Jim Bisognani: Strong Numbers at Long Beach and a Scintillating Story at Home

Posted on 6/11/2020

The Long Beach results are something to celebrate, and an unassuming pouch reveals a Double Eagle with a double life.

Well, the 2020 summer edition of the Heritage Auctions Long Beach Signature sale is in the books. Held June 4-7 at Heritage’s new Dallas facility, it reeled in more $11 million. On several levels, this was truly an impressive and eye-opening performance, considering that bidding was conducted online. For comparison, last year’s “live and in person” Long Beach Signature summer edition claimed just under $8.3 million.

The difference of $2.7 million is considerable, yet this just-concluded 2020 auction not only delivered 33.48% more in total sales volume over the 2019 Long Beach summer edition — the per lot average at $7,871 represents an increase of 140.85% over the 2019 installment! Yes, my fellow coindexters, demand for a variety of scarce, top-grade or rare numismatic examples is thriving in the COVID-19 environment.

Not at all a surprise with so much attention focused on gold, the top NGC performers were a trio of $20 Double Eagles. Leading the way was this gorgeous 1895 $20 Liberty graded NGC PF 67 Ultra Cameo. This finest-known, Trompeter-pedigreed “golden cartwheel” marvel raced to $234,000.

1895 Double Eagle graded NGC PF 67 Ultra Cameo: Realized $234,000.
Click images to enlarge.

Hey, what’s up with the pouch?

Speaking of US $20 gold coins, I think all of my fellow numismatists enjoy owning or aspire to own some US gold coins. The coins don’t all have to be mega-rarities or have an impressive pedigree; some may just have a great story to tell. The latter was the case when I received a call from a collector named George, hailing from Pennsylvania. The coin that he had was an 1861 $20 gold piece.

George's 1861 Double Eagle.
Click images to enlarge.

George informed me that he had the gold coin in his possession for some time and, not being a serious collector, wanted to get an expert opinion as to what coin was worth. George had planned to take the coin to a local dealer or perhaps a regional coin show, but considering the current coronavirus protocols there was no ready outlet. So, this fellow decided he would reach out to me for some insight.

I advised him that I would like to see a few images of the coin in order to make an assessment as there is quite a swing in price for that coin. At that point, George said he didn’t have a “fancy” phone to take photos, but he would send me a scan of the coin in an e-mail. I said great — I would be happy to eyeball it and give him my opinion of the coin and its value range.

Now on the surface, a non-Paquet reverse 1861 $20 gold piece is by no stretch rare in circulated condition. In fact, within the $20 Liberty series, only the ultra-common 1904 had a higher reported mintage than the 1861. However, in MS 60-63 or better, the coin is a much rarer commodity and could be worth upwards of $20K or more. Regardless, I am a big fan of the Civil War era Double Eagles. For veteran collectors, owning any Type I $20 Liberty would be a thrill.

A few days passed, and I received the scans from George. Along with the images of the 1861 Double Eagle, I noticed that George sent a picture of some type of pouch. Because the image of the 1861 Double Eagle was not all that distinct, I called George and asked if he could manage to send a higher resolution scan so that I could better assess the coin. He understood and would try to comply. While I had the gent on the phone, I asked him, “What’s up with the pouch?”

A general, a cowboy and an opera singer

The deerskin pouch in which the coin has been kept.

George told me that the deerskin pouch was where the 1861 $20 was kept. In fact, the coin has been in that pouch ever since the family bought it. I said, “Really, when was that?”

He explained, “Well, it was bought for Minnie Wayne, my distant relative and a direct descendent of Revolutionary War General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne, in honor of her birth in 1861.” The coin was bought at a local bank in DuBois, Pennsylvania, and has remained in the family to this day.

Just like their ancestors, members of the Wayne clan still reside in northwest Pennsylvania. George went on to say that the Double Eagle was passed down through several generations in the DuBois area and has been carefully protected in its pouch since it was bought at the bank just prior to the beginning of the Civil War.

The Keystone State resident went on to chronicle the story of how the Wayne and DuBois families helped to build up the town of DuBois. The Wayne family farm and tannery were big business in the late 1800s.

“Yep, horses and leather were both popular. I guess everyone wanted to be a cowboy or was attached to one of the Wild West shows,” George conjectured.

He went on to tell me that another of his kin was a fellow by the name of Tom Mix, perhaps the most famous and first true Western megastar of both silent films and early talkies. He honed his skills right there in DuBois.

General "Mad" Anthony Wayne and Tom Mix, Wild West Cowboy and “Horse Thief.”

I asked, “So, he used to saddle up and learned to ride?”

George exclaimed, “Hardly! Tom stole whatever horse that was around and would ride bareback!”

Horse thievery was apparently a common practice for the young Tom Mix. George then relayed that when Mix became a “cowboy star,” the family would joke that they knew where he got his training.

Times were tough during the Great Depression, but the family tenaciously hung on to that precious birthday gift. George shared that no matter how hard times were, there was always robust singing in the house. I guess the vocalizing shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as George’s grandmother on his father’s side was Caroline Caruso, first cousin to famed operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. George summed up his family’s legacy, “Yeah, singing and that Double Eagle — two profound images.”

An Enrico Caruso album cover.

George recalled that during his adolescence, seeing the deerskin pouch make an appearance every so often was always reason to stop what you were doing. The reveal of the big gold coin never lost its thrill. “My mother, Ruth, a direct descendent of Minnie Wayne, treasured that coin, and although she was tempted at various times to sell it — as she could have used the money — she could never come to part with it.”

The rest (but not necessarily the end) of the story

George told me that when his mother passed last year at the age of 94, he knew that he would soon be casting his eyes on the $20 gold piece again, and this time, he would be the custodian. When I asked for his personal assessment of the coin’s condition, he said, “I’m not an expert grader by any stretch.” However, he posits that the coin seems to be much more sharply struck than most of the coins he’d seen of similar type. “Hey, I’m not a serious collector; I just enjoy picking up certain coins every so often.”

He said that he has a fondness for the turn of the 20th century designs: the Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime, Standing Liberty Quarter and the Waking Liberty Half. “Now that is a beautiful coin,” he enthused, referring to the Walker. “Those were all real classics; coins were really beautiful works of art then. I definitely want to find out what the Double Eagle is actually worth today though.” I understood.

A 1916 Walking Liberty Half Dollar.
Click images to enlarge.

George went on then and asked, “If I have the $20 Liberty graded, could it list the pedigree ‘Minnie Wayne?’ That would be a great tribute.”

But for now, he has decided the coin needs to be reunited with the deerskin pouch. “This gold coin has been handled carefully for nearly 160 years. I would rather enjoy it as it always has been — occasionally taking her out of that pouch and holding and looking, albeit now by the edges and with some white cotton gloves I have since acquired due to COVID-19,” George laughed.

At the conclusion of his tale, George mused, “Yes, at least for now, I’ll stick with the pouch. In a few years I think I will put the grand lady into the ‘protective custody’ of an NGC holder.”

With such a colorful heritage, regardless of its ultimate numeric grade, this Double Eagle conveys a proud history — a story which may be enjoyed for future generations of numismatists.

Perhaps the moral is: Not every coin is as rare as her story.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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