USA Coin Album: America's Improbable Coins — Conclusion
Posted on 6/12/2018
After examining some unlikely minor coins and silver issues, this month's entry is devoted to gold pieces that perhaps shouldn't have been.
After being shut down in 1861 by America's Civil War, the New Orleans Mint's post-war coining of gold pieces was limited and quite irregular for most denominations. Quarter eagles hadn't been struck there since 1857, three-dollar pieces since 1854, half eagles since 1894. Just a single emission of double eagles was produced there after 1861, and I'll have more to say about that coin below. Only the eagle, or ten-dollar piece, was struck with any frequency. Production occurred annually during 1879-83 and then during nine of the 15 years from 1893-1907.
April 1, 1909 was the final day of coin making at New Orleans, as the opening of the Denver Mint three years earlier had made it redundant. In addition to dimes, quarters and halves dated 1909-O, there was a very small production of gold half eagles, the first such coins struck at New Orleans since 1894. These 34,200 pieces were of the Pratt Indian Head type and represented the only O-Mint pieces to bear the new gold designs adopted during 1907-08. What prompted the coining of five-dollar pieces after such a long suspension is not known, but collectors took little notice of this issue until many years later. As a consequence, the 1909-O half eagle is scarce in any grade and somewhat rare in Mint State. Gems are exceedingly rare.
The mintmarks on Pratt quarter and half eagles typically are a bit indistinct, and that is especially true for this particular issue. Countless common 1909-D half eagles have been submitted to NGC over the years as the desirable 1909-O by hopeful dealers and collectors, and distinguishing the real thing from these wannabes can be challenging even for professional authenticators and graders. It remains a highly sought and quite unlikely entry in the half eagle series.
Anthony C. Paquet was an Assistant Engraver at the Philadelphia Mint from 1857 to 1864. During that time he created a number of medals, yet his coin models were rarely adopted for mass production. A notable exception was his adaptation of the Seated Liberty figure which was used solely for the 1859(P) half dime, the standard Robert Hughes version being struck at New Orleans that year. It looked as though his remodeling of the James B. Longacre double eagle reverse would be adopted for 1861 and subsequent years, and dies featuring his tall, narrow, gothic lettering were duly shipped to the mints at New Orleans and San Francisco. Tests at the Philadelphia Mint, however, demonstrated that his border treatment was too slim for proper stacking when the dies were turned down to the diameter of a double eagle, and all production was halted there. Just two sample strikes remain, and these are highly prized rarities.
Word was sent to the two branch mints to halt production and destroy any Paquet coins on hand. The telegram sent to New Orleans was in time for that mint to comply. San Francisco, however, would not be reachable by telegraph until the following year, and 19,250 1861-S Paquet double eagles were issued before the orders to cancel were received by overland post. It turns out that the problem had been noted, but the coiner simply had the offending dies machined in-house to make them work with the existing collars. There was nothing to be done at that point, and this distinctive emission was soon forgotten by the U. S. Mint and not even noticed by collectors until the 1930s. It was only then, following the Treasury's recall of gold coins, that numismatists began to collect double eagles by date and mint. Since that time, a few hundred have been located, with Mint State survivors being extremely rare.
The New Orleans Mint had been a modest producer of double eagles before the Civil War, its biggest mintage being the 315,000 pieces struck in 1851. After seizure by first the State of Louisiana and then the Confederate States of America, the New Orleans Mint ended all coining by the middle of 1861. After the war, there was no anticipation that this mint would be reopened by the U. S. Treasury, but the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 mandated the coining of so many silver dollars that the old mint was needed for both striking and storing millions of these cartwheels. Other silver coins would not be struck there until 1891, and the end of silver dollar production in 1904 all but eliminated the need for this facility.
Gold coinage was quite limited, with half eagles in 1892-94 only. Ten-dollar pieces were made more frequently, but the mighty double eagle was struck solely in that opening year of 1879. A mere 2,325 examples were coined, these being more souvenirs of the mint's re-opening than serving any commercial purpose. Coining commenced on February 20, and it was over almost as soon as it began. If any of these twenties were saved as souvenirs, they seem to have been lost or spent at some time, as Mint State survivors are quite rare. In fact, any 1879-O double eagle is a rarity that commands a five-figure price even in well worn condition.
David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.
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