Ron Guth: As noted above, the discovery of the wrecked ship SS Central America yielded a treasure trove of US gold coins. All told, the ship yielded more than 7,000 gold coins, including over 5,000 1857-S double eagles and over 1,500 1856-S double aagles. This unprecedented hoard allowed PCGS experts to examine each of the coins to determine different die varieties. Among the 1856-S double eagles,18 different varieties were identified, each of which was assigned a separate PCGS number for identification purposes. The varities ranged from different positions of the mintmark to missing serifs, broken A's, and/or combinations of the above. Most collectors purchase 1856-S double eagles sourced to the SS Central America for their overall quality. Where any Type 1 Double Eagle was a great rarity in the past, the collector now has access to thousands of Mint State examples, some quite choice. However, it should be noted that this hoard was distributed widely by telemarketers, and these coins come back into the market slowly at best.
The finest 1856-S double eagles certified by PCGS include two at the MS-66 level, and none finer.
David Akers (1975/88): (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. So here's what the rarity comments looked like prior to the SS Central America hoard.)
Although scarce, particularly in mint state, the 1856-S is one of the commonest Type I Double Eagles from the San Francisco Mint. It appeared at auction in the 443 catalogues surveyed more times than any other except the 1865-S, and it is offered in Unc. more times than any of the rest. These auction data coincide with my own personal experience and I would rate the 1856-S as the most likely Type I S-Mint Double Eagle to be available in full mint state. Many of the uncs are the "saltwater" variety with subdued lustre and slightly granular surfaces but I have also seen a small number of very nice original uncs including several that were gem quality. (One should not get the impression from these comments, however, that an Unc. 1856-S is not rare because it most certainly is. It is just not quite as rare as the other early S-Mint issues.) I have never seen a prooflike 1856-S; all of them were frosty.
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