pedigree.

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Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

Thanks to the recovery of Brother Jonathan, the 1865-S Liberty Head double eagle is obtainable for a moderate price at the MS64 level, usually around $20,000. Gems make up the minority of the coins recovered from the bottom of the ocean, but they surface at auction at a rate of three or four per year. The value of this issue has not advanced by any significant degree over the past 15 years. As a shipwreck salvage coin whose recovery was featured in a National Geographic television special, the 1865-S was a heavily promoted coin upon its initial release. Some inserts denote the sequence of their recovery, except for possibly very low numbers (single digit); these carry no apparent market premium.

Top Population: PCGS MS66 (2, 3/2023), NGC MS66 (9, 3/2024), and CAC MS66 (5:0; Stickered:Graded, 3/2024).

  • NGC MS66 #651372-003: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; “The Galt’s Gulch Collection,” Heritage Auctions, January 5, 2012, Lot 5043 – $46,000.
  • NGC MS65 #576915-002: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; Heritage Auctions, January 2004, Lot 3118; Heritage Auctions, August 15, 2023, Lot 3264 – $32,400.
  • NGC MS65 #3017739-004: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; Heritage Auctions, May 3, 2023, Lot 3294 – $33,600.
  • NGC MS65 #576914-017: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; “The Collection of a Distinguished WW2 Veteran,” Heritage Auctions, August 4, 2020, Lot 4039 – $27,600.
  • PCGS MS65 #1611982: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; “The Collection of a Distinguished WW2 Veteran,” Heritage Auctions, August 4, 2020, Lot 4038 – $27,600.
  • NGC MS65 #651370-005: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; “The Casady Collection,” Heritage Auctions, January 5, 2017, Lot 6018 – $25,850.
  • PCGS MS65 #3449161: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; Heritage Auctions, September 17, 2015, Lot 4226 – $25,850.
  • PCGS MS65 #3449157: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; Heritage Auctions, October 2006, Lot 3224; “The Collection of Edwin J. Mantooth Bowers,” Heritage Auctions, April 23, 2015, Lot 5441 – $32,900; Stack’s Bowers, June 11, 2021, Lot 2574 – $31,200.
  • NGC MS65 #5649430-005: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; “The Charles G. Wright Family Collection,” Heritage Auctions, August 7, 2014, Lot 5711 – $25,850.
  • PCGS MS65 #6579500: “The Richard P. Ariagno, M.D. Collection,” Heritage Auctions, January 11, 2013, Lot 7497 – $25,850.
  • NGC MS65 #651369-014: SS Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Recovery; Heritage Auctions, September 11, 2009, Lot 1788 – $20,700.
  • PCGS MS65: “The Franklinton Collection, Part II,” Stack’s, November 7, 2006, Lot 1387 – $23,000.

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Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year Of Issue: 1865
Denomination: Twenty Dollars (USD)
Mint Mark: S (San Francisco)
Mintage: 1,042,500
Alloy: .900 Gold, .100 Copper
Weight: 33.436 g
Diameter: 34.00 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: James Barton Longacre
REV Designer: James Barton Longacre
Quality: Business Strike

 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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