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By Ed Reiter

Rarity. Elegance. And anonymity.

These are some of the attributes possessed by the 1861 Paquet double eagle.

The Philadelphia version of this $20 gold piece, struck in the opening year of the Civil War, is rarer than any of the “Big 3” in the current coin market: the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle, the 1804 silver dollar and the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. Yet it’s far less familiar to most collectors and trails all the others in terms of its highest-priced sale.

In its own quiet way, it’s a rarity of the first magnitude and it richly deserves a more prominent place on the honor roll of great U.S. coins.

For many years, the coin was considered a pattern or experimental piece – which, if true, would make its rarity less significant and its value considerably less. It’s now widely accepted, though, that this is a regular-issue coin, meant for general circulation.

Rather than being a pattern, it’s a variety – a distinct subcategory of the Liberty Head or Coronet double eagle. It gets its name from Anthony C. Paquet, an assistant sculptor-engraver at the Philadelphia Mint.

Paquet was born in Germany and came to America in 1848. He joined the technical staff at the Philadelphia Mint in 1857, working under Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. Two years later, he was asked to modify the reverse of the Liberty double eagle, a coin designed by Longacre and first struck in 1849.

The changes he made were subtle, primarily involving the lettering in the inscriptions “United States of America” and “Twenty D.” Paquet made the letters taller and more slender, giving them a rather graceful appearance.

After the changes were approved, dies were made and production began at both the mother mint in Philadelphia and the branch in San Francisco. Then, almost at once, workmen in Philadelphia spotted a technical problem: Paquet had made the border too narrow, without a protective rim, and this would expose the coins to unacceptable wear in circulation. Internal politics involving Paquet ad Longacre also are thought to have been a factor. In any case, production was halted immediately, and plans for the change were scrapped.

By the time the stop-work order reached the San Francisco Mint, the West Coast branch had made 19,250 pieces – and many of these had entered circulation. But the presses had been stopped so quickly in Philadelphia that only three pieces reportedly had been struck. One of these was melted, leaving just two survivors for collectors to pursue. By contrast, there are five known examples of the 1913 Liberty nickel, 15 specimens of the 1804 dollar and at least 11examples of the 1933 double eagle.

One of the Paquet pieces brought $660,000 when it was sold at auction in 1988 as part of the famous Norweb Collection. Before ending up in the magnificent collection of R. Henry and Emery May Norweb, it had been owned at various times by such prominent collectors as Lorin G. Parmelee, William Woodin (who served for a time as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury), Waldo C. Newcomer, Col. E.H.R. Green, F.C.C. Boyd and King Farouk of Egypt.

The Norwebs had purchased it in a private transaction for just $5,000 in 1954, after the government of Egypt seized and sold the Farouk Collection.

One of its many admirers once described the Paquet double eagle as “the rarest collectible variety of the largest denomination of regular-issue U.S. coinage.” He then added: “It’s more than just a mere die variety; it represents a new reverse design, so it’s sort of a type coin all by itself.”

Prior to the Norweb Sale, neither of the Paquet pieces had changed hands at auction since 1890.

The second specimen was purchased privately in 2008 for $2.5 million by an unidentified business executive from Orange County, California. This piece once belonged to Col. Mendes I. Cohen, a well-known 19th-century collector, but disappeared for 90 years after being sold at auction in 1875 by Edward Cogan, a pioneer U.S. coin dealer. It re-emerged in Europe in 1965 in a bag of $20 gold pieces.

Great wealth isn’t needed to buy a Paquet double eagle. The 19,250 examples minted in San Francisco cost a small fraction of what you’d have to pay for their rare Philadelphia cousins – assuming one of the two P-mint pieces could be had at any price.

Then again, even a small fraction comes to tens of thousands of dollars.