Ten Great U.S. Coin Auctions and Some Reminiscences

I’ve now been attending coin auctions for the better part of thirty years. I’ve gone to major sales in New York and tiny little farm sales in New England. I’ve truly seen the good, the bad and the ugly in the hundreds of sales I’ve participated in. Here is a brief recap of ten which are especially memorable to me and some noteworthy incidents that I always associate with each of these sales. 1. 1975 EAC Sale, Pine Tree Auctions 1975

As a youngster, my first love was collecting Colonials. I specialized in Connecticut Cents and, at one time, was good enough with these coins that I could attribute many of the 350+ die varieties by sight without a reference book.

The 1975 EAC sale contained what still probably ranks as the finest collection of Connecticuts ever assembled. When I received the catalog I was obsessed and can remember spending days in my room analyzing it and making lists containing first, second and third choices.

I also remember grappling with the financial aspects of the sale. I was ready to spend my net worth at the time (which was probably around $1,500) as well as sell off all my non-essential coins. My mom tried not to be to concerned as she saw my attempts at raising a few thousand dollars to spend at the sale but you’ve got to wonder if my financials wheelings and dealings didn’t alarm her somehow.

There are two things I remember best about this sale. The first is that Richard Picker, a really kind old-time colonial specialist who lived out on Long Island, volunteered to help me bid in the sale and to steer me towards the coins which he thought were the most desirable. And, best of all, he did it for free, just to “help the kid out.” Secondly, I remember that there was a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden the day after the EAC auction ended which I had been invited to go to with arguably the best looking girl in my class—and her parents had Garden connections which enabled her to sit in great seats. So within a 24 hour span I was going to participate in my first major auction and go to my first major concert. Life just didn’t get much better than that!

2. New York ANA Sale, Stack’s 1976

I was still in high school when I heard that the ANA convention was going to be held in my home town of New York. This was clearly going to be the highlight of my summer and, as far as I can remember, it was going to be the highlight of my numismatic career, such as it was at the time.

I had participated in Stack’s sales before this but I had always had to have my mother’s written permission for Stack’s to allow me to bid; understandable as how many 13 year kids were trustworthy enough to be spending a few thousand dollars in an auction back then? This time, Stack’s let me bid without my mother’s consent and I remember thinking, for the first time, that I must be movin’ on up in the world of coins.

The sale itself was huge. I don’t know how many of you have actually thumbed through the catalog but it contained seemingly a complete set of United States coins in a dazzling array of grades, dates and denominations. At the time I was mostly interested in Seated coins and decided to focus on the dimes, quarters and half dollars.

I don’t really remember what I bought in the sale but what I do remember is my excitement viewing the auction lots, attending the sale and running around the coin show. From that point on, I was hooked on coins and decided, pretty much then and there, to become a full-time coin dealer. 31 years later, the rest, as they say, is history.

3. R.T. Wilder, Stack’s 1994

This collection of Southern gold coinage is not well-remembered but it contained one of the nicest sets of Charlotte pieces ever assembled. The coins had been consigned to Stack’s in a custom-made plastic holder with a hand-engraved brass plaque which read “Coin of Charlotte N.C. Mint 1838-1861.” The set was complete (except for the 1849-C Open Wreath gold dollar) and it appeared to be very choice.

There was just one problem: the coins had been lacquered at one time and it was extremely hard to determine what their surfaces looked like under the lacquer. As an example, I remember that many of the quarter eagles seemed to be exceptional. But what would the surfaces look like below the lacquer? This was clearly going to be a sale for coin dealers who were very, very confident in their grading.

If you’ve ever viewed coins at Stack’s you know that the lighting isn’t wonderful. I hadn’t brought any special lighting with me and, quite honestly, I couldn’t make good headway in grading the coins. I then had a brainstorm: go buy a halogen lamp.

New York may be The City That Never Sleeps but, on that day in 1994, it was The City That Didn’t Sell Halogen Lamps. I can remember running all over midtown Manhattan looking for a good quality lamp. Some stores were out of them, others had the wrong ones in stock. Finally; I located one and was able to view the coins with a little more confidence.

In the end it really didn’t matter. One dealer wound-up buying most of the coins for a customer who had informed him to purchase the majority of the sale. Ironically, the few coins that I did buy turned out to be really nice once I removed the lacquer and I made quite a bit of money on these.

4. Eliasberg Silver Part II, Bowers and Merena April 1997

This was one of those collections which I would have paid money to look at. It was like opening the door of a numismatic time capsule and viewing hundreds and hundreds of coins which had been put away (and well cared for) for a century.

It was hard to decide what the most exciting area of this sale was. I can remember gasping at the Carson City silver coinage and cooing with love at the page after page of Gem Bust halves. There were amazing Proof Bust coins and the finest run of Bust Dollars I have ever seen. And the thing about these coins that was the neatest was the fact that 80-90% of them had gorgeous original coloration.

I wound up spending more money at this sale than at any other non-gold auction I’ve ever attended. I bought some superb pieces for clients and some great coins for stock, including numerous Gem Seated half dollars from New Orleans. I’m not sure that there will ever be another deal like this.

My favorite memory of this sale involved a well-known and very naughty dealer. The lots were being shown in a tiny room and, as I recall, there were no more than around 20-25 seats available at any time to see the coins. This dealer hogged up a spot for three days and parked three or four of his employees in neighboring chairs. I can remember seeing the looks of disgust on the faces of collectors who waited two full days to view lots but who could never be accommodated. Ironically, this included at least two collectors whose combined numismatic holdings are, today, worth somewhere north of $100 million. At the end of the lot viewing these two collectors were allowed to request around a dozen coins each to view in an “express lane.” Many other collectors never got to view even a dozen lots(!)

5. John Whitney (“Mr. 1796”), Stack’s 1998

This was among the more unique specialized collections ever assembled. John Whitney Walter, a New York businessman, specialized in the coinage of 1796 and he assembled an amazing set of coins which featured high grade examples struck in copper, silver and gold. This was the sort of ultra-competitive “old school” auction which probably will never happen again. I think we can officially say good-bye to small, highly specialized collections featuring unslabbed coins sold in the Stack’s pre-21st century environment.

The sale was held in a fairly small ballroom in one of the mid-town Manhattan hotels; I can’t remember if it was the Park Lane, the Essex House or another location. By the time the sale began, the room was absolutely packed. What I remember most about the crowd was the fact that there were lots of middle-aged men in beautiful suits who looked very rich and very much fit the New York Investment Banker stereotype. None of these guys ever seemed to bid during the sale, but it made for a much more impressive room than your typical drooling pack o’ coin dealers.

But the thing I really remember about the night was that a few minutes into the sale, Donald Trump (and a small entourage) popped into the room. I later learned that that the consignor was some sort of security consultant who had installed a system either in Trump’s house or office (or both) and The Donald decided to grace the room with His Presence. FYI, he never raised his hand to bid and he left after a few minutes (now doubt to do another Epic Deal) but it was a pretty cool few minutes to have The Donald in a coin auction.

6. North Georgia Collection, Heritage 1999

With a value well north of $3 million, the North Georgia Collection of Charlotte, Dahlonega and Bechtler coinage is still the largest single deal I have ever been involved with. Along with my partners Hancock and Harwell of Atlanta, we had numerous difficult decisions to face in the marketing of this collection. Which coins should be sold privately and which should be sold at auction (in a deal which contained over a dozen 1838-D half eagles, this was no easy decision!). Which firm would auction the coins and when? Would the coins be regraded or kept in the original holders?

After a numbers of strategy sessions, we decided to put the coins in the Heritage 1999 FUN auction. This was not an easy decision to make as we were paying interest on a sizable amount of money and had to wait six months for the auction to take place. But in the long run we were happy with our decision.

Looking back at the prices realized in this sale, one can see that in many ways the 1999 FUN sale was the all-time height of the market for most Charlotte and Dahlonega issues, especially high grade pieces. Even factoring in the upgrades that many of the coins in this collection saw in later years, it is still pretty remarkable to look at the levels which they sold for.

When I look back at this sale my memories are bittersweet. The owner of the collection, a truly nice guy named Leon Farmer, passed away soon afterwards and my close friend and business associate Jack Hancock is dead as well. Every time I pull a Heritage North Georgia catalog down off the library shelf to research a coin, I think of these two wonderful men.

7. Bass II, Bowers and Merena 1999

Usually, when I attend a sale I am only interested in a small number of coins. I may have to sit around for hours waiting for the coins I want to bid on but, clearly, I’m interested in a few dozen lots at most. The Bass II sale was the first auction I’ve ever been where I was interested in almost every lot. And there were well over 2000 lots in the sale!

It took me two full days of viewing to see all the coins and another day to figure out my bids. Even three days really wasn’t enough.

This was a sale that should have been broken into at least three more parts. There were simply too many great gold coins in one sale. I can remember $5,000 and $10,000 coins stuck in large lots, multiple examples of very rare dates one after another and a true sense of overload that I can’t imagine will ever be repeated.

My strongest memory of this sale was that it was an endurance contest; a true Coin Marathon, if you will. If I’m not mistaken, the first session lasted between thirteen and fifteen hours and I can remember leaving, bleary-eyed, at 3:00 in the morning. The second session started around 9:00 and last the better part of the day. I remember leaving New York that day with a number of incredible coins and being as tired as I’ve ever felt after an auction.

8. Dallas Bank Collection, Stack’s/Sotheby’s 2001

This collection actually belonged to Jeff Browning, a collector who was active in the Dallas area in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I had heard about these coins for years and despite the fact that I spent essentially my entire adult life in Dallas I had never had the chance to see the coins (as they were kept in a bank vault in Dallas).

The meat of this collection was a set of Double Eagles which was complete from 1850 through 1932. It included one of just two known examples of the rare 1861 Paquet Reverse as well as Condition Census examples of many of the New Orleans Type One issues. My personal favorite coin in the sale was a fantastic Uncirculated 1879-O (easily the finest known) on which I was outbid by a prominent Midwestern collector.

My strongest memory of this sale is not coin-related. It was held in New York just a few weeks after the 9/11 bombings and I can remember taking the subway downtown with a friend and visiting Ground Zero. It still smelled of smoke and chemicals and many of the shrines which had been erected to the dead were still intact. It was one of the most chilling and moving mornings of my life.

9. The 1933 Saint Sale, Stack’s/Sotheby’s 2002

You probably know all about the importance of this coin and this sale so I won’t rehash old news. But my impressions from the auction are incredibly vivid.

Most coin dealers are very jaded when it comes to auctions and it takes a lot to get us excited. Everyone I knew was excited about this coin. We knew it would bring a record price but no one had a clue who would buy it. The sale took place at Sotheby’s headquarters on E. 72nd St. in New York. It was during the ANA convention and, as I recall, it was in the early evening during a heat wave when getting from place A to place B in Manhattan was even more grueling than usual. I went with a friend of mine and I remember leaving the bourse floor early so that we could get to the sale in time. We took a cab but got caught in horrible rush hour traffic. We wound up leaving the cab and jogging the remaining ten or so blocks to Sotheby’s, arriving in a pool of sweat in our suits.

When we got to the sale it was packed. We stood in the aisle and waited for the proceedings to begin. Because of the fact that we were well-dressed, someone from Sotheby’s grabbed us and escorted us to the front row where we were told to sit. I remember being very excited to have front row seats at what felt like the Numismatic Sale of the Century.

The sale itself was a bit anticlimactic. It was hard to know who was particpating with the exception of some guy a few feet away (Barry Goldwater’s son) who apparently was bidding more as a public relations gesture than as a serious player. Once the bidding hit $5 million it was nearly impossible to figure out what was going on but I do remember it was suspenseful, drawn-out and the numbers being called out by the auctioneer seemed impossibly large for a coin.

When the sale was over, everyone got up, chatted for a few minutes and went their separate ways. It was fun to attend a coin auction which, for once, had all the high dollar drama of an Impressionist Art sale.

10. The Morse Sale, Heritage 2005

When my ex-partner Todd Imhof and I first heard that this collection was coming onto the market, I knew it represented a wonderful opportunity for our company. I thought that the combination of my savvy as an auction participant and Todd’s strong customer base for rare St. Gaudens double eagles meant that we could be THE major participants in this sale. I quickly identified our major competitors for the coins and knew what our strategy would be: we would work harder than anyone to prepare for this sale.

And prepare we did. I flew down to Dallas twice before the sale to carefully look at the coins; each time grading them and taking notes. Then, Todd and I prepared a detailed Morse Guide which we sent to selected customers. The guide gave an in-depth background of each date: its rarity levels, its price history and my comments regarding its grade and appearance and Todd’s estimate as to values.

The sale was originally supposed to occur in West Palm Beach but it was moved to Dallas due to hurricane damage. Psychologically, I thought this was a huge advantage for us as Dallas felt like my “home court.”

The sale itself was hugely exciting. The room was packed and a number of bidders were represented on the bank of phones. There was a vibe in the room not often felt in auctions. To make a long story short, our hard work paid off in spades as we spent over $5 million in the sale, including two coins (a Gem 1921 $20 and a superb 1927-D $20) for over $1 million. To the best of my knowledge this is the only time in numismatic history a single firm has purchased two coins for over $1 million in a single sale. It was definitely fun being able to make history that night at the Morse Sale.