The year 1881 saw a reduction in double eagle coinage at the Philadelphia Mint that continued through most of the decade. Only 2,199 business-strike twenties were produced at the Philadelphia facility in 1881, accompanied by a fairly generous mintage of 61 proofs. Because of the low mintage, the dies saw little wear, and most 1881 double eagles have reflective prooflike surfaces. Fortunately, the date on the business-strike coins is placed higher and to the left of the date on proofs, making it possible to distinguish between the two issues.

United States 1881 $20 double eagle gold coin. Images courtesy Heritage AuctionsOnly a handful of well-heeled numismatists could afford to collect double eagles systematically in the 1880s, so the proof mintage was probably adequate to meet collector demand at the time. Very few, if any, business-strike coins were saved for numismatic purposes and the 1881 has a low survival rate, especially in high grade. No more than 40-60 examples survive in all grades, and the two leading grading services have combined to certify 16 coins in all Mint State grades, including an unknown number of resubmissions and crossovers.

Because of the lack of numismatic interest in the coins, early auction appearances of the 1881 are few-and-far-between. For many years, mintages of proof and business-strike issues were often combined, indicative of the then-current belief that proofs were merely high-quality examples of the business-strike production. Only in recent years have numismatists defined proofs and business-strikes as different issues because of their different production methods.

In 1935, the coin realized $50, a strong price at the time.

Today, examples sell for many multiples of that price, with the MS61 PCGS example in lot 5837 of the Central States Signature auction (Heritage, 4/2014) realizing $152,750.

Our September 9 – 12 Twelve Oaks Collection Signature Auction features an attractive NGC-graded near-Mint example with sharply detailed design elements and the expected prooflike reflectivity in the fields, along with hints of mint frost in some areas. The pleasing orange-gold surfaces show the expected number of minor abrasions, but the overall presentation is most appealing. We expect intense competition from series specialists when this lot is called.
 

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