The NGC Universal ID is a four digit alphanumeric that groups coins based on a unique combination of date, mintmark, denomination and striking process (MS, PF, or SP). These IDs are a simple organization of all coins prior to variety attribution and grading.
The 1854-O and the 1856-O are the two key issues in a collection of twenty dollar Libertys. As Doug Winter states in Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909 (2006), 'Ownership of an 1854-O double eagle is considered a hallmark of a truly great collection of New Orleans coinage.' For years there was dispute among experts about which was rarer, but it now is settled that the 1856-O is the number one issue in the series. But not by much. A diligent search of auction records reveals only 23 different examples of the 1856-O, and the 1854-O has a similarly low estimate of only 25-35 coins known. Each coin is impossibly rare in high grades.
The 1854-O boasts a tiny mintage of only 3,250 pieces, down from a respectable 71,000 examples the year before. Double eagles were produced in small numbers every year from 1854-1861, when the New Orleans Mint was seized by the Confederacy and coinage ceased. The mint was hampered by extensive building repairs and equipment modifications during this time period, which undoubtedly led to production delays. Another, perhaps even more important explanation for the decline might be the opening of the San Francisco Mint in 1854. Prior to the opening of the new facility, the New Orleans Mint was the closest mint to the California gold fields, both by land and sea routes. After the San Francisco facility became operational, the long journey, arduous and dangerous, could be avoided. Deposits of gold bullion must have dropped precipitously at the time, accounting for the low mintage of double eagles during this period.
Collecting large-denomination gold coins did not become popular in this country until the 1930s. At the time the 1854-O was minted, it is doubtful that even a single numismatist was systematically collecting double eagles by date and mintmark. By the time a few collectors, such as John M. Clapp and Virgil Brand, became interested in these coins in the 1890s, the tiny mintage of 1854-O double eagles had been widely dispersed. None of the great collections of the 19th century included an example of the 1854-O, and little information was available about them. Augustus Heaton mentioned the 1854-O in his seminal work on mintmarks in 1893, but he only knew about it from reading the mint reports of that era. Heaton assumed the issue was rare because of the low reported mintage, but he had never actually seen one of the coins himself.
Even in the early 20th century, the rare double eagles of the New Orleans Mint were almost never encountered. In 1909, Edgar Adams published a price list of U.S. gold coins, but he did not itemize Liberty Head double eagles because there was no demand for them. There was no example of the 1854-O in the Mint Cabinet when T.L. Comparette inventoried those holdings from 1912 to 1914. No one exhibited a specimen at the great 1914 ANS Exhibition. To quote the cataloger of the Cicero Sale (New Netherlands, 12/1960), where an 1854-O appeared in lot 8, 'Back in the 1920s, when Waldo Newcomer obtained his, only one other specimen was known.' The earliest auction appearance we have been able to trace is the coin that appeared in the John Nickerson Collection (Thomas Elder, 12/1933), lot 1124:
'1854. New Orleans. Don't believe we ever had it before. It has a sale record of $200. Very fine. Unpriced in Raymond's book.'
The coins began to appear more often in auctions of the 1930s and 1940s. Colonel Green obtained a specimen, possibly the Newcomer example, which was sold to King Farouk via Stack's in a blockbuster private transaction in 1944. Farouk was charged $125 for the 1854-O, which was called 'V.F. Mint Luster.' Auction appearances have continued, with prices rising unabated to the present day.
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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