US Coins

Proof double eagles shine at Stack’s Bowers sale

At $990,000, a Proof 67 Deep Cameo 1885 Coronet gold $20 double eagle came tantalizingly close to topping the $1 million mark at Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ Nov. 1 Rarities Night auction at its Costa Mesa, California, auction studio.

The coin, graded by Professional Coin Grading Service and bearing a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker, is perhaps the finest of around 20 examples known today from an original mintage of 78 pieces.

The Stack’s Bowers Galleries cataloger writes: “Here is an impressive beauty with intensely frosted motifs and deeply reflective mirror fields that offer a stark ‘black and white’ contrast.”

“The present coin is numerically finer than Bass:1895 (October 1999),” according to the cataloger, who writes, “It isn’t often that a writer is able to pen the term ‘finer than the Bass specimen,’ but here that opportunity presents itself.”

The date is coveted in both Proof and circulation strike formats, with a mintage of just 751 for circulation.

When offered more than a decade ago at the firm’s 2011 summer American Numismatic Association’s auction, the same coin was graded Proof 66 Deep Cameo by PCGS and realized $320,000. There, Q. David Bowers observed, “Memorable for its quality, memorable for its rarity. This is one of the most important double eagles auctioned in our time. No superlative could be excessive in the description of this wonderful coin.”

This coin illustrates the issue in John Dannreuther’s recent book United States Proof Coins: Volume IV: Gold, where he reports other prior auction offerings of the subject property, including $163,300 in 2005 and $189,750 in 2007.

Each of the known Proof strikes was struck from the same die pair, while the circulation strikes were produced with a different die pair, distinguished by different date placements on the obverse and by reverse die markings.

On the circulation strikes, the date is positioned further to the left, Bowers wrote in his Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins. On the Proof strikes, the 8 in the date “is ever so slightly to the right” of the B in J.B.L., below the portrait of Liberty, Bowers writes. On the circulation strikes, the 8 is centered under the B.

Dannreuther provides some history for the coin, writing, “Proofs were struck on multiple occasions during the year, so those struck later do not have the deep cameo effect seen on the earlier strikes,” noting that further research might help untangle the provenance for the roster of Proof 1885 Coronet double eagles.

Proof 1892 double eagle

The Rarities Night session was particularly strong in gorgeous Proof gold coins, including a Numismatic Guaranty Co. Proof 65 Star Ultra Cameo 1892 Coronet double eagle that is also one of the finest known and realized $228,000. The 1892 double eagle also had a relatively modest corresponding circulation strike mintage of 4,430 pieces, placing added pressure on the 30 to 35 survivors of the original mintage of 93 Proof strikes that year.

The cataloger calls the coin a “vivid and inviting piece that ranks among the finest Proof 1892 double eagles ever to pass through one of our auctions.”

Stack’s Bowers explains the conditions sometimes seen for the coin: “The American economy had a rather severe downturn in 1892 and 1893, and some of the Proofs purchased by contemporary collectors may have been spent as hard times soon emerged. ... Finding a Gem that offers both strong eye appeal and the most desirable Ultra Cameo contrast is a truly formidable task, but one that can be accomplished here with a strong bid and aggressive strategy.”

As seen with the 1885 Coronet double eagle, the date positions differ between the Proof and circulation strike issues, making circulated Proof coins distinguishable from circulation strikes.

The Proof gold coins from the Philadelphia Mint in the 1890s are particularly coveted for type purposes, thanks to the often very deep mirrors and frosty devices.

Stack’s Bowers observes on the 1892 prize, “Thickly frosted with razor sharp definition, the devices contrast markedly with illimitable depth of reflectivity in the fields. Silky smooth surfaces are awash in rich reddish-gold color and reveal the desirable ‘orange peel’ texture in the fields when studied with the aid of magnification.”

Proof 1900 double eagle

Another beautiful example of the type was a 1900 Coronet double eagle graded NGC Proof 65 Cameo with a green CAC sticker that sold for $204,000. Each of the year’s 124 Proof double eagles was struck from the same die pair and a significant mintage for circulation at the Philadelphia Mint that year means that there’s no added pressure on the Proofs of that date from collectors. The Proof mintage for 1900 is among the highest of the series and Dannreuther estimates that 55 to 70 survive, with many exhibiting nice field-to-device contrast.

Stack’s Bowers writes: “Of course, an issue with no more than 70 coins extant is a significant rarity when viewed in the wider context of U.S. numismatics, and the Proof 1900 is also a noteworthy condition rarity since a fair number of survivors are impaired due to having been cleaned or otherwise mishandled. It seems likely that a number of examples were initially obtained by non-numismatists, which theory further supports increased demand for this issue among contemporary Americans seeking numismatic mementos to mark the dawn of the 20th century. The present example is among the most fortunate survivors, coming down to the present day with solid Gem quality and eye appeal to spare.”

The coin was described by the cataloger as “Fully defined with a soft satin texture, the devices appear to float atop deep pools of reflectivity in the fields.”

It was offered at the Rarities Night session as part of a nearly complete and CAC-approved 1900 Proof gold set. The cataloger noted, “This is a beautiful specimen that really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Aglow with vivid golden-orange color, both sides are exceptionally smooth for a large size gold coin with such delicate surfaces.”

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