The Johnson-Blue Collection of Liberty Head Eagles: An Analysis

Every few years, an auction takes place that gives me a bad case of "Dinosaur Syndrome." By this, I mean the coins bring so much more than what I bid that I think to myself that I'm a dinosaur and am out of touch with current Numismatic Reality. After I talk myself out of this and take a deep breath or two, I find that analyzing the sale is a useful tool for my bruised psyche. Just prior to the 2010 Boston ANA convention, Stack's sold a specialized group of Liberty Head eagles that they named the "Johnson Blue" collection. These coins were interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, they were clearly fresh to the market and, I am told, many of them were purchased by the consignor back in the 1980's. Secondly, the coins mostly had original surfaces with a nice crusty appearance; a welcome change from the usual processed better date Liberty Head eagles that one sees available in today's market. Finally, there were a number of dates that you typically don't see much anymore (such as 1863, 1864 and 1865) in grades that were above-average.

I had a feeling that this was going to be a strong sale, but the final results were pretty stunning to me. In some cases my bids were close to winning a lot; in other cases they were laughably distant from the eventual final bid. Let's take a look at some of the more significant eagles in this collection and ponder on their prices.

1842-O MS61 PCGS, Lot 1094. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1842-O, Graded MS61 by PCGS. Lot 1094. Stack's sort of underplayed this lot in the catalog, but New Orleans eagle collectors knew that this was a special coin. There are just three Uncirculated examples known to me and this fresh example had excellent color and surfaces. The last Uncirculated piece to sell was Superior 5/08: 103, graded MS61 by NGC and pedigreed to the S.S. Republic shipwreck. It brought $29,900 but I discounted this price as the coin was not attractive. But given this prior sales record, I bid $40,000 for the Johnson-Blue example and thought I had a decent shot of buying it. I wasn't even close. The coin brought $74,750 which, to me, is an incredibly strong price and one that shows me the depth of this market.

1848-O AU55 PCGS, Lot 1101. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1848-O, Graded AU55 by PCGS. Lot 1101. This was a nice example of a date that isn't really all that rare in the higher AU grades. I figured it would grade AU58 at NGC. There have been at least seven different auction records between $5,000 and $6,000 in the last six years for AU55 coins and a nice AU58 is worth $7,500 to $8,500. This coin brought $12,650, or around double what I would have paid. And results like this set the tone for the whole evening.

1852-O AU55 PCGS, Lot 1108. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1852-O, Graded AU55 by PCGS. Lot 1108. I like this date very much but wasn't really overwhelmed by the quality of this coin. It was what I call "product." This means a coin that I would be happy to own but since it is just so-so for the grade, I wouldn't bid strongly for it. There have been at least nine auction trades in the last seven years for 1852-O eagles in AU55 (mostly in NGC holders and mostly low end for the grade) and they have typically brought between $5,000 and $6,000. This example sold for $8,912.50. While I don't regard this price as "astonishing" I do think it is very strong; especially when one considers that Trends for an 1852-O eagle in this grade is only $8,750.

1862 AU58 PCGS, Lot 1133. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1862, Graded AU58 by PCGS. Lot 1133. This is an interesting date. It is common in the lower circulated grades and only moderately scarce in AU53 to AU55 but it is very rare in properly graded AU58 and there are just two known to me in Uncirculated. The Johnson-Blue coin was among the best 1862 eagles I've seen; clean and lustrous with good color and nice eye appeal. But I didn't think it would upgrade. Enough of these have traded in AU58 that I expected a nice PCGS AU58 like this to bring $5,000-6,000; possibly as much as $7,500 given the nature of this sale. The final price realized was $25,300. What makes this price even more remarkable was that the far superior Bass IV: 681 coin, graded MS62 by PCGS, sold for just $12,650. Maybe I'm totally out of touch with the market, but I think you could have taken the exact 1862 eagle that sold in this auction and shown it to five very sharp gold dealers at $7,500 before the sale and all five (myself included) would have passed.

1863 AU50 PCGS, Lot 1135. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1863, Graded AU50 by PCGS, Lot 1135. I was reasonably certain that this coin was going to be a bidder favorite. The 1863 is among the rarest Liberty Head eagles with just 1,218 struck. There hadn't been a piece available at auction since Stack's 9/06: 1492 (a raw "AU" that sold for $21,850) and just five slabbed pieces had sold since 2000 (including the amazing PCGS MS63 that was ex: Bass IV: 683 and which, at just $52,900, has to rank as one of the single biggest bargains in the final Bass sale). The Johnson Blue coin was a bit "ticky" but it had nice color and was notable for its originality. It brought $27,600 which seems like an incredible price given that Trends is $17,500 and CDN Bid is $15,000. I'd say it is actually a pretty good value and that published price information is way too low; and should be changed to reflect the true value of this extremely rare issue.

1864 AU53 PCGS, Lot 1138. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1864 Graded AU53 by PCGS. Lot 1138. The 1864 is not as rare as the 1863 (mintage this year increased to a "whopping" 3,500) but its Civil War issuance makes it popular. The last comparable coin to sell at auction was an NGC AU53 (Superior 9/08: 458) that went for $10,925. The Johnson Blue coin was one of the nicer AU examples of this date that I've seen and I thought it was a good candidate to upgrade to AU55. That said, I never expected it to sell for $23,000. Especially since an NGC MS61 had brought only $16,766 back in Heritage 3/05 auction. But the market has clearly changed for Liberty Head eagles and yesterday's prices suddenly look like the bargains that I've been ranting about for the last decade+.

1865 AU53 PCGS, Lot 1139. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1865 Graded AU53 by PCGS. Lot 1139. The last of the four important Civil War Philadelphia eagles in this collection and a rare, underrated issue with an original mintage of 3,980. I find the 1865 to be a harder coin to locate than the 1864 although the PCGS population figures do not support this. The Johnson-Blue coin was a decent AU53 which was a trifle on the dull side but which had nice color and a good overall look. It sold for $9,775 which I though was a pretty reasonable price, given what the 1862 and 1864 eagles sold for. The last AU53 to trade at auction was an NGC piece, Heritage 2009 CSNS: 3844, that sold cheaply at $5,463. The Johnson-Blue coin brought more because it was nicer. Trends on this date is only $10,000 in AU55 and I think it should be raised to reflect the true rarity of this issue.

1870-CC EF45 PCGS, Lot 1149. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1870-CC Graded EF45 by PCGS. Lot 1149. This was one of my favorite coins in the sale. It was a choice, original example of a date that is recognized as the key eagle from the Carson City mint but which is, at the same time, a coin that is still undervalued in many respects. My gut feeling was that this coin was worth in the $40,000-45,000 range and I bid $35,000. I did not win the coin as it sold for $46,000. With Trends at $45,000 this seems like a very strong price for the issue but I actually think that while not "cheap" it was a pretty good value for the buyer. There have been very few nice 1870-CC eagles available since 2007 and the last decent piece to trade at auction, a PCGS EF40, brought $40,250 as Lot 2147 in the Heritage June 2008 sale.

What did this sale prove to me? The first thing was that it reiterated (for about the 8,776th time...) that there is a huge demand for nice fresh coins and when they become available, published price levels often have to be ignored if you want to buy them. The second thing was that the Liberty Head eagle series has really come of age. With the Liberty Head double eagle series out of the price range for many collectors due to the high price of the rare issues, eagles are no longer regarded as a poor cousin. There are clearly a number of collectors assembling date sets of eagles and many of the dates that were ignored in the distant past are now in demand. If a coin is high in the Condition Census, in a PCGS holder and attractive for the date and grade there are eager collectors who are not bashful about paying up for the coin(s). My guess is that Liberty Head half eagles will be the next series to show this surge of interest and if a fresh deal of these does become available, I wonder if we will see a repeat of the Dinosaur Syndrome where I leave another auction with my prehensile tail tucked between my legs.