To paraphrase that esteemed numismatist Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the coin market seem greatly exaggerated. That is, at least, if you take a look at the prices that Heritage got for a nearly complete set of Liberty Head double eagles that was sold at their Dallas auction on October 24. As anyone who even remotely follows the dated gold market knows, Liberty Head double eagles have been one of the most solid performers in the coin market during the bull market run-up of the past few years. This market has proven to have more depth than I would have ever imagined and there are, clearly, more advanced collectors assembling comprehensive specialized sets of these coins than in probably any other area of the 19th century gold market.
The question I was asking myself a few days ago, though, was: would these collectors still play in this market after the Economic Malaise of the past month? The Type One, Type Two and Type Three sets are full of many big, macho “stoppers” and I was very interested to see how these coins would do.
The two key collectible Type One double eagles are the 1854-O and the 1856-O. These have appreciated in value more than virtually any other United States gold coin in the last five to seven years and, certainly, the New Market wouldn’t be able to continue its frantic pace when it came to these two issues, would it? The 1854-O in the sale was a PCGS AU55 and it sold for $603,750 which is an all-time auction record for the date. The 1856-O was graded AU58 by NGC. I thought it was comparable in quality and appearance to the PCGS AU55 example that I had sold earlier this year and the Heritage coin brought $576,150 which is the second highest price ever at auction for this rarity.
The second-tier New Orleans Type One issues were extremely strong as well. An 1859-O in PCGS AU58 brought $97,750 which is a record price at auction while the 1860-O in PCGS AU58 sold for an identical price and, again, set what I believe to be a record at auction. One coin that I thought would be a real litmus test for the O mint double eagle market was the 1861-O in NGC AU55. This is a date that seems to have really come out of the woodwork in recent years and Heritage had sold a comparable coin in their January 2008 sale for $46,000. The one in the Dallas sale was bid all the way up to $57,500; a price that I thought was pretty remarkable.
My single favorite Type One double eagle in the sale was a PCGS MS65 1854-S. As I have written in the past, this date is very rare and much undervalued in Gem and the example in the Baltimore Collection was one of the two best I had ever personally seen. This was a coin that I felt certain I would buy, and I was willing to stretch quite a bit in order to procure it. I stretched and stretched and still came up short as it sold for a staggering $115,000.
Even the boring dates in the Type One series did quite well and most of the lots sold for levels exceeding what I would regard as “retail” numbers for these dates.
The Type Two double eagles in this collection were relatively uninspiring as it appeared that the Baltimore collector focused most of his energies on the Type One and Three issues. A not especially nice 1870-CC in VF30 with a large natural planchet flaw on the reverse sold for $230,000. I think this is a pretty reasonable amount for this in-demand rarity but I think it was more a reflection of the coin’s lack of eye appeal than it was a softening of the market. Many of the other scarce Carson City issues in the sale did well, including an 1871-CC in NGC that was bid to $66,125, an 1872-CC in PCGS AU58 that brought $23,000, an 1878-CC in PCGS AU58 that hit the $25,300 mark and an 1879-CC in NGC AU58 that brought $21,850. My take on these prices is that they were pretty much exactly what I would have expected these coins to sell for before the economy went south and that I would have expected them to sell for 10-20% less in these Troubled Times.
The Type Three rarities in the Baltimore Collection were impressive but I was unsure if the market for these issues would remain as strong as it had been. The first test was the 1879-O in PCGS AU58. I expected it to bring in the $50,000-55,000 range but it raced up to $74,750. The very rare 1881 was a PCGS MS61 that I did not like as a result of its funky color and surfaces but it brought $138,000 which is exactly the same price it sold for when offered as Heritage 1/07: 3203. An 1882 that was graded AU58 by ICG but which appeared to have a problem on the cheek of Liberty that was not mentioned by the grading service still managed to garner a bid of $63,250.
For many years, the 1885 was the most affordable of the very rare Type Three dates. The NGC AU58 in the Heritage sale brought $48,875 which I am reasonably sure is an all-time record price for a circulated example of this date. The 1886 in PCGS AU55 sold for $86,262.65. This exact coin had brought $24,150 when it was offered as Lot 7437 in the Heritage 2004 FUN sale. The previously-overlooked 1891 appears to have captured the attention of most specialists in this area and the PCGS AU58 in the Heritage sale realized $48,875.
There are three very rare Proof-only dates in this series and the Baltimore Collection was missing the very rare 1883. It did, however, have an 1884 graded PR64 by PCGS. This coin had sold for $126,500 when it was last offered as Heritage 6/04: 6376. Four years later, it was bid up to $207,000 which I thought was an exceptionally strong price. The 1887 was a PCGS PR64 Deep Cameo and it sold for $155,250. This is almost the same amount as the far superior Heritage 1/07: 3145 (graded PR65 Deep Cameo) realized a year and a half ago.
All in all, I would say that prices were anywhere from 10-30% higher than I would have expected. I was really surprised at the prices that the dozen top coins in the collection brought, given that the economic climate doesn’t dictate large purchases right now and given that Heritage conducted this sale without the benefit of a concurrent convention to attract much floor action.