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Liberty Head Double Eagle, Without Motto (1850-1866) | CoinWeek

1852 Liberty Head Double Eagle. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
1852 Liberty Head Double Eagle. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
In the 1830s, minor gold rushes in the Southeast spurred the private coinage of the Bechtler family and ultimately led to the creation of three Southern branch mints. However, by the time these mints were operational, much of the easily accessible gold had been mined. A massive gold find in newly acquired California brought about private coinage at a much greater scale, with the San Francisco Mint following soon thereafter.

But in the years before the San Francisco Mint was operational, the government had the challenging logistics issue of figuring out how to process and transport the massive quantities of California gold.

Congress saw the potential of creating two new coin denominations: a gold dollar that could circulate alongside the unpopular silver dollar, and a massive $20 coin called the double eagle. Both coins were authorized by the Coinage Act of March 3, 1849, authored by North Carolina Representative James McKay (D-NC7). The purpose of the double eagle was to provide an easier coin with which to back securities and move large sums of money.

A Total Disaster: The Creation of the Double Eagle

As with many events in early U.S. coinage history, the creation of the Liberty Head Double Eagle was full of intrigue.

United States Mint Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre’s first attempt to finish the double eagle reverse failed after the plaster copy and an electrotype of the design were both destroyed in the transfer process, possibly due to an act of sabotage by Chief Coiner Franklin Peale.

Fortunately for Longacre, he had retained a copy of his plaster model, which he sought to have a metal cast copy made by a company outside the Mint. In June 1849, Peale took this model and prepared a steel hub of Longacre’s heraldic eagle motif (without the legend or denomination lettering). Again, disaster struck, and this hub was destroyed in the hardening process, causing Longacre to repeat the process using his copper electrotype.

With production advancing far behind schedule, in October 1849, Longacre sought and was permitted to hire outside help to finish the obverse die. Assisting Longacre was engraver Peter Cross. By December, the obverse dies were ready. Longacre and Cross added lettering and produced master hubs.

On or about December 22, at least one 1849 Liberty Head Double Eagle was struck. Numismatist Walter Breen and others have speculated that there were at least two made, and coin dealer Steve Nagy is one figure who has been attached to a mythical second specimen that may or may not have ventured into the wild. Another is United States Treasury Secretary William Meredith. Some accounts say that Meredith’s estate donated his coin to the Smithsonian, but other accounts have the Smithsonian Institution specimen coming from the U.S. Mint’s Coin Cabinet. The Smithsonian example is an impaired Proof.

After striking the first piece, Franklin Peale wrote to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson to inform him that Longacre’s dies could not be used as is. Peale’s complaints were ignored, and on December 26, Treasury Secretary William Meredith approved Longacre’s design.

The basis of Peale’s complaint was that the design could not be fully struck up, and the elevation of the high points on the head extended above the rim. Longacre confirmed this to be the case in a February 1850 letter to the Treasury Secretary. It took Longacre three tries to produce a pair of dies that would work to strike up correctly, and on March 22, 1850, production of the circulating coin began. The new $20 gold coins required 175 tons of pressure to impart full detail.

How Much Are Liberty Head Double Eagles Without Motto Worth?

Many Without Motto Liberty Head Double Eagles, also known as Type 1 Double Eagles, are common in circulated grades, and increase in price dramatically in the grades approaching Gem or higher.

New Orleans Mint issues command higher premiums for nearly all dates, but the 1854-O and the 1856-O are rare issues. Other coins with premium prices include the Large Date 1854 variety, and the 1861-S Paquet modified reverse variety. An 1861 Paquet Reverse from the Philadelphia Mint also exists, but it’s a multi-million dollar coin with only two known examples. Specimens, however, are known.

Thousands of Liberty Head Double Eagles have been recovered from several famous shipwrecks, including SS Republic, SS Central America, and Brother Jonathan. While these recovery coins added to the Mint State populations of their respective dates, they still sell for a premium due to their connection to these famous wrecks.

Prooflike circulation strikes are known.

Proofs for many dates were struck in very low quantities and are prohibitively expensive in all grades. A small number of Cameo and Deep Cameo Proofs have been certified.

Varieties

1861 Liberty Head Double Eagle with the rare Paquet Reverse. image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
1861 Liberty Head Double Eagle with the rare Paquet Reverse. This example was sold on August 18, 2021, for $7,200,000. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

A few dozen die varieties are known, most representing minor die changes and overpunches. Best known are the 1853/2 overdate; the 1854 Small Date and 1854 Large Date; the 1852, 1854, and 1859-S Doubled Die varieties; an 1857-S inverted S variety; and the 1861-S Paquet and extremely rare 1861 Philadelphia Paquet reverses. The Paquet reverses were made by Assistant Engraver Anthony Paquet and have a slightly modified eagle, taller reverse lettering, and a narrower border.

Date-by-Date Analysis by CoinWeek Notes

Extended Coverage on CoinWeek

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Classic U.S. coin expert and CoinWeek contributor Greg Reynolds offers some tips for collecting circulated Type 1 Double Eagles.

Design

Obverse:

Longacre’s classical left-facing Liberty on the obverse is said to be modeled after an old Hellenistic sculpture, the Crouching Venus. A beaded-edged coronet with the word LIBERTY is placed on her head, and curled locks both drape down the back of the neck and sweep from the front to form rolled curls at the back of her head. Thirteen six-point stars encircle inside a denticled rim, and the date is centered at the bottom. The designer’s initials, JBL, appear at the bottom edge of the neck truncation.

Reverse:

The reverse displays UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the top two-thirds inside a denticled rim, and the denomination TWENTY D. is centered at the bottom. An eagle with outstretched wings is in the center, clutching three arrows in the left claw and a small olive branch in the right, with a shield placed across its breast.

The eagle, head turned to its right, is holding in its beak one of two top extensions of an elaborately curled and parted double scroll or ribbon, which some suggest represents the double eagle denomination. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is divided, with E PLURIBUS is in the center of the ribbon to the left, and UNUM in a similar location on the ribbon to the right.

Above the eagle’s head, below STATES OF, 13 small six-pointed stars form an oval. Seven of the stars are on the blank field and six overlap sunburst-like rays that form an arc between the eagle’s wings.

Coin Specifications

Liberty Head Double Eagle, Without Motto
Years Of Issue: 1850-66
Mintage (Business Strikes): High: 2,976,453 (1861); Low: 2,250 (1856-O)
Mintage (Proofs): High: 80 (1859); Low: 5 (1857, estimated; one or two Proofs/patterns known for 1849, unknown or unconfirmed from 1850 through 1856)
Alloy: 90% gold, 10% copper
Weight: 33.436 g
Diameter: 34.00 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: James Barton Longacre
REV Designer: James Barton Longacre

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United of Double Eagle Gold Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.

Garrett, Jeff, and Ron Guth. Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, 1795-1933. Whitman Publishing.

Guth, Ron, and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S., and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.

 

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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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