The following information is from my eBook on Type One Liberty Head Double Eagles at http://doubleeaglebook.com/
As a result of the discovery of thousands of choice to gem examples from the S.S. Central America treasure, the 1857-S has become the single most available Type One double eagle. This discovery literally kick-started the wider market for this series and today the 1857-S is desirable to collectors, investors, and history lovers alike.
STRIKE: This is a well-struck issue. The hair detail on the obverse is sharp with many of the curls and the strands at the top of Liberty’s head showing individual definition. The stars usually have full radial lines and the denticles are sharp and clear. On the reverse, there is usually some minor weakness on the tips of the wings, but the overall detail is excellent with detail not seen on most Type One issues from the San Francisco mint. The coins from the S.S. Central America are generally well-struck and show better overall detail than the coins which are not from this hoard.
SURFACES: On coins not from the hoard, the surfaces tend to be heavily abraded. Examples from the hoard may shows scuffs or abrasions but are generally cleaner than their counterparts. A few of the hoard coins are exceptionally clean and their surfaces approach perfection. This is due to the fact that they were found in stacks, and coins in the middle were protected on both the obverse and reverse.
LUSTER: The luster seen on the issue varies on the source of origin for a specific coin. The non-hoard coins are frosty but tend to have slightly subdued luster. The hoard coins have luster which ranges from good to exceptional. Some are known with semi-prooflike luster and there are even some fully prooflike coins known. PCGS designated seven coins from the hoard as having DMPL (or “deep mirror prooflike”) surfaces, while another 23 were designated as being “PL” (prooflike). The reflectiveness seen on these coins, especially the ones designated as DMPL, are unlike that seen on nearly any other Type One issue.
COLORATION: A wide range of colors has been seen on coins which are not from the hoard. These include deep yellow-gold, medium orange-gold, rose and dark green-gold. The SSCA coins have excellent coloration but since they have been conserved in varying degrees, some have “turned” in the holders and are now hazy or cloudy.
EYE APPEAL: There are some truly incredible 1857-S double eagles available to collectors due to the “as struck” nature of many coins in the S.S. Central America treasure. Many of these coins are very well-struck with great luster and vivid, bright color. Examples from other sources have less eye appeal but can show above average eye appeal as well.
INTERESTING VARIETIES: This issue is found with a Medium S mintmark and a Large S mintmark (as on the 1854-S). The latter appears to be quite rare. A total of eight different minor varieties was found among the SSCA coins.
PROOFS: There were no proofs struck, though some examples are prooflike (as noted above in Luster).
HOARDS: There were 80 examples in the S.S. Republic hoard including five in Uncirculated. Over 5,000 were in the S.S. Central America treasure; this included coins grading as high as MS66 and MS67. There were six low-grade examples in the S.S. Brother Jonathan.
BUYING TIPS: With thousands of choice, high-grade 1857-S double eagles available, the collector can be patient and wait for the coin which perfectly suits his tastes. I would strongly suggest that any collector buying an example look for coin in an original gold foil holder with the presentation box and Certificate of Authenticity attached.
AUCTION RECORD: The current auction record for this date is $152,750, set by a PCGS MS67 example which sold as Heritage 2014 ANA: 5692. The second highest current record is $138,000 which was set by another PCGS MS67 sold as Heritage 2012 FUN: 5034.
FINEST KNOWN: Of the thousands of Uncirculated 1857-S double eagles found in the S.S. Central America treasure, it is virtually impossible to select a coin which is the clear single finest known. PCGS has graded 11 in MS67 with none finer. The only one of these to have been approved by CAC is ex Heritage 2014 ANA:5692 where it sold for a remarkable $172,500.
TOTAL KNOWN: 6500-7500+
ery Fine: 100-150
Extremely Fine: 200-250
About Uncirculated: 1700-2100
POPULATION FIGURES: The highest graded 1857-S double eagles recorded by PCGS as of the beginning of 2015 include 184 in MS66 and 11 in MS67. There have been a total of 4,367 Uncirculated examples graded by PCGS. NGC’s highest graded examples include 57 in MS66 and 7 in MS67. There have been a total of 411 Uncirculated examples graded by NGC. The figures for Uncirculated coins is probably inflated by 10-20% on account of resubmissions. CAC has approved one example in MS60, two in MS61, three in MS62, three in MS63, 17 in MS64, 13 in MS65, eight in MS66, and one in MS67. CAC has approved a total of 351 examples of varieties in Mint State, for a grand total of 399 Uncirculated coins with CAC approval.
PERFORMANCE SINCE 2002: The price performance for this issue only makes sense if SSCA coins are studied. In the current market, a Gem SSCA example (equivalent to MS65) is worth $12,000-14,000. In 2002, this same coin was worth $9,000-11,000. In the current market an average quality Uncirculated SSCA example (equivalent to MS62) is worth $6,000-7,000. In 2002, these coins were worth $3,500-4,500. It should be pointed out that after an initial burst of strong price performance, levels dropped considerably and appeared to hit a low point around 2004. Since then, prices have inched upward, and the finest coins from this hoard (graded MS67) have sold for incredible prices in their last three auction appearances.
COMMENTS: For many years, it’s been no secret that I haven’t been a big fan of the 1857-S double eagles that trace their origin from the S.S. Central America shipwreck. I’ve written that price levels of these coins haven’t made sense to me, and I’ve have had problems with their appearance. More than a decade after they were first released onto the market, has my opinion changed? I believe that this is (finally) a sensible time to purchase an SSCA double eagle. But there are some important parameters for the collector to follow when considering a purchase. Some of these are as follows:
1. Be Selective. There are over 5,000 1857-S double eagles from this shipwreck and they range in grade from Extremely Fine to Mint State-67. With this wide variety of grades, there are a tremendous number of coins to choose from. At any given major auction, there are typically three to five available and it isn’t terribly hard to find them in specialist dealer’s inventories. I have noticed a huge variation in quality for coins in the same grade. As an example, I’ve seen some in MS63 holders that I’ve loved, and I’ve seen some in MS63 holders that I thought were horrible. Spend 10-20% more and buy a coin that is high-end and attractive. In some instances, you will be able to buy nice, high-end examples for little or no premium.
2. Find the Sweet Spot. In my opinion, the “right” grade range for one of these 1857-S double eagles is MS63 to MS64. There is not much of a premium for these two grades over AU and lower Mint State grades, and when you buy a coin that grades MS63 to MS64 you are getting good value. In the current market, AU58 examples can bring as much as $3,500-4,000. An MS63 is worth around $7,000-8,000 while an MS64 is worth $8,000-9,000. It seems to me that an MS63 at around 2x the price of an AU58 is good value. And it also seems to me that an MS64 at around $1,000 more than an MS63 is good value as well.
3. Stick With Coins in Original Holders. It is important to focus on 1857-S double eagles that are in their original gold foil PCGS holders. And having the original box and other packaging is an added benefit. Avoid coins that are not in these holders and stay clear of NGC graded S.S. Central America double eagles. They may be nice coins, but they have been cracked from their original holders and probably upgraded.
4. Avoid Coins That Have “Turned” in the Holder: All of the coins in this treasure were conserved after they salvaged. The conservation process has been well-documented and, in some cases, the work was outstanding. But there are other coins that have “turned” in the holder. These can be identified either by very hazy surfaces or unnatural splotchy golden color. Avoid these coins and look for pieces that are bright, lustrous, and evenly toned. At this point in time, coins that haven’t turned are probably not going to.
5. Disregard The Die Varieties. All 1857-S double eagles from the shipwreck are attributed to a distinct die variety. There are over 20 varieties known. Some are probably rare, but it is even rarer to find a collector who cares. I’d suggest not paying a premium for these.
6. If You Are Buying a PL or DMPL Example, Carefully Study the Market. A very small number of 1857-S double eagles were designated as either Prooflike (PL) or Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) by PCGS. These are some of the most visually arresting coins from the shipwreck. I have seen a few pieces in the last few years bring extremely high premiums. These are no doubt very scarce and very flashy coins, but I question the premium that they are currently bringing. If you do decide to purchase such a coin, carefully check auction prices for comparable examples and make certain that the price you are paying is in line with the last auction trade.
Now that I’ve told you the coins to avoid, let me tell you my ideal S.S. Central America double eagle and let me tell you why my opinion about these coins has changed over time. My ideal 1857-S double eagle from this shipwreck would be a choice, high-end PCGS MS64 in a gold foil holder with original papers and box. It would be very lustrous and bright, with no haze or discoloration. I’d expect to pay $8,000 to $9,000 and I’d expect to be able to find a nice one within a month or two of beginning my search.
What made me change my mind about these coins? For years, I thought they were very overpriced. I don’t remember the exact issue price but I do know that whenever I would buy the coins from original investors, they would have to sell them at a loss; often a considerable one. I didn’t like that there was no real secondary market for these coins, and that many of the investors who bought them had been told that they would appreciate in value.
What changed about these coins, at least for me, was the creation of a secondary market. A few of the larger firms that sell Liberty Head double eagles have done a great job of creating this market. For many new double eagle collectors, a bright, shiny high grade 1857-S is a great starter coin and this has created a new level of demand that hasn’t existed since the coins were being sold (and heavily hyped) over a decade ago.
Another thing that changed my mind about the S.S. Central America coins is their comparative value with other Type One double eagles in higher grades. As an example, compare an MS64 1857-S to an 1861 in this grade. Prior to the discovery of this hoard, the 1861 was the “generic” date of this type and it was certainly the only coin that was seen, from time to time, in MS64. In 2001, an MS64 1857-S in a PCGS gold foil label was a consistent seller at auction for $6,900. At that same point in time, an 1861 would sell for $10,000 to $12,000. Today, the same 1857-S is only worth $8,000 while an MS64 1861 would sell for $18,000-20,000+. Non-1857 S double eagles in high grades have become expensive and hard to locate. This has increased demand for the 1857-S double eagles and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them reach $10,000 in the next year or so.
One last observation about my about-face. I’ve seen thousands of 1857-S double eagles from this shipwreck and I’ve got to admit, that they’ve grown on me. Ten years ago, when conservation was not so widespread, these coins appeared funky and I hated the way they looked. Today, with conservation more readily accepted (and way more widespread) they don’t look so funky anymore. I love the quality of strike and blazing luster that many of them show and they are certainly an interesting contrast to the dirty, crusty often bagmarked AU Type One double eagles that are a staple of my day-to-day business. Do I love these coins? Not really. But I’ve become more accepting of the way they look and have always loved their back story. Today, if a collector asks me “should I buy an S.S. Central America double eagle?” my answer will typically be “yes, but with a few red flags.” A few years ago, my answer would have been a quick and curt “no.”
David Akers (1975/88)
(See PCGS CoinFacts editor's note below)
Based on the number of specimens available in all grades, the 1857-S is one of the more common Type I S-Mint Double Eagles. It is similar in overall rarity to the 1855-S, 1858-S, 1959-S and 1865-S. Most available specimens grade only VF or EF but AU examples, while certainly very scarce, can also be located. Uncirculated pieces are definitely rare and choice or gem quality examples are seldom, if ever, available. I have never seen anything other than frosty examples of this date.
PCGS CoinFacts editor's note: David Akers great book on Double Eagles was written in 1982, some 20 years before the SS Central America treasure hoard came to market. The hoard contained significant quantities of 1854-S, 1855-S, 1856-S, and 1857-S $20 gold pieces. David Akers' comments above are a representation of what rarity comments looked like prior to the discovery of the SS Central America treasure hoard. The actual number of coins (many uncirculated, especially for the 1857-S) is as follows; 1857-S 5,193 coins, 1856-S 1,108 coins, 1855-S 325 coins, 1854-S 25 coins.