Monday, June 21, 2010

Coin Monday: The Business of the 1882 Double Eagle

June 21, 2010
Written by John Dale

One of the most important coins in the upcoming July Summer FUN U.S. Coin auction is an 1882 double eagle graded AU53 by PCGS. The issue has a mintage of just 571 business strikes, the lowest for any regular-issue double eagle with the James B. Longacre-designed reverse. (The Paquet reverse is another story, as there are just two Philadelphia 1861 Paquet coins. Heritage has sold one of them.)

Beyond the obvious rarity-by-mintage, there is another twist to just how elusive the 1882 double eagle business strikes are: the Smithsonian Institution doesn’t have one. The reason the Smithsonian lacks an example actually ties in to why the coins are so rare overall.

Now, it certainly seems like the Smithsonian, more specifically the National Numismatic Collection in the National Museum of American History, has one of everything, including a number of unique items. (If you dream of owning a Class II 1804 dollar or an 1849 pattern double eagle, well, dreams are all you’ll ever have.)

The NNC began with the United States Mint’s official cabinet, built up through its transfer to the Smithsonian in 1923, and it was later built up through private donations and transfers; the most famous of these, the gold coin cabinet of Josiah K. Lilly, Jr., arrived in 1973.

(Deeply personal aside: a love of coins is not the only connection I have to Mr. Lilly. Along with his father and brother, he established the Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic foundation that focuses on my home state of Indiana. Thanks to its Community Scholarship Program, I was able to attend my college of choice. I am eternally grateful.)

The Mint and Lilly collections shared an important trait: neither of them collected both proofs and business strikes when proofs were available. The two were seen as part of the same issue, with proofs preferable to the “ordinary” coins. Thus, the NNC has two proof 1882 double eagles (mintage 59 specimens) but no business strike examples.

Collector perspectives today are generally different, however, and proofs and business strikes are treated as two distinct issues. This is highlighted in the great Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, which used the NNC for images and research. (Unsolicited book recommendation: it’s one of the few that never leaves my cataloging desk.) On the entry for the 1882 business strikes, the caption that usually lists the condition of the best NNC specimen says instead, “No specimen in Smithsonian Institution.”

The 1882 business strike double eagle is an important enough coin on its own, but the idea of owning a coin that the Smithsonian doesn’t have is quite the bonus. Happy bidding!

-John Dale Beety

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