I’ve had the pleasure of handling many finest known or Condition Census Type One double eagles over the years. Still, I was totally unprepared for the quality of the fresh-to-the-market Gem 1851 that was recently offered as Lot 3681 in Heritage’s December 2022 coin auction. I purchased it for $408,000 USD (including the 20% buyer’s premium), which is a record price for a regular issue/business strike Philadelphia Type One $20. This is, of course, not including the record-setting MS67 1861 Paquet, which realized $7,200,000 in August 2021. The 1851 now resides in the New England Collection of Type One double eagles; one of the finest specialized collections of 19th-century $20s ever formed.
I traveled to Dallas on December 12 and 13 mainly to view the 2023 FUN sale in person at Heritage’s gargantuan offices, but to be perfectly honest, the coin I was most excited to see in person was the Gem 1851 $20. According to the catalog, the coin had belonged to the consignor’s grandfather who owned a store in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and it was passed down through his mother to the current owner. It didn’t disappoint.
The coin was amazing from a number of perspectives.
The first is its survival. A double eagle represented a tremendous sum of money from the 1850s up through the Great Depression, which meant that most coins of this caliber were either spent or melted by the individuals or families that owned them. And we must take into account the Gold Recall of 1933 that ended the lives of countless millions of double eagles.
The second is preservation. It is a miracle that an 1851—or any pre-Civil War double eagle—survived virtually “as struck.” Big coins typically show big abrasions, and this 1851 was as clean and original as any non-shipwreck Type One I have ever seen.
The third is that the owner was savvy enough to get this coin into a high-quality auction instead of walking it into a local dealer and selling it for $2,500 (or less).
The fourth is that it set a record price in a fairly inconsequential sale; at least by the high standards of Heritage.
As I told a client of mine many years ago, the reach of auctions is such that a good coin could appear on New Year’s Eve in a sale held in Greenland and the item would still bring a strong price. Would this coin have brought more in the Winter FUN or Summer ANA sales? I seriously doubt it – especially when one considers this was unquestionably the best coin in the auction, whereas in a phone book catalog it may have gotten lost.
Now, about the coin.
It’s simply superb with thick, creamy luster on both sides. The surfaces are as clean as on any non-shipwreck Type One I’ve ever seen and the strike is razor sharp. The Heritage photo exaggerates the depth of the color; it has attractive light natural orange-gold hues but nowhere as deep as the image portrays.
The previous finest known 1851 double eagle is not easy to pinpoint. I would vote for the Hansen/Crawford coin (PCGS/CAC MS64), but the Bowers and Merena 8/2010: 1811 coin (which held the previous auction record for this date at $34,500) is special as well. However, the PCGS MS65+ that I purchased is significantly finer.
Just how rare is a pre-Civil War double eagle in Gem? If you trust PCGS population numbers (as I do), then they are exceedingly rare. Discounting shipwreck coins, as of the end of 2022, there are exactly six, as follows:
1850 PCGS MS65: I formerly believed that this is the Heritage 1/2007: 3698 coin that brought $161,000 as an NGC MS65; it is not. It is also not the Goldberg 6/2016 coin (later sold by Legend in October 2019), nor is it the Bass coin that upgraded from MS64 to MS65. Based on the PCGS Coinfacts picture, I’m not 100% convinced that I would grade it as a 65 if I saw it in person.
1851 PCGS/CAC MS65+: This is the coin discussed in this blog.
1852 PCGS/CAC MS65: This coin sold for $288,000 as Heritage 5/2022: 4028. It was ok for the grade but I didn’t love it.
1854 Small Date PCGS/CAC MS65+: One of my all-time favorite Type Ones; ex Bill Crawford, and currently owned by Dell Loy Hansen. But I still think my 1851 is nicer!
1855 PCGS/CAC MS65+: I lost this coin to Bill Crawford (one of many $20 Libs he came out on top at auctions in which we competed during the 1990s and 2000s) when he paid $126,500 for this in the March 2006 ANR sale. It has since been upgraded and I have no problem with it as a 65. Again, I think my 1851 is nicer due to its more vibrant appearance.
1860 PCGS/CAC MS65: I purchased this coin for $141,000 in the Stack’s Bowers 2016 ANA auction; a price that seems really reasonable in late 2022. It is pedigreed to the Eliasberg Collection and it was obtained from the Chapman Brothers in November 1897.
If you want an unbiased opinion of their ranking in terms of quality, then you might want to ask someone else. Bbut I would rate them as follows:
Part of the fun of numismatics for me is having the opportunity to buy and sell truly great coins such as this Superb Gem 1851 $20. It certainly is a great coin for me to end 2022 with, and it is unlikely that a nicer non-shipwreck Type One double eagle will come available for many years.
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About Doug Winter
Doug has spent much of his life in the field of numismatics; beginning collecting coins at the age of seven, and by the time he was 10 years old, buying and selling coins at conventions in the New York City area.
In 1989, he founded Douglas Winter Numismatics, and his firm specializes in buying and selling choice and rare US Gold coins, especially US gold coins and all branch mint material.
Recognized as one of the leading specialized numismatic firms, Doug is an award-winning author of over a dozen numismatic books and a recognized expert on US Gold. His knowledge and an exceptional eye for properly graded and original coins have made him one of the most respected figures in the numismatic community and a sought-after dealer by collectors and investors looking for professional personalized service, a select inventory of impeccable quality, and fair and honest pricing. Doug is also a major buyer of all US coins and is always looking to purchase collections both large and small. He can be reached at (214) 675-9897.
Doug has been a contributor to the Guidebook of United States Coins (also known as the “Red Book”) since 1983, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues.
In addition, he has authored 13 books on US Gold coins including:
- Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909
- Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint: 1870 – 1893
- Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861
- Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint 1838-1861
- The United States $3 Gold Pieces 1854-1889
- Carson City Gold Coinage 1870-1893: A Rarity and Condition Census Update
- An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles
- The Connoisseur’s Guide to United States Gold Coins
- A Collector’s Guide To Indian Head Quarter Eagles
- The Acadiana Collection of New Orleans Coinage
- Type Three Double Eagles, 1877-1907: A Numismatic History and Analysis
- Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861: A Numismatic History and Analysis
- Type Two Double Eagles, 1866-1876: A Numismatic History and Analysis
Finally, Doug is a member of virtually every major numismatic organization, professional trade group and major coin association in the US.