One of the more interesting (and lesser known) gold coin auctions that I’ve attended was the sale of the Stetson Collection which was conducted by the old Bowers and Merena in May, 1993. This was an instance where the back story (or stories in this case) was nearly as interesting as the coins themselves.
Beginning in 1992, an amazing hoard of gold coins started to quietly enter the market. This hoard consisted of tens of thousands of coins dated from the late 1830’s through, I believe, the 1920’s. It included large quantities of semi-key St. Gaudens double eagles, extensive runs of Carson City eagles and double eagles, large quantities of New Orleans eagles from the 1880’s through the early 1900’s, sizable quantities of San Francisco rarities and much, much more. It has never been revealed where these coins came from (although it is widely rumored that they came from an Eastern European central bank; given the time they were sold it would suggest that they were dispersed by a former Soviet bloc country in an attempt to infuse some Western capital).
This incredible hoard was dispersed over a number of years in a quiet, orderly fashion. Some of the coins went to dealers who sold them to marketers or specialists. Other coins were sold at auction. The first group of these coins to sell at auction was at the aforementioned Bowers and Merena sale and I can remember being extremely excited to have the chance to purchase some very important and very fresh coins.
Before I discuss the sale (and some events leading up to it) I’d like to discuss the appearance of the coins themselves. Because of the massive size of this hoard (and the intelligence of the individual who was masterminding its dispersal) these coins were, for the most part, kept original and dirty. Many of them had the prototypical “euro-Grime” appearance which I describe as follows: extremely deep almost brassy orange-gold toning with a noticeable two-ton e appearance from blackish grime or dirt on the high spots. This appearance was almost certainly the result of the environmental conditions in which these coins were kept. On some coins, the look was very attractive. On others, it was pretty ugly and the coins needed to be dipped (or washed with soap and water at the very least).
When I learned about the sale I thought it was important enough to fly up to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to view them in person. I made the flight arrangements, booked a room at the Wolfeboro Inn and set off to the Granite State. My flight from Dallas wound up getting into Boston late and I missed my connection to Manchester, New Hampshire so I wound up renting a car and driving. As I made my way up I-93 to New Hampshire it started to get extremely foggy and by the time I was within an hour of Wolfeboro, it was dark and almost impossible to see more than ten feet ahead of me.
Following the instructions I had received from Chris Karstedt (remember, this is many years before MapQuest or a GPS in the car) I slowly made my way across New Hampshire and finally made it onto the road that took me directly to Wolfeboro. About two miles from the town, I saw a very large and very dead deer in the middle of the road with a pool of blood surrounding it.
As I arrived at the Wolfeboro Inn, the first person I saw was dealer Ron Karp and he had a large ice pack clutched to his wrist. Ron, it turned out, had accidentally struck and killed the deer I had seen on the road a few minutes earlier and he was clearly in pain. As I recall, Ron would wind-up going to the emergency room of the Wolfeboro Hospital where he had his wrist (which was clearly broken) in a cast. For many years, every time I saw him, I thought of that dead deer splattered in the middle of the road...
The rest of the lot viewing session was less eventful and involved no dead deer but I do remember really liking the coins. My thoughts were that they were very undergraded in the catalog (and all were sold raw) and that a number of the coins were, at the time, Condition Census.
Two of my personal favorite coins in the sale were the 1849-O eagle graded “EF45” by B&M (this exact coin is currently in an NGC MS61 holder) and an 1852-O eagle graded AU55 (currently in a PCGS MS60 holder). I purchased the former for $6,875 which I thought was pretty reasonable and was ready to buy the latter for around $7,500-8,500. When it wound up bringing $22,000 I knew that I was in for a long night (incidentally this exact coin came up for auction in the 1999 ANA sale where I was able to buy it for $14,835. Sometimes, good things come to those that wait...)
The Liberty Head double eagles in the Stetson sale included some of the best Carson City pieces I have ever seen as well as some great Type One coins. I remember an incredible 1866-S No Motto that was graded AU53/55 in the catalog and which, by the conservative Doug Winter Standards of 1993 I called AU55+. This was back before most people knew just how rare this coin was in higher grades and this piece remains one of the two best 1866-S No Motto double eagles known. It brought a whopping $17,600 and would be worth around ten times this amount today.
Another coin that I’d love to turn the Way Back Machine to 1993 for was a nice Extremely Fine 1870-CC (graded VF35 or finer in the catalog) that sold for $57,200. I know this coin was graded EF40 by PCGS right after the sale; I’m guessing it would be at least a 45 today. The 1873-CC in the sale was incredible by the standards of this date and would grade at least MS62 today; it brought $34,100 in the Stetson sale and this was a record price for the issue that stood for many years.
I can remember purchasing an 1879-O double eagle in this sale that later graded AU55 at NGC for $12,100; today this same coin is easily worth 6 to 7 times this amount. A few of the other great double eagles in the sale that I didn’t purchase included an 1881 that I graded MS61 for $31,900, an extremely rare 1886 that I graded MS60 or better for $30,250 (this is a $100,000+ coin today) and a really nice AU58+ 1891 for $13,750. You need to realize that these were huge prices for these coins at the time and the very rare Type Three Philadelphia issues would remain significantly undervalued well into the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.
One other double eagle I remember fondly from this sale was a 1913-S that I graded “Superb Gem best I’ve seen!!!” according to my catalog notes. This coin sold for a then-remarkable $37,400 and I’d be curious to know what holder it resides in today.
After the huge success of the Stetson sale in May, the owner of this hoard placed more great coins in the B&M Tower Hill sale in September. This group included a nice date run of Liberty Head half eagles featuring some exceptional San Francisco pieces. These also sold for very strong prices although, as I recall, the sale itself lacked the electricity of the Stetson sale earlier that year.
The gold coins from this hoard continued to appear on the market in small to medium sized groups for another few years. I’m guessing that most have been dipped or changed so that they are no longer recognizable but if you own a nice New Orleans eagle from the 1850’s or a high grade CC double eagle, the chances are good they may have come from this hoard.