1878 $20 (1878 Double Eagle) PCGS MS64. PCGS Secure. This rare 1878 Double Eagle comes in a PCGS Secure holder, which guarantees both the authenticity and originality of the coin. Double eagle coins of this date are often weakly struck; however, that is certainly not the case with this specimen. The strike is excellent on both sides enabling the viewer to appreciate all of the details of Longacre’s design. For example, all of the star centrals and stripes on the shield are sharp and bold. The coin has swirling cartwheel luster and clean surfaces, especially so on the reverse.
The double eagle of 1878 is a Type 3 coin in the series. Type 2 added the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the oval of stars above the eagle. Type 3 changed the denomination from TWENTY D. to TWENTY DOLLARS. James Barton Longacre designed the pattern for the double eagle in 1849. It was produced because of the huge amount of gold that came into the Mint from California. With the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848, the California gold rush began. It led to an influx of miners and others into the area. The vast quantity of gold produced led to a need for a standard form of exchange. The twenty dollar coin was the government’s response. They also felt that it would be useful for large commercial transactions and that it would facilitate foreign trade.
Longacre’s design for the coin shows a Liberty head facing left wearing coronet inscribed LIBERTY. Her hair is tightly tied in the back with two loose curls hanging down her neck to the end of the truncation. She is surrounded by thirteen six pointed stars with the date below. Dentils are near the edge on both sides of the coin. The reverse shows a heraldic eagle with elaborate ribbons on both sides of the shield extending from the top corner down to the eagle’s tail feathers. The ribbons are inscribed, on the left E PLURIBUS and UNUM on the right. The ribbons were added to the design to symbolize the denomination since this was the first twenty dollar coin. There is an oval of thirteen stars above the eagle’s head and an arc of rays from wing tip to wing tip behind the upper half of the oval. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is in an arc above the eagle, and the denomination TWENTY DOLLARS is below.
James Barton Longacre was born in Pennsylvania in 1794. He became an apprentice to a bookseller and then a banknote engraver in Philadelphia. In 1819 he worked on his own as an engraver and made metal plates for bank notes and book illustrations. His works included one on stage personalities and another on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1830 Longacre and James Herring made plans to do a series of biographies of famous men in the military and in politics. This project became the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans in four volumes that was first published in 1834. This set of books brought great fame to Longacre and those who worked with him. In 1844, through the influence of John C. Calhoun, Longacre was made Chief Engraver at the Mint, where he succeeded the late Christian Gobrecht. Longacre’s experience was limited, but he was a talented artist. By 1849 he was able to create the gold dollar and double eagle, the design of which lasted until well into the twentieth century. One of Longacre’s associates, Chief Coiner Franklin Peale, opposed Longacre’s appointment and became an obstructionist. Peale ran a private medal-making business using Mint facilities, and he felt that Longacre’s presence would jeopardize it. In 1854 Peale was fired by President Franklin Pearce, and Longacre’s life became easier. Longacre remained Chief Engraver until his death in 1869. Coins from Longacre’s estate were auctioned in 1870. They included patterns, coins of Chile, and regularly issued coins.
James Longacre created the design for the double eagle, which was an original work that lasted until well into the twentieth century. Much of his work showed his excellent sense of proportion. Although criticized for creating blundered dies, most likely those were done by Franklin Peale. Longacre was responsible for creating many designs including the Liberty Head dollar and double eagle, the Indian Princess gold dollar and three dollar pieces, the two cent piece, the shield nickel, many five cent pattern pieces, and the Indian head cent. His dies were used on hundreds of trial pieces and pattern coins.
The 1878 double eagle had an original mintage of 543,625. It is available in grades from VF to MS62; however, higher grades are rare. There are no known examples in gem condition. In its population report, PCGS shows this coin tied for the finest with 6 others. NGC has 4 at MS64 with none better. These numbers do not account for resubmissions and crossovers. In other words, here is an extraordinary coin that is the finest obtainable in the marketplace today.
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