One of the rarest gold coins struck in the New Orleans Mint irrespective of denomination, the 1854-O Double Eagle was produced to the extent of just 3,250 pieces. A mere 25-35 coins are believed to have survived - a paltry total that confirms the 1854-O as the second-rarest collectible Double Eagle from this coinage facility after the 1856-O. As of June 2007, the '54-O remains unknown in any Mint State grade. Even the single example discovered with the shipwreck of the S.S. Republic graded out as AU-58 at NGC.
The Double Eagle - the largest gold denomination ever struck for circulation in the United States Mint - was borne out of the California Gold Rush. So much of this precious metal flowed from the gold fields on the West Coast that bullion deposits in the Philadelphia Mint skyrocketed by the late 1840s. Feeling that a coin larger than the Half Eagle or Eagle was needed for ease of domestic and international transactions, Congress authorized a Double Eagle, or Twenty-Dollar gold piece, with the Act of March 3, 1849.
The first Double Eagles produced were at least two proofs struck on December 22, 1849. These coins display Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre's Liberty design, the artists' initial concept remaining current through 1866. This premier design has since become known as the Type I Double Eagle, and it lacks the motto IN GOD WE TRUST (unlike its Type II and III counterparts) and has the reverse denomination expressed as TWENTY D. (unlike the Type III motif). Only one proof 1849 survives, and it is impounded in the Smithsomian Institution's National Numismatic Collection.
Regular-issue Type I Double Eagle production commenced on or about January 26, 1850. The Philadelphia Mint struck examples of this design from that year through 1865, the New Orleans Mint was active 1850-1861 and the San Francisco Mint produced Type I Twenties from 1854 through 1866. Absolute rarities abound in this series, and they include the 1854-O, 1856-O, 1861 Paquet Reverse and 1861-S Paquet Reverse. Virtually all deliveries in this series are conditionally rare in Mint State, some beginning even at the basal MS-60 level.
Some Type I Double Eagles have been widely represented in recent recoveries of shipwreck treasure. These include the 1857-S and 1865. The sizeable number of high-grade examples brought to light through the efforts of deep-sea excavators has made the Type I Double Eagle a familiar and readily accessible coin for thousands of collectors and investors. Indeed, the series has become one of the most popular and widely collected in the entire U.S. coinage family.