America's largest circulating gold coin was the Double Eagle or $20 piece, born in the exciting years of the great California Gold Rush. The new mines yielded the greatest mass of gold in recorded history. Vast quantities of the yellow metal helped to speed development of the American West and had far-reaching effects on the world's coinage.
Acceding to the pressing need to mint gold into larger coin form, McKay was quickly persuaded to amend his bill to include another new gold coin at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Double Eagle or $20 piece. The authorizing statute was passed by Congress on March 3, 1849.
Cushing Wright, and the corrupt Chief Coiner Franklin Peale feared that Longacre would disrupt his illicit medal-making racket. Patterson and Peale harassed Longacre mercilessly at every turn, forcing him to create three separate Double Eagle obverse designs before the first patterns could be struck bearing the date 1849 (Judd 117, 118). Longacre, whose initials JBL appear on Liberty's neck, survived the campaign, and developmental patterns were struck in silver without a date in early 1850. Circulation coinage finally began on January 26.
Longacre used a similar Liberty for both the dollar and $20, a handsome woman's head displaying a meticulous nose and wearing a pearl-bordered diadem inscribed LIBERTY. It was modeled after an ancient Greco-Roman sculpture, the Crouching Venus. His reverse reflected his training as a two-dimensional engraver. Based on the Great Seal of the United States, it depicts a spread eagle with a shield on its breast, 13 stars in an oval with rays above. The nation's name appears above, the denomination expressed as TWENTY D. below.
The Type 1 (or No Motto) double eagles were struck at the Philadelphia Mint every year from 1850 through 1865, at New Orleans from 1850 through 1861, and at San Francisco from 1854 through 1866. The O or S mintmark is found below the eagle's tail. Average mintages were several hundred thousand, but ranged up to just under three million for the 1861 issue. The San Francisco coins of 1866 were the last of the design, and were also issued as part of the Type 2 series, with the new motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
These early twenties range from elusive to very rare in all Mint State grades. Branch mint pieces are particularly so, with many New Orleans issues numbered among the great rarities of the series. Low mintage New Orleans dates include 1854-O with 3,250 pieces struck; 1855-O, 8,000; 1856-O, 2,250; 1859-O, 9,100; and 1860-O, 6,600 pieces. The only over date in the series is the rare 1853 over 2, discovered in 1959 by the late Walter Breen.
Other legendary rarities are the Paquet Reverse issues of 1861 and 1861-S. These coins were the result of Mint engraver Anthony C. Paquet's attempt to improve the reverse design. Paquet used tall, boldly elongated lettering for the legend and a very narrow raised border in place of the wide rim of the Longacre reverse. This rim was inadequate to shield the design from immediate wear and caused early die breakage as well. Only two 1861 Philadelphia Paquet Reverse double eagles are known-the MS-67 example in the Norweb Collection selling for a record $660,000. The San Francisco Mint struck 19,250 Paquet Reverse coins that made it into circulation before Mint Director Snowden's frantic orders to stop coinage were received.
When grading double eagles, wear is first noticeable on the locks over Liberty's ear and on the eagle's head and neck. Bag marks are usually a problem with these large, soft gold coins. They generally picked up many bag, reeding and contact marks even before entering circulation. The lack of high quality, and in many cases, any specimens of some dates, stops most from collecting this series by date and mintmark. It is more commonly sought as a "type" coin.
Diameter: 34 millimeters
Weight: 33.436 grams
Metal Composition: .900 gold, .100 copper
Net Weight: .9675 ounce pure gold
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Akers, David W., United States Gold Coins, Volume VI, Double Eagles 1849-1933, Paramount Publications, Englewood, OH, 1982. Alexander, David T., DeLorey, Thomas K. and Reed, P. Bradley, Coin World Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of United States Coins, World Almanac-Pharos Books, New York, 1990. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Vermeule, Cornelius, Numismatic Art in America, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971. Winter, Douglas, New Orleans Mint Gold Coins 1839-1909, Bowers & Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1992.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.
Liberty Head (No Motto) $20 Dollar Type 1 (1849-1866)