What's the most valuable coin in the world? Many experts would say the unique 1849 $20 which is in the Smithsonian. It's the first double eagle and the only one known. John Dannreuther and I had a chance to examine the coin (thru a Plexi-glass case) at the August, 2009 ANA show, where it was displayed with other rarities from the Smithsonian. We felt PCGS would grade the coin PR63 or PR64, probably PR64.
At the August, 2009 ANA show I asked coin trader extraordinaire Kevin Lipton what he thought the coin would grade. Kevin's response, "Does it matter?" I then asked Kevin what he thought the coin was worth. Kevin's response, "The most." Kevin wasn't being flippant. He was just articulating what he thought was obvious, i.e. that the 1849 $20 is the best coin of all. I pressed Kevin a little more on value and he said, "If the 1849 $20 was auctioned today, I believe it would bring between $10,000,000 and $20,000,000."
So is the 1849 $20 the world's most valuable coin? The only other real contender is the unique 1907 $20 gold Indian Head pattern (formerly J-1776). The 1907 $20 Indian Head is an absolutely spectacular looking coin and the grade is virtually perfect. It is Augustus St. Gaudens' design, done with other 1907 gold coins, at the personal request of President Theodore Roosevelt. Both coins are of the highest importance, and both coins are unique. The owner of the 1907 Indian Head $20 supposedly recently turned down an offer of $15,000,000 for the coin!
Twenty dollar gold coins were a direct result of the California Gold Rush. Prior to 1849, the largest denomination for a U.S. gold coin was $10. But after the California gold discoveries, so much bullion was being sent to the mint in Philadelphia that a more compact coin for large scale international and domestic transactions made sense. The new "double eagle" $20 gold piece was authorized. Walter Breen has written of the 1849 $20 that "At least two proofs were coined on Dec. 22; one of these is in the Smithsonian Institute, the other went to Treasury Secretary William M Meredeth." This statement seems to indicate that there may be another 1849 $20 "floating" around somewhere. But I agree with Dave Bowers when he warned that Breen's statement must be taken with a grain of salt, and I personally feel the existence of a second 1949 $20 is beyond improbable.
When the Smithsonian Institution closed its “History of Money and Medals” exhibit in 2004, a group of coin dealers, numismatists, and friends were invited to assist in transferring the coins from the display cases to their proper places in the vault cabinets. At one point, the group gathered together a tray of approximately 30 of the greatest rarities, including both 1933 Double Eagles, all three classes of the 1804 Silver Dollars, the 1974 Aluminum Cent, the Brasher Doubloon and Half Doubloon, both thick planchet $10 diameter Ultra High Relief $20 patterns, the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, the 1794 Silver Dollar in Copper, and, of course, the 1849 Double Eagle, plus others. The total value of the grouping was estimated to be in the range of $100 million, making it one of the most valuable collections ever assembled (certainly, the per-coin value was an historical high). When asked "If you could pick any coin on this tray, which would you choose?", most of the attendees chose the 1849 $20.
David Akers (1975/88)
The 1849 is technically a pattern coin. It is one of the most famous and highly publicized of all U.S. coins. In fact, if one were to take a poll of knowledgeable numismatists as to which U.S. Mint issue they would most like to own, I am quite sure that the 1849 Double Eagle would be one of the most often mentioned coins. In 1909, J.P. Morgan reportedly offered to pay the enormous sum of $35,000 for the piece in the Mint Collection and there have been other unsuccessful attempts to purchase it as well.
It is a known fact that several pieces were struck in gold, but the only one whose location can be definitely traced today is the aforementioned specimen in the Mint Collection that is in the Smithsonian Institution. One other piece was supposedly given to Secretary of the Treasury William M. Meredith and it is thought to have been in the possession of Steven K. Nagy, the famous Philadelphia coin dealer , since there is a photograph of it in his estate. The late James Kelly, noted Dayton coin dealer, also claimed to have firsthand knowledge of the existence and whereabouts of a second specimen. Whether or not this was the Nagy specimen, no one can say for sure. At any rate, the location of a second specimen is unknown to the numismatic community and its very existence must be considered a matter of conjecture. No 1849 Double Eagle has ever been offered for sale at public auction although a gilt brass specimen was offered for sale in the 1892 Woodside Collection Sale. Its present location is also currently not known.