Littleton Coin Company’s Collector’s Corner
[photo: 1898 Liberty Head Double Eagle]

Hunting for Double Eagles

BY PAUL GREEN

All you have to do is hold a $20 gold double eagle in your hand and you realize it is special. No other U.S. coin feels quite the way a double eagle does, making it hard to not want more than one. As it turned out, the double eagle, of both the Coronet Head and the later Saint-Gaudens type, was not just a coin that was popular in the United States. The double eagle for a variety of reasons became a coin with a fascinating history that stretched around the globe. Today, its history is still unfolding as the quest to find double eagles continues.

Being the largest gold coin of the United States meant that the gold double eagle had a number of potential uses – all very different. Certainly some double eagles were in circulation from 1850, their first year of release, until 1933, their final year of issue. That said, a $20 gold coin was a lot of money back then, and its use in circulation was frequently limited. People probably did not want to carry that much money around. Yet, we know they did, as we find any number of double eagles with heavy wear. Interestingly enough, within these numbers are some of the most elusive of the double eagle dates from Carson City. As there may have not been any collectors in Carson City when the first "CC" double eagle was produced in 1870, many of the double eagles produced there and at other facilities saw heavy use.

The mintages of double eagles were often high. And demand for the denomination in regular commerce was not as great as the mintages. As a result, many double eagles ended up in various vaults around the country for use as reserves. It was natural that if a bank or other institution needed gold or high-face-value coins, the double eagle was the logical denomination to use.

[photo: Executive Order reprint ]

Executive Order reprint

Being stored in vaults for one reason or another proved to be a problem for the double eagle. With the Gold Recall Order of 1933, those coins found in vaults, especially government vaults, had to be turned in and destroyed. It is believed that one-third of all the double eagles ever produced were melted as a result. Some dates were almost totally destroyed. The 1927-D had a mintage of 180,000, but only a small number are known today, simply because virtually the entire mintage never was released. Many expect these coins would bring $1 million today if offered at auction. In fact, in the early 1930s the 1927-D was on a list of coins being offered by the government at face value plus the cost of shipping. Apparently, no one took the government up on the offer and consequently, the 1927-Ds, which simply spent their time in vault reserves, disappeared, leaving us with virtually none to enjoy today.

Other double eagles had a very different story. From the start, the double eagle proved an easy way to ship gold. That was especially true for California gold, which, once the San Francisco Mint was opened in 1854, was regularly being shipped back to the East, often times in the form of double eagles.

Frankly, we would have very few mint state double eagles from the early years in San Francisco were it not for the fact that the newly minted coins were placed on ships – which sometimes did not reach their destinations. Even as there were virtually no collectors in San Francisco for decades after the facility first opened, it was producing primarily large denominations like the double eagle. Because the facility was a small and crowded place, it was not up to the task of producing large numbers of all denominations. Yet, the double eagle was a priority, and frequently the coins produced were taken straight to ship for a voyage to assorted locations.

Such was the case with thousands of double eagles that were loaded onto the S.S. Central America. Bound for New York from Havana, the coins never reached their destination, as the S.S. Central America broke apart and sank in a storm on September 12, 1857, taking $1,600,000 in coins and ingots to the bottom. For years the coins stayed there, until the wreck was recovered by the Columbus-America Discovery Group. There were thousands of mint state double eagles in the treasure, including a total of over 5,400 1857-S examples. Some worried that so many mint state coins would hurt the price of the 1857-S and other dates found. But the market quickly absorbed all the coins, and the price actually increased. This shows how strong the demand is for top-quality double eagles, especially from the early years when the people in San Francisco were too busy trying to find gold in the streams to worry about collecting it as coins.

The double eagles on the S.S. Brother Jonathan suffered a similar fate less than a decade later. Years passed until the S.S. Brother Jonathan, like the S.S. Central America, was discovered and its treasure brought to the surface. This time, the most heavily represented date was the 1865-S. The roughly 600 mint state coins were quickly snapped up by buyers eager to have a mint state 1865-S, especially one that had been at the bottom of the sea for well over a century.

We never know when, or if, there will be another major discovery of double eagles. Certainly the possibility exists, and many wait with much enthusiasm, as the double eagles from shipwrecks offer a chance to acquire nice coins which otherwise would have been virtually impossible to acquire.

Not every shipment of double eagles ended in disaster, and millions of double eagles found their way to foreign bank vaults. As the double eagle was a large and trusted gold coin, it was a natural choice for gold reserves. As an added benefit, when the Gold Recall Order of 1933 began, these double eagles in overseas vaults could not be melted. In the late 1940s and for a couple decades after, those coins began to come home. This resulted in a surprise supply of seldom-seen dates.

The gold coins found in foreign vaults such as Switzerland and France included all denominations, but primarily the double eagle. In their numbers were major surprises. The 1924-S and 1926-D Saint-Gaudens double eagles had been considered major rarities, perhaps even tougher than the 1933 or 1927-D. They were not found in large numbers, but just a few hundred pieces returning to the U.S. market from European vaults made a huge difference in their supply. While they, and a number of other dates, would not suddenly become common, they would at least be available to collectors. There is no doubt that today's supply of a number of dates is much better simply because the coins spent decades in other countries. While much of the gold coins in the U.S. were being melted per the Gold Recall Order of 1933, the overseas issues were being saved.

Double Eagles Value $200,000

[photo: Double Eagles value $200,000]

Double Eagles value $200,000

The coins discovered in the vaults of Europe have represented a wide range of grades and dates, from the available to the extraordinary. Included was one of two known 1861 Paquet reverse double eagles, which featured a slightly different reverse, possibly being traced to France. The elusive but more available 1861-S with the special Paquet reverse has also been found in some numbers in Europe.

The discovery of double eagles is not limited to Europe. Since they traveled the globe, they are still being discovered. Recently, an old woman traveled seven hours on a bus through a dangerous part of Central America clutching a small sack. She traveled through areas where the U.S. State Department tells Americans not to go. In the sack were over 40 U.S. double eagles, each one representing perhaps 6 months earnings for a worker in the area – and a real prize for the dangerous gangs in the area. The coins, a gift from a former general to the woman's mother years ago, included no great rarities, although there was an 1852 and an 1890-CC. As she sold her treasure, she explained that her sister had the other double eagles her mother had received. It is a small story, but so typical. Throughout the world there are probably more double eagles than any other U.S. coin. The double eagle was truly spread far and wide.

The fact that double eagles have been found everywhere from the bottom of the ocean to remote Third World countries means that the possibility of finding more is a reality. Even though the bank vaults of Europe and other prime locations have been searched, there's still the possibility of a shipwreck or a small hoard. We may not find any more rare dates, but even a common double eagle is a special coin. The stories behind even available dates are so interesting that every day is an exciting one in the hunt for double eagles. And every double eagle you purchase is an exciting coin with perhaps a great story to tell.