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The 1850 Double Eagle: The First Circulating $20 Gold Coins

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez - September 3, 2020

Liberty Head $20, 1850 $20, PCGS MS65. Click image to enlarge.

Perhaps the most popular of all pre-1933 United States gold denominations is the Double Eagle, a hefty gold coin carrying nearly a full troy ounce of the precious yellow metal and with a face value of $20.  Surely, it's hard for many to imagine today a coin being worth "only" $20, but then again that much money in the mid-19th century represented nearly a month's wages for the common laborer.  So, why was a denomination so lofty minted at the time?

The $10 Eagle had been the nation's highest coined denomination, authorized under the Coinage Act of 1792; the first Eagles were minted in 1795 and were available in plentiful supply by the mid-19th century.  But the California Gold Rush of 1848 provided the nation with copious amounts of new gold.  Interestingly, the United States Mint's $20 gold coin wasn’t an entirely foreign concept.  The Mormons privately minted a $20 gold denomination in 1849, the first Pioneer coins minted with gold mined in California and distributed into circulation a year before the first federally minted $20 gold coins.

And, with the fresh new bullion supplies on hand from California, the decision was made to strike a higher-value government-issued gold coin that could be used for facilitating larger-value transactions both domestically and abroad.  Hence, the Double Eagle was born.  The Double Eagle was authorized by Congress under the Coinage Act of March 3, 1849, spawning the production of an 1849-dated pattern on December 22, 1849.  Records suggest two were made, but only one is known and it's located in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

As the 1849 Liberty Head Double Eagle is classified as a pattern coin, the 1850 $20 gold coins are technically first-year issues and also the earliest such issue obtainable by private collectors.  The 1850 Double Eagle is also highly popular with coin collectors, with the majority of these large gold coins being struck at the Philadelphia Mint and a smaller number hailing from the New Orleans Mint.  Philly struck 1,170,261 pieces while the "O" Mint produced 141,000.  Both issues are much scarcer than many of the latter dates in the Liberty Head or Saint-Gaudens series.

Liberty Head $20, 1850-O $20, PCGS MS61. Click image to enlarge.

Most 1850 Double Eagles are from the Philadelphia Mint, with PCGS estimating approximately 3,370 survivors.  Meanwhile, the 1850-O Liberty Head yields perhaps 630 known examples.  In both cases, circulated examples constitute the vast majority of extant pieces.  Fewer than 100 of the 1850 Double Eagles exist in uncirculated condition, whereas PCGS has graded just one 1850-O in uncirculated condition – an MS61 specimen.  Both of these 1850 issues are known to carry planchet abrasions, particularly true with the New Orleans pieces.  Additionally, the typical 1850-O Double Eagle isn't as well struck as the Philadelphia Mint production.  Thus, an 1850-O Double Eagle with decent eye appeal is a rarity.

It should be noted for the sake of comprehensive inclusion that perhaps two or three Proof 1850 Double Eagles were minted.  The whereabouts of only one is known, and it's a cleaned PR61 locate at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France museum in Paris, France.  It resides abroad thanks to the travels of a French National who lived in the United States during the 1840s; a coin collector, he purchased the 1850 Proof $20 and many other numismatically significant coins from the Philadelphia Mint before eventually returning to his native France.

While the 1850 Proof Double Eagle is, like its 1849 predecessor, out of the reach for private collectors, the 1850 business strikes are reasonably affordable for many collectors.  Moderately circulated examples of both the Philadelphia issue trade for mid-four-figure prices.  An XF40 of the Philadelphia $20 fetches around $3,000 while AU50 specimens go for $4,000.  The 1850-O in the same grades sell for around $9,000 and $17,000, respectively.

An entry-level Philly Mint State example is a solid five-figure coin, with MS60 specimens commanding over $10,000 and an MS61 worth some $26,500.  Prices ascend steadily upward as one climbs the grading scale, with the few known MS64s – representing the highest grade for which this coin offers any recent sales records – each taking an incredible sum of $200,000.  The single 1850-O graded uncirculated by PCGS, the aforementioned MS61 specimen, last took $111,625 in a 2014 auction.


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