The first part of this article, published at the end of December 2010, discussed some of my favorite little-known United States gold coins in the dollar, quarter eagle and three dollar denominations. In the second and final part of this series, I'm going to look at some of the more interesting half eagles, eagles and double eagles that I have seen or sold over the course of the last two decades as a specialist in United States gold coinage. One quick note. I received some comments about the first part of this series that asked why I didn't include Proofs or 20th century coins. While I like Proof gold, I am not often that impressed with it (there are exceptions, of course...) and a great business strike is a coin that is more likely to stay with me. The same goes for 20th century gold coins. I love the designs and respect the collectors but I can remember more than a handful of Ten Indians or Saints that have left decade-long impressions on my coin psyche.
1. Half Eagles
a) 1838-C, graded MS63 by PCGS. There are a number of Charlotte half eagles that are rarer than the 1838-C. But this is among the more difficult half eagles from this mint to locate in higher grades. In Uncirculated, it is exceedingly rare and this example, which first surfaced in the Stack's 1978 Bareford auction, is the only unequivocally Mint State piece of which I am aware.
I first saw this coin in the October 1989 Superior sale. I badly wanted to buy it but didn't have a client for it at the time. It sold for $48,400 which seemed like a lot of money for an 1838-C half eagle twenty+ years ago. It was purchased by dealer Andy Lustig who was never able to sell it and I think he had it in his stock for close to two years before he gave up and put it into the 8/91 Akers/Rarcoa sale where it went cheaply at $38,500. It was later acquired by Harry Bass via private treaty with yours truly playing a small supporting role. After Bass died, it was sold in October 1999 by Bowers and Merena auctions where it was purchased by the Pogue family for $86,250.
I love this coin for numerous reasons. Its easily the finest known example of the first Charlotte half eagle. Its the only Charlotte half eagle that employs the Classic Head design. Its amazingly choice for the issue. It is one of those coins that every time I think about it I say to myself "why didn't you buy that coin for yourself when it was cheap and only a handful of people appreciated it?"
b) 1847, graded MS66 by PCGS
This was an especially memorable coin for me because I think it was one of the most controversial gold coins I can remember viewing. The coin in question was a staggering 1847 with a virtually perfect obverse and a reverse with the Mother of all Copper Spots. I'm not talking a small copper spot; I'm talking a deep, dark multi-hued stain that covered most of the reverse. I recall sitting in the bar of the Baltimore Marriott hotel the night before the sale began, talking shop with other dealers. Some people loved the coin (I was one of them) but other people absolutely hated it; and this was before the era that all copper spots "had" to be removed in order for a coin to sell!
The coin wound up bringing $110,000 which I though was a staggering price considering the dissent it caused among bidders at the sale. It later graded MS66 at PCGS (I graded it "67 net 66" and figured the spot would lower the grade by a point which it did). Years later it appeared as ANR 11/04: 1804 where it brought $92,000; a poor return for a seven year hold. Seeing it again, I still loved the coin but thought that, for $100,000, I'd prefer a No Motto half eagle with a little less "character."
3. 1864-S, graded MS65 by PCGS. I've written about this coin before. It's among my favorite United States coins ever and its one of those special coins that combine extreme rarity with amazing aesthetics.
The 1864-S is the second rarest collectible Liberty Head half eagle, trailing only the 1875. There are around 25-35 known in all grades but most are well-worn and I know of just two or three in the AU grade range. And then there is this piece, which must have either been saved as an assay coin or somehow put away (on purpose or accidentally) by someone in San Francisco at the time of issue.
You have to see this coin in person to appreciate its beauty. Other than some weakness of strike on the stars it is nearly flawless and probably would grade a point or two higher by today's standards. Harry Bass bought it out of the Norweb I sale in October 1987 and it is originally from Kosoff's Melish collection sale in 1956. It brought $176,000 in 1999 which I thought was a good deal then and which seems amazingly cheap now.
1) 1839 Type of 1840, graded MS64 by NGC. The span of years from 1995 to 2001 was unique in that a lot of really great old collections were taken to auction and sold. Unless something totally unsuspected happens, I can't imagine we'll ever see another five or six years with so many great coins in so many sales. For me, the Pittman sale was one of the most fun and challenging.
Pittman was like the Super Bowl of coin auctions. All the coins were raw (I doubt we'll ever see a huge sale like this again with raw coins...), the material was as fresh as could be imagined, every major player was involved and the terms were cash and carry, meaning that you had little margin for error.
There were so many great coins in the Pittman sales but this 1839 Type of 1840 eagle is one that I still remember. It sold for $143,000 to Greg Roberts and I was the underbidder. I didn't have a client in mind for the coin and I was actually going to put it away in my own collection. Now graded MS64 by NGC, the coin is staggeringly beautiful with amazing deep yellow-gold color, great surfaces and superb luster. I have always liked the design of this issue and have found it to be a rare coin in AU and higher grades. The Pittman coin appears to be the finest known and there are only three Uncirculated pieces that exist.
2) 1848-O, graded MS66 by PCGS. The James Stack sale, held by Stack's in October 1994, is one of those auctions that don't get mentioned much but it was, in my opinion, one of the premier numismatic events of the 1990's. It was a great collection, put together by a sophisticated collector and there were a number of really wonderful coins.
My favorite coin in the sale was Lot 1298 which was a monumental 1848-O eagle. Later graded MS66 by both NGC and PCGS, this coin is certainly one of the finest No Motto eagles known and it is far and away the finest New Orleans eagle of this type.
The 1848-O eagle was a coin that caused quite a commotion during lot viewing. It was what I call a "pass around" coin, meaning that the dealers viewing the sale on more than one occasion stopped viewing the lots while the coin was passed around from person to person with appropriate comments made at each stop.
At the Stack sale, it brought $154,000 which was a huge, huge price for a New Orleans eagle in 1994. It resurfaced in the 2003 ANA sale and was later seen in the inventory of a California dealer around 2009-2010.
3. 1899-O, graded MS68 by PCGS. One of the really great numismatics accomplishments of the modern era was the group of gold coins put together by Les Fox known as Amazing Gold Rarities. Using Dave Akers as his adviser, in a few short years, Fox gathered a really superb group of coins that he proposed to sell at Sotheby's or Christie's presented as great artworks. Great idea, yes? Except not great enough to get either Sotheby's or Christie's involved and the holdings wound-up in a more conventional Stack's auction held in October, 1988.
There were many great coins in this sale but, for some reason, the one that sticks with me nearly twenty-five years later is the 1899-O eagle that was first sold in the Eliasberg sale and which was obtained by John Clapp directly from the mint at the time of issue.
I haven't seen this coin since 1988 but I remember it being the single most perfect 19th century U.S. gold coin that I'd ever seen. It had virtually perfect surfaces, superb color and sensational frosty luster. It was later graded MS68 by PCGS and I would be curious to see it today and speculate how it would grade by current standards. Just as an FYI, it brought all of $39,600 in October 1988.
3. Double Eagles
a) 1861, graded MS67 by PCGS. The discovery of thousands of high quality Type One double eagles in the S.S. Central America probably had a bigger impact on this specific coin than on any other issue I can think of. For many years this coin was THE Type One double eagle and I still think it is the best single example of this type that is known. But that didn't keep it from becoming an obscurity.
As far as I know, this incredible Gem was first sold at auction in Rarcoa's session of Auction '90 where it brought a remarkable $170,750. A year later, in a much less robust market, it sold for just $68,750 (ouch!) in the Superior May 1991 auction. I seem to recall it bouncing around from dealer-to-dealer until it brought $96,800 as Lot 7947 in Heritage's 1995 ANA sale. The value of this coin increased through the late 1990's and by the turn of the century it was probably worth around what it had brought in Auction '90. But after the onslaught of Gem Type Ones from the SSCA shipwreck its value yo-yo'ed back to its May 1991 level.
I've still never seen a Type One that compares to this coin. Great luster, great color, great surfaces...it was a really spectacular coin and it's something that I would very much like to see again after being off the market for so long.
b) 1891, graded MS64 by NGC. This coin was one of many great double eagles that was sold in the Dallas Bank Collection auction in 2001. This is a sale (and a coin) that offers an extensive backstory for me.
The Dallas Bank collection was owned by Jeff Browning, a Texas oil man who had died young in the 1970's or 1980's. I had known about this collection since I moved to Dallas in 1983 and because of the fact that I never got to see it, despite it residing in a bank less than two miles from my house, it became my numismatic Loch Ness Monster. When it was finally announced that it was going to be sold at auction in New York by Sotheby's and Stack's in October 2001, I was very excited.
The trip to New York for this sale was nerve-wracking as it was my first time on a plane since the 9/11 attacks. I remember lots of soldiers at DFW with machine guns, incredibly tight security and a nervous feeling on the plane that's hard to describe unless you flew yourself at that time. New York was still reeling from the tragedy. There were fliers on the walls searching for missing people and when I went downtown with a fellow coin dealer to see the Trade Towers site, you could still smell the smoke and chemical odor. Chilling...
I thought the coins in the sale didn't all live up to their legend(s) but there were many I liked. The one I liked the most was an amazing 1891 double eagle that was later graded MS64 by NGC. It sold for $80,500. It came on the market again in January 2005 and Heritage sold it, this time in the aforementioned NGC holder, for $155,250.
What are the obscure rarities that stand out to you? I would love to hear from you and can be reached by email at email@example.com or, you can leave a comment at the end of this article.