The famous 1849 double eagle. The only confirmed example is in National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution - inventory number 1986.0836.0064. It is believed to be the first double eagle struck. Walter Breen claimed to have seen an image of a second example ex Secretary of the Treasury William Meredith, Nagy estate but this piece has never turned up.
This piece has some contact marks by the first star which have been there since 1913 as they appear on the Adams & Woodin plate image. The marks do not appear on the plates in the 1912-1914 Comparette Catalogs of the Mint Collection.
This pattern is considered to be one of, if not the, most valuable coin ever struck. Walter Breen mentions that J. Piermont Morgan offered to pay the U.S. Mint $25,000 for the piece and researcher Roger Burdette found the following letter in the Mint Archives.
"Nov. 2, 1904
Director of the U. S. Mint Philadelphia, Pa
In reference to the 1849 Twenty Dollar Gold piece at the Mint. Would ask if U. S. would accept an offer of $35,000xx/100 for same?
Yours very truly,
John A. Beck"
This letter is likely the source for this amount in the Adams and Woodin book. To give one some idea as to how much esteem this double eagle pattern was held in back then, the famous Dexter-Dunham-Bareford example of the 1804 silver dollar sold less than a month earlier in Lyman Low's October 1904 H.G. Brown sale for barely over $1000. This same coin brought almost $2,000,000 circa 2000. John Beck was willing to pay almost 35 times the value of that famous coin to own this double eagle pattern.
Photo courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Although only the Smithsonian piece is confirmed today, it appears that a test run was executed as noted in the following excerpts from letters in the Mint Archives supplied courtesy of Kevin Flynn.
On December 22, 1849, Director Patterson wrote Secretary of the Treasury William M. Meredith stating "After a long delay, which it was not in my power to control, I am at length able to send you the enclosed double eagle, and to refer it to your judgment. If it meets your appropriation, I must beg that you will let me know at the earliest time, in order that as many of these coins as possible may be struck in the few days that remain of the present year."
On December 24, 1849, Chief Coiner Franklin Peale wrote to Mint Director Robert Patterson that "It is with extreme regret and after the most earnest endeavors to overcome the difficulty that I am compelled to inform you that the impression upon the new die, for the double eagle, cannot be brought up by the usual coining process. The depth of the head on the obverse is such, that the steel will not sustain the degree of pressure necessary for a perfect impression. To this is to be added the minor disadvantage of the projection of the head beyond the border of the coin, preventing its being 'pile' and exposing it to abrasion."
On December 25, 1849, Patterson wrote Meredith stating "On the 22nd inst., I had the honor to send you a double eagle and to refer it to your judgment. That specimen had been struck with a heavy hand press. Since then a number have been coined by the ordinary steam press and the unhappy result has been reported to me by the chief coiner in the letter which I send enclosed. I think it proves that the obverse is to high for coinage and that a new one must be made. If the time required for the work by the engraver of the Mint may be judged from that engraved on the former, the delay will be consderable."
An example in brass J118/P133 was given to Robert Coulton Davis. It is not known if this is an 1849 striking or a later restrike. It last appeared in the April 1892 New York Coin and Stamp sale auction of the George W. Woodside collection where the obverse was plated and with the description below.
The piece sold to J.C. Randall for $55 and has not been seen since. Does anyone know where it is today?
Description and Woodside image courtesy of Saul Teichman.