Grading Liberty Head $20 (1850-1907)
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The discovery of rich gold deposits in California prompted the introduction of both the gold dollar and the double eagle, or twenty-dollar piece. Problems with the dies and bickering within the Mint organization delayed production of the latter until 1850. After that time, however, coins bearing James B. Longacre's Coronet Head Liberty were coined annually through 1907.
Within the Coronet series are three lesser subtypes. The first was minted until 1866, when modifications were made to the reverse, including addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. In 1877, Liberty's bust was sharpened and repositioned, while the denomination was spelled out in full. This third subtype continued through the end of the series in 1907.
There are so many coins in this series that a comprehensive grading study is impossible within the space of this column, but there are some general grading tips that you may find useful. The Type 1 issues of 1850-66 feature a bust on which Liberty's hair is very ill-defined. This lack of definition is aggravated further by the tendency of so many of these coins, particularly the ones minted at New Orleans, to be softly struck on their highpoints. The Type 2 issues of 1866-76 have sharpened details, yet the Carson City issues are typically a bit weak in their central details. Type 3 Coronet twenties, minted 1877-1907, offer the best overall quality. In addition, they are far more likely to be found uncirculated. This is the result of their having been shipped overseas and stored as gold reserves, only to resurface in the decades following World War II. In contrast, the earlier issues were far more likely to enter domestic circulation and become worn.
High grade examples of any date are rarities. The great size and weight of these coins caused most pieces to suffer numerous contact marks and abrasions. Mint state specimens from the Type 1 period were quite scarce until the recovery of large numbers of these coins from a trio of shipwrecks. The steamer Brother Jonathan has furnished collectors with a generous supply of mint state 1864-S and 1865-S twenties, while the Central America included in its cargo many examples of the 1857-S double eagle. From the Republic shipwreck was retrieved a large number of uncirculated pieces, the most available dates being 1860(P), 1861(P), 1863-S, 1864-S, 1865(P) and 1865-S. All of these coins were scarce in mint state and genuinely rare in gem condition (MS-65 or higher). While most of the recovered pieces fall short of the gem level, there are now enough MS-63 and MS-64 coins to satisfy the demand from type collectors in the near future.
Type 2 twenties remain very rare in MS-63 and higher, though there seems to be an abundant supply of coins in the lower mint state grades. The dates available most often are 1873(P), 1875(P), 1875-CC, 1875-S, 1876(P) and 1876-S. Type 3 double eagles include some of the most common coins in the series, such as 1898-S, 1899(P), 1900(P), 1903(P), 1904(P), 1904-S and 1907(P). All of these coins are quite common in grades up to and including MS-64. At the MS-65 level, only the 1903-04 Philadelphia issue may be considered common.
While most double eagles of the Coronet type will exhibit numerous contact marks and abrasions, the location and severity of these flaws may vary. Obviously, a deep mark is more detrimental to a coin's grade than a shallow one, but the location of such marks is also critical. Marks appearing on Liberty's face are especially serious, but likewise important in determining grade are marks within the open fields. The area just in front of Liberty's face draws the viewer's eye, and flaws in this space weight heavily in grading. As a general rule, the reverse of this coin type is less critical in determining grade, the obverse being the "money side." Nevertheless, damage to a coin's mintmark and/or the adjacent field can affect the grade to some degree.
One problem that is little understood by collectors but can have a big impact on grading is the presence of hairline scratches. Usually the result of cleaning with an abrasive cloth, shallow hairlines will probably result in a downgrading of the coin, while very obvious hairlines, sometimes referred to a "wipe marks," are usually cause for outright rejection by the major grading services.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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