In August 2014, a rare 1861 $20 Double Eagle fetched a record price at auction for any $20 gold coin: a whopping $1,645,000. On the face, the coin appears to be a normal 1861 Double Eagle, which is normally worth $2500-$7500. A close examination of the reverse, however, reveals the seven-figure difference. Whereas the standard issue 1861 $20 has squat lettering and a broad rim, the reverse of this special piece features a tall font with a small, narrow rim. The story behind this unusual typeface is nothing short of fascinating.
In 1848, Anthony Paquet arrived in the United States from Germany. His father, a Frenchman, was a bronze worker in Hamburg. It can be assumed that the younger Paquet learned about metallic arts from his father, as he opened an engraving shop in the mid-1850s. Shortly thereafter, Anthony Paquet joined the Philadelphia Mint staff as an assistant engraver.
Paquet’s tenure at the U.S. Mint was likely a frustrating one. He designed numerous beautiful pattern coins, but not a single one was adopted for circulation. This was not due to a lack of talent or artistry; many of Paquet’s prototypes still exist and are considered some of the most attractive pattern coins ever struck. Numismatists speculate that Chief Engraver James Longacre shot down all of Paquet’s designs.
One such example was the $20 gold piece design. Longacre was dissatisfied with his $20 double eagle motif and asked Paquet for suggestions. The latter engraver responded with a complete overhaul of the design in 1859, but only a few trial pieces were struck in copper. Then, Paquet tried a modest reworking of Longacre’s design. The obverse was identical, but the reverse featured taller lettering and a narrower rim. Some prototypes of this design were struck in 1859 and 1860.
Finally, in 1861, Longacre succumbed and adopted Paquet’s reverse design for circulation. New reverse dies were sent to San Francisco, but they were suddenly recalled. There was concern that the more delicate design would not hold up well and lead to production issues. U.S. Mint Director telegraphed the San Francisco Mint and asked them use the old reverse dies and not the new Paquet version.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, it is unknown how many pieces were struck with the Paquet reverse. One theory is that the dies immediately failed and the defective coins had to be melted. This would explain why just two pieces, both Uncirculated, are known today. They were likely saved by Mint officials as souvenirs of the new design. Further evidence of that theory is that both coins appeared in numismatic auctions by the 1870s.
The specimen that sold in 2014 for $1.65 Million was first auctioned in 1875; it fetched just $26 then. The coin appeared at auction once more two years later (this time selling for $22.25) then disappeared for over 80 years. It resurfaced in Europe, presumably because it was spent! The coin traded hands for $6,500 in the 1960s and then for $12,500 shortly thereafter. Its next auction appearance was in 2001, when it sold for $345,000. The coin then traded hands again for $1,645,000—the highest amount paid at auction for a $20 Liberty Double Eagle.
While the physical differences between the two coins is minute, the difference in price is astronomical. The 1861 Paquet $20 is proof that even minute variations from one coin to another can have a staggering impact on price. What makes the 1861 Paquet Double Eagle even more desirable is its unusual backstory; this combined with its rarity contributes tremendously to its value.