Doug Winter: The following information is from my eBook on Type One Liberty Head Double Eagles at http://doubleeaglebook.com/
The 1854-S is a numismatically significant issue due to its status as the first double eagle struck at the recently-opened San Francisco mint. Unlike the quarter eagle and half eagle dated 1854-S which are great rarities, the 1854-S double eagle can be found with some degree of regularity.
STRIKE: The 1854-S is one of the better-struck Type One double eagles from this mint. The obverse is well-detailed with sharp hair curls, stars, and denticles. The reverse sometimes shows weakness on the eagle’s wingtips as well as on the denticles from 12:00 to 3:00. Many of the shipwreck coins (see below for more details) show a network of fine die cracks on the obverse and the reverse.
SURFACES: Most high(er) grade 1854-S double eagles have a granular semi-matte texture from exposure to seawater. Many of these coins can be quite attractive as they were Uncirculated when they were lost in the 1850’s. Additionally, the granular texture tends to make the fields look smooth and even. Otherwise, coins tend to have very heavily abraded surfaces. Many are well-worn and bright from cleaning.
Few collectors still understand the difference in rarity between seawater and original surface 1854-S double eagles, especially in higher grades. To date, I have seen two or three Uncirculated 1854-S double eagles in Uncirculated with natural surfaces and maybe a dozen in About Uncirculated. These are among the rarest San Francisco Type One issues to find with original surfaces and they should command strong premiums when compared to sweater examples.
LUSTER: 1854-S double eagles with original surfaces have inferior luster. It is satiny with a slightly coarse texture. Original surface coins tend to be worn to the point that they show minimal luster. Seawater coins have a distinctive matte-like texture which is not lustrous. There are some which are decidedly less granular than others and they could be mistaken for pieces with original surfaces by less experienced collectors.
COLORATION: The natural color for examples with original surfaces is medium orange and rose-gold. Seawater coins tend to show an attractive deeper orange-gold hue. I have seen no more than a handful of 1854-S double eagles with original surfaces which have nice natural color.
EYE APPEAL: Ironically, examples with seawater surfaces tend to have better overall eye appeal than their counterparts with original surfaces. Any 1854-S with original surfaces that has good eye appeal is very rare and desirable.
INTERESTING VARIETIES: There are a number of minor varieties known. Some 1854-S double eagles have a broken crossbar of the A in STATES, while others have a normal A. Another variety has the mintmark touching the feathers, while on others the mintmark is free of the feathers.
PROOFS: There is a unique Proof 1854-S double eagle in the Smithsonian. It is the first coin struck and was sent by Superintendent Robert Aiken Birdsall to Mint Director James Ross Snowden, and then placed in the Mint Cabinet. I regard this as one of the most important and potential valuable Type One double eagles.
HOARDS: In 1977, a hoard of Uncirculated 1854-S double eagles was located. These were said to have come from the S.S. Yankee Blade. In the past it has been written that “approximately 100” were found. However, on page 80 in his book on Double Eagles, Dave Bowers claims that “as many as 200-250” have been located. This number seems correct, and it likely includes a number which were damaged or whose appearance precludes them from being encapsulated by either PCGS or NGC. Despite having etched surfaces from exposure to seawater, many examples from this hoard have been graded and encapsulated by PCGS and NGC.
25 examples were found on the S.S. Central America, and five were found in the S.S. Republic.
BUYING TIPS: Learn to distinguish the difference between an example with original surfaces and one with seawater surfaces. The difference between the two types is still not widely known, and even many dealers do not realize how rare the former is.
AUCTION RECORD: The auction record for this date is $115,000 set by Heritage 10/08: 1313, graded MS65 by PCGS. An NGC MS65 sold for $83,375 as Heritage 1/12: 5031.
FINEST KNOWN: This is another date which is challenging when determining the finest known. This is due to the fact that many of the highest graded 1854-S double eagles have finely granular surfaces from exposure to seawater. Of these coins, the three best are two PCGS MS65’s (one is in the Crawford collection and the other brought $115,000 as Heritage 10/08: 3013) and a PCGS MS64 from the S.S. Central America (last sold as Stack’s Bowers 2014 ANA: 12010 and sold by me to a New England collector). There are three or four known in Uncirculated with non-seawater surfaces. The two best I know of include an example in a New England collection graded MS61 by PCGS which is ex Heritage 11/07: 61779 ($21,850), Bass III: 781 ($10,925), and an NGC MS61 owned by Connecticut collector. Both were purchased from me.
TOTAL KNOWN: 425-525+
Very Fine: 80-100
Extremely Fine: 125-150
About Uncirculated: 100-125
Uncirculated: 125-150+ (This includes numerous shipwreck coins with matte-like surfaces. Many of these are in numerically graded PCGS and NGC holders).
POPULATION FIGURES: As of the beginning of 2015, PCGS had graded one in MS60, 10 in MS61, 23 in MS62, 17 in MS63, three in MS64, and two in MS65 for a total of 57 in Uncirculated. NGC had graded two in MS60, five in MS61, eight in MS62, 23 in MS63, 10 in MS64, and one in MS65 (as well as an MS64 from the S.S. Central America) for a total of 50 in Uncirculated. These figures are inflated, especially in the MS62 to MS63 range. CAC has approved one coin each in MS62, MS63, and MS64.
PERFORMANCE SINCE 2002: In the current market, an average quality About Uncirculated example (equivalent to AU50) would sell for $9,000-12,000. The same quality coin would have sold for $1,500-2,000 back in 2002. In the current market, an above average quality Uncirculated example (equivalent to MS62) would sell for $37,500-45,000. Back in 2002, the same quality coin would have sold for $6,000-8,000. The price performance of this date is among the best of any Type One double eagle over the last dozen years. This is attributable to many new collectors having “discovered” this issue, the multiple levels of demand which the 1854-S has, and the fact that it was extremely undervalued a decade+ ago.
COMMENTS: Given the historic nature of this issue, I regard it as one of the more desirable Type One double eagles. It used to be under-priced but this is clearly not the case any longer. That said, I feel that examples with original surfaces are clearly undervalued and very few people are aware of just how rare these are in AU55 and higher grades.David Akers (1975/88): The 1854-S is a very scarce date in all grades. Until the past five or six years it was virtually unobtainable in high grade and almost all known specimens graded only VF or EF. But in the mid-1970's a small group of "saltwater uncs" was discovered and all the high grade specimens of this date that have appeared at auction recently have been from that group. (PCGS CoinFacts editor's note: remember this was written by David Akers in 1982, long before the SS Central America treasure hoard, which contained quantities of 1854-S, 1855-S, 1856-S, and 1857-S twenties). The saltwater coins are all mint state but they have varying degrees of the subdued lustre that is characteristic of coins that have been submerged for a long time in saltwater. Actually many of the coins from this group have faint obverse and reverse die cracks. There is only one choice original (not saltwater) unc that I know of and I have seen only a few strictly graded, original AU's. There is one proof known, undoubtedly the first specimen struck, and it is in the Mint Collection in the Smithsonian Institution. It is a very choice quality coin and, in my opinion, it is easily the most significant and desireable branch mint proof coin in existence.